“I wanted it still to be accessible – I tried to write about it in a way that where it came to the point that I was living the things that were happening and writing about them in relation to the book, but also writing about them from my point of view."
Jim James' unmissable voice aside, his brand new album Regions Of Light And Sound Of God – his first ever solo effort, the 2009 EP of George Harrison covers he made under the Yim Yames moniker, Tribute To, notwithstanding – sounds nothing like the body of work that he's crafted with his Kentucky outfit My Morning Jacket over the last decade or so. That band's six acclaimed albums are each derivations of the country-rock template – though there's plenty of experimentation and diversity within that canon – while this new collection is a different beast entirely, all hazy soundscapes and abstract instrumentation, a more languid and somehow intimate experience for the listener, while no less compelling.
James explains that he wasn't originally setting out to make his own album – and that My Morning Jacket is still very much an ongoing concern – but having set up a new studio in Kentucky, suddenly having both unfettered time and the freedom to experiment just led him organically down the solo path. Over the course of the next two years – mainly in downtime between My Morning Jacket tours – he played basically all of the instruments on the record as well as engineering and producing it all himself.
“I've never really had a need to [do a solo project] before, because I've always just been in My Morning Jacket and that's always fulfilled my needs and my wants – and it still does – but this is kind of a different thing,” the songwriter offers. “Because in the past I was always [working on my own], but it was always demos for a My Morning Jacket record, and this time I just felt like I didn't want to do demos anymore, I had enough songs that I just wanted to make a record.
“In the band we all encourage each other to do as many different things as we can – I think that's one of the beautiful things about being a musician or any career in life, just experimenting and finding different ways to express yourself within that. In My Morning Jacket we encourage each other to get out there and explore what's out there to be explored.”
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Once he realised that a bunch of the tracks he was working on did indeed lend themselves to a separate project, James let the songs themselves take him to the disparate realms which characterise Regions Of Light...
“A lot of the songs kind of knew what they wanted to be, but I didn't really know how to do some of it at first, so it took quite a bit of experimenting and messing around with stuff,” he admits. “But in my mind I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted it to be, if that makes sense.
“It was actually a lot of fun, because it was really just me experimenting in the studio and I really didn't put any pressure on myself to finish it by a certain date or do any of those things that normally come with making a record – normally there's time limits and everybody knows that you're making the record and all that kind of stuff – but I didn't want any of that pressure so I decided to just let it take its course and take as long as it needed to take.”
And distancing himself from the distinctive My Morning Jacket sound wasn't a major ambition for the record, more a by-product of this new process.
“I like playing music by myself and I like being in the studio by myself so it was kinda just born from that,” James muses. “I mean, I love being in My Morning Jacket too and I love playing in a band – they're just kinda two different worlds. This is more the side of me that loves experimenting with sounds and playing with different instruments, and just really enjoying being a musician by myself.”
From a lyrical perspective there's a definite element of spirituality pervading the record, and in this regard James was influenced overtly by Lynd Ward's 1929 graphic novel God's Man, a collection of entirely wordless woodcuts which came into his life at precisely the right time to help steer the project.
“It was just like a supreme déjà vu kind of feeling when I saw it,” he marvels. “A friend gave it to me as a gift, and when I saw it I knew I'd seen it before, if that makes sense – I felt that I knew it from another time, another lifetime. Then certain aspects of things that happened in the book happened to me in my life, they were paralleling things that were happening in the book at an odd time – it was a painful injury that I had that led me to a dark place – and kind of coming out of that and meeting somebody and falling in love and returning to a brighter place is something that also happens in the book. There's a lot that happens in the book, but there's certain elements that were bizarrely paralleling what was happening to me in the real world.
“I just kind of started scoring the book because the book is so visual – it's like watching a movie when you're reading it – and I just started scoring different scenes. The song All Is Forgiven I wrote for the devil – for the dark man – because he is seen in the book. I don't want to tell people too much about God's Man because they should check it out for themselves, because it's amazing, but the song A New Life I kinda wrote about the theme of rebuilding and new life, from when the main character in the book kind of meets the love interest. And I wrote the song Dear One about the beginning of their love and them connecting, and I wrote Know Til Now as the soundtrack to the cityscape of the main character's rise to fame and power – you really have to read it, it's an amazing thing to look at.”
Importantly, these themes derived from God's Man are universal in tone, and work perfectly amidst the album as standalone premises, not needing knowledge of their genesis to resonate with the listener.
“Yeah, I definitely wanted it to appeal to somebody who didn't know or care about God's Man as well, that's how I feel that music is most useful – I hope that people like the music, but I'm aware that many of them won't know or care what God's Man is,” James reflects. “I wanted it still to be accessible – I tried to write about it in a way that where it came to the point that I was living the things that were happening and writing about them in relation to the book, but also writing about them from my point of view – more of a universal point of view I guess.”