My Morning Jacket
Photo by Danny Clinch
My Morning Jacket's Jim James On 'The Waterfall II' & Finding Hope In Music
"One of the funnest things for me is moving on [from an album]," says My Morning Jacket's Jim James. "Not really worrying about it anymore or looking back." It's ironic timing: The brawny psych-rock band just released The Waterfall II, the long-awaited "sequel" to their 2015 LP. As he's quick to emphasize, these songs aren't leftovers or B-sides—they were recorded during the same sessions as the first Waterfall, and the original goal was to issue the second installment soon after the first, rather than bundle them into a bloated double-record.
Then life happened. James needed a break from touring to center himself, so the quintet focused on side and solo projects over the next several years. (Between the two Jacket packages, James released 2016's Eternally Even, the 2017 covers set Tribute To 2, 2018's Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity and the 2019 orchestral collaboration The Order of Nature.) Finally, after a handful of reinvigorating shows last August, the band's engines revved back up: They carried that camaraderie into sessions for their upcoming ninth full-length, recently tracked in Los Angeles and currently being mixed.
But as James told Rolling Stone in 2014, he's always viewed My Morning Jacket as a "circle of power"—and with the COVID-19 pandemic derailing any potential shows, they decided to table the album until the cultural energy matched their band vibe. Stuck in limbo during the early quarantine era, James discovered the atmospheric Waterfall II cut "Spinning My Wheels" on his phone during a walk. The lyrics felt eerily relevant ("Hypnotized from doing the same old thing," he sings over Bo Koster's glistening keys). And suddenly the stars aligned: Why not free the whole album from its playlist purgatory?
"It's like a time machine," James says of the old yet new LP. "I know the me back then did the best job he could. It's not about the me now. It's about the me I was back then. That always gives me some comfort."
The songwriter spoke to GRAMMY.com about the long hike to The Waterfall II, the thrills of song sequencing, the exhilaration of in-studio jams and finding peace through past pain.
Did you guys ever have a sit-down and say, "OK, we're taking a long, extended break" between these two albums, or did life just sort of happen?
I just felt like I was getting mowed down by being on the road and touring. I just didn't know how to handle it, and I had to step away for awhile and figure out what was going on. There was kind of an indefinite pause [where] we didn't know when the pause would be over. But then last year we did these four shows at Red Rocks [in Colorado] and in New York at Forest Hills Stadium, and we had such a beautiful time playing together. That got us really fired up and inspired to get back together again.
Did you ever think these songs wouldn't come out? Did it just get to the point where years had past and it felt like you weren't interested in going back there?
No, I always wanted to put it out. These songs definitely weren't B-sides or songs we didn't like. We had too many songs, and we felt that if we released them all it would have been way too much, even for our most diehard fans. It's so much music to sift through that we thought it wouldn't have been a smart thing. I knew we'd release it someday. I always thought in the back of my mind that we'd release it like 20 years from now. There's always so much new music that I'm working on solo. And when we got the Jacket cranked back up, we were so excited that we started working on new music. If this pandemic hadn't happened, who knows when it would have even released. Twenty years from now? But it was cool because it helped us not feel so helpless. No matter what you do, the pandemic has made a lot of us feel helpless. As musicians, we can't tour. It's not in our control. It doesn't matter if you want to or not—we just can't. We felt kind of stalled and sad, but then I stumbled across The Waterfall II again and was like, "Wait, this could be a great time to release this music and help us feel that we can be active in this way with a new record, even though we can't tour." So in terms of that timing, it worked out really cool, I think.
When you have dozens of songs recorded, it's easy to just pick your 10 favorites at the time. But it's obvious that Waterfall II isn't a leftovers set. It's every bit as strong as the first album. So what guided your decision-making about which to put out the first time?
Sequencing an album is always such an interesting process. So much of it is beyond your control. So much of it is the times shaping the sequence and your personal life shaping the sequence. We had all the songs done from both Waterfalls, and we were trying to decide, "Should we put them all out? Some of them? What do we do?" I don't even remember what was literally happening personally back then. It's funny—it's almost like whittling a block of wood or something. I think every artist, no matter what medium, knows to stop when you get to the right thing. If you don't whittle enough, your sculpture won't be good. But if you whittle too much, you'll ruin it. I just try to listen to the music and watch what the songs say when they're next to each other. That's a fun part of sequencing: putting together a sequence and taking a drive with it. "Oh, man, this song flows so cool into the next song." Or "Man, those two next to each other don't work for some reason." You just do it until it feels right and then move on.
You've talked recently about this project feeling like a time machine and how the Jim of 2015 sounds like a different person. Do you feel still as connected to the Waterfall material? There's definitely a soothing, searching quality to much of the second album, and it feels like the right time for it somehow. Do the songs resonate with you now as much as they did then?
It resonates more! For some reason, I like it even more, which made me really happy when I listened to the songs again. Sometimes it has the opposite reaction when I have to go back to listen to one of our records to learn a song again or whatever. For whatever reason, the 2020 Jim that heard this again during the pandemic, it really meant something to me. I liked it even more than I did back then.
Why do you think that is?
It's hard to put it into words, but there's a certain sadness in it that I was feeling back then. I was dealing with the breakup of a relationship. There's a certain sadness but a comfort too. I think a lot of us feel, when a relationship ends, that our lives are out of control and we don't know what we're going to do next. That idea of "I'll never love again. I'll never find peace again." You feel hopeless and like things are out of your control, and I think a lot of us are feeling that now during this pandemic. "Will I ever love again?" If you're single, "Will I ever meet someone again? Will I ever work again? Will the world ever be the same? Will I ever be able to give my parents a hug again?" We're all feeling trapped. But hopefully through music and friends and stuff, we can find that hope to keep going.
It seems profound that you're listening back to that old Jim with the knowledge that his sadness is temporary. Maybe that's a hopeful message for us now: The struggle we're feeling right now is also temporary.
You told Rolling Stone back in 2014 that you originally had two songs scheduled for the first album but you wound up cutting them last-minute. Do you remember which ones?
Gosh, I don't. It's tough because I always want to cram them all on there because I want people to hear them. Then you start realizing, "If I cram two super heavy songs next to each other, they'll diminish the power. If I have too many super sad songs, the whole record starts to feel sad." It's funny how one or two extra songs start to imbalance a record.
The Waterfall bonus track "I Can't Wait" has been lingering around for a decade before you recorded it—you guys played it three times back in 2002 and 2004. Does it often take you years to get a song right in the studio?
That does happen from time to time. It happens a lot in my songwriting where I'll have a song that I love but just cant finish for whatever reason. And then one day later, I find it and be able to finish it. That's happened a lot.
As I was asking you, I thought of "Wonderful" from 2011's Circuital. That song had been kicking around for a long time before you got it down.
Yeah, we tried that one a bunch of times before it ended up where it ended up. We tried it in so many different styles and keys—all sorts of stuff.
The Waterfall II songs have their own unique flow and vibe. But the "part two" connotation could create the impression that these are basically the "other songs" you couldn't fit on the first half—that maybe you didn't think as highly of them. Did you consider just naming it something else to avoid all that?
I didn't want to put a new title on it. We had mentioned so many times before that there was another half of The Waterfall coming. To me it's cool because it feels like a sequel, like The Godfather II or [the second] Star Wars. You hope people [think] it's a good sequel and not a terrible sequel. I think of it like that.
Let's talk about the other new album. When did you guys finish tracking that?
Well, we did a couple different sessions earlier this year. It's kind of like The Waterfall—just tons of songs and tons of ideas, batting things around and enjoying being together again in the studio because it had been five or six years.
Wow, that was good timing!
I know, it's crazy! Literally the guys left to head home right as the pandemic was starting to become this reality that was closing in. The timing of it was crazy.
How much material did you bring into the sessions?
There's always way more than end up on the album because there are so many ideas and you never know what ideas are going to work. It's funny—my favorite idea [never works] and my least favorite, 15-second-long scrap ends up becoming everybody's favorite song. It's funny how you can't control that. I try to entertain every idea at the time, and we just knock them all around. The ideas show you eventually if you want to come to life or not.
Two of my favorite moments on the album are at the instrumental jams at the end of "Still Thinkin" and "Wasted." Were those fairly composed, or did they develop in the studio?
Every song is different. Some songs I have more of a composition or it. "Wasted" is more of a composition I had planned for the jam. But within that, we'll take unlimited time with it and let each player speak their voice. I don't tell Bo or [guitarist Carl Broemel] what to play. I'll have this idea of the architecture of a thing, but within that everyone gets to explore and speak their voice. At the end of "Still Thinkin," that just kinda happened. We were just playing it. That's one of our favorite things to do: Once we're getting close to everyone knowing the song part of it, we'll run it a few times while everyone's still trying to figure out what they're doing on the song, and then I'll go, "This time, in the middle, before we go back, let's just let whatever happens happen" or "Instead of ending at this time, let's just see what happens." That's one of our favorite things to do, leaving that improv open.
Another favorite moment is the abrupt tempo changes on "Climbing the Ladder." How was that coordinated?
It's funny—that's kind of a nod to how much songs change. Originally, when I wrote it, the whole song was kind of slow. It was even a different rhythm. Somehow, I don't even remember how, we ended up pretty fast. We were really digging that and had that for awhile. At some point, I was like, "This thing started off slow, and I've been missing that, so let's slow it down a little bit."
You've talked about the new album being very focused on the spirit of the band playing live. Did you record it with just the five of you? Did you do it all live on the floor?
When I'm doing a solo record, a lot of the fun for me is building a structure by myself or with one or two other people. You're building this thing in more of an architectural or digital way. You're constructing it. With the Jacket, the thing about us, the core about it, is the five of us playing together live in a room. Some songs can be more architectural or constructed, but that's one thing we were really feeling since it had been so long since we were in the studio. We hadn't played shows in so long, and we played those four shows and felt that magic again. We tried to take that feeling into the studio and remember that's why we do what we do as My Morning Jacket—that joy of live performance.