My Morning Jacket has been part of the Louisville landscape for nearly 25 years, since 1998. The band broke nationally a few years later and has learned a lot about being working musicians, burnout and finding ways to stay rooted to what made them who they are. Jim James, singer of My Morning Jacket, talked to LEO about the band, choosing work he wants to do instead of feeling obligated to do everything and why it took so long between albums. The band performs Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Yum Center. It’s a costume party so come prepared.
LEO: Tell me the story of My Morning Jacket in the most Louisville way possible.
Jim James: I mean, we’re from here. I was born here. So I guess that’s the most Louisville start to the story, right? We started in like 1998. It’s wild, you never know what’s gonna happen when you start anything, but just the fact that it’s still going is so wild. I was thinking about the first time we ever played in Louisville. It was at Twice Told Coffee House. Did you ever go?
Music was all that ever mattered to me as a kid. And, I really feel like music saved my life. I was just trying to make it through life and music was kind of my guide that held my hand. And, I felt like here in Louisville, I was lucky enough to find some friends who shared that love of music.
You’ve discussed the perils of being in the music business, like being overworked, exhausted and also protecting your mental health. So how has COVID changed the way that you work, one, as a working musician and, two, as a creative person?
I mean, I feel like COVID has been a gateway to a lot of really good conversations. A lot of really important conversations that people need to have. I feel like a lot of musicians are starting to have this conversation more and more. And, I think that it’s good that we’re like talking about it with people like you who might write about it. It’s just that the COVID’s been so hard on everybody, but I feel like it’s been especially hard on touring musicians ‘cuz it’s added this new layer of stress to touring. There’s this new thing that can at any minute kind of take your whole touring world down.
One thing, like us as band members to each other and to our friends who are touring musicians and stuff, we try to just talk about how nothing’s more important than your health. You know, your physical and your mental health. I think we all need to just communicate more and make mental health something that’s a normal topic for people to talk about, however they may be feeling — good or bad. It’s so stressful when you have to cancel shows because of COVID. When I had to cancel these Louisville shows because of COVID, it was just so heartbreaking.
You’ve also talked about the perils of touring after COVID with the insurance companies not wanting to cover tours anymore. Is that still so, and do you think that that is part of the reason that ticket prices also have ticked up?
Well, touring right now is really difficult. If you think about it, everybody was sidelined during the pandemic. So everybody’s back out there. People don’t have that much money to spend on all these shows. If you have to cancel shows for COVID, it is a huge financial loss. It’s just a giant burden and there’s no insurance cost to cover that.
Your show is on Oct. 29 and it’s a costume party. Do you have your costume?
I’m working on a few details of it, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got it nailed down.
No. That’s always one of the best surprises.
Damn. Ok. Back to Louisville. Being a city that has a very definite DIY and homegrown feel to its arts scene and its music scene, how do you sort of preserve that in My Morning Jacket’s music?
I feel like we are just part of this place and this place is so deeply in our spirit and our blood. I mean, I think it kind of comes through for me in a real subconscious kind of elemental way. In a way that I don’t know if I could even put words to it ‘cuz it’s just part of me no matter where I am. If I’m here or on the road, or wherever I may be, Louisville’s always like in my heart and in my blood and in my spirit. So I feel like that’s something that’s shaped me.
And, over the years, just all the different, amazing bands and talented people who’ve come from Louisville, who’ve shaped what we do.
This place has just such a wild spirit. It’s such a unique place and it’s a place that a lot of the world doesn’t know that well. It’s got this kind of mysterious thing to it too. I feel like there’s always been this kind of really mysterious, beautiful quality about Louisville that I feel like you can create without any labels or stamps put on you. It’s not like Louisville’s really known for this or really known for that, it’s kind of freeing in that way. I’ve always enjoyed the mystery of it. I feel like people try to categorize it, but you really can’t.
So how do you go from performing with an orchestra to benefits for meditation to documentaries about psychedelics? How do you choose the projects you participate in?
I just try to really respond to how I’m feeling about the thing that comes up. A lot of it comes from some source… I don’t really know what to call that source. It’s like things flow to us. I think depending on what choices we’re making, things are kind of flowing to us.
Opportunities are flowing to us. I think the more in touch you are with your heart, the easier it is to judge between what’s a good opportunity or a bad opportunity or something you may wanna do. A lot of it too just comes down to time too. I feel like in the past I’ve maybe said yes to too many things when I maybe should have taken some more time to rest. But, you can get excited and say yes to a lot of stuff. I ask myself if I feel moved. Do I feel like an emotional response? And then go with that.
Do you practice transcendental meditation?
I do. I did for years. I practice a different kind of meditation now that’s kind of like my own blend of that with some other types of things that I’ve learned. I feel like meditation is like one of the most valuable things that a person can do while they’re here on the earth. I feel like it really is a good way for us to see what kind of things are racing through our mind but, also, what’s beyond the mind and how are we all connected in this really beautiful, really simple way, this way of just a pure life form.
Why so long between albums?
It’s just phases of life. I feel like I’ve gone up and down with my own mental health and my own physical health. And, for years and years My Morning Jacket toured pretty ruthlessly. We just played so many shows and really never said no to anything. And, I think after a while that really burnt me out. So some of that time was me taking a break, but then when I should have been taking a break, I was working on solo projects or doing other things. I’m trying, really trying to learn how to rest better, you know? And, listen to my body and listen to my heart. We’ve always loved being a band and we’ve always loved making music, but sometimes the touring cycle and just the whole thing, at least for me, has just gotten too brutal in the past. I had to step away from it for a while.
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