Jim James Shares the 6 Albums That Influenced Him the Most

Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images
Jim James of My Morning Jacket performs at Iroquois Amphitheater on May 13, 2016 in Louisville, KY.

For his second solo album, Eternally Even (Nov. 4, ATO/Capitol), My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James eschews his band’s jammier tendencies and dives even deeper into the smooth '70s-era soul vibes and psychedelic guitars he explored on his 2013 solo debut, Regions of Light and Sound of God.

“Everything started pouring out,” the singer says of the album, which was inspired by organ-drenched pieces he’d written for a scrapped film score and only recently rediscovered. “There was no goal in mind other than just having fun playing music.” Here, James -- who just wrapped a tour with MMJ behind last year’s The Waterfall, and kicks off a 24-date solo tour on Nov. 15 -- reflects on the LPs that shaped him and influenced his idea of what an album could be.

Beneath James’ music recs, check out our Q&A with the MMJ singer. 

The Velvet Underground – Loaded (1970)
“There are two types of records: the kind that all feels of a piece and others that are crazy sprawling ones that are all over the place where you’re trying all sorts of things. That can be a really fun journey too. Loaded was kind of like [The Beatles’] The White Album in the way that it shows a record doesn’t have to be this 30-40 minute concise statement. Lou Reed’s spirit and the way he did things was so important. Him and his music mean so much to me as the years go by.”

Marvin Gaye - What’s Going On? (1971)
“This will always be Number One for me in terms of what I feel like the potential of an album can be. It checks all the boxes. It always feels relevant and holds up sonically and lyrically and musically across so many genres. It does and always will feel futuristic. There’s just something so magical about it.”

Sly and the Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971)
“It still sets the standard of how fucked up and insane a record can be.  It sounds so dirty. It’s so raw and experimental but the songs are so great. I go back to that record all the time and it still sounds fresh. It’s such a crazy record and defies all logic. It’s such a revolutionary record. It says ‘Anything Goes.’ I remember hearing that record and thinking “wow, there truly are no rules.’ That’s the most fun way to think about music. If you think of anything you should try it.”

Rodan – Rusty (1994)
“I was probably a sophomore in high school when I saw them play live for the first time. They were a real eye-opener for me what music could be and that there is no set song structure; you can follow the music wherever it takes you. Their music can be very beautiful and quiet and also propulsive and bombastic. That album is just a classic. People around the world know and like that record but it meant a lot to me having a band mean that much to me and also having them be from [my hometown] Louisville, Kentucky.”

Neil Young - Unplugged (1993)

"I know this is not an 'album' per se but to me when I heard it on the radio late one night when I was around 11 or 12 it was a revelation. It was maybe the first time I realized how personal and delicate and raw and real and fragile yet powerful music could be. How it was possible for one person to play unaccompanied yet fill my soul and the world with some of the most powerful sounds ever heard. Anyone who knows music knows that Neil is about as real as it can get, and this along with seeing him perform "Harvest Moon" on SNL was my first experience knowing what real music really felt like. 

Bob Dylan - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid Soundtrack (1973)

Along with select Duke Ellington and Bob Marley I would say this is one of the albums that is always on rotation. It is perfect for nearly any occasion and I mean any occasion. It is happy and playful, melancholic and mysterious, sensual and filled with life and the realization of impending death for us all and the urgency of now. There are often times when I need music with no words, which there is plenty of on this masterwork, like my favorites 'Main Title Theme' and 'Final Theme' -- but also the words that are there reach my mind in such a psychedelic way it's almost as if they are not words. Dylan is singing about Billy the Kid but also speaking so directly to me all at the same time. It is a miracle. 

Tell me how Eternally Even came to be. I hear inspiration struck one day when you were listening to old music you’d recorded.
It’s really weird. I had recorded this film score music with Brian Reitzell, a composer out in L.A. maybe five or six years ago and we were fired from the film. I think we were just too weird or whatever. We really liked the music we made a lot but time moves on and I figured I would use it somehow. One of the pieces came up on shuffle one day and as I was listening to it I just started thinking about all these lyrics and melodies and stuff. There were many 30 or 40 minutes of this score we had done that was just me on the organ and him playing drums, just improv, playing with no goal in mind other than just having fun playing music. I always wanted to do something with that so I took those pieces and ended up chopping them and cutting them and fitting my words to them and it was this really cool process When I moved to L.A. in December for some reason that move was the perfect change and shook something up inside me and everything started pouring out. Everything was able to finish itself relatively quickly. 

And then producer/musician Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Dawes) came in to help touch things up?
Yah. I finished it mostly but I felt like something else could happen with it. I had met Blake and liked his vibe and our publisher had been talking to Blake about some other project. I was talking to him one day and he said, “Why don’t you talk to Blake and see if you guys would vibe?” So I went and met with Blake and played him the record I had and he seemed to really like it and had some great ideas off the bat. So we planned this two-week session and got in there with Blake and we tried different drummers or added strings or editing a part or redoing a vocal. Just all these things that I feel like really brought it together in the way I wanted. It felt really good.

As a songwriter how do you distinguish between what songs would work best for My Morning Jacket and which are more suited for your solo albums?
With solo stuff it’s stuff I like working on by myself most of the time although there were a lot of people who played on this record as well. I just love being in the studio and that’s kind of what I do when I’m not on the road. I’m just in the studio messing with stuff and I love playing all the instruments. But in the Jacket it’s more about us performing together as a band. So when there are songs that I think need to be performed together from scratch I kind of feel like those songs fall more into the My Morning Jacket thing and if there are other songs that I can build piece by piece or fuck around with them or edit them digitally or whatever -- where it’s more like I get inside the wormhole by myself -- those are songs that end up being solo songs. 

I wanted to ask you about one new song in particular: you’ve mentioned new single “Here In Spirit” was inspired by your attending a rally in Los Angeles in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando.
Not that there hasn’t always been terrible violence on the Earth but I feel like lately there’s just been so much stuff that’s so upsetting: the police shooting, ISIS and that Pulse nightclub shooting and whatever the stranglehold the NRA has on this country of not letting the most commonsense basic gun control measures be passed. It’s so sickening and so silly and so pointless that all this violence keeps happening. I’m just a big believer that we’re all the same and love is a beautiful thing in all its forms and everyone should be respected and treated equally regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual preference. To see this violence keep happening it made me think we hear about this violence and this hatred so much but we need to do all we can to speak out for peace and love and speak out for equality. If we don’t we’re only going to keep hearing more of the bad stuff. We need to speak up for the good and that can only bring more peace and love into the air for everybody. 

For you, does writing a song like this help at least ease a bit of the pain you’re witnessing?
Definitely. Music is very therapeutic for all of us. To be able to play music is such a gift that I don’t take lightly. I feel so fortunate that I’m able to play music and make music and it feels so good, just the act of doing it for myself. I hope it can translate into a good thing for whoever would hear it.