Jim James on How His Covers Album 'Reflects the Turbulent Times' & What's Next for My Morning Jacket
Just days after George Harrison passed away in 2001, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James recorded a bunch of the Beatle’s material as a way to come to terms with his grief. That day-long session resulted in a sparse, raw recording of some of Harrison’s best known tunes, including “My Sweet Lord” and “Long, Long, Long,” packaged together in 2009 as Tribute To.
Now, James is set to release a follow-up to that covers album, aptly called Tribute To 2, out this Friday (Dec. 8) on ATO. Instead of stripped-down recordings of one artist, James picked a slew of different ones, with a much more polished approach to the sound. James says the songs were deliberately chosen to reflect the turbulent times, as on Abbey Lincoln’s “The World Is Falling Down” and the Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
On others, though, he’s quite playful, like on his piano-driven interpretation of Ray Noble and Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You,” and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Other notable numbers include Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man.”
Here, James details the origins of Tribute To 2, My Morning Jacket’s future and the artist he looks up to for cover inspiration.
When did the idea spark to do a Tribute To sequel?
Somebody brought up the idea of reissuing Tribute To 1, because it was out of print on vinyl. That got me thinking. I had all these other cover songs I recorded over the span of 5 or 6 years. I’ve got a studio at home and I’m always recording. I heard the Abbey Lincoln song “The World is Falling Down” and it just resonated with me so deeply. So I covered that song, and that inspired me and coincided with getting together the Tribute To [reissue.]
The original was done very quickly and sounds raw. How did you want to approach the new arrangements?
It’s what inspires me and when I’m not working on my own songs, it’s what moves me, in that day. So every song has a different story. I just felt like I was digging through things I’ve done. For me, when I’m making an album, whether it’s one of my own albums, or this one — I feel like the songs talk to you. They gather together. That’s the best way I can explain it.
It’s a really crazy time in the world right now, a lot of negative energy in the air. A lot of really crazy energy. A lot of the songs I feel are dealing with that, reflecting on the sadness of that. But also, a part of me likes to remember that life can also be beautiful. You can find something in the day that’s humorous, or beautiful in a way… not to forget what’s going on, but to deal with it.
Is there a song on Tribute To 2 that you would characterize as the most personal to you?
They all are, at different times. “The World Is Falling Down” definitely is. I wanted the recording to sound like it was falling apart: Speeding up, and slowing down, warped and distorted. Just like how I feel about the world now, but also have a glimmer in hope there. Also, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” was really cool. I’ve always identified with that song and I had this cool opportunity to get the master recording stems of Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes, from the Stax Label. I created a version of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from the master recording of the [Hot Buttered Soul song] “By the Time I Get to Phoenix." For some reason, whenever I heard that song, I would sing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in my head as I was listening to that song. It was really weird. I tried to make that happen and was lucky enough to get multitracks from Stax. That was cool, but also really hilarious in trying to get it cleared for release. I had to get permission from Stax, I had to get permission from the Jimmy Webb estate, because it was a cover, I had to get permission from Brian Wilson, because I was taking a song and mixing it with an existing song.
My Morning Jacket is mostly taking 2018 of from playing live. Is it time to get back into the studio?
We’re still trying to figure out our schedules. And also just trying to take some time off for regrouping and personal stuff.
Any ideas or desires you’d want for that next album?
I’m not sure. We got a couple things in the can, like the second album from when we did The Waterfall may be released if we can get that finished. We also got a live record in the can that we’re excited about. So there’s a couple things that I’m trying to get finished that could hopefully come out next year.
Who is the master at cover songs?
Nina Simone. Undisputed in my book. She’s the master interpreter. I’ve listened to everything she’s done by now.