When house-pop producer Jim-E Stack released his first album in 2014, he was in his early twenties and had just relocated from New Orleans to Brooklyn — and for the first time felt alone. Stack (born James Stack) grew up in San Francisco playing with his best friends in a jazz band, and while attending college in New Orleans was similarly surrounded by aspiring musicians. “I had a little musical community,” he says. “But when I moved to New York, I didn’t at all. There was no collaboration in any sense. I was really isolated, creatively and socially. It wasn’t good for me.”
He decided to move back west, relocating to Los Angeles where he has once again found a network of like-minded friends turned collaborators, including everyone from Bon Iver to Dominic Fike. While producing for others, Stack also found time to finish his second album Ephemera, released by AWAL in October. Unlike his debut, Ephemera features an artist on every track but one: “It’s the same person making [the album] at the end of the day, but it’s coming from the opposite of an isolated place,” says Stack. “It’s coming from an environment of ‘nothing really matters except listening to music and making music with your friends,’ and having fun doing it.”
He started working on the album, unintentionally, in 2017 and says the oldest song on it is “Be Long 2” (the only track without a guest). “Jeanie,” featuring Bon Iver, started around the same time. However, Stack says he didn’t realize he was even working on a project until last summer once he finished the Empress Of-featuring “Note To Self,” which boasts the all-too relatable lyric for 2020, “don’t let it knock you down.” It became the project’s lead single. And though Ephemera was three years in the making, Stack believes it’s all for the better. “I worked on it when I wanted to, because I wanted to. It may have come about slowly, but it came about naturally.”
Stack met Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon through their mutual friend and collaborator, BJ Burton, when, in August 2017, the three gathered at Vernon’s rural Wisconsin studio, April Base. “There wasn’t any clear mission for the stretch of days we worked together,” says Stack. “It was just like, come and hang out, take mushrooms, eat really good local food from farms and drink some beers — we made a shit ton of music.” Since then, Vernon has hit up Stack for creative input, often texting him links and ideas. For “PDLIF,” Vernon texted Stack a sample of Alabaster dePlume’s “Visit Croatia,” which Stack built upon throughout the early days of quarantine before the finished product took shape over a group chat with Vernon and Burton. And though “AUATC” started out as an in-person project — Vernon was working with Chance the Rapper last spring and invited Stack to join them in Chicago — the track didn’t come together until last August, when Stack revisited a piano piece from that day and added drums, bass and synth before sending it back to Vernon. Not only did the Bon Iver frontman finish the production and mixing by himself, he also managed to score an unexpected vocalist: Bruce Springsteen.
Stack met Kacy Hill through a mutual friend, and they soon after started dating. “In those early days, it was just like, ‘Oh, we both make music and are hanging out, should we make a song or something?’” Stack recalls. Two of the first songs they ever wrote together — ”Dinner” and “Unkind” — appear on Hill’s latest second album, Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again? She started working on the album at the end of 2017, when collaborator Kanye West connected her with Francis and the Lights. She soon after met Francis and BJ Burton in Minneapolis and, according to Stack, “struck a nerve.” A few months later, Stack joined the crew in Minnesota and “a real identity — sonically and melodically — started to form.” He calls the experience a “growing process” when it came to balancing his role as boyfriend and producer, saying “I learned how to be a helpful collaborator with Kacy taking the lead. It resulted in an album that spoke to her and where she was in her life perfectly.”
When a friend first played Stack Dominic Fike’s music, suggesting they work together, Stack had no idea if or how he could help the rising rap-rocker. Even so, he and Fike met up a couple times but nothing clicked creatively; rather, they hit it off friends. The more comfortable they became, the more willing they were to push one another out of what felt familiar, resulting in the track “Double Negative (Skeleton Milkshake).” Says Stack: “I’m often, in a good way, uncomfortable when I’m trying to help him with stuff because I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, trying to record guitars and make a rock song. That’s what I love about our relationships, he brings something different out of me that consistently yields the best songs.” The pair started working on new music this summer, and were just talking about hopping back in the studio to finish it up. “I don’t know what we’re destined for creatively,” says Stack, “but the last thing we did is maybe the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Stack remembers wanting to impress Empress Of the first time they worked together in 2017, so he came to the studio extra early to set up — but the session didn’t yield much. “I hit her up again because I was determined,” he says. “I was just a fan of hers and was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to do something worthy.’” He started thinking about her collaboration with Blood Orange on “Best to You” and how well her vocals fit on a synth-driven pop-leaning song. “In my head I was like, it’s crazy that she doesn’t have any songs of her own like this.” Stack returned to the studio with new beats and ideas in that vein, but with live drums and even more upbeat instrumentals. “The first melodies she put down, something just clicked,” he says of what became “U Give It Up.” “She was in a vulnerable place with her relationship and lyrically, she just beyond delivered. She started incorporating Spanish and when it came out, it really connected with people.”