Jim James // My Morning Jacket
“It’s the artist’s duty to dispel the ‘tortured artist’ myth. You can create great art if you remain healthy. We have to remind each other to be healthy.”
Jim James of My Morning Jacket wants to be a happy songwriter. And a healthy one too.
A fair amount of the songwriters I’ve interviewed extol the virtues of writing while hungover. Others talk about how marijuana helps their creativity. Still others credit sobriety with making them better thinkers. But few have openly advocated physical exercise as a means to boost creativity. (There’s a clear link between creativity and exercise. I’ve written about it.) Jim James wants more songwriters to get out of the studio and into fresh air. He’s also sick of the cliche that misery is an essential component to writing.
First, the misery. James says, “I’ve been sadder more of my life than I’ve been happier,” but he wants to move past that, to write about “the beautiful things.” While he says that sadness has always been a part of his music, James wants to write about the happier spaces in his world. He cites singers like Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder as influences because they write about the joy in their life: family, their children, God, “the beautiful things” that James mentioned.
One way to get to this happy place of existence is by being a healthy artist, says James. Not metaphorically, but literally. It makes sense: most professions stress wellness as a means to peak performance. Why not art? James dismisses the idea that to create art, you need to suffer. “The tortured artist myth is bullshit. We thought we had to subscribe to this idea that suffering was necessary,” he told me. James says that artists need to do a better job supporting each other, “not just for our mental health but our physical health too.” Art, says James, can be created from places of good health, fitness, and even a great family life. Strong mental fitness even involves taking an occasional break from songwriting so that he doesn’t run himself into the ground.
It is unsurprising, then, that James is a disciplined songwriter and that physical exercise is a mandatory part of his day. Routine is important to him. When he’s home, he meditates after waking up, has breakfast, then works for a few hours. Afternoons often involve hiking and yoga. After dinner, James will return to work. When he’s on tour, outside physical exercise is even more important, so he’ll walk around town. He walks and does yoga every day. But besides the physical benefit to exercise, there’s the creative benefit: “You just walk right out and see the world, which is a huge part of the creative process. If you don’t get out there, you’re not going to see these amazing, inspiring things that enhance your art.”
Despite his daily routine, though, James is clear that there are no rules to his songwriting process. He will not write if he’s not inspired, and he does not believe in writing every day just for the sake of writing. “Every time I force that process, it never works like it should,” he told me. James is a voracious reader, something that his mother instilled in him. His favorite author is Haruki Murakami. James told me that he aspires to do in his songwriting what Murakami does in his prose.
What other types of writing are you doing?
I've always wanted to be a journaler, but I usually fail. I'll buy a journal, write in it once, then forget it exists. I do write down a lot of my dreams, though, and a lot thoughts that pop into my head. Images, random ideas, words, lines. I write quite a bit, but mostly stream of consciousness stuff. Like abstract art on the paper. There’s not a lot of organization.
Is it important to write every day?
I don’t try to do anything. Every time I force that process, it never works like it should. But I will say that for me to write, there has to be some inspiration. If the inspiration isn’t there, I've never been one to pull my chair up to the desk and write just for the sake of writing. Mostly that inspiration comes from a melodic idea that pops into my head. There are no words, just a melody. So my writing often involves finding words for that melody or fleshing out whatever that song idea is telling me to say.
When you’re writing these ideas down, are you doing it with the goal of writing a song, or just to be creative?
It’s a little of both. Sometimes ideas just come to me—a word or a phrase—at any time, even when I'm at dinner or in the shower, for example. Naturally, these things happen in the most unhelpful of places, so I’ll jot down the idea on my phone or go in the bathroom and sing the idea into the voice memo on my phone. Some ideas are like a key that you insert into the wall of the universe. You turn the key, and the words start pouring out. But there are other times when I've had one sentence with a melody for fifteen years, and I can’t do anything with it. I can't get any more words from that melody, no matter how hard I try.
But something I've noticed lately is that my words depend on where I am geographically. Some places I feel more plugged in than others, and the words will pour out of me even if I don’t like the words that much. I’ll have pages and pages of words. And it has nothing to do with the song topic or the mood that day. I’m just completely connected to the land or the spirit or the land.
When you find that things aren’t happening, is it better to push through or recognize your limit?
I do a little of both. I have a studio, so if I'm working on a song, I’ll keep trying to play and sing what I have, then blah blah blah the rest just to get through it. Sometimes that blah blah blahing will become words. That’s related somehow, strangely, to where I am. It’s like I'm plugged into an outlet and the energy comes through me.
Where are those places where you feel the most energy?
It can be anywhere. It’s like there are invisible power outlets all over the place and I don’t even know where they are. I just step on one, and I'm plugged in. They move around, so I can’t even say that one city is better than another. It all depends on where those power outlets are. And that’s the coolest part: there’s no logic to it. Sometimes I’ll write a song about something specific, but there are so many other times I’ll write a song and have no idea what it’s about. Laughs.
Is it important to know where those places are so that you have confidence when you write?
We all have our spaces where we set up to work, whether it’s a laptop at the kitchen table or a studio. A good vibe and ease of work flow are important. I try to keep a microphone and guitar plugged in at all times so that if I get an idea I don’t lose it by having to hook everything up. Maybe it’s not the earth, a physical space—and I'm not even that familiar with astrology—but maybe it’s the positioning of the planets or something like that. I can be in the studio and the words just pour out, then they don’t. So I’ll go take a walk, and the words just pour out in the middle of the forest, then they don’t. That’s why my phone is such an important part of my process. I can take those ideas and flesh them out later.
You mention movement. A lot of songwriters have mentioned how important movement is to their creative process. Do you think about that?
Oh, I think about that all the time. I'm a big walker. I have to walk a lot. It helps me complete my ideas. No matter what kind of writer you are, so much of the process unfortunately involves being stationary, whether you’re at a desk or in the studio. You have no choice. That’s why it’s so important to unplug and get moving. Get the blood moving and touch those different spots on the earth where those connections, those power outlets are. The earth and the spirits respond to our efforts. That’s another thing I’ve discovered: when you don’t put the effort in, the words aren’t as willing to come out and play. But if you do the work, you aren’t always going to achieve your goal, but the universe starts helping you.
I’ve written about the role that physical exercise plays in creativity. There’s research behind that.
I think that’s an important discussion to have among artists. A lot of musicians, or artists in general, don’t consider themselves athletic or active people, but a big part of talking about this idea is removing the whole “tortured artist” myth. So many of us thought we had to subscribe to that idea. That myth is bullshit. We need to do a better job supporting each other not just for our mental health but our physical health. We can create great art from good places, from places of health and fitness too. You can have a great family life and still be a great artist. You don’t have to be strung out to make great art.
Do you try to walk every day, or do you do it just when you feel stuck in the creative process?
It’s something that I have to do. Walking and yoga are things I try to do every day, or else I start to go crazy. I began this routine when I started touring constantly. Walking is something you can do anywhere, no matter the venue. There’s no excuse. You just walk right out the door and see the world, which in itself is a big part of the creative process. And sometimes that walking leads me to an art museum, another environment that’s great for the creative process. Or walking to a cathedral or walking through the forest. If you don’t get out there, you’re not going to see these amazing, inspiring things that enhance your art.
Speaking of environment, how conscious are you of your surroundings? Are you consciously listening and watching for things that might make their way into a song?
A little of both. I try to remain open to inspiring ideas, but let’s face it, a lot of times, like the airport where I am now, it’s kind of miserable. Laughs. But there are certainly times when I’ll walk by two people talking and catch the last half of what someone says, and there will be a song lyric in there.
Is there an ideal time or place when you get your best writing done? Do you have a ritual?
My life gets chopped up into strange chunks with touring and not touring. I split time between Louisville and Los Angeles, so I’m all over the place. And because of that, routine is important. I’ll wake up, meditate, have breakfast, then work for a few hours. If I’m particularly inspired, I’ll work for longer. After that, I’ll go for a hike or do some yoga. Then comes dinner, and then work. That’s pretty established. But if I go in there and do not feel inspired, I do not work. I don’t believe in forcing it. There are times when I wonder if I’ll ever go in my studio again. I look at that closed door and think, “Will I ever open that door again?” Laughs. There may be two or three weeks, or even more, when I won’t open that door. Or instead of making music, I’ll paint every day.
Do you deliberately take breaks and not write?
It’s hard to do anything deliberately, because the ideas will still come when you stop to fill the well. But I do think, from a mental health standpoint, that breaks are important. I’ve almost run myself into the ground a few times. Those breaks are important so that we take care of ourselves and not work ourselves to death. But it’s out of my control. If the idea is there, I want to work on it. And that means that sometimes you can turn a not-so-great day into a great day.
You mentioning painting, and several songwriters I’ve interviewed also dabble in the visual arts. Does that help your songwriting?
I’m not sure. Painting is a beautiful release for me where I don’t care how it turns out. I don’t even show it to anyone. I just love going down there, turning on some music, and letting the brush fly around. I’m an abstract kind of painter. I’m fortunate to be able to make a living playing music, and the only downside of that is that it always feels like a job. Because it is my job. Painting is a way to relieve the pressure of creating music, and, to be honest, even sometimes the boredom. That’s why sometimes I'll create music and mess around with stuff, making it a fun exercise where I don’t care at all whether people like it. But that’s rare, because most of the time you're trying to create your life’s work or move the world or change the world. That’s weighty. And of course with that music, you hope people like it. So it’s nice to sometimes make music and not care at all how people receive it.
Let’s talk about who you like to read.
Oh man, I love to read. My mother stressed the importance of reading, and she read to me all the time. I’m also a fast reader, which is lucky. I just reread Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I can relate to that book because sometimes I feel like I'm not of this earth. Laughs. My friend’s brother just wrote an amazing book called Solita Solita. It’s about the refugees crossing into the US from Central America. The book is part of the Voice of Witness project that Dave Eggers started. I’ve been in tears all day reading this book. I can’t recommend it enough. We are in such trouble now as humans, and part of that stems from thinking that some people aren’t as good as other people. I can’t stop thinking about the whole refugee crisis. What can we do to help these people? They are fleeing terror, then they come here and get hit with another terror wave.
You mentioned a couple of books. Can you read more than one book at a time? Some songwriters I've interviewed can read three or four at a time.
The only time I can read three or four books at a time is if I don’t really like those books. Once I start a book that I like, I get sucked up in it. It devours me. I can’t stop reading it. That’s the same way I feel about songwriting: once I start writing a song that I really like, I can't wait to get back to it. My favorite author of all time is Haruki Murakami. He does as an author what I’d like to do as a musician. He does things in his writing that people have never even dreamed about reading before, these surreal and dreamlike scenes. Besides that, I also like his writing about running and his writing about music. Even his writing about the terror attacks in Tokyo. He explores life from angles that no one has ever explored before. He’s so inspiring.
One of the best books I’ve read in a while the novel There There by Tommy Orange. He’s a Native American, and it’s about the Native American experience in urban America, in this case Oakland. That’s a perspective that hasn’t been told too often. The book is fantastic.
I’ll have to check it out. Have you ever read Black Elk Speaks? He was a Native American medicine man who was about four years old when the first whites came in to his land. He wrote the book in the 1930s, when he was in his 80s. It’s his life story. It’s almost like someone put a video camera on the ground, and you're able to see the horror of what happened to the Native Americans. That’s an important book that people should run.
Part of my quest as an artist is to bring peace, understanding, healing and love to the world. I still don’t think we’ve adequately addressed what happened to the Native Americans here. We’ve refused to address that horror, just as we refuse to adequately address slavery. As artists, it’s our job to address these topics and try to heal these wounds.
Do you get to read a lot of poetry?
To be honest, I struggle with poetry. I either like it or hate it. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s so close to the songwriting form? I don’t hate, it, but I don’t gravitate towards it. I will say, though, that Wendell Barry’s poetry moves me. I don’t think I've ever recommended poetry to anyone; people are always recommending it to me. Laughs.
I’d say there are four or five authors that songwriters tend to gravitate towards, at least our conversations: Murakami, Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, McCarthy, and Bukowski. What authors inspire you as a songwriter?
For sure, Vonnegut. Dave Eggers too. I love how visual his writing is. Also a huge fan of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin. I like science fiction. What appeals to me is reading something that I could never, ever possibly dream up. As I get older and become more interested in history, I’m starting to read things that are of this world. And that’s new to me, because for many years I’ve tried to avoid this world because it hurts me to so much. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how people, especially today, can act the way they do. And when I get that feeling, I reach for Murakami to escape.
You know what book I just read that I loved? Frankenstein. What am amazing book. One of the coolest books I’ve read in a while is The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost. It’s such a brilliant concept. Frost ties the history of the show Twin Peaks to the history of the world and the history of the US.
Do you have a favorite type of writing utensil?
I was pen and paper for years, but now I prefer the computer because I move things around so much. If I’m still trying to figure out a song and playing it for people, it’s nice to be able to move verses around and try it a different way each time.
Do you revise your lyrics?
It depends on the song. If the songs pops out pretty confidently, I won’t mess with it. But other songs have pages and pages of revisions. What works for me is creating some kind of deadline, even if it’s artificial pressure. In the past, if I had a song I was stoked about but didn’t have any lyrics for, I’d panic. But that panic would make me rise to the occasion.
Something new that works is that a lot of the time I’ll go into the studio and know what I want to do musically but not lyrically. We don’t really think about this anymore, but technology has allowed us to leave the studio and finish a song at home on our laptops. Sometime people are afraid to jump into the studio if they aren’t fully done, but for me it’s the opposite. I just want to get in there because having the courage to just do that will help me finish. I mean, let’s be honest, a lot of the time it’s just “We spent a shitload of money on this studio, now finish the fucking lyrics!” Laughs. And that pressure helps me turn the corner.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
Not really. I’m all over the map, but I think I’ve been sadder more of my life than I’ve happier. Recently, though, I’ve found that I don’t have to be in a certain emotion to write about that emotion. A lot of gospel singers, or singers like Curtis Mayfield or Aretha Franklin or Stevie Wonder, sing about all aspects of life: joy, their children, God, all these beautiful things. I find myself focusing more on those ideas. Sadness has always been a part of my music, but part of me wants to move to another plane of existence because I'm tired of feeling that way. But sometimes things will pop out completely unrelated to what I'm doing. I might be having dinner with friends, laughing and having a good time, then some weird song idea will pop into my head so I’ll run to the bathroom to sing it into my phone.
I imagine you have a lot of notebooks lying around with half-finished or discarded song ideas.
So many of them! Mountains of voice memos and notebooks. I've recently started going through them and finding so many song ideas I love. I’ll work with them, and lyrics just come out. That’s happened a lot lately. If there’s not something concrete I’m working on, I’ll go through those voice memos to find inspiration. There are a lot of versions of a song where the lyrics are the same but the music is different.
That’s what I love about music: not to sound too cosmic, but there are no rules to this process. It’s fun to hear or read people break those rules. I’ll never forget reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: from the table of contents to the publishing information page. It was something I had never seen before. Same thing with Pet Sounds. That kind of art is the most inspiring form because it looks and sounds like nothing before it.