My Morning Jacket Frontman Speaks to Students

Brenda Pike
August 22, 2008
"Some songs are completely abstract, and I don’t even know what they mean, I just like how the words sound. My biggest love is to sing and sometimes singing is more important to me than the words."
"I'm not trained. I took guitar lessons for a month in eighth grade, but I didn't have any interest in Jingle Bells. I came of age in the grunge revolution. That was a good time for the guitar."
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Jim James of My Morning Jacket has gotten used to a wide range of venues. The indie vocalist/guitarist has gone from performing in small clubs to large arenas, overseas venues, the Late Show with David Letterman, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops, and is looking forward to being the only act playing Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve. But giving a clinic to the summer program students assembled in the Berklee Performance Center, "this is a very weird thing," he admitted.

While the lead singer is comfortable being the center of attention—and the center of a band whose roster has changed dramatically over the years—he usually loses himself in the music. Interspersing performing with answering questions from the Berklee students pulled him out of the moment in a way that left him a little uncomfortable. "If everything sounds right I can disappear," James said. "If the monitor sounds like shit or I'm sick, I'm thinking the whole show G, G, C, C, G, G. But if everything's right, time and space don't exist anymore."

The sound of a room also matters a lot to James, who recorded vocals for My Morning Jacket's 2001 CD At Dawn in a grain silo. "Growing up playing music, I didn't like the way that things sounded playing in a basement or garage," said James. "For me the creation of a soundscape on a record, where you place the microphones on the drum kit, where you place the microphone in relation to your voice, all that stuff is what I love about music."

The students mixed curiosity about the creative side of James's music with questions about the business end. James talked about how lucky the band is that its managers are very passionate about the music. "Sometimes they're more excited about it than we are," he laughed. But My Morning Jacket hasn't always been so lucky with its record labels. "We kind of signed to two labels at once, ATO being the small indie label and RCA the big financial backer. We were fortunate; we had a lot of great people at RCA that took care of us," James said. "Then they merged with Sony/BMG, and a lot of the people we knew got fired. We were stuck with this huge dinosaur that still wants to charge people $20 per CD. They put copyright protection software on our album that ended up screwing up a lot of people's computers. I'm glad we got to try the major label thing, but we would never do it again."

Such copyright protection goes against James's belief that forcing people to pay a specific price for music isn't the way to go. "It's kind of like an honor system, or a grab basket," he said. "I've got a lot of friends that download music for free. I don't hold that against anybody, because people need a lot of things that they don't have. So if somebody wants to hear our record and they take it, I'm glad they can listen to it. But if you do get on your feet, or if you do steal a record and end up liking it, go buy a T-shirt, go pay for a ticket, support them. . . . It's so weird that you could ever put a price tag on music. If you get a record and you listen to it every day, it's this huge part of your life, it's worth a lot. You should maybe give them $300 for it. If you only listen to it a couple times, maybe you should only give them 50 cents for it."

This opinion reflects a passion for live music that shows in My Morning Jacket's grueling tour schedule. "Live music will never die. You can never kill it or download it. I think we forget sometimes that humans are animals, and animals like to be together in packs," James said. And with that, he played himself off the stage, setting his omnichord on a stool to repeat beats alone under the lights.