"I take walks a lot," says Jim James, "and as I walk, songs kind of build in my mind, and I start adding and subtracting things. So I had a full vision for a lot of the songs on this album before I even recorded one note."
These visions have now manifested as Regions and Light and Sound of God, the first solo album from the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for My Morning Jacket. Over the course of fifteen years and six studio albums, James has been the focal point of a group that has grown into one of the most acclaimed and successful rock and roll bands in the world. With this project, he reaches into new territory that extends, but doesn't break from, MMJ's accomplishments.
James has maintained a steady, bordering on voracious, flow of work alongside the band's recording and touring. In 2009, he released the Tribute to EP, with his versions of six George Harrison songs. He has also lent his voice to albums by the likes of the Decemberists, the Roots, America, Booker T. Jones, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and recorded and toured with the Monsters of Folk—which teamed him up with Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Mike Mogis—and participated in this year's Woody Guthrie tribute album New Multitudes and its accompanying shows alongside Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, and Anders Parker.
But until now, James had never felt the call to create a longer-form album on his own. "I’m very lucky to play in a band with guys that I love, who are great at what they do," he says, "so on MMJ records, I don’t have a need to play bass or keys or what have you. But as a person and as a musician, I love to play every instrument under the sun, and I wanted to make a record where I played all the instruments and engineered it myself."
As much as James was interested in exploring new sonic directions, he was also drawn to a different kind of process, something he could control as an individual rather than as part of a band. "I wanted to make a record right away, instead of making demos for a record and then recording," he says. "I would just start building on ideas from the ground up, at my own relaxed pace. I used the 'building block' method, laying down one piece at a time myself—to build a tower or a house—whereas in MMJ we make a sound that’s all of us playing together, more of a live performance type of thing, although several of the songs on this record were captured in live performance, too."
The location also helped inform the feel of the recordings. “I fell in love with the stories of Les Paul and Mary Ford recording in their home, as well as thinking of Sly Stone slouched down in an armchair, smoking a cigar in a rented house for There's a Riot Goin’ On,” says James, explaining his choice to record at his home studio in Louisville. “I wanted to make it comfortable and make it homey."
The results are nine songs that resist easy categorization, from the hazy space-funk of the opening "State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)" to the chiming, operatic pop of "A New Life." On Regions of Light and Sound of God, nothing is what it seems—touchstones from old-school R&B or island folk or hip-hop flicker into focus and then disappear; a delicate instrumental is titled "Exploding." It's complex but cohesive, intimate and hypnotic where My Morning Jacket might turn more wide-screen and epic.
"I wanted the album to sound like it came from a different place in time," says James. "Perhaps sounding as if it were the past of the future, if that makes any sense—like a hazy dream that a fully-realized android or humanoid capable of thought might have when it reminisces about the good old days of just being a simple robot."
James says that his inspiration comes from many directions, but mentions Marvin Gaye’s incomparable classic What’s Going On as a perpetual influence (it might be felt strongest in the soaring concluding track, “God’s Love to Deliver,” in which the singer addresses Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). “To me, it’s the greatest record of all time because it speaks to everyone, of any race or creed,” he says. “It speaks to the soul and the body; it uses all forms of music, merging soul and funk with rock and classical; it is nameless gospel, holy essence. I always want to try and make music like that.”
For Regions of Light and Sound of God, though, there was one specific source that shaped many of the songs, and even figures into the album title—a pioneering 1929 graphic novel called God’s Man, by Lynd Ward. Told entirely through wordless woodcuts, the book chronicles an artist’s struggle with temptation and corruption, along with finding true love. As work on the album proceeded, James was inspired to write music that could accompany the book. “God's Man came to me at a very important time,” he says. “Some of the things happening in the book were happening to me in real life, in a very strange and painful, then a very beautiful way.”
Also meaningful to James was the fact that the album gave him the opportunity to work with Dave Givan, who played most of the drums on the record. Givan has been a friend since childhood, and was part of the first band James ever played with, Mont de Sundua. He and James also currently co-host a radio show called “Sir Microcosm."
Now James is facing the challenge of finding the musicians and arrangements to conjure the sound of Regions of Light and Sound of God on stage. “I’m currently putting together the band to bring this to tour in a fun, celebratory, and danceable way,” he says.
Solo albums by members of bands, especially lead singers, can often be scattershot, collections of odds and ends built up over the years with no true sense of purpose. But Regions of Light and Sound of God is precisely the opposite—the clarity with which Jim James came into this album rings from first note to last.
“The album knew what it wanted to be,” says James. “The songs would tell me what they wanted to be, and I just had to search around and find those sounds to bring them into this world.”