Whenever the leader of a popular band goes solo, fans wonder, with perhaps some trepidation, does this mean it’s the end of the line for the band they love?
Jim James, lead singer-songwriter-guitarist for My Morning Jacket, assures everyone that’s not the case here, with the release of his second solo album, “Eternally Even,” and a 25-date tour that kicks off at Boston’s Royale Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 15 and 16.
“I really feel like music should be free and there should be no rules or restrictions placed on anyone,” says James. “That’s why things can work and last — you’re free to do what you need to do and nobody takes it personally. If I didn’t let myself make solo records, I’d start resenting the guys in the band and nobody needs resentment. The guys in the Jacket understand this is something I like to do and it doesn’t threaten them.”
James says he loves the My Morning Jacket construct; the genre-mixing band — from jam to prog-rock — has released seven albums beginning in 1999. But he also has the hankering to tinker alone in the studio, play instruments such as keyboards and bass he wouldn’t in the band.
“I love playing music with people, but I also just love the art and meditation of being alone and working on stuff,” James says. “I’ve got this beautiful open relationship where everybody’s encouraged to do whatever they want. Everybody plays on different people’s records and tours with different people.”
My Morning Jacket toured earlier this year and James says the band will reconvene in the spring to record their follow-up to 2015’s “The Waterfall.” James adds there are tracks left over from “The Waterfall” sessions — two have been released, “Magic Bullets” and “The First Time” — but that upcoming album will likely contain “a batch of new songs.”
“Whenever we come back from another project we’re always so stoked to see each other and play with each other again,” James says. “I really feel like that’s been the key to why we’re still together as a band. I remember a period five or six years ago feeling a little burnt out and wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep doing it. You get buried in these ruts. By doing the first solo record [2013’s ‘Regions of Light and Sounds of God’] I realized how much I love being in My Morning Jacket and what a gift that was. But I think anybody who knows what it’s like to be in any relationship for a long time, you have to keep thinking of ways to make it new, make it fresh and not let it get stale. It’s that 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' kind of thing.”
The music that forms the nine songs on “Eternally Even” has roots in a movie soundtrack project several years ago undertaken by James and drummer-composer Brian Reitzell. That project ultimately did not come to fruition, but James had this music tucked away.
“A lot of score was just me on organ and Brian,” he says. “We had recorded maybe 40 minutes of instrumental improv that I really loved a lot. It came back up in the last couple of years and these vocal melodies and lyrics started popping out of these instrumental pieces. So I chopped them up, flipped them around and did a lot of extra stuff on top. I really worked with them a lot, but it was kind of cool they started from nowhere.”
The music is ethereal, funky and soulful in places, and is often contemplative and melancholic. The album starts with “Hide in Plain Sight,” a meandering, spooky, synth-based song where James asks, of life, “Does it really have to wind up as nothing?” In the gorgeous two-part “We Ain’t Getting Younger,” he circles back: “Time’s your oyster/The grave’s always getting closer/We ain’t getting any younger.”
“I think some of [the album] might feel pessimistic at first glance,” James says, “but I hope it feels optimistic. It’s more that I’m really just trying to call attention to things I feel frustrated about and a lot of people feel frustrated about. There’s so much injustice happening and so much inequality manifesting itself, and we need, not just us as musicians, but us as people, we need to stand up and say this isn’t the world we want: We want a world that’s based on love and based on acceptance. We need to stand up because the dark forces are very loud right now and we have to be loud too. I’m trying to say there’s still hope and we can still make it if we try. I just keep hearing Martin Luther King’s words in my head: If you stay silent while injustice is happening that’s the worst thing you can possibly do.”
James has written a number of songs about characters who are not him, and also fancies “abstractions, art for art’s sake and some songs that are word puzzles or games. I enjoy singing in different voices. Sometimes I like to sing really low and sometimes I like to sing really high; sometimes I like to yell, and sometimes I like to whisper. There’s limitless ways to sing. But for whatever reason the song kind of tells me how it wants me to sing it and that’s not always the same.”
This album, “Eternally Even” he says, “is pretty personal.”
Will there be catharsis for him in playing live?
“Oh definitely,” he says. “That’s a big part of it. Just the energy of making music feels so good. There is a love that I feel we all get from music.”
James cautions that no one should think of him as anyone possessing extraordinary wisdom. “I don’t proclaim to have any of the answers,” he says. “I’m no political expert and I’m not trying to say I know it all because I feel really confused. But that’s one of the most wonderful things about music for me — it’s such a healing force. Even if I’m just questioning and I never find the answers, there is an answer just in playing music. I’m just thinking and trying to understand. That’s the bulk of my lyrical output — being confused and trying to find answers to my confusion.”
One thing that helps is James’ longtime practice of transcendental meditation. Calling himself “a recovering Catholic,” and as unknowing about any sense of afterlife as anyone else, he says the meditation helps clear his mind and focus. He tries to meditate for 20 minutes once or twice a day.
“I just think meditation is so important because it gives you a chance to see what’s going on in your brain,” James says. “It’s so difficult [to disconnect]. I feel we’re wrapped and blanketed in 24-hours-a-day media and we’re all addicted to our phones.”
Meditation, he says, brings questions like these to the fore: “What are you thinking about? What are you trying to hide from yourself? When you sit down and meditate, you shut down your phone and close the doors and you’re just with yourself. You start to see what’s going on and I think it really can bring awareness to bad patterns or things you want to change about yourself.
“That’s the biggest thing to me. I’ve got so many issues and problems I’m working on. There are so many things I wish were different. Before I mediated I would just blindly have the issues, but now at least” — he laughs — “Have I stopped? Do I have no problems? No, but at least I feel like I can put a label on some of them. At least I know I’m doing it and that can help me stop doing it.”