When Jim James was booked for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the day before the drop of his solo debut, he figured he’d be playing with The Roots–he just had no idea he’d be belting out his latest single with a 22-piece orchestra behind him.
After going back and forth with Questlove in the weeks leading up to the Late Night taping, the My Morning Jacket frontman was told to leave the loops and samples he used on “A New Life” at home in Kentucky, as the single from Regions of Light and Sounds of God would be given the royal treatment. Strings, flutes, a bass sax, a tuba, and three bass drums that may as well have been yoinked from the Energizer Bunny’s prop closet were employed in place of the sounds James created in his at-home studio. “I thought it was just going to be me playing with [The Roots]!” says James. “The day before the show, I got an email from Questlove saying, ‘Oh yeah! We’re gonna do strings. And horns. And … all this stuff.’ And I was like, ‘Okay man, cool.'”
The sum of these moving musical parts delivered a five-minute symphony the likes of which Studio 6B had never seen. Starting off with the unassuming, steady build between two acoustic guitars and three marching bass drums, James went from softly crooning about a fresh start to testing his lung capacity over the course of the song’s extravagant breakdown. Questlove went on to call “A New Life” the most beautiful song he’d ever played on Late Night, and this sans-guitar singing thing that James was trying on for size was clearly fitting perfectly.
Renowned for both his vocal chops and string-shredding talents with My Morning Jacket, James went back to basics on Regions of Light and Sounds of God, which relies more on his vocal cords than anything else. “I always approach every project the same in that I always approach it different, if that makes sense,” he says. “This tour will have a different vibe from the Jacket shows, but some aspects are similar. Even during My Morning Jacket shows, I just feel more at home when I’m just singing and not really playing guitar or anything. I still love to play guitar, but it just feels good to sing. In the studio I like to do everything; I like to play all the instruments. Live, it’s been super fun to just sing. I’m going to play a little bit of guitar here and there, but I’ve just been really enjoying the freedom of singing.”
James’ voice serves as the only constant on Regions of Light, in that the album’s nine tracks include futuristic funk explorations (“Dear One,” “Of The Mother Again”), dark meditations (“All Is Forgiven”) and jukebox pop balladry (“A New Life”). Recorded both digitally and on tape, Regions of Light was born from the same writing, sampling, piecing and layering experimentation that James has been conducting in his studio since he built it.
“It’s not a new process for me. I’ve always been doing this, but I don’t usually release what this is because it winds up turning into a My Morning Jacket record or something,” he says. “I always record at home by myself and make soundscapes. I finally got the gear that I like all figured out, and I learned how to use the studio in a way that I could record something for myself in the quality that I wanted it to be in. I play with these tracks in a visual way almost, making sound collages and messing with different effects and stuff. That’s one of my favorite things about the computer era of music, is being able to work on music in a different way–just as you’d make a painting with little cubes of colored blocks–and see how that sounds.”
This blend of something old and something new–be it represented by the marriage of genres and musical epochs taking place throughout Regions of Light, or the process that created it–carries over to James’ live show, as demonstrated by the timeless melody and driving beat that engulfed the Late Night stage. Each project and its subsequent process may be a different bear for James to wrestle, but with a solo effort as strong as this one, it’d be a shame to see him move on to the next thing after a touring cycle or two–especially as he’s found an unstoppable new voice in this “new life” of his.
Jim James performs tonight at Music Hall of Williamsburg and tomorrow (2.20) at McKittrick Hotel.