My Morning Jacket in Los Angeles, 2002
My Morning Jacket on “At Dawn”
Jim James: On the Record
Mar 09, 2017
Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar) Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
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When My Morning Jacket set out to record 2001's At Dawn, for the first time they had outside expectations to consider—the band's debut album, 1999's The Tennessee Fire, generated enough momentum to shape a small and passionate fanbase. "When we made The Tennessee Fire we weren't sure if anybody would even listen at all," remembers frontman Jim James, "so having known that some people enjoyed that record, it was really strange to be making a record that we knew at least somebody would be listening to, it was the first time we felt like anybody was really listening."
Curiosity has always been a driving force for James. What started off as a passion for rock 'n' roll quickly evolved into a method for exploring new ideas. Breaking away from the "super rock, super heavy" foundation of his first band, Month of Sundays, he created My Morning Jacket with the intention of going in a different direction. "I started My Morning Jacket as kind of a gentler, quieter side project but then it started turning into more of that hunger for rock and roll, and a hunger to get wild," he says. The Tennessee Fire wasn't a huge hit in America, but did better internationally (particularly in the Netherlands for some reason). James famously recorded many of his vocals for the album in an empty grain silo. At Dawn was also recorded in a rural setting, at the farm of the grandparents of then-guitarist Johnny Quaid (who is also James' cousin).
"[It was] a really, really beautiful farm way out in the middle of nowhere and we had a studio in this little apartment above the garage," says James, setting the scene. "We were just so green and just such infants, we didn't really know anything about professional recording or anything like that, but we recorded it all ourselves and recorded it all to tape and just had a really amazing time out there."
It wasn't long before the band found their way back to their rock 'n' roll roots, jamming out on songs like "Honest Man," "The Way That He Sings," "Strangulation!," and "Phone Went West," and modernizing '60s psych-rock and blues-rock influences. "I had been really inspired by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the way they did their guitar solos, and could turn what one would consider a typical blues progression into this supremely psychedelic mess," James explains. "I think the greatest example is probably 'Your Blues' by The Beatles, that song is so heavy and so psychedelic and built around the most simple, basic blues progression."
At Dawn was met with critical acclaim and grew their fanbase, allowing them to move to a bigger label, ATO, for 2003's It Still Moves. Sixteen years after At Dawn's release My Morning Jacket are still going strong, having released their well-reviewed seventh album, The Waterfall, in 2015. And this past November James put out his equally well-received second solo album, the politically charged Eternally Even. James admits that all these years later he finds it strange to look back on At Dawn.
"It's really like seeing a ghost of yourself," he says, "because I see the person singing and it's definitely not me now and it definitely is what I was then. And it's almost like I want to move on from the music, because I honestly feel fortunate enough to still enjoy playing most of that music, but when I play it I am playing it as me now. So when I listen to the record it is me then and it's strange for me. It almost makes me feel like I have to keep reliving that part of my life and I want to keep moving forward.... A cool thing about recording—you can freeze these moments of yourself in time, it's like a little time machine, that there's this version of you that's forever frozen in time and will always stay that version of you. But then the you that's still living keeps going on and changing and growing, hopefully becoming better and better."
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online. The issue came out in late December 2016 and partially celebrated the 15th anniversary of Under the Radar's first issue, which came out in December 2001, and thus featured articles on albums that also came out in 2001.]
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