Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
Jim James has been a serious reader his entire life, devouring writers like Haruki Murakami and Dave Eggers. But it’s only now, on his new solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God, that the My Morning Jacket frontman has drawn specific inspiration from one of these pieces of literature. The album, which came out in February via ATO, began as the score to a potential film version of Lynd Ward’s 1929 visual novel God’s Man. The wordless book is something like an early graphic novel, offering an aesthetic narrative that drew James in immediately. That film score somehow became a collection of songs, as the musician became more fully immersed in the story, although the eventual album is not exactly a linear interpretation of Ward’s book.
For James, who released numerous albums with MMJ as well as prior solo discs and a collaboration with his supergroup Monsters of Folk, this process was the first time that one of his literary experiences transitioned itself blatantly into his songwriting. However, fans of James’ work know that the musician has a way with words, crafting songs with a poetic resonance throughout his sometimes strange lyrics. On MMJ’s most recent albums Evil Urges and Circuital, the songwriter diffused his literary inspirations through thick filters, but now it’s much more purposeful. James spoke with us about his experience with reading throughout his life and why God’s Man was meaningful enough to inspire an entire album.
What was your initial experience with books when you were young?
We always read a lot around the house. My mom read to me a whole lot. All the classic stuff like Maurice Sendak and Ferdinand the Bull, all those classic kids books that most kids have read. We went to the library all the time and checked out tons of books every week, so I definitely read a lot.
Once you became an adult what sort of books were you most interested in?
I’ve always been a fan of the surreal. You go through phases in grade school when you first learn how to read, and then as you get older they make you read all the classics like The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. I remember the first books that I thought were cool were Roald Dahl books, like James and the Giant Peach and stuff like that. I’ve always been into magic and things that were strange or bizarre, and Roald Dahl is pretty bizarre.
When you started writing music did you find that the stuff you would read would ever make its way into your songwriting?
Definitely. I’ve been really heavily into some people like Haruki Murakami, who is a super surrealist. A lot of ideas or just the way people phrase words together and phrase or string ideas together. Reading Murakami for me was a big revelation in the way I wanted to use words. The way he uses words – you’ll read something that’s so bizarre – you have a hard time understanding it almost. You have to read it two or three times. So reading people like him, I’ve always loved making, lyrically, kind of bizarre word puzzles. Where I’m building a puzzle or image out of words that a person who heard this song and immediately read the lyrics wouldn’t really understand what it meant. But I thought it was beautiful in an abstract way.
Was there one particular Murakami book that you really got into?
That’s the great thing about his stuff – it’s all so fucking crazy. The characters are usually Japanese males in their 20s and 30s, so as I’ve been in my 20s and 30s I’ve identified with a lot of his characters. I’ll read the books back to back to back, so it’s almost like you’re reading one giant book. But Kafka on the Shore is probably my favorite, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and the newest one, IQ84. When I read them I’ll go in a big spurt and read four or five of his books back-to-back, and just get lost in several of his books.
Have you ever taken a line or word choice from one of the books and put it into one of your songs?
No, I’ve never done that exactly. There might’ve been a title or something here or there, like sometimes I really love it if there’s two or three words that go together in some strange way, that sound beautiful to my brain, that will inspire something. But I’ve never written a song or a story based literally on a thing that I’ve read. Except I guess this Gods’ Man thing. When I saw it, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. When you look at the book, it’s kind of like watching a movie because there are no words and the pictures are so beautiful. It sucked me in and I started scoring it, hoping that it’ll become a film at some point.
How did you come across the book?
My friend Gary Burden gave it to me when we were doing the artwork together for the album two My Morning Jacket records ago. He gave it to me as a gift. And I really loved it, got real turned on by it and started writing music for it. We started talking about trying to make a film out of the book because he’s always wanted to make a film from the book. I liked it and started writing music, and he invited me to make music for a film he was hoping to make at some point.
How did that score transition into your new solo record?
Musically I’m looking at this book and thinking of different scenes and musical ideas are coming, which I’m recording and messing with. Then also lyrical ideas start to come, which are based on thoughts I’m having or based on situations I’m experiencing in the real world. But some of those situations or thoughts or questions would be similar to scenes that were happening in the book. So it started off as these musical themes to different parts of the book, but then lyrically things are just kind of popping out of my mind. It’s just all boiling into one thing.
Historically through your songwriting career, have you been interested in telling these sorts of stories?
Some songs are stories. There are certain concept records like The Who’s Tommy, and storytellers like John Prine—people that want to tell you a story so you understand it. It starts at point A and ends at point B. I’ve been part of a more abstract school of thought where I’m saying something but I’m not saying it in a linear way. I’m saying it in a different way that isn’t always a story. So I wouldn’t consider myself a storyteller in a narrative, linear way. I like to tell stories more in a super chopped up, Pulp Fiction sort of way.
If someone is a huge Jim James or MMJ fan, is there one book that you’d recommend they read?
Right now it would be Gods’ Man, because I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever seen. Everybody I’ve shown Gods’ Man to, it doesn’t matter how old they are or what walk of life they come from—they’re blown away. [But] there’s so many great books. I always try to turn people on to Wendell Berry, who’s maybe Kentucky’s most celebrated writer. His books will definitely change your life.