A year ago, Jim James of My Morning Jacket joined Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, and other stars to set never-released Bob Dylan lyrics from his 45-year-old "Basement Tapes" to music. James immediately noticed that his interpretation of a particular Dylan song didn't sound like anybody else's version. "Elvis would write bashing punk lyrics to the same set of music I wrote a slow, soft love song to," James, 37, recalls by phone from his Louisville, Kentucky, home. "It was funny to see how those same words affected us so differently. It made me question: 'What is a song?' "
In 17 years of playing with My Morning Jacket -- which will be playing June 5 at next weekend's Governors Ball Music Festival -- as well as putting out a solo album called "Regions of Light and Sound of God" in 2013, James tends to write his lush, heavily arranged rock songs on the happy side. "Wordless Chorus" is all smiling and pleasure, and "I'm Amazed" rhymes "soothing" and "amusing." But even James has his grumpy moments -- MMJ's new album, "The Waterfall," includes a breakup song, "Get the Point," and "Big Decisions" sharply wonders, "What do you want me to do? Make all the big decisions for you?"
"I do get angry sometimes. I definitely don't think that's my main tool in my toolbox, but it does come out a lot, and that's one of the reasons why music is so healthy," he says.
While making "The Waterfall" with his longtime bandmates in Stinson Beach, a beatific area surrounded by redwoods in Northern California, James' back went out. He turned out to have a herniated disc, requiring surgery, and he spent two months lying in bed. James can't recall whether the injury directly inspired the more pointed songs on "The Waterfall," but they have a pinched-nerve quality that's unusual in MMJ's catalog, supplementing more typical material like the soaring "Believe (Nobody Knows)." "I've had back problems for the last 10 years or so," James says. "The pain slowly went away, and we were out there at the studio, so it was like, 'Well, we're here, I might as well make the best of it.' So I tried to work through it. I think I didn't have that much of a choice."
The band had gone into the "Waterfall" sessions with no discernible vision or agenda -- James, guitarist Carl Broemel, bassist Tom Blankenship, keyboardist Bo Koster and drummer Patrick Hallahan worked up 24 songs for the album, then put out 10. "I had tons of ideas and emotions, so we really just set out to play some music and not be attached to the outcome," James says. "There wasn't a concept or an idea or anything we were chasing, and that was really freeing. I really enjoyed that process a lot more."
My Morning Jacket formed as a rickety-sounding band whose slow-paced harmonies recalled the otherworldly quality of The Band and Dusty Springfield's "Dusty in Memphis." As it grew in popularity, MMJ expanded its spacey sound, to the point that 2005's "Z" is full of electronic effects and complex keyboard arrangements. Like Michael Jackson or Brian Wilson, James is the type of songwriter who hears entire musical passages in his head, then translates them for the rest of the band to play.
And like Jackson and Wilson, James is also a workaholic. He trains himself to meditate daily. "I'm trying to get better about that. But it's just tough -- I get excited about things," he says. "It's hard for me to stop. You feel like every second you're not working, you lose precious time." On the other hand, due to the extra songs left behind after putting out "The Waterfall," MMJ hopes to release a follow-up album more quickly than usual.
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Meanwhile, James has returned to his latest hobby: trashing Nashville. He told Rolling Stone recently that "modern country is deliberately dumbing down the human race." In a 20-minute interview, he politely requests to correct the record. He was not trashing country music. He loves Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and experimental newcomers such as Sturgill Simpson. Mainstream country hits, he says, are victims of "over-commercialization." Says James: "I feel like country should be by the people, for the people, to liberate people. And I feel like modern country is made by computers, to hold people down. That makes me really sad. It's something that needs to be talked about."
Governors Ball go-to acts
Four headliners not to miss at Governors Ball:
Florence + the Machine (June 5) Florence Welch, the booming "Dog Days Are Over" singer, seems poised for a massive 2015, as her band's upcoming "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful" is due this week and she's headlining all the major festivals. Only health can slow her down: During Coachella in April, Welch jumped in the air and broke her foot.
Drake (June 5) The Canadian former star of "Degrassi: The Next Generation," who graduated to superstardom with 2009's "Best I Ever Had," has pioneered a new strain of confessional hip-hop. He sets murmuring, downbeat boasts to minimalist beats and stretches out the syllables until they turn into melodies: "Oh my God, oh my God, if I die, I'm a legend," he declares on the first track of this year's "If You're Reading This It's Too Late."
Bjork (June 6) No longer making herky-jerky pop music like "Army of Me" and "Human Behaviour," Iceland's biggest star went in a warmer, more symphonic direction with this year's excellent "Vulnicura." It's her first album since 2009's interactive, experimental "Biophilia," and with luck it will further distance Bjork from the infamous Academy Awards swan dress that received more attention than her performance.
The Black Keys (June 7) Every generation has at least one band that soups up blues into rock and roll, and after The Rolling Stones begat the Stooges who begat The White Stripes, The Black Keys have graduated from a raw, speedy guitar-and-drums duo to hit songwriters. In an era when almost no rock band gets to sell a lot of albums, the Keys have made a bid for longevity, with last year's No. 1 album "Turn Blue" and regular arena tours.
WHERE | WHEN June 5-7, Randalls Island Park, Manhattan