My Morning Jacket: Southern Ghost Voices

So it’s more of the moment, rather than having a plan of attack?

CB: We’re recording everything but sometimes you’re like, “Oh, we just played and I think that might be the record.” It’s not just, “Oh, we’re gonna make the record now.” It’s a slightly different state of mind.

JJ: It’s a different process. It took us a little while to get used to it, ‘cause you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on!” Even if it’s literally the first time we’ve all played it together, everyone’s analyzing it – this is good, this is bad, you know, the whole thing. But it’s kinda cool because you’re already in the process of trying to make it realized. Some people say don’t ever make a demo of a song that’s too fleshed out – because you’ll fall in love with that demo. You’ll put a lot of the song’s original spiritual intent – too much of it – into it, so by the time you make the real recording, you’ve wasted a lot of that early energy. It’s already gone on this demo somewhere.

This time, I tried to make really loose demos, and it’s been a fun way of trying to work them out. I’d always tried to make fairly explained demos, so they knew what I was talking about. A lot of songs are so simple, but there’s this other thing going on on top of it. If it’s not there I’m just like, “Well, it’s just a C chord over and over and over again… You’re gonna love it, it’s going to be great.” But you don’t really know until the thing is on top of it.

What was the songwriting process like?

JJ: It just kind of comes in waves, that’s the way my brain works. I work in a three-part phase, where something has to come to me in a very raw, rough form, like a melody and a drum beat. Then I’ll take some time at home and sit with it and work with it, and try to make it a more realized thing. The third step is to show it to the guys and see what they think about it, throw our input on it, and turn it into what it becomes for us. It’s weird. Unless something comes, I don’t have a reason to sit down and work, or sit down at a desk with a guitar and start strumming to see what happens.

So you’re not a Tom T. Hall, two songs before you can go play golf, crank-em-out sort of guy?

JJ: I don’t know…We were at the Turnip Truck today, and this woman was trying to tell us about different kinds of fish oil supplements and stuff like that. As we were leaving to go, she had four different varieties on the table, talking about each one. I was like, “What’s best for this? Some are better for your brain, some are better for your heart, which one has everything in it?” She said, “Just trust your intuition. Your intuition is gonna tell you which one you want.” And it did – my intuition kept saying “the pink bottle, the pink bottle.”

Songwriting is a very similar process. It’s all about intuition – this thing pops into your head for a reason and it’s up to you to follow it. It’s like there’s a spirit, or intuitive network, that comes through all of us, but most people don’t take the time to think about it or remember it. These little things pop into our heads – it’s just a process of intuition. The initial thought comes in a baby state, and you work on that some more.

We’re working on a song in the studio right now trying to finish it – just a tiny example – and there’s this riff that keeps popping in my head every time I hear the chorus that I never heard before. So it’s my job once we to get to a point, to say, “Oh, I’ve got this thing I need to track down, I gotta follow.” Those little ghost voices that pop in your head. They’re often triggered by little things. Sometimes they’re not triggered by anything.

Do you ever watch Mad Men? There’s an episode where, the Kinsey guy with the beard, who looks like Orson Welles… there’s a night where he’s up drinking, working on this campaign, trying to get the perfect slogan. He gets pretty drunk and he’s eating, trying to figure something out. And he gets the inspiration , it pops into his head … it’s his intuition that tells him to do something. And he’s all excited and runs back in the office and falls asleep on the couch, drunk, without having written down his idea. When he wakes up the next morning it’s gone and he’s totally f**ked, ‘cause he totally forgot it.

That’s a good example about how the ghost voice comes to your head and you have to remember it, write it down, or record it, or it’s just gone. The advent of cell phone recorders has been huge for me, ‘cause you’ve always got it. If I’m in the bathroom at a restaurant and an idea pops into my head – bang – and it’s saved. It’s pretty great.

Do you think that it’s a more collaborative record? Not that you weren’t making collaborative records before, but do you think that this time there were more shared brain waves?

JJ: I think we’ve been on a shared brain wave path for a while. It’s a looser path. Z was looser than Evil Urges. On Evil Urges, we deliberately tried to get it as exact as we could – which we had never done – but I think that for us, that was kind of a stressful process that we didn’t end up enjoying, and didn’t want to replicate. This process has been a lot more free. We found an organic space that was kind of our own – it wasn’t a normal studio – to really grow and make the record in, and explore by ourselves.

CB: We got our hands dirtier. There’s nobody there telling you, “The drums always sound good over there, guitar always sounds good over here.”

Bo Koster [keyboard]: If someone was confused or something wasn’t working, we helped each other figure the puzzle out. If there was a problem, a puzzle that couldn’t be solved, it was a collaborative problem-solving sort of thing. Whereas before we had two, three months to figure it out. We could take it home, figure it out on our own, or talk with somebody and be like, “What do you think I should do there?” But here, every time we played a song we’d all go back and talk with Tucker [Martine, producer] and Kev [Ratterman, engineer]. It was more collaborative in that way.

JJ: Sometimes the song is literally nothing but a drum beat and a bass line and a keyboard part, so there’s not much going on. So what is going on has to be happening, you know what I mean?

PH: Everybody in the band has really learned to let each other be who or what they’re going to be, instead of…

BK: …Trying to push things.

PH: Over time, spending so many minutes in small spaces together, we really figured out how to work with each other.

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