NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James thinks music is a spiritual force that can unite humanity.
He's taking that message -- and his new solo album "Regions of Light and Sound of God" -- to the South By Southwest Music Festival this week.
"I feel like society likes to highlight our differences so much, to make us feel so isolated and so separated and so different," James said. "Music does that a lot, too. The walls are put up so big. What could a country music fan possibly have in common with a hip-hop fan? I feel if you take everything down to the core, it's the same in a beautiful way. It's all the same."
There's no better example of that sort of spiritual communalism than SXSW where musicians and artists of all stripes gather to find some kind of connection. James, the singer-songwriter who normally heads up the rock 'n' roll band My Morning Jacket, launched a five-set examination of higher powers Wednesday in Austin, Texas, and will wrap things up Friday when he appears at the free outdoor show at Auditorium Shores, one of the week's highlights. And in April he'll start an extensive tour to support "Regions of Light," which came out last month.
James often thinks about the connections between people and the world around us -- both on the physical plane and beyond it. His spiritual explorations have driven some of My Morning Jacket's best music, but he takes it to a different level on his first solo album.
The 34-year-old began the album as several threads came together in his life. First, he built a quality professional studio in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. And inspired by a gift from a friend, he'd started writing music to accompany the 1929 wordless graphic novel "God's Man," told through a series of wood engravings by American artist Lynd Ward.
A short time later he fell off the stage during a dark moment at a 2008 performance and his life took a strange turn during his recovery.
"It was horrible," James said. "It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It was a nightmare and it definitely sent me to a really bad place. It kind of paralleled this book, 'God's Man,' I was reading. I felt like I was part of the book or sucked into the book or something for a while. Also, good happened because I was brought out of that and came out of that and sort of good stuff happened. And that sort of happened in the book, too. It was definitely a major event for me. It definitely shaped the album."
James played most of the instruments on "Regions of Light" and broadens his already wide-ranging sound. He was trying to get the sounds that resonate in his head as he ponders deep questions on tape so the listener could join in.
"People have said many times 'God is love,' and I feel like an extension of that is love to mean spiritual love, physical love, mental love, the act of creation," James said. "I think anybody who loves what they do loves that point in time when you get lost and you're gone and you're not there anymore. You're working so hard on something you're writing. Or if you're a basketball player you're playing the game or if you're a musician you're playing a concert and you're kind of lost in space and time and you're not thinking about all the mundane (expletive) that we think about. To me that's like the closest glimpse at God."