Interview: Songwriter, DJ + Producer Jim-E Stack

The recording artist shares how music brought him happiness and a body of work to form a solo album

Jim-E Stack (aka James Harmon Stack) feels fortunate to exist away from the music industry’s brightest spotlight despite the fact that he’s worked on music with Caroline Polachek, Bon Iver, Dominic Fike, Perfume Genius, Rostam, Charli XCX and others, all while achieving solo success. Rather, he’s driven by the feeling of a song. “I’m a music-maker,” Stack tells us, ahead of the release of his new album Ephemera—out 30 October. “I fit into the creation of music in a variety of different ways: one of which is making my solo music, one of which is producing music for other people and another is just helping people at songwriting stuff. I see myself honestly as a person who likes making music in any capacity in which I’m welcome, with other people.”

Collaboration, Stack explains, is a vital component of his genre-spanning musical endeavors. This is evident on Ephemera, which is comprised of eight indie-pop tracks with at least seven collaborators—and that’s just those who have made vocal contributions. “[Collaboration] is an absolute necessity to how I make music,” Stack tells us. From Kacy Hill to Bon Iver, Empress Of and Ant Clemons, the album’s contributors work within several genres, but each fit seamlessly within a Stack-produced track. “The pulling together of these tracks, the process of assembling the album, though, is something that could only happen on my terms and in my own space. Working in isolation is equally vital for me.”

Opposite ends of the social spectrum lend different elements to Stack’s work, and his new album balances these two poles. In many ways, the album is also a metaphorical graduation for Stack. While previous releases focused on his innate ability to produce something entirely on his own, Ephemera displays a newfound interest in inviting others in. “Ephemera is really all three of those roles coming together, with the exception being that I’m exclusively in control of everything and how it comes together,” Stack says. “It’s music I want to hear, honestly.”

Ephemera also marks the reintroduction of live elements into Stack’s solo music. A student in jazz band, an eventual garage rocker, and then a DJ before venturing into producing electronic music, he’s long distanced himself from live instrumentation as he honed his musical voice. “I really wanted to be in control of my musical voice and that meant making music in isolation, exclusively on my computer. That yielded a certain kind of sound, something that is, not in a bad way, a little more stiff, a little more clean, and kind of precise. As I got older, I started appreciating music outside the electronic space. I found myself drawn to music that did incorporate more live shit. Maybe that’s because that’s ultimately where I come from, but if I think of moments in the studio that really excite me, it’s rarely, if ever, when someone plays a super-sick beat or I program some super-sick drums. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff; it absolutely hypes me up. But I so often feel like it’s when I’m jamming with others that are real live musicians, that’s when I’m really in awe.”

Ephemera boasts plenty of sonic elements born from these moments. It helps that each track possesses a sense of positivity too—it’s altogether steeped in optimism. The opener—made with Empress Of (aka Lorely Rodriguez)—”Note To Self,” acts as a reminder to remain tough. “Jeanie,” with Bon Iver, serves as a warning not to get overwhelmed. “Sweet Summer Sweat,” featuring Dijon, translates the feeling of the season into sonic nostalgia. “Can We” features infectious piano, roaring synth and drum crescendos.

“Collaboration is where I feel like I derive so much of the life and energy for music, or music as a life practice more so than just vocation,” Stack explains. “When music took over my life, in the best ways, I feel like it was a result of opening myself up to collaboration and allowing music to be the life I live. It’s not just going into the studio from nine to five and working with random people. It’s almost as much a social thing as it is a thing I am fortunate enough to have as a job. The people I make music with are my friends and my friends are the people that I make music with. That lets it be something that’s true and pure.”

Stack recalls a time in his career when he nearly quit; when music became a mundane means for income. But, he says, it was friendship and the incredible music he could make with someone else when they shared an authentic connection, that brought him back. “In 2014, I was just miserable making music because everything I’d been doing was in pursuit of being a solo electronic producer,” he tells us. “I do remember pretty distinctly just being in my little world in New York and hitting up another friend who made music and saying, ‘Let’s do something together.’ We fucked around on something one day and it was just fun. We got lunch and hung out and it was something that gave me energy rather than something that drained me. I came away from it thinking, ‘That was a fun day with my friend.’ I started doing that more frequently, making music as a means of making friends. It reinvigorated my life and I was happy again.”

As the album title implies, each track comes with its own memories; particularly, fond moments. Together, they’re somewhat a summary of Stack’s last few years—nights in the studios with friends and the moments in-between sessions that inform them. “Over the past couple of years of my life I’ve been coming into myself more. We all have our struggles, and I’m certainly no exception, but I’m in a place where I’m a bit more confident and secure and grateful for what I have and the people in my life. And because of that, nothing on the album is really sad sounding. I think, if anything, it’s an amalgamation of gratitude, optimism and peace—maybe even inner peace,” Stack says. “I don’t think I’m some super-in-demand producer or artist or that I have people who are like, ‘We need a new album from you.’ It’s just me making music for me and that makes it very personal.”

Images courtesy of Clare Gillen / AWAL