Whether or not you’ve realize it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Jim-E Stack before.
He’s not a household name (yet), but he’s worked with a bunch of them: Diplo, Charli XCX, Haim, and Joji, to name a few. Those collaborations and others have led to Ephemera, the producer’s new album that he tells Uproxx mostly originated from sessions for other artists. When those tracks weren’t quite right for one reason or another, he re-worked them for his own purposes and emerged with a brilliant collection that’s packed with guests: Ephemera has features from Bon Iver, Empress Of, Octavian, Kacy Hill, and others.
Before Stack’s contacts list was so fleshed out, he got his musical start on the drums as a San Francisco pre-teen. After joining his high school’s jazz band, surrounded by fellow music enthusiasts, his tastes expanded until he got into hip-hop production, making beats on a friend’s computer after school. After getting a better feel for Ableton, Stack started to lean more towards dance music and progressed to his current ability level. Between then and now, Stack has spent time in New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, released some solo material (like his 2014 album Tell Me I Belong), and built his reputation and list of credits to the point where he’s been a sought-after collaborator for the past few years.
Now, Stack could name-drop better than most people in music, but he’s not about that. While his music isn’t shy or reserved, it comes from a place of understanding that he’s there to help, saying, “When I’m working on a song for an artist and their project, the only kind of mindset I’m in is, ‘Am I supporting this person’s vision and helping them realize it?'”
This time, though, it’s about him, and he’s more than capable of realizing visions of his own. We got on the phone with Stack ahead of the project’s release and chatted about how writing for himself is different than writing for others, finding different sources of inspiration during the pandemic, and his thoughts on NBA rappers.
In recent years, you’ve worked with a lot of other artists on their songs, but you do the opposite on this new album where you have them join you on your tracks. Do you have a different mindset when you’re working on a song that has your name on it as opposed to one with somebody else’?
It is, but that mindset doesn’t really set in until a bit later in the process. With a lot of these songs — not all of them, but I would say half of them — they actually came out of working on stuff for that artist. So, the Bon Iver one, for example, that was just one of 20 songs we made in August of 2017, working on stuff for him. ‘Jamie’ was just one that didn’t really make sense for his album but that we always really loved, and I especially loved, so I just kind of kept fucking with it. It got to a point where it felt more like a Jim-E Stack song and production than it did just a Bon Iver song.
When I’m working on my own music, it’s completely self-indulgent and I’m just making stuff I want to listen to. Whether I’m just listening to it off of my phone or it’s out on Apple Music and Spotify for everyone to hear, it’s just for me. When I’m working on a song for an artist and their project, the only kind of mindset I’m in is, “Am I supporting this person’s vision and helping them realize it?” I’m just there in a supportive role, kind of like the opposite of a self-indulgent role.
As you said, most of these songs originated in various environments, so is there a sort of overarching theme or aesthetic to them or do they all feel more like their own thing to you?
Generally speaking on the album, I would say it feels just a little more uplifting and emotive. It just feels like more kind of positive music. Everything is… not everything, but most everything is in a major key. And I think that wasn’t a conscious decision while I’m making the music nor was it necessarily a conscious decision in selecting the songs for an album. But I think all these songs, all these little ideas that had been laying around, I think they all resonated with me because they had a kind of more uplifting tone to them.
I think that’s just kind of reflective of the past two or three years of my life, which is when they all came from, which has just been one of just getting a little older and just growing into myself a little more and just kind of experiencing a little more kind of gratitude for the life and everything I have, rather than a yearning for what I don’t have.
Speaking of how you’ve been feeling, I was reading an interview that you did recently and you said that during the pandemic, you’ve been feeling kind of up and down creatively. What sort of impact has this whole thing had on you getting this album done and making music in general?
There’s the issue of just not being able to collaborate with people as freely. I think it’s definitely been something I’ve had to find my way to work around, because it’s not like people don’t want to work together now, but it’s not as free-flowing and it’s a bit more hesitant. A lot of my music is born out of like pretty informal circumstances, not super planned out, like, ‘I’m going to meet this person and we’re going to work at this studio on this.’ It just naturally is a bit harder with social distancing concerns.
In the last couple of months, I’m good. My mood went a little more stable, but the toughest thing for me is… I don’t have many like recent life experiences to draw upon for inspiration, you know? It’s not like everything I do is a literal translation of how I was feeling on this day on this day. It’s more stuff like, there was some kind of mood in the bar. I was out with friends last weekend and then in the Uber home, I heard this song, and those are the kinds of feelings that I would put into a song.
I don’t know what that is now. Like, “Oh, wow: I had a great walk and watched a documentary,” you know what I mean? You’d like to just do something that feels like it’s like reflective of a life lived or something when you’re not really living life. You’re just kind of like getting through each day, but I guess I’ve just gotten a bit more used to it. I don’t know, it’s not easy.
I was going to ask how you’d handle working on a full album with an artist like Aaron Dessner did with Taylor Swift, but then I realized that you basically did that with Kacy Hill on her album, as you co-wrote and/or co-produced most of those tracks. How does being a full partner like that compare to working on a track or two for an artist or a project?
That’s the only album where I’ve done that, and I think you just develop a certain kind of relationship to the music. As a whole, I think there’s something really fun about that. You’re just invested in it as a whole. I worked on all of that with my really good friend BJ Burton, who is amazing in his own right.
The really cool thing about that and working on that as a group was being able to give input on stuff or help shape stuff, even when it’s not the track you’re producing. The group effort thing is cool to me, being able to contribute to a song without having to like take ownership of producing a song like that. The environment is like a fun one. It’s not like super task-oriented and that’s often the way that like producing one song for someone can be.
We worked on a lot of that in Minneapolis, and it was just waking up at our hotel, going to BJ’s studio and just basically fucking around and making music and working on this until we got bored with it, then pivoting to another song and then grilling burgers and hot dogs in the backyard and then, you know, whatever. It’s just very free. The group effort is just a really fun thing to be a part of. I think it’s something very special that cannot in any capacity be replicated when you’re doing just one song for someone.
What sounds like it may have been a dissimilar process to that was the work you did on Charlie XCX’s quarantine album [How I’m Feeling Now]. She went about that process in a pretty transparent, fast, and real-time sort of way that was pretty much unheard of before. What was it like to work on something that way? Do you have any takeaways from that experience that could inform how you work going forward?
Coincidentally, BJ was working on the project stuff with Charlie, and he was the one who was just kind of like pulling stuff together as a whole. Everything being done in this super remote fashion, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think like for me personally, you’re just like a little more detached, you know? That’s not something I would ever opt for. I like being in the same space and hanging out. That to me is what’s really amazing about making music together and collaborating. So not having that be able to be a part of working on her stuff was definitely a little different for me. But by no means do I think her work suffered as a result of that, because she’s just so good. She has such a strong vision for what she wants to do.
You got your start in production by making hip-hop beats in high school. You’ve mostly worked with singers, but over the past a year or so, you’ve had tracks that people like Octavian and Joji and Dominic Fike. Do you have any interest to get more into working with rappers and making hip-hop?
I do, but I think like at the same time, I know my strengths and weaknesses with that. There isn’t a part of me that wants to specialize in programming, like making the best, most banging, bounciest drums like Murda Beatz or someone like that. I’m not trying to get into hip-hop trying to emulate what some of these incredible producers already do. I think I am very much interested in doing more rap and hip-hop stuff, but it needs to be right. Like, if Drake or someone likes what I do, but wants a super hip-hop beat out of me, there’s no way it’s going to be as good as Murda Beatz or whatever.
I’d have to cross paths with the artist where they want to do something that’s outside of that box, or else it’s like, “You don’t need to come to me. There’s a million other producers who are better than me at like making more straightforward rap stuff.” I’d be better like working on something like Tyler The Creator’s Igor that [Travis Scott’s] Astroworld, you know?
I saw a video of you recently opening up some packs of basketball cards. Of all the NBA players who rap, who is your favorite and/or which one would you most like to work with?
Probably Damian Lillard, because he’s from the Bay Area and he’s just fucking sick. He’s one of my favorite players.
Yeah, exactly. I’d just like to talk with him. Not that I know him, but as a human being, I’m just down with him. He can hit me up anytime.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.