As ads go, The North Face’s new commercial, which debuted on television a few days ago on Sunday Night Football, is a pretty good one. There’s no hard sell, just an inspiring montage of people doing fun stuff outdoors. Outside fans will likely recognize some familiar faces—there’s filmmaker and alpinist Renan Ozturk rowing a raft, endurance runner Dean Karnazes running on what looks like the moon, and mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill smiling.
It’s all part of the The North Face’s largest ad campaign to date (If you want more details about the effort, the New York Times ran a lengthy piece about it in its media section a few weeks ago, when the spot first debuted on You Tube.) While it’s impressive to see The North Face step up their game and reach a larger audience, what really got me was the music.
The company commissioned My Morning Jacket to record a version of Woody Guthrie’s classic folk song, “This Land Is Your Land.” The full version of the song can be downloaded from iTunes for $1.29, with all proceeds (except Apple’s cut) going to 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, a government-funded initiative designed to engage veterans and young people to help restore and preserve public land. (The North Face also donated $250,000 to the program.)
As a My Morning Jacket fan who also happens to regularly review The North Face gear for a living, I was naturally curious about how this collaboration came about. Here, MMJ frontman Jim James talks about his visit to the Guthrie archives, the importance of questioning authority, and getting outside to slow down your molecules.
OUTSIDE: How did the project come about?
JAMES: The North Face reached out to us and sent us some footage, the early stuff they’d been shooting. A lot of the footage was really beautiful, and we talked about all the good the 21st Century Conservation Corps was doing. It just all came together.
And they knew you were already a Woody Guthrie fan.
Yeah. I did a record called New Multitudes about four or five years ago. We got to go to the Guthrie archives and write new music to unreleased lyrics. He’s got tons and tons and tons of lyrics that he wrote that he never put music to. That got me personally even more connected to him and his music, and I got to meet his daughter, Nora, who runs the archives.
Is there a more American anthem than "This Land is Your Land?"
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s one of those songs that you almost take for granted. It’s so giant, you almost don’t think of it as a song. It was so cool to see it on the page, that this guy had just sat there and written them down. Something about that just really jumped out at me.
There are a lot of different versions of the song. Listening to it, I noticed that you guys decided to record the original lyrics. Was that intentional?
Yeah. Growing up, I don’t think I even knew what all the lyrics were. I had a moment at the Guthrie archives in Tulsa. They had the original hand-written lyrics on display and the song playing, and I was really moved.
I don’t think I ever realized how defiant some of the verses in the song are—essentially encouraging people to trespass and question authority.
Everything he’s talking about needs to be questioned, and some of those things are controversial. There’s such a wide range of what "this land" really is. It’s obviously the actual land, the Earth, but it’s also the government, which you have to question and get mad about and talk about and wonder how is it possible that we live on the quote-unquote greatest country on Earth and people are not being take care of on a basic level. People deserve health care, for example. Everything’s not all sugar-coated, and I think Guthrie talked about some of these issues in such an eloquent and timeless way. And that’s the beautiful thing about this song. The first time you hear it in a casual way, it’s like a dream, a magic spell, but the way that he weaves in that questioning is just as powerful.
That’s one of the great things about the song, how it works on multiple levels. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I find it really inspiring.
Yeah, just the idea of someone sitting there on the couch seeing this commercial and hopefully being moved by it to get out. No matter where you live, you can walk out your front door and experience nature. There’s so much beauty in the world to see. I love that idea, especially nowadays, because we’re so flooded with technology, and younger people don’t even know what the world is like without the internet. It’s almost like you’re born with a cellphone in your hand. It’s scary to me. We’re at a crucial turning point where hopefully we can keep reminding each other that technology is a tool and we don’t have to drown in it.
I know you’re a very spiritual person. Is spending time outdoors a big part of that for you?
Definitely. I feel like I’d lose my mind if I didn’t get to spend a lot of time outside. It’s a big thing for me, it's where I go to move thoughts and clear my mind and get it right.
Same thing with the band?
Yeah, that’s one of the fun things about being on tour. Getting to go all these cool places, and finding the best places to go for a walk or hike.
Did any of the images from the commercial inspire you to start rock-climbing or skiing?
There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t tried, and I’m pretty open to things, but I just don’t have that kind of thrill-seeking personality. I think I get enough thrills on the road, performing and traveling. For me, it’s a calming thing. My life is so fast and out of my control sometimes that I really need to get into nature to find my center again, to slow the movement of all my molecules back to the rhythm of nature.