Catching Up With… Jason Isbell

Music Features Jason Isbell

Since splitting ways with the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, Jason Isbell has created a number of critically-acclaimed albums and been sought-after for his guitar skills. We caught up with Isbell to discuss his new record as part of the band Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Here We Rest, the songwriting process, and how Muscle Shoals has become a hotbed of creative talent.

Paste: Where are you right now?
Jason Isbell: I’m at home. I’ve got about another week-and-a-half or so before we go back on the road. We just got back from South By a little bit ago, so we’re trying to rest up and recuperate a little bit before we go out on the long tour.

Paste: How long’s the tour?
Isbell: It’ll be two-and-a-half months or so. We’ll be home for a little while and then back out. It’ll be a long one; it’ll be heavy.

Paste: The press release for Here We Rest mentioned you’re pretty big on staying at home these days in northern Alabama, so how do you feel about going on the road?
Isbell: I still enjoy it. There are a lot of things you have to put on hold and a lot of things you have to do to prepare for something like that, and I’m trying to get myself in better shape just so I’m not in pain for the last month-and-a-half of the trip. But I still enjoy it; it’s just one of those things. You have to do it, so you might as well not sit around and dread it because if you want to have any kind of success, you’re gonna have to get out and sell records yourself these days.

Paste: What are some things you dislike about touring?
Isbell: It’s hard to eat healthy, that’s for sure. When you’re in cities, it’s easy to get fresh fruit or something like that, but when you’re out in the Midwest or you’re touring the south and you’re going from town and town and there’s nothing in between, it’s hard to find something to eat.

I don’t like, honestly, all the time spent riding in a vehicle. I feel like it’s really dangerous. I don’t wanna say it makes me nervous because I kind of got over that in the early days, but it’s already in the back of my mind—how statistically dangerous it is for six guys to be riding in a van seven or eight hours a day for months at a time. It scares me a little bit.

Paste: Your press release also mentioned that people in Alabama are going through some pretty tough times right now. Can you expand on that?
Isbell: Yeah. Financially, it’s hard just about everywhere compared to how it’s been in the past decades. A lot of funding’s getting cut from schools, which are prorated. I read today the community college had to cut out all their athletic programs because of a lack of funding; a lot of people are losing their jobs or having trouble finding some source of medical care. It’s really depressing for a lot of people. I see a lot of people who are between jobs who are actually hard-working folks, and I see a lot of people who are just trying their best to make ends meet. I think just that particular fact really seeps into the consciousness and culture of a place and makes people more combative towards each other.

Paste: Did all that influence the record?
Isbell: Yeah, I think so.

Paste: The song about the veteran who came home from the war [“Tour of Duty”]: is that based on a real-life account or a general experience?
Isbell: It’s based on a couple different people I know who came home from what they believed would be the last time, but it’s also a little bit allegorical because I’m sort of talking about myself, talking about my experience coming home from tour, coming home from a long time away. So it’s not just about a war veteran, but that’s the genesis of it.

Paste: How many stories on the record were inspired by other people—more than normal?
Isbell: Let me think… Yeah, probably more than normal, I would say. More than the last two records; a lot of what was on the last two records was personally inspired.

And there were a few songs that were a little bit more socially conscious on a person-to-person level on the songs on this album. But that came from spending as much time as I did at home. I was home last year more than I’ve been at all in nearly a decade. So I spent a lot of the time on the ground, so to speak, talking to people who aren’t musicians and aren’t concert promoters or managers or whatever. I spent more time talking to people who are working-class, nine-to-five manual labor kind of folks.

And I think that really helped me to stay in touch with what most people are concerned with. I was inspired more by people who don’t do what I do, don’t live in the world I live in.

Paste: Random question: Who does the background vocals on “Heart On A String”?
Isbell: That’s Abby Owens; she’s in Athens, Georgia now. She’s a really good singer and good songwriter, too. She’s got some stuff out there; I produced an EP from her last year.

Paste: Going off musicians appearing on other musicians’ work. It seems like everywhere we look, you’re credited with a guitar part on some song. You’re on Middle Brother’s record, you were on Letterman with Justin Townes Earle, so what is it about your guitar, specifically, that so many musicians find appealing?
Isbell: I think I’m really good at taking directions. I’ve always felt I’m better at either calling the shots like I do with my band or at least having veto power over what happens creatively, or being a cog in the wheel and listening to someone else’s vision and doing what they tell me to do.

Anything in between is pretty difficult. Any time I try to share a vision with somebody, it can be hard unless it’s the right person, but I’m really good at taking direction in a studio.

And I can play a lot of different styles of music. I write a lot of different styles, and growing up, I was your standard guitar nerd. Eight hours a day practicing guitar in every different style. I would turn the radio on and just play, trying to learn a song in the three-and-a-half minutes it took for it to play, and then change the station to something totally different for a couple hours. I completely geeked out on guitar.

Paste: Do you remember the first song you ever learned fully on guitar?
Isbell: Oh yeah, it was “Simple Man” by Lynard Skynard. Well, it was the first rock ‘n’ roll song. I’m sure I learned some old Grandpa Jones and The Carter Family and stuff like that from my grandfather. I just played rhythm guitar because he would play fiddle or banjo or mandolin or something, so I played guitar when I was seven or eight years old. I was about eight or nine, and my uncle gave me an electric guitar and showed me how to play “Simple Man.”

Paste: Was your uncle the one who really got you into guitar?
Isbell: Yeah, he and my grandfather. When I was a kid, we started out living in a trailer in my grandparents’ yard. They were right next to the high school, so even after we moved, when I would go to school, I would stay with them before and after school and spend the summers with them. We didn’t really do day-care or anything like that; we were way out in the country.

Rather than just sit around and watch TV or something, my granddad would play music initially for me, and then with me when I got old enough to hold something.

Paste: Where do you find most of your inspiration?
Isbell: That’s really the easy part. The motivation to turn it into material can be difficult. But the inspiration is all over the place. If you just listen to people or listen to what’s going on in your own life, just pay attention to the things around you. Everything is inspiration to me. Every conversation I have, there’s something in there that I can take away. And then I try to remember as much as that as possible, especially as I’m about to start the process of recording and start digging around through songs to find what would be appropriate for a project, and I’m writing other songs for that project.

But yeah, the inspiration—anybody who says they can’t find inspiration to write is full of shit. It’s true: look at the world, man, look at what’s going on. If you can’t write about anything else, write about war. There’s always a war going on and there’s always a different way to look at it.

But the motivation: I believe some people can’t find the motivation. But I can’t believe people can’t find something that inspires them to create.

Paste: How do you motivate yourself?
Isbell: Deadlines. [laughs] Deadlines are very motivational.

Paste: If you didn’t have a deadline, how would you motivate yourself?
Isbell: Oh Lord, I couldn’t imagine not having a deadline.

A lot of songs just come out and you get to a certain point where you realize “I have this in my head, I can’t let it get away. I need to put it down” because if I roll over or go back to sleep or go about my business, my head fills up with things and it’s gonna go away.

I usually do my best writing when I wake up, when I haven’t really started processing what I’ve needed to do or focus on or worry about doing, when my mind is still kind of clear.

Paste: Do you have a set writing routine or do you just do it when you feel like it?
Isbell: Yeah, I don’t have a routine. When it’s getting close to record time, I’ll probably write everyday. If we’re a month or two from going into the studio, I’ll try to write every day.

But it’s hard when I force it. I still get good songs that way, but it’s usually better when I just let it happen and just pay a lot of attention to what’s going on around me and play the guitar and piano a lot and see what happens. That’s usually the most quality material, I think.

Paste: How does a song normally start for you?
Isbell: It’s different. Sometimes I’ll sing a chorus, something that’s really catchy. Like “Codeine” off the new record, the chorus came to me first. I was repeating that chorus over and over and over in my head, with the chords and melodies. Pretty much the full instrumentation and arrangement of it.

That one just kind of popped out. It didn’t really take any longer to write it than it took to write it down.

“Just Blues” was a song like that from my first record. That one I just wrote in literally the time it took to write it on a piece of paper.

But sometimes, it’ll come with a guitar riff or a chord progression. It’s really different for me every time. Any way I can get it, I’ll take.

Paste: How much editing would you say goes into an average song before you find the right combination of words?
Isbell: I don’t know how to quantify that, exactly. I don’t do as much as some people, but I definitely edit every song, right up to the point where I’m singing it in the studio. And sometimes even after that, after the records out, when I’m on the road, it’ll change here and there.

But I would say, average, I probably spend four or five hours on the editing process after I’ve written the initial song. I’ll probably go through three, maybe four drafts of most of the songs you wind up hearing.

I don’t do somebody like Leonard Cohen and go through notebooks and notebooks. It certainly works for him, but I don’t know if I have the work ethic because I’ll probably get bored with the creative voice quicker than he does, probably.

Paste: Do you ever get bored with writing in general?
Isbell: No, never get bored with that. The process can be difficult, but it’s always interesting and challenging, and when you finish good songs, it’s really close to the feeling of leaving the gym after a couple hours. You feel like now you can go about your day and do whatever the hell you want because you’ve done something really good for yourself that day.

It’s emotionally cathartic, and I’m proud of the fact I can do it. I’m aware it’s really hard because there are a lot of writers who aren’t that good, really, but a lot can get away with not being that good, and that’s fine. Some of the music I listen to probably isn’t that well written—not the majority, but some of it. I take a lot of pride in words and being insightful sometimes. If I can say something that teaches me how to feel a little more about a certain experience or certain story, then I really feel like I’ve done something good.

Paste: What would you say is the most rewarding part of writing?
Isbell: Probably compartmentalizing my own emotions. It’s an unpacking process, to quote a friend of mine. He says you unpack, and you really take things and put them where they belong. You explain to yourself how you feel about something. It’s therapeutic for me, for sure.

I don’t see professionals these days, but if I’m going through a writing cycle, it can save my life. I feel like, in a lot of ways, it has before. It’s really helped me out on an emotional and psychological level.

Paste: Can you give an example of a song you wrote and felt way better afterwards?
Isbell: Oh, yeah. Definitely. “Codeine” was one of those. For sure, one of those songs. I was going through a difficult time in a relationship and really kind of bouncing off the walls; I was pretty miserable for a little while there. And getting that out and being able to wake up all hungover one morning and be grumpy, and then look back at my grumpiness and see it’s catchy and fun and uplifting—yeah, that was really great. That’s probably why I write so many sad songs—because they’re so useful.

Paste: I noticed a lot of your songs—the lyrics are kind of depressing, but the music itself is uplifting, kind of a dual nature thing. Do you find those are the kind of songs you gravitate towards?
Isbell: Yeah, maybe accidentally. I say about our live shows that we’re trying to have a really good time playing really sad songs. It works.

It’s really different variations on the blues, and as a guitar player, I studied a lot of the delta stuff and some of the big-city Chicago, Memphis—Memphis was sort of the mixing agent between the urban blues from Chicago and the rural blues from Mississippi and Alabama.

I grew up listening to a lot of those artists, adoring and worshiping a lot of those blues musicians. And also, it was the hillbilly music my family listened to on Sunday afternoon. Gospel and old country music and mountain music, that’s just white people blues. It’s the same thing when you get down to it.

I guess that’s what I always loved, that’s what I always loved—that they were liked exorcisms emotionally for people.

Paste: It seems like a lot of the original blues musicians are, to put it bluntly, dying these days.
Isbell: Yeah, Pinetop [Perkins] went out recently. That was so strange because I was talking to somebody, not two nights before, we were in Austin and backstage at a show, and I was talking to a friend of mine who lives over there, and we were all sitting around talking about Pinetop Perkins and how old he was and how he was still alive, and a couple days later…

Any of those guys who are still left around are really treasures, and they should be treated as such because there really aren’t many of ‘em anymore.

Paste: Do you feel at all like you wanna carry on their traditions in your music?
Isbell: I don’t know if I do that on purpose, but I think that’s gonna happen subconsciously, for me, on a personal point. I don’t wanna make any claims to how successful I’ll wind up being as far as getting the music out and people will wind up hearing it, but I think there’s some sort of natural progression if you spend a lot of time studying those artists and spend a lot of time listening to them, and they touch your heart like they did mine when I was a teenager learning to play guitar and writing songs, it just sort of happens. Even if a hundred or a thousand people hear your music, then you’re moving it a little bit forward; you’re passing it to hands that might not have had it otherwise.

While I don’t necessarily do that on purpose, that is part of the process. Recording with the Preservation hall in New Orleans was a really special thing for me. I got to work with Walter Payton before he passed and a lot of those great, great musicians. What they’re doing now with My Morning Jacket and a lot of younger artists who are doing shows with the Preservation Hall is really cool.

We still try to cover some local soul stuff in our live shows, and we cut the Candi Staton song [“Heart On A String”] on our new record, not because we felt like we could do a better job, obviously, because the original recording is amazing because she’s such an incredible singer.

But I think of a lot of our audience has never heard of Candi Staton because the record’s kinda hard to find, but it’s such a brilliant piece of R&B.

Paste: If you could describe your music without using labels like blues, Americana, folk, whatever, just give a freeform description.
Isbell: I would say it’s the best songs I could possibly come up with, and the best lyrics and melody I could possibly come up with, and a bunch of musicians that don’t fuck that up [laughs].

Paste: Is there anything you’d like to add that hasn’t been mentioned yet?
Isbell: Well, the only thing that’s been on my mind is the Muscle Shoals [Alabama] thing, and the fact that there are a lot of musicians coming out of this area that are young and having some success. John Paul [White] from The Civil Wars lives right down the street. He’s just a block away from where I am right now. We grew up together. Me and my best friend from high school, Chris Tompkins, went on to write a bunch of stuff—he wrote “Before He Cheats” for Carrie Underwood and a bunch of other songs.

We were probably 17 years old, and we were in a talent contest. And the band we had got second place to John Paul’s band, and that’s pretty funny in hindsight.

But yeah, John Paul and Dylan LeBlanc, who grew up in Shreveport but has lived here for a long time and spends a lot of time here. Even Billy Reid, the clothing designer, is from Florence. He’s having a ton of success right now, and I dunno, I feel like we’re in another renaissance down here. It’s really nice that Muscle Shoals musicians and these creative people are having success.

And The Secret Sisters, I can’t forget; I went to high school with those girls. It’s strange, man. All of us are getting to the same age at the same time and good stuff’s starting to happen for us.

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