“Commiserating Is Underrated in Art”: An Interview with Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

In the post-Dylan world of singer-songwriters, to be cagey and distant has become customary. Mystery is the vogue, and shows of openness by an artist are often considered just that — shows. At best, such displays are considered a bit precious or naive, something to be grown out of as the artist matures.

So Jason Isbell’s willingness to speak in personal terms — not just about his new album, Southeastern, but about nearly anything — is striking. What’s more surprising still is how sincere he seems, how eager he is to make himself understood. He’s remarkably articulate, and he’s quite generous with his opinions — just speaking to him, even if you had never listened to his music, you’d suspect he was a very strong writer. He spins out thoughtful, well-phrased, and above all natural responses to questions posed to him.

His work, reaching back to his time with the Drive-By Truckers, evinces those same virtues. He’s always been an incredible songwriter, with a keen awareness of voice and perspective. Because of that, early Drive-By Truckers tracks like “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” could stand as both personal expressions and anthemic statements. When he left Drive-By Truckers in 2007 and embarked upon a solo career, the quality of his work remained quite high, though by his own admission the early solo albums were sometimes padded with ‘filler’ that he’s since been attempting to ‘weed out’.

His star is on the ascendant, but the rise has been gradual. Here We Rest, released in 2011 and recorded with his backing band the 400 Unit, was his most successful album to date, garnering considerable praise and earning Isbell the “Song of the Year” award at the 2012 Americana Music Awards for “Alabama Pines”. Southeastern released June 11, and it promises to advance his career further still for the simple reason that it stands as his strongest statement yet, his work with Drive-By Truckers included. Without exception, the songs are excellent — intimate, evocative, and as elegantly crafted as anything he’s ever done — and the performances, particularly Isbell’s vocals, match the songs for sheer quality.

In what turned out to be a rather expansive interview, PopMatters sat down with Isbell to discuss the new record, the burgeoning independent scene in Nashville, Bob Dylan, and Twitter …

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The new album is being billed as a solo effort, which you haven’t done since the very first record in 2007 (Sirens of the Ditch). But I understand that members of your band, the 400 Unit, are playing on the record. Why the solo distinction?

They’re not all playing on the record. Jimbo [Hart]’s not there, the bass player. Chad [Gamble, drums] played on some it and Derry [deBorja, keys] played on some it, almost all of it. It really came to the nature of the songs more than anything else. It’s a very personal record for me. And I had gone into the studio with the intention of making more of a solo, acoustic album. But Dave [Cobb], the producer, and I both sort of got bored with that idea and we decided to bring a band in for some things. But, yeah, the album’s about me. Not that I haven’t always written those songs, but it just felt like something that was more of my own, independent project this time around.

It’s interesting that you mention that — the album being personal — because that’s something that’s noted in the press release, that it’s your most personal collection of songs to date, and it certainly does play that way. But I’ve always heard your work, all the way back to “Outfit” and things like that, as being very intensely personal, even if the perspective of the songs themselves wasn’t necessarily first-person. So, what in your mind is the distinction? What’s different about those earlier songs and the songs on this record?

I guess maybe the audience that I had in mind when I wrote the songs. You know, the stuff that I wrote for the Truckers, although a lot of it was about myself and my family — and I’m always going to be doing that, I’m always going to find my way into the song, even characters that I create are going to be parts of myself — those were written for that purpose, for that band. … I really didn’t try to convince anybody other than myself with these particular songs.

Could you tell me a little about why you chose the title Southeastern?

My dad used to work for a tool-and-die shop when I was a kid that was called Southeastern and that’s how it originally occurred to me. I had moved from Muscle Shoals to Nashville — almost a year ago now — and it struck me that at this point in my life I don’t have any interest in living in any other part of the country or the world, really. I like visiting those places. I feel like people have a lot of the same good times and the same interests pretty much anywhere. But this particular part of the country is always going to be home for me.

Speaking of Nashville: it’s a very interesting town. It has this reputation as being, on the one hand, sort of the big time for somebody producing the kind of music that you’re producing, but there’s also this feeling that there’s something corrupting about Nashville, that it’s this sort of music mill, a music factory. What are your thoughts about that dual aspect of Nashville? What effect do you think it’s had on your work, if any?

Well, it’s two different worlds, I think. Being here for a little while, I can see a kind of community that is still around underground — independent music, punk rock, Americana — that’s very separate from Music Row and the kind of music mill that pumps out Top 40 country music. You know, we don’t really interact with each other all that much. I don’t know a whole lot of people in that world. I do think that a lot of the money trickles down and you wind up getting an audience that might be bigger for that kind of music, as tourists, when they’re in town as part of the bigger music industry, the popular music industry. But they don’t really work together, in all honesty. There are some people who handle both worlds pretty well, but very, very few. For the most part, you’re either working on that side of the tracks or this one. I definitely think that you’re tempted by that kind of greed. Talented songwriters, talented players can go into that world and make music that sounds the same as the last hit, but there are a lot of people around here who aren’t doing that. There’s tons of people in Nashville who don’t really have anything to do with that other world.

Sure. You tend to think of Music Row, but of course, like any major city, there’s bound to be a thriving independent scene that does things that subvert and work against the primary tradition there.

Right, and it’s growing really, really quickly here. I think this town’s going to take over the mantle that’s been held by places like Athens, GA and Seattle, WA. It really seems like this is the next place for people who make that kind of music to congregate.

Getting back to the album — to my ears, one of the most interesting things about the record is that you seem to be singing in a slightly different way. I’d like to hear more about how you approached the singing on this album and some of your influences vocally.

Well, on this record, I think the big difference is that during the process we kept a lot of live vocal takes and I’ve not done that in the past. I was sort of terrified, really. Before, we’d spend a couple days at the end of the sessions tuning everything. Dave Cobb really encouraged me to sing with the live tracks while we were recording it. It makes for some, I guess tonal imperfections, but for this sort of project I think it was the right thing to do. It makes it a little bit more powerful emotionally.

Absolutely. There’s definitely a raw feeling about the vocals, and it lends the recording a very soulful edge. It reminds me — the sound of the record, and to an extent the lyrical focus — a great deal of Blood on the Tracks, by Dylan.

Oh, yeah.

Would you say that’s a fair analogy?

Well, I appreciate it. You know, anytime you’re prepared to compare to Dylan’s work, especially one of the really great albums, it’s much appreciated. I don’t know if I would make that comparison, but I do remember Dave saying some things in the studio when we were working about that particular record, actually, and about how Dylan had different textures to his voice. Between a record like that and Nashville Skyline, you know, there were a lot of differences in the qualities of his vocals and I feel like he’s always been somebody who’s been in control of his singing. And I know a lot of people don’t particularly cotton to his voice but he was singing some difficult songs in those days and he was hitting the notes really, really well. If there’s anything that makes what I do and what he was doing kind of similar, probably it’s the fact that I try to put myself in the place that I was in when I wrote the song, or when I was inspired to write the song. And I do my best, whether I’m recording or we’re playing live, I do my best to sing a song from that place.

You alluded to the fact that the songs, both on Southeastern and on Blood on the Tracks, come from very intensely personal and sometimes rather dark places. There’s this Dylan quote I read some time ago where he says about the response to Blood on the Tracks something like, “It’s hard for me to relate to that, people enjoying that kind of pain.” I’m interested to hear your thoughts on that, because Southeastern is clearly an album that deals with some very dark content, some very dark subject matter. What do you hope that people will get from the album?

Well, I think we both know that he was being a little bit disingenuous when he said that. He knows exactly why people are relating to that kind of thing. But, it is an interesting thing for him to say, because yeah, you do feel like, “I’m writing a bunch of really depressing songs and people are gonna hear them and it’s gonna put them in a place.” I’m not trying to steer people in a direction. I’m just trying to move them. Wherever it takes them, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want them to be moved in one way or another and that’s a hard thing to do, I think.

Yeah, commiserating is underrated, I think, in art. People love to be listened to and represented and they love it when they feel like you have some of the same problems that they do. Everybody deals with things like romantic difficulties in relationships and death and cancer and abuse. Like the song “Yvette”, for example. It’s sort of a complement to “Daisy Mae” off the last record. I got to a point, I guess when I was probably 30, or 31 years old, where it occurred to me almost everyone you meet was sexually abused as a kid, almost everybody, by someone. That never happened to me, believe it or not, but the percentages are just staggering, and writing a song about something that’s that depressing I think it’s good to discuss it. Some people like to discuss those things, maybe they don’t want to start the conversation themselves, but sometimes those things help folks to relate and get those things out of their system a little bit.

When I read about people promoting their most recent releases, it’s very common for folks to say that they’re most proud of the most recent release, that they think it’s their best. Would you say that about Southeastern?

Yeah, I think that it’s better in some ways than any project I’ve done. When I wrote those first songs for the Truckers, songs like “Outfit” and “Decoration Day,” those were strong songs, very strong songs. But had I been in the position of writing an entire album at that point in time, I don’t think the whole album would have been of that kind of quality. At that point in time, I was able to come out with like two or four songs for a record, but I don’t think I was able to write a whole album of that kind of material. Like the first solo album. I think there are some really strong songs on it, but I think over time I’ve been weeding out that filler. And the songs that I acknowledge as filler on those albums are getting fewer and farther between. I feel like this album, as a whole, is consistent. Hopefully, eventually, I’ll have a large catalog of albums that read like albums, as a whole project, rather than two or three great songs and then some other ones that aren’t.

Moving away from the album a little bit to some more general topics, you maintain a really interesting, really entertaining Twitter presence.

Yeah, I get a kick out of that.

I enjoy it, too. But as an audience member, somebody from outside of it, I’m struck sometimes by the feeling that maybe it’s a little voyeuristic of me, like you’re creeping around somebody’s house and looking through the windows.


As someone on the other side of it, I’d really love to hear your thoughts on the whole Twitter / social media thing and its implications for audience interaction, on the one hand, and the artist’s privacy, on the other.

Well, you know, they only get as much as you’re willing to give them. I like the fact that I can participate in a conversation as much or as little as I want to. I can say one thing and not say anything else for the rest of the night if I don’t feel like it. But it’s dangerous — especially if you’re not in the best place psychologically, you can really reveal way more than you should be revealing through that medium. It happens to a lot of people. Right now, Amanda Bynes is probably the most obvious example. Back when I was still drinking, I sat there a few nights when I got in a bad way and posted some things I wish I hadn’t. I wish there was like a breathalyzer on your iPhone and you had to blow into it before you were allowed to access it. I think somebody did an app where you had to read one of those captcha graphics before you could do it, just in case you were too drunk. If you’re spiraling out of control or having some dark times, it’s best to stay as far away from that stuff as possible, because it is so tempting to tell 30- or 40,000 people what you’re pissed off about that day, but it comes off so poorly. There’s just no context for it.

That being said, I like the place that I’m at in my life, and I like to share that with people who appreciate the music that I make. Or in my case, on Twitter, I’ve got some followers who’ve never listened to my music and just think I’m funny. And that’s great, too. That’s a good feeling, to be recognized a little bit for something different from what I’ve been recognized for in the past. And I get to keep in touch with people. I can check up on my friends, look them up and see what they’re doing, because I don’t get to do that a whole lot in person. And Lord knows everybody hates to have a telephone conversation. But, that being said, it’s very dangerous because it’s tempting to go on a rant and let everybody know that you’re a little too fucked up or just not having a great period in your life. You have to be careful about it.

The Stop Fucking Around and Play Outfit Tour — that’s probably the best and funniest name for a tour I’ve ever heard. But I’m sure there are parts of your fan base for whom that sentiment holds. I would think that kind of single-minded appreciation, while any appreciation is good, could be kind of frustrating for you. Is that ever a problem for you with your audience?

It’s not a problem. I wouldn’t say that it’s a problem. I’ve done a lot of shows with Todd Snider over the last year and I’ve heard him talk about “Beer Run”, people will ask for it at a bar and hipsters will come up to him and say, “Don’t you hate playing that fucking song every night?” And he says, “Hell no, I don’t hate playing that song! I made that up at my house with a guitar, I wrote it down, and people want to hear it. So yeah, I’ll play it every damn time. I don’t care. I’ll play it backstage for people.”

But, yeah, you definitely want people to try and dig a little bit deeper into your catalog. And I think very often the people who are yelling “Play ‘Outfit’!” all night at the shows are the people who aren’t exactly understanding the song. You know, and the fact that I’m trying to reflect a lot of different sides of my father in that song, especially his sense of humor. But, what are you going to do? If people want to hear it, and you wrote it, play it. You’ve got to be careful. I know people who have written big hit country songs that are really kind of terrible songs, but for the rest of their life, they’re the guy who wrote that. You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t want that to happen, don’t write those songs. So I play it every show, every time I’m on stage, because I feel like if they paid to get in, somebody out there wants to hear that one.