Alt-Country / Americana / Interviews

INTERVIEW: Jason Isbell (2015)

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Hi Jason, what’s been happening in the lead-up to the new album coming out?

We just finished a few shows with Dwight Yoakam and got home yesterday and we’re leaving tomorrow to go to my guitar player’s wedding in Charleston. I love what Dwight does. His voice is still really good and he still writes great songs. He might have been one of the first people I can think of who made Americana music, what we call it now. It was so rock ‘n’ roll and sometimes punk rock influenced, that honky tonk sound he was doing in the 80s.

How are you feeling about Something More Than Free coming out? Is there a quiet confidence or are there still nerves involved with a new release?

I’m excited about it. I listened to it again in the car today and it sounded good, I think it’s a good album. There’s not much I’d do differently if I was making it right now so I guess that’s a good sign.

Does it bother you that the album leaked quite early, well before the release date?

I’ve tried not to say too much about it leaking because I don’t want to draw too much attention to it but it’s a little bit disappointing. There’s not much you can do about it, you can watermark this and that but there’s always going to be assholes that take the copy they receive early because they have a blog and pass that around, that’s always going to happen. I think I have the kind of fans that will still come to shows and buy tickets and t-shirts so it’s not going to cause my career to collapse. It’s a tough thing these days trying to figure out how to navigate those things.

I think real music fans still like that build-up of anticipation before a release date, reading reviews and then getting hold of the album and listening to it. 

I don’t listen to something unless I’m excited about it. I only ever listen to music before it comes out if someone sends it to me personally and even then, unless its someone I’m excited about, its hard to get me to listen to it. It’s hard for me to take Sticky Fingers out of the car stereo and put something else in if I don’t know whether I’m going to like it. I guess people are excited about the the new album though otherwise they wouldn’t be trying so hard to get a hold of it.

Your last album had an important thematic back story to much of it, is the new album similarly autobiographical and personal?

It’s a lot of both. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write myself out of the songs completely. When it’s most successful it’s on an allegorical level and then sometimes I’ll just find my way into certain characters. I’m always there though and the records document time I’ve spent personally since the last one so I’m there but there are a lot of things about this record that aren’t directly about me. I’ve written an assortment of songs about people who get up and go to work and struggle to find some kind of hope and light at the end of the tunnel. The more comfortable I get personally the more time I spend thinking about the people who aren’t personally comfortable in their lives and working really really hard to just get back to work each day.

In what ways does the new album differ from Southeastern musically? I’ve heard that it is a more diverse sounding album and if so, was that planned or did it come about in collaboration with Dave Cobb (producer) in the studio?

That happened in the studio, just because the songs really required it I think. We tried to go a song at a time. I don’t make demos beforehand so nobody heard these songs before we went into the studio and started working on them so it’s the kind of thing where I knew I wanted to use my touring band the 400 Unit and all go in and record together but outside of that there wasn’t much of a plan. We just took it one song at a time and tried to make the best version of it we could. There’s still some songs on it that are pretty sparse, a couple with just me and acoustic guitar but many of the songs did go to different places just because we were trying to make interesting sounds.

You worked with Dave Cobb again. Had you looked at other producers or was it a case of continuing the work from Southeastern?

It wasn’t broke so I didn’t think it needed to be fixed [laughs]. I didn’t think about working with anyone else. We knew from the start where we wanted to make the record and who we wanted to use. I don’t know if that will always be the case or not. I’m sure at some point new ideas will come around but at the moment I love working with Dave. He comes up with great ideas and is so easy to work with and easy to be around and that combination is really hard to find. You’re often working with someone who’s your buddy and they don’t contribute a whole lot outside of engineering and helping to get sounds or you’re working with someone who is brilliant but happens to be an asshole. Dave manages to be brilliant and not be an asshole so it’s a lot of fun for us. We had an engineer in the studio (Matt Ross Spang) who has done a lot of work in Memphis at Sun Studios over many years and he helped out with a lot of stuff. Dave focuses more on production ideas. An engineer’s job always has a little bit of producer in it and a producer’s job has a bit of engineer in it, especially when you’re making music organically.

Have you been playing many of the new songs live?

We have been playing some of the songs live and they’re sounding really great. It’s been a similar experience to what I had with Southeastern. People have picked up on them really quickly which is exciting for me. It’s a scary thing when you go out with them. Playing the songs live has caused me more stress than writing songs to follow up a really well received record. When people haven’t heard the songs before you just don’t know if anything is going to resonate and there’s nothing worse than that dead zone where everyone’s waiting for you to get the new song done to get to the next one. We’ve been really lucky, 24 Frames particularly has gone down well as that’s been out for a while and people have been singing along with that and seem excited when we play it so that’s great.

Can you describe the moment when you realised you’d started writing the new album. Was there a specific time or place where it felt like it began?

As soon as Southeastern was finished recording, mixed and mastered and a date set for release, then everything I wrote after that become property of the new album. There were some things we didn’t use or didn’t record. I didn’t have anything else I needed to write for so everything went toward this. I find it’s easier and more enjoyable to just keep writing all year round rather that get nervous and wait until it’s time for a new album and start writing it.

Your songs generally feel concise and well-edited. Do the songs go through a long process of shaping and editing to get to their final form?

They do, I spend a lot of time on them. Usually I’ll go through 4 or 5 versions of a song. Sometimes I’ll write verses and feel like they’re there and solid and I’ll write 2 or 3 different choruses, either slightly or completely different. I haven’t always done that but it serves me well I think. If you’re writing something you want it to be concise and you’re writing from a narrative tradition. It’s important to spend the time editing.

Is it a private process? Do you bounce ideas off the band or Amanda or anyone else?

Amanda really helps in the editing process. We don’t do a lot of collaborative writing but we help each other edit a lot. We’ve started to collaborate a bit more in the last few months. She’s going to make a new record in August since she’ll be home waiting on the baby to come. We’ve been writing a little bit together for that. Usually I just write by myself and then go to her and ask if a particular phrase works, do I need to do something different to this chorus, do I need this bridge, you know those kind of questions.

Southeastern was a huge success in terms of things like the Americana Awards, sell-out shows and critical praise, How did those experiences change you as a songwriter and musician – in terms of recognition, access to larger venues, different players, financial gain etc.

It’s made me a lot less bitter I’ve noticed. I don’t really spot that in other people like I do now. I was one of those people who, until Southeastern came along, felt that for some reason I wasn’t being treated fairly, people weren’t paying attention to me and were maybe wanting someone less challenging and finally I realised that I could be doing better work. When that happened and I made an album that was more consistent and more honest and better received it took a lot of that bitterness away. I don’t want to say that I’m creatively satisfied in any sense. There are still a lot of places that I’d like to go musically that I haven’t been. Not necessarily genre-wise, I just think there is so much more to say that could be put so much better than I’ve ever put it before. We’re on a bus all the time now, playing to rooms that are really nice, we’ve got in-ear monitors, our own consoles and a crew that does really great work and there’s never a show that sounds like shit from where I am. We’ve got better guitars and amps and I love it, it’s a lot of fun and I don’t have to worry so much about whether people will turn up for the shows or how I’m going to pay my bills so that’s all very nice. It’s made me a lot more grateful and more professional in how I look at this particular career. Now there really is an opportunity for me to make a living at this and I really don’t want to screw that up. There are still some things that piss me off and confuse me when it comes to the business and trying to make a living  but I own a record label and I have all my publishing now so I don’t really have anyone to answer to and it’s hard to complain from that position.

Amanda is obviously an integral part of your life and she seems to play an important musical role for you on-stage and on record. Was it always inevitable you would work together to this extent when you first got together?

We worked together before we were a couple. We’ve known each other for ages. I had her come in and play on Here We Rest (2011), I guess that was the first thing she played on and we weren’t together then. Part of the initial attraction was that we both made music. I don’t really think of music as separate from my personal life. Right now I’m sitting here surrounded by guitars and pedals and pictures from concerts. There’s always something around to remind me about music and if I’ve got nothing to do I’ll always pick up a guitar. We both spend a lot of time around the house playing guitars or fiddle or ukulele. It’s just part of our lives.

Then you have to put the guitar down to reluctantly do the vacuuming or something…

That’s it, yeah. Even though I enjoy the vacuuming, we’ve got one of those robots. I like that thing but you have to pick it up and take it up stairs.

How deep is the connection to your songs when you’re singing them live? I ask because when you played Sydney in 2012 on Justin Townes Earle’s tour you became visibly emotional and had trouble singing parts of ‘Dress Blues’. Do some songs always hit you that hard when you perform them?

It’s different on different nights and I think it should be. If something has happened that day; like ‘Elephant’ for instance can be hard if someone I know is in the audience, someone who has had a struggle with that kind of thing might make hard to sing. ‘Dress Blues’ also, especially if Matthew Conley’s widow or someone from his family are at the show that can make it very, very difficult to get through that song and I think it should be that way. There should be special times for certain songs.

It makes that emotional connection for the audience too. They can hear the lyrics but if they can see the impact on the performer as well it’s a pretty special moment, even if it’s a painful one for the singer.

It is special. I try to never go through the motions and every night I try to put myself in the place where I wrote all these songs so some nights I get a little bit closer to it than I’m comfortable with and I think that’s part of the job.

Are you planning to come back to Australia to tour the new album?

 Not this year but as soon as next year gets going we’ll make plans to get back over there as soon as possible. I like touring in Australia.

tie off

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