Interview: Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

No stranger to Australian shores, Jason Isbell returns in April, this time with a full band and a swag of  songs from his brilliant Southeastern album. Unpaved spoke to him about writing sober, dealing with heavy subject matter and the places that lend themselves to story songs.

You’ve  visited Australia a few times with Ryan Adams and Justin Townes Earle before, but this understand time you’ll have the full band in tow.
Yeah, finally! I’ve played solo a few times, but this time I’ll have the full band with me and we’re all really looking forward to it.  And my wife Amanda Shires will be with us too playing fiddle.

Excellent. Amanda also helps you out on the album, I see, on ‘Traveling Alone’.
She would have been on more than that but we got married right when we finished the album. So she was planning the wedding the whole time we were in the studio.We didn’t really plan it that way. I don’t think anybody ever does. But it worked out great!

There was a lot of emotions going on at that time and I had pretty easy access to that part of me that created the songs in the first place. It incidentally made for a good time to sing and play and record. It was difficult logistically, because Amanda couldn’t be in the studio much and I was dividing my time between planning the wedding and making the record and pinched a nerve in neck that week and couldn’t sleep. I was sitting straight up in an armchair every night. It was stressful, but I don’t really get too stressed out anymore. Since I quit drinking, I had to figure out what my priorities were and not let other things drive me crazy.

The Southeastern album sounds like your most honest and personal work. Can you talk about writing and performing in this more sober clean state of mind?
The process I went through to clean my act up involved a whole lot of me being honest with myself.  And I’ve done that and maintained it for a little while, and then I started writing those songs, it makes for a really honest record. It’s just the kind of person that I was becoming at that point. To admit to a lot of those things and connect with people, which is the most important part of what I do. I’m not writing songs to sell copies, or to be on the radio. I’m writing to make a connection with folks and let them know how I feel.

Do you have any recollection of the moment when things turned around for you, and you decided to live life differently?
I think I saw the bottom before I hit it. Some people actually lose a job and lose their friends and all that. But I wasn’t actually going to get fired. If you’re a recording artist you can drink yourself stiff before you can get fired. I pretty much had to recognise it myself. I told Amanda once that I needed to quit drinking, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it on my own. The next time she held me to it. She say this again, you’re going to end up in Rehab. She let all of my closets friends, my family, my manager know that was something I wanted to do, so that when I woke up the next morning I wouldn’t just shrug it off and go  back to the same patterns. That helped me a whole lot because it was hard to make that leap. It was frightening to have to actually open up your eyes all the way and see the world the way it really is.

You and Amanda are an amazing complement to one another. It seems you have very different approaches. You’re conceptually a heavy writer. Amanda has that refreshing lively creative spark.
Part of the reason we got to be friends in the first place before we got together romantically was that we saw eye to eye on a lot of things like movies and books. It was a pretty natural fit that the music we’d play would complement each other. If that’s not handled correctly, it can be really stressful. You have to try really hard not be competitive. You have to be as creative as possible. That process reminds you of what music’s really supposed to be, because  it’s not a sport. There’s no winners and losers. It helped me get back in touch with that, with the reason I started playing music in the first place. But we love each other. And when we’re on stage I want her to sound as good as possible, and she wants me to sound as good as possible. If I’m playing on one of her songs, or she’s playing on one of mine, we’re going to do everything that we possibly can to make the person whose standing in the spotlight seem strong.

I know you started the recording of this album as a solo effort but you came around to bringing in your band members. It seems the sharing aspect is an important part of this.
It is. I write the songs myself but I feel like the people I play with, I’ve known for a long time, and they really understand the way I communicate. They catch on quick. They’re really great musicians; it’s always really nice to have them around. I had intended on making a solo record because of the emotional directness and intimacy you can generate that way without overproducing. When I started working with Dave Cobb I realised he was someone who could make an album sound right production-wise without taking away the intimacy. That became a lot more entertaining to me than just a solo project.

You have such weighty subject matter. How does that go over with your listeners?
The people who have known of me for a while are definitely prepared for that. Some people might initially see the record as depressing, and then it might take a while to realise there’s more to it than that. I never have been affected my subject matter so much. There’s a lot more to crafting a song or a movie or book than just subject matter. It surprises me that people are still interested in what something is about. To me it’s all about the same thing: will you listen to my story and believe in it enough to compare it to your story? That heaviness never really affected me. I’m just as easily entertained by a sad documentary as I am by the action movie. And I like songs that are about something. For some people, I can see how it’s a sad record. It’s not surface. It’s hard to dig down without being maudlin.  Back to Tom P Hall’s songwriting book who talks about how you can be angry without being bitter. Or sad without being over emotional. I think if you can focus on the right details, and give people enough of a setting, that can work.

The amount of generosity and honesty you give is rewarding from a listener’s point of view.
I have spent a lot of time sweeping things under the rug. When I got sober I figured that doesn’t work very well. Over time you find you’re damaging yourself with that. It’s important to look things in the eye and deal with them as they come. Things aren’t so scary when you turn to face them.

I wanted ask you about the song New South Wales, which is Australian specific. Was that written during your tour with Justin Townes Earle?
I was with Justin. It was a really great time, but it wasn’t necessarily good for me personally or for him either. Within a year of that trip, both of us had been in and out of rehab and had to clean ourselves up. There were a lot of things that I really took to heart and really enjoyed out of that trip, and a lot of things that where our own personal decisions were not the best. I felt I was writing a little bit of a tribute to Waylon and Willie and folks like that. Trying to write an old country song about it.

Is it an affirming thing when you go to the other side of the world, complete strangers, who understand what you’re doing?
I was very surprised by how similar people are there to here. A whole lot people I met really reminded me of folks I’d grown up with in Alabama, and I say that as a very good thing. The couple of times I’ve been over there, I’ve received a really good reception, whether I was playing with Justin or on my own. Anyone who is appreciative of what I’m doing is going to be song motivated. People who like stories. There are certain places that lend themselves to story songs, and to narratives. Texas is one, and the south east of the United States, and Australia is another place like that. People really like stories, and this romantic notion of a writer from far away coming to tell you what you all look like. I feel that kind of resurgence. Maybe it’s just the kind of people I’m around, but I feel that becoming more important everywhere. Songs are having a renaissance.

Australia 2014 Tour Dates with Tift Merritt supporting

Sunday April 13 – The Factory, Sydney, NSW

Wednesday April 16 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC

Thursday April 17 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC

Friday April 18 – Boogie Festival, Bruzzy’s Farm, Tallarook, VIC

Saturday April 19 – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan, VIC

All tickets are on sale now, available from

About Les Thomas 106 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor