Interview: Jason Isbell

Aged just 34, Southeastern is the coming-of-age record from Jason Isbell; raw and baring all, the album is his best work yet. 12 years since he left a party and jumped in Drive By Truckers’ tour van, Jason Isbell talks to Impact about his newly-found sobriety, his critically-acclaimed album and his current UK tour…

I feel like I’ve put a whole lot of work into this album

Since its release in the UK, your latest solo album Southeastern has been received really well. The genre of deep-south/country crossover is pretty rare over here, why do you think this album has stood out so much in a genre that is often ignored?

Sometimes you write an album you think is really good, I feel like I’ve put a whole lot of work into this album and took great care with the lyrics and the melodies and I just think it’s the best work that I’ve done and any success it’s had is due to that I’m sure.

You’ve talked a lot about your sobriety and writing the album whilst being sober, and have said you’re not an ‘AA kind of person’ but you’ve been really open about the rehab and the addiction. Why have you been so open about such a personal subject?

Well it’s my story and I believe in taking ownership of those things and I think that the audience you’re playing to and trying to build is going to be either very similar to you or very open to your ideas and they won’t turn their back on you later in your career when you say something that might seem out of place.

I try to be as honest as I can and even on the smaller scale that I’m working on, there’s a chance that a few people might be encouraged to straighten their life out a little bit and maybe quit drinking or try to fight some of their own addictions and demons.

I only really tried to focus on lyrics and the way they affect people

Artists are often quoted saying they’ve written a lot of their best material while being under the influence, whether that be drink or drugs, being relieved of their sober emotional restraints. How different was a sober writing and recording procedure?

I’m not a very emotionally shackled person to start with, I think that when people say they write well under the influence I’d never really admit to that. When I wrote before it was usually fairly clear headed and when I was drinking a lot or going out raising hell, I didn’t focus too much on the work. I just don’t think that’s necessarily conducive to the style of music that I make or to the songs that I write.

You know, it might have been different if I was making psychedelic rock or making folk music or something for people to dance to, I think that might have been better if I was a little under the influence but I only really tried to focus on lyrics and the way they affect people and I think sometimes you have to try and be pretty clear headed. It’s been for me, being sober has meant having a lot more time in the day to work and to read, for both the input and the output.

A few reviews of Southeastern have classed it as one of the best ‘whole pieces of work’ of 2013, without any fillers, is this the way you go about making an album, that every song on their could stand alone, coming together without there being any weaker songs on the album?

Yeah I still like albums that are consistent, and it’s hard to find them sometimes and I get frustrated when people don’t do it. I’ve tried with all my albums to make them consistent and sometimes it’s been a little more difficult because I didn’t really put the time in that I should have, it all goes back to doing the hard work for me, if you focus on each individual song and you spend a lot of time working on each song to try and make it the best it can be and what you want to say to people.

I’m not under any pressure to make a record every few months, I use my own business so I can make the decisions myself, I don’t have to put a record out quickly unlike a lot of other artists who might be on major labels. That’s good for me, I like to take my time and make sure that I have a strong record before releasing it.

Delving a little deeper into the specifics of the album, the opening track ‘Cover Me Up’ seems to be the most personal track on the album and perhaps that you’ve ever written. What was the thinking behind the lyrics, was it written earlier than the rest of the tracks?

I don’t think it was necessarily earlier but my wife and I after a European gig we did together, we found out we had to separate to do some work. We’d usually spend the day hanging out together, watching movies so we started doing this thing when I would go to one part of the house and she would go off to another part and we’d work about and wouldn’t meet until we had written a song and then come back and play the songs to each other.

We don’t really write together as far as co-writing goes, but we do help each other edit. That was one of the songs I wrote when we did separate, it was difficult to play that song for her because it is about her in a lot of ways so it was hard to open up and be so honest.

Another track on the album, ‘Elephant’, has been the subject of a lot of focus with its hard-hitting lyrics and its sad story about cancer. What was the inspiration and proess to writing the track?

Well you know, sometimes I feel like when somebody asks me what the story is to a song, it should be pretty obvious I think. But yeah, the inspiration behind it comes from different characters and different people that I’ve known, and it’s not a direct story about two people that exist in reality but I do create characters out of a combination of people in my life and then I try to let those characters react naturally and follow them and see what their reaction to illness would be and their relationship and then I tried to tell their story as well and as deeply as possible.

We all really have the same purpose

How different is it playing a solo artist instead of being in a band like Drive-By-Truckers? Is there any chance you’ll get back with DBT in the future?

No, no, I don’t think we’ll do that, I don’t think that we can afford that at this point, neither one of us can, we don’t have any need for that. It’s different just because as a solo artist you have to be prepared to stand and sing a couple hours every night and keep the audience interested in what you’re doing and make connections with the audience. You don’t get as much time to relax and step back into the shadows and just play guitar and sing harmonies.

But, you know, that band and my band, we all really have the same purpose. It’s always been the same aim for us all and that’s to make the best music we can make. I think that’s it for me, I wanna write the best songs and play those for people and enjoy doing that and in that way it’s not really that different at all.

Playing in England this time around, it’s the first time you’ve done any solo stuff since the Ryan Adams support gigs. How different, if at all do you find UK audiences compared to back home in the States?

Not that different in all honesty. The record has been out in the States for a lot longer so I think we have been much more ahead of steam, it’s hard to say for sure until this UK tour is over and I’ve seen what the reaction is like but we have had quite a lot of success back home; audiences have gotten a lot bigger and a lot more attentive, so that’s been nice. I don’t think people can be all that different.

I think if you tell a good story and let people see who you are and don’t go into it afraid then people will react to it well. I like being in the UK as opposed to being in somewhere else in Europe, just because I feel like sometimes when I’m playing in say Holland or Denmark or Sweden or somewhere they don’t understand what I’m saying between songs and if I tell a joke they don’t really get it. I like being in the UK, I look at it as a vacation.

Your wife Amanda is supporting you on this tour, how is being on tour with her?

Oh, I enjoy it, we enjoy it a whole lot, she plays with me during my set and I play with her during her set. It’s great, it’s like taking what you normally do in your living room and putting it on stage in front of a load of people.

With such a big back-catalogue, what sort of set-list can we expect on this tour?

I never really make a set-list, I always go with how I’m feeling an how the audience seems to be feeling, but I do play a lot of that old material too. I’ll probably do seven or eight songs from Southeastern and the rest of the time I’ll fill up with the good songs that I’ve written whether it be from the Truckers or my own projects, I’ll do a lot of that stuff still.

You’ve been around since 2000/2001 and you’re only 34. Having done so much, so young, what does the future hold for you both personally and musically?

Well, you know, I don’t really have an answer to that, but I have to just keep my head and my ass in the same place. I feel like I’m a lot more connected to creativity right now, I feel like I’m in a period of my life where I have a lot of focus and time to craft and write songs and perform and I don’t have any plans to stop doing that for a good long while yet!

Adam Keyworth

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