Jason Isbell is very happy with the response to his latest album, Southeastern. The album might make you think he’s miserable. But he’s not – he’s in a really good place (Nashville – he loves it). He’s newly married – to musician Amanda Shires – and he’s at peace with his old band. You might have heard of them – Drive-By Truckers.
“Things are good”, Isbell explains down the line from his home. And then, partly for comedy, partly for honesty he adds, “…now!” He laughs a little and reiterates, “things are good. I’m busy. This new album isn’t all that new now but we’re finding a lot of life in it so I’m just happy pushing this stuff about while people are interested”.
And people are interested. Isbell’s songwriting – once a secret weapon within the fearsomely good Truckers – seems to be going from strength to strength. He’s maintaining what he agrees is a “fairly prolific” rate. And he’s pleased with what he’s offering. The way to build a great album is pretty straightforward apparently.
“You just have to release the songs you’re happy with, and the way to do that is to write, write, write – write songs up until you’re happy”. That’s largely been the approach. And for Southeastern it’s rewarded Isbell with a set of songs he can feel very proud of, and one that fans are calling out for.
“We pretty much play the whole album – or most of it. A good chunk. Yeah, but we do a two-hour show, so there’s some stuff from the other records, some Truckers songs too, we do what the fans are gonna want to hear. It’s a good show. A good show…”
Four studio albums and two live albums as a solo artist, a half decade with the Truckers, and the wisdom and focus to sit down and treat songwriting as a job, to give of yourself in the aim of offering that as reward to the listener, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Isbell is well into his 40s, or 50s if you studied the run-sheet. But he is just 35. Raised as part of a very musical family Isbell played the horns at school as well as teaching himself a range of stringed instruments. He was hooked on country, bluegrass and gospel – he followed the Grand Ole Opry and church music. But he also played in garage bands and gave his heart to southern rock.
He was 22 when he joined the Drive-By Truckers, he was, for a time, married to the band’s then-bassist, Shonna Tucker.
Collaboration is a crucial part of Isbell’s craft but he says he needs to sit down by himself to work. The collaboration comes after, the sharing of ideas, the polishing of the jewels.
“Even now, my wife and I will go to opposite ends of the house and work separately. She has her music and I have mine. We’ll meet up in the middle, go to a room and share some of what we’ve been working on – she might suggest a part, or how a line could work when I play her something and I’m open to that, and I’ll do the same with her music but we don’t really sit down together to write”.
It’s always been that way for Isbell – he says he is drawn to a life around the like-minded; musicians (“it’s really just how it’s panned out, but obviously on some level I need that, I want that”) but to write he needs to take himself away so that he can pour out from his soul.
“A lot of people have said that Southeastern is a sad record, or a personal record, and it’s personal, there are a lot of stories from my life in there, absolutely. But it’s also writing, it’s taking bits of myself and arranging them up with overheard conversations and snapshots from studying people, it all comes together. If people hear an honesty in this record then I’m obviously pleased because that was the aim – that’s always been the aim. I am aware that I gave a lot of myself with this record”.
For Isbell that realisation came as soon as he’d finished the song which opens the album, Cover Me Up.
“That song, man, when I first sang that to my wife was a real lump in the throat moment, and I knew I had something too. I knew I had a good song and it was honest, it was real. But it was a real heart in the mouth moment – I was singing out my demons, absolutely”.
Another standout track from the album is Elephant – it deals with cancer. Isbell says, quite proudly, “that’s a song where, when I finished it, I could look at it and say that I got about as close as I could to saying what I wanted to say. And that’s really all you can hope for I think. The song’s not about me, it’s a story. It’s bits and pieces of people’s lives – but there’s me in there somewhere too. I’m always in there. Sure”.
Southereastern features a lot of gentle tracks, sparse arrangements and when Isbell plays live he says there are some moments when he plays solo, the band knowing just when to sit out.
“But we play some rockers too, we really know how to rock it up, it ain’t all quiet”.
He’s excited about bringing the band to New Zealand and Australia, he was last here, touring solo, with Ryan Adams. So to have a chance to show off the band is something he says will provide “a different element”.
“It’s a good band – you’ll like it!” He adds a soft chuckle before continuing, “My wife is playing on some of the tracks too in New Zealand and Australia but not when we go to the UK. She’s got her own music to do. But it’ll be great to have her with us for the shows we got”.
Isbell is polite and full of praise for everyone he’s worked with. He says that the tour with Ryan Adams was crucial.
“Just seeing a guy with that many songs – and hearing him perform solo, because Ryan is a really great singer – it was a chance to see how to build a show, how to layer a set and there’s some fantastic music there. So that was great. We still talk, we’re buddies. And we’ve talked about working together eventually – at some stage. I hope it happens”.
He’s fine with his old band too, more than fine, he’s proud of their continued success and impressed with the output. Isbell was recently a guest on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Patterson Hood of the Truckers was a guest just a couple of days later. There are some shared stories across the two episodes, both are tremendous and worth checking out. Isbell tells me that he hasn’t yet heard Hood’s episode, but he plans to catch up with it when he can.
“We’re fine now – we talk. There was a time, obviously, when we didn’t. But we’re good”. And he says the band is continuing to make fantastic music, agreeing that fans who enjoy both his music and the recent albums by the Truckers are somewhat spoiled for choice. Hood returns the praise during the Maron podcast, saying he was bowled over by Isbell’s recent album.
“Well that means a lot, obviously”, Isbell says thoughtfully. “He’s a terrific writer. And still at the top of his game”.
When I mention that Southeastern is receiving a lot of praise and comparisons with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker Isbell is happy to accept that sort of compliment. “Well, that’s a great album, you can’t complain about that. That’s a really great record, one I like a lot”.
The plan, for now, is to continue to tour Southeastern, and as the record is coming up toward a year old Isbell says he’s amazed that it’s continuing to find new fans – and agrees that if you’re new to his music there’s a ready-made back-catalogue there for the taking; a lot of great songs to seek out. He’s more than thrilled with how Southeastern is living in this world though.
“It’s a dream really – I mean any artist would want their new work to be something that helps them find new fans, right? It’s been tremendous”.
And his secret for achieving the consistency across a record – no filler, all great songs? Well, that’s fairly simple too. In that understated – but on point way:
“Just don’t be concerned with trying to make money, I write my songs for me and if they reach someone else then that’s wonderful, but I’m not trying to have any sort of hit, to have anything that resonates beyond feeling good to me; feeling right. If I’m happy with it then it goes on the record”.
He’s started writing again already, but there isn’t a rush for a new album. He says he feels very lucky to have a framework where he can tour around Southeastern.
“And when that’s done, we’ll see…”