On his recent album, Southeastern, singer/songwriter Jason Isbell writes plaintive ballads about dying cancer patients, tender country soul numbers about the process of recovery, and swampy power-pop about Super 8 ass-whuppings. It's his fourth solo album since leaving Georgian southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, a group he departed in 2007, following a divorce from Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker, years of Jack Daniels bottles emptied on stage, and musical differences.
Southeastern finds Isbell sober (his friend Ryan Adams played a role in his recovery), and happily remarried to songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires, with whom he writes and records. His previous solo albums, filled with Muscle Shoals-inflected R&B and country rock, have always been good, but never quite as good as this one. Southeastern is in turns dark, seedily funny, and carefully hopeful. Whether it's Isbell himself in the song (and often it is) or characters he's singing for, his voice has never sounded so confident or engaging.
We spoke with Isbell via phone from his place in Nashville about recovery, his "bromance" with Adams, and how he and Shires balance marriage and songwriting.
Up on the Sun: Southeastern seems to be split between two sorts of spheres: songs about your recovery and story songs, the kind that get into the heads of your characters. Jason Isbell: Well, I mean you don't really have to delineate between the two when you're writing songs. If you're writing novels, you have to know where you're going to shelve them; you have fiction and non-fiction. With music, you don't really have to differentiate between the two. A lot of the people I grew up listening to, good songwriters, put a lot of work into going all over the board in that respect. Sometimes they're writing about themselves, and sometimes they're writing about someone else, a first person character. But you're always in the songs, if they're any good.
There are some extremes on this record. There are dark songs, funny ones, and hopefully ones. It doesn't feel like as many records I'm listening to cover as much thematic ground as you do on Southeastern. Maybe not. The humorous thing is not easy. I mean, none of it's particularly easy, [but] it's more difficult to have a sense of humor in a serious song that it is to take a serious turn in a funny song. But I just think that's the way people's lives operate, you know? Maybe those things aren't reflected in art or music always, but they should be, because that's the way people's lives go. I mean, there's a lot of jokes told at a funeral.
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I'm thinking about "Elephant," which about a character dying from cancer. That might be the most crushing moment on the record. Is that one hard to sing? Yeah...it's heavy. It's something that everyone has had an experience with, or they will have. It can be difficult, but it's supposed to be. You're supposed to give enough of a damn about the songs you're singing that you might get a little choked up a little during one of 'em.
I wanted to ask about Amanda Shires, your wife. Obviously she's a huge part of your personal life, but I'm curious what it's like working with her in your creative life [Shires appears on Southeastern, and Isbell performs on her album, Down Fell the Doves]. Anybody that you're spending that much time with is going to have a big influence. She's positive for me, you know? We help each other with the editing process -- we don't co-write together -- but that's been helpful. We try and be supportive of each other without offering too many suggestions. She knows what she's doing, and I tend to think that I do too, sometimes.
Your Twitter back and forth with Ryan Adams...that's probably my favorite Twitter bromance of the year. You guys seem like you'd be fun to hang out with. [Laughs] Yeah, we get along real well. When my last record came out, he got a hold of a copy of it, and told me how highly he thought of it. So we did three tours together over the course of about a year and a half. It was great; I set out with him right after I got out of rehab, and it was nice to be on the road with someone who had been through the recovery process.
You know, someone who isn't out raising hell, that helped a lot. He's a creative person, and he's had a lot of success doing things the way he wants to do them. He's always followed his own instincts.
Your recovery has really shaded the perception of this record, I think in a very positive way, but was there any sort of discussion with yourself, any internal monologue, where you tried to figure out how to not direct the listener somewhere they wouldn't naturally go, or, like we talked about, resort to pandering or moralizing? You know what, that's just my nature. I think if you're writing honestly, and your songs have the same tone as your personality, you're not going to run into those kinds of problems. Really, it's about choosing the right details to put into the songs. If you're going to preach to somebody, if you're going to try and steer them in a direction, you better be pretty damn subtle about it.
People who listen to the kinds of music I make are smart people. They listen to the lyrics; they take them apart. If you tell your story honestly, you're going to come across, too. As long as I try to write for myself in that sense, and try and get myself into the songs, you know, the things I've done to improve my own character will in turn improve the character of the songs. I'm not a preachy person at a dinner party, so I'm not going to be that way on a record.
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Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires are scheduled to perform Thursday, September 19, at Crescent Ballroom.