Jason Isbell is rightly held in high regard for the quality of his music, whether based on his time in the Drive-By Truckers or as a solo artist. But Isbell is such an engaging figure for reasons transcending his talent and work ethic. He maintains a strong vulnerability palpable in songs like “Cover Me Up” (from 2013’s "Southeastern") and in interviews where he has openly discussed his rehab and subsequent sobriety.
Isbell continues to hold space for honesty on his latest solo album, "Something More Than Free," which drops Friday. (A preview stream is available on NPR.) He spoke with Salon about songwriting, appearing on Letterman this year, and why he’s not ready to write a book.
I would love to talk about "Something More than Free." You described it as being a Lynyrd Cohen record, and –
Oh, that wasn’t a description. No. That wasn’t a description of this record. That was a joke that was a reference to my – my general career. Context is so completely lost on Twitter, it’s amazing. The only way to really get what’s going on on Twitter is to just abandon all idea of context. So I probably should have ruined the joke by being more specific.
You and Amanda [Shires] did your performance on Letterman at the beginning of the year, and you covered Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer.” Letterman’s been a huge fan of yours and supporter of your career. Could you speak to that appearance and why you selected that song, and what it meant to you to be there on the show toward the end?
Oh, he wanted us to do that song. From what I understand, he had heard a version of that on YouTube. He keeps up with Americana music, and I think he had found a version of Amanda and I singing that song and requested us to come and sing it. But there was never a mention of it as far as the weight of that particular song for him. That’s just not the kind of person he is, I don’t think.
The show went accordingly. Nobody mentioned Zevon’s performance, but you could tell it was definitely on everybody’s minds, especially Dave’s, and [Zevon] wanted to perform that song on his last appearance on the show. And that episode was one that had a big impact on me. That was some of the most impactful television I think I’ve ever seen. So it meant a whole lot to me and to Amanda to go back and sing that song.
What resonated with you about that episode?
He was about to die, and that was the episode where he said “enjoy every sandwich.” Dave had asked him, "at the end of your life, what's your advice for everybody else?" And that was Zevon's response. He wasn’t alive much longer after that. I’m pretty positive that was the last time he was on television and probably one of the last times he was in public. It’s hard to watch a man who knows he’s about to die. The way he handled that – I don't want to say flippancy, but the matter-of-fact attitude that Zevon had toward death was really inspirational for me in a dark and twisted way.
I’m sure he was scared, but that’s part of it. That’s part of the facts of dying. I think he was just strong. Essentially that was the gist of it. He knew that he didn’t know what to expect and he knew he wasn’t going to be around, and he was still able to discuss it openly. That was impressive to me.
Absolutely. What are you most proud of about the new record?
I wouldn’t say there’s an individual song that would jump out to me. I like the fact that the record is lyrically strong. I think it’s as strong as "Southeastern" was lyrically. I spent a lot of time editing, and a lot of focus went into writing a record before we ever got in the studio. Pride in a record is a weird thing to me, because, for me, a record is a document of time. It’s a record of time. So really, if there’s anything to be proud of, it’s just the way that I’ve lived my life during that period of time when the record was being born.
It’s hard for me to separate my work from my everyday life, because they’re so intertwined. I don’t view music as just my job and then everything else is my lifestyle. I’m proud of the fact that I’m still alive to make a record, and I’m proud of the amount of work I’ve put into writing songs.
How do you think songwriting helps you grow in other areas of your life?
Well, it’s therapy for me. I think it is for a lot of people. It helps me explain how I feel about certain things to myself. Helps me unpack a lot of baggage. And it teaches you to pay attention to what’s going on around you and see things from a different angle, because the best songs, to me, are ones that offer some insight, because of the details that they focus on. They focus on different details than the ones that are obvious.
To be a good songwriter, I have to try and continue to live my life that way and actually pay attention to things that not everyone would notice. Find poignant conversations or phrases or stories and elaborate on those and what work, and to do that, you really have to be present in your daily life.
You studied creative writing in school. Do you think you’ll ever try to publish creative writing like poetry or fiction?
At some point, I might. I don’t have any plans to, really, because my taste and my ability aren’t at the same level when it comes to writing, particularly for anything other than a song. Just because I spend more time practicing this particular form than anything else. I couldn’t at this point write a book that I would enjoy. Because the books that I enjoy are Peter Maas, and then Denis Johnson, and Adam Johnson, and David Foster Wallace, and Dave Eggers. I just don’t think I could do that. I think probably I’m getting a little bit more in the toolbox every time I read a really good book, but it might be 20 or 30 years before I feel like I have what it takes to actually publish something.
And that’s not to say I won’t practice that. I’ll be writing in different forms sometimes just to get better at it to keep myself sharp, but I don’t think anybody will see it for a long, long time.
Did you do anything differently when you were making the new record in terms of your recording and your songwriting or any of that?
The songwriting process was very similar to the one that I had used with "Southeastern." I had a lot of time, which was nice, and then I think a lot of that was because I own the label that puts my records out, so I don’t have to feel as pressured to put a record out every so often.
I focused a lot on the songs and I spent many hours refining and editing each individual phrase and lyric and melody. As far as the recording goes, there was probably more participation from my band on this record, I think. We cut a lot more things as a group than on "Southeastern." Some of the songs were just made with an acoustic guitar, maybe one or two instruments here and there, but this record has a lot more fleshed-out, full band productions.
What else? We spent a little bit more time recording this one, just because we could afford to this time around. We were in the studio about three weeks, and the studio that was used was a little bit bigger, a little bit nicer than what we’ve been in before, so that was great. We could all see each other while we were performing, and there was enough room in the recording space to spread out and play at the same time.
Do you play the early versions for Amanda [Shires, Isbell’s wife and bandmate], or does she just come in with the rest of the 400 Unit?
Yeah, I play them all for her when I’m working on them. And then when I get to a certain point where I feel like the song’s close to finished, I’ll bring it in and play it for her, and she helps me edit. We do that for each other for songs. There’ll be certain places where, usually in the lyrics, I think it’s either really great or it’s awful. I’ll come to her and say OK, is this great or is it terrible? Because I can’t always tell if something is. I can tell if something’s good, but if there’s some kind of a turn of phrase or something that’s a little bit humorous, or something that you play on sentence structure, or on grammar, or on harmony, and so anything like that, I’ll bring it to her and say, OK, is this awful or does this work? And also things like, Do I need a bridge on this song? Some of these songs I’ve written multiple choruses for and I would say, OK, which one of these choruses works best for this story?
Are there any musical projects you’d like to take on that are total departures from the work you’ve done so far? Like, do you really want to make a free jazz record, or –
It would have to be very, very free jazz. It would have to be free jazz that I just gave away to people. It’d be that kind of free jazz. Because I don’t know a lot about playing jazz music. Anything like that would be noise rock for me. But I would love to do – and I was actually talking to my manager on the flight last night about this. I would love to do a more guitar-centric record. And I know, critically, commercially, that’s not a good idea, but it’s something that I think would be so much fun. And it’s probably what I’ll do next. I’ll probably make a record that is more about playing the guitar, maybe songs that I didn’t write. Maybe have some friends from Nashville that are really good guitar players come in and guest on it. I think that would be a whole lot of fun for me.
Because I have to be so damn tasteful all the time when I’m playing my own songs, and working on this lyric-and-melody-driven career that I’ve set up for myself. Sometimes it’s really nice just to be a ridiculous wanking guitar player.
Last year you were invited to audition for "The Voice." Have you been invited to audition for any more reality shows?
No. If I have, they haven’t gotten quite to me. My manager, she sent me that email from "The Voice." They sent it to her, and she sent it to me, and there was no comment. She just forwarded it. And I read it [and] instantly, I lit up. I was so excited when this happened because of Twitter and Instagram. That’s the only thing I thought about. And I thought, oh my God, I can post this on Twitter and Instagram and there’s no way this won’t go viral. There’s no way.
I emailed her back “Do I have your permission? Is it OK to post this?” And she said, “Why do you think I sent it to you?” The thing that got me about that -- I’m not insulted by being invited to compete on this show. There’s people who have lost those shows who are more successful than I am career-wise. Are bigger deals than I am, things like that.
But what really got me was that they’re stacking the pot. And they make their show seem like everybody has a chance. They’re reaching out to people like me. I’ve had four record deals in my life. I’m not just starting out. If they’re reaching out to people like me, they’re stacking the pot a lot. And people who just come off the street have very little opportunity for competing with people who have been professional singers for 10 years.
That was what I felt like people needed to know. And it was just hilarious how out of touch you have to be to start reaching out to the Americana singers and songwriters and stuff. Those shows aren’t about songs. And somebody like John Prine wouldn’t have gone in there in the '70s and quit being a mailman to go try out for a TV show.