I had a chance to chat on the phone with Americana star, Jason Isbell, about his album release, Something More Than Free. We talked about his philosophy on songwriting, the challenge of following up his magnum opus (2013’s Southeastern), the prospect of him becoming a father, his opinion on why women make better artists than men, the role producer Dave Cobb plays in creating his records, and the idea of blending fiction and non-fiction for songs that always strike a chord.
Hey Jason, how are you? Where are you today? Are you on tour right now?
I’m in Austin. I’ve got a solo show here tonight and I’ve been here for about four days, so I’ve had a bit of time to relax.
Great. So, with the album a month from release, how are you feeling about it? Are you ready to have it out in the world?
Yeah, it’s a strange sort of purgatory to be in, after you finish making a record and have to wait for it to come out. But yeah, I’m ready for that very much. I’m looking forward to playing those songs live, seeing how people react to them.
Are you playing anything off the new one live already?
Yeah, yeah, we’re doing the title track, “Something More Than Free” and “24 Frames” and “Speed Trap Town.” We’ve got those three in the set. But we’re going to go in and do some rehearsals this week, so we should be able to add the rest of it pretty soon.
Anything big planned for the release day?
I think we’re gonna play Grimey’s in Nashville, we’re gonna do like an outside in-store, out in the parking lot there. And then we might go rent out a go-cart track after that. (Laughs)
Well I’d say that sounds like a great plan.
Yeah, I think so. I think it sounds like fun!
So I saw you live back in February, you came to Kalamazoo, Michigan. And it was a great show, just wanted to tell you that. But I also wanted to ask you–because when I was there, especially during “Cover Me Up,” it seemed like there was this really palpable electricity in the room, like everyone in the audience was hanging on every word. When you were writing that song, did you know that you had come up with something special?
Not in that broad a sense, but, you know, I wrote it for my wife, so I was really just focused on impressing her at that point. She and I weren’t married yet, but we had already been through quite a bit together. So I wrote that for her, and then sat down and played it for her right after I got done writing it, and I was terrified. You know, it’s not an easy thing to do. But it worked really well, and I knew that if it passed that test–probably, it would be alright with the audience too.
Southeastern got a huge response in general. I remember reading a quote from Patterson Hood [of the Drive-By Truckers] who said that “Elephant” was “the best song ever written by someone [he] knew personally.” After not getting that much buzz on your first three solo records, what was it like to have an album connect on that level? And what kind of pressure did that put on you while writing the follow up.
Well, you know, I figure it’s obvious that that’s a good thing: you certainly want people to react to the music that you’re making. I don’t really have any kind of new insight to add to, you know…”success is good, failure is bad,” you know? (Laughs) As far as the pressure, you know…it’s not an actual problem, really. I know people who have actual problems, and following up a successful album is not one of those. I just did the work and went in the studio and I wrote songs the best that I can write, and I did a lot of editing, I did a lot of work on them, and then I went in and recorded them and tried not to fuck ’em up. And uh…I just had to ignore any type of pressure the best that I could, because…like I say, it’s a very good problem to have.
Are you someone who tends to write on the road all the time, or did you take a break while you were touring for Southeastern?
Yeah, I write year-round. It’s easier to write when I’m home and I’m on a certain kind of sleep schedule and I can find some time alone. But I do, I write on the road also, because I think…I enjoy writing for one thing, and I still feel that I need to practice it as much as I can.
So what is the…is there an average sort of writing process that you follow or does it depend on the song and the situation?
It’s different. Sometimes I’ll start with a guitar and try to find a chord progression and go from there. But more often than not, it comes out of a phrase. I’ll overhear a phrase, or something will pop into my head, or I’ll read a phrase somewhere and hear some kind of melody, some kind of musicality associated with the pronunciation and the meaning of the phrasing of a certain group of words. And then I’ll repeat that over and over and over to myself until a melody makes itself known. And then I’ll go to an instrument–a guitar, usually–and sit down and start finding some chords for it. But I’ve done it all different ways. You know, I’ve sang into my cellphone, in airports, and made voice memos and jotted things down on bar napkins or hotel stationary and…you know, I’ll take it any way I can get it, that’s for sure.
For the new record–they sent it to me a few weeks ago, and it’s great.
Well thank you.
I get the sense that there’s a lot about family in this particular set of songs. I was wondering what inspired your songwriting this time around, and how much the prospect of becoming a father yourself changed your perspective as a songwriter?
Well, I’m not a father yet, so I really don’t know what to expect! You know, I’ve still got a few weeks left–September the 2nd is when we’re due. So if you ask me that question in a year, I might be able to answer it. But, you know, I write about people I know. I write about things that I’m close to, things that I have experience with. I try to write about people whose lives might be a little bit more challenging than mine on a day-to-day basis, because–you know, for the most part, I have it pretty easy. I try to challenge myself to work hard and be as creatively relevant as possible. But that’s…that’s not a very difficult task compared to getting up every morning at 5:00 and going and digging ditches all day. So I try to stay in touch with people like that, and I try to write the stories about them sometimes, because, you know, I grew up around those folks. I still know a lot of ’em. And not everybody can find a way out of that. Sometimes…sometimes you just work for the sake of being able to get back to work the next day.
You said in a tweet, I think awhile back, maybe February or March, that you felt that the songs on Something More Than Free were even stronger than the Southeastern songs. Now that the record is done and nearing release, do you still feel that way?
Do you have a favorite song on the set?
No. No, I don’t do the favorite song thing. If I had a favorite song on this album, I would go back and write 11 or 12 more songs that were just as good as that song.
That’s a great philosophy to have.
Yeah, and you know, luckily I’m not rushed to make records these days, because I own the record label [Southeastern Records], so I don’t have to hurry up and get one out every 8 or 9 months. So that’s a really nice.
Yeah, that’s good to have. So the first song you started playing off this was “24 Frames.” I don’t think it was in the set when I saw you, I think it got added shortly after. But it seemed like you knew pretty early on that that was going to be the first single, and that was gonna be the track that sort of lead off this album. What goes into choosing a lead single for you?
Well, it has to be something that’s upbeat, you know. Not something that’s quiet or slow or too awfully sad. That song made a good contender for that, because it’s catchy and has some power pop elements to it. You know, it has drums…which apparently is a big deal when you start sending things to radio. They want songs with drums! Radio loves the damn drums! I don’t know. I don’t know what radio is anymore. But it seemed like it was a good upbeat song that people could sing along to, and I don’t necessary try to write those, but when they do come out, I like to use them to their full potential and try to make singles out of ’em…whatever that means nowadays.
Right. So what’s next for you after this record. You’ve been touring a lot over the past few years. It seems like you haven’t really slowed down much since Southeastern. But, with your child being born soon, are you going to take a step back after this tour is done? Or are you just going to sort of play it as it comes.
I think…I’m gonna take some time. About halfway through August, I’m gonna go home and stay home through August and September. And then after that, I’m gonna do just two or three days at a time [of touring] for the rest of the year. And next year, I’m not sure what’ll happen yet. But, you know, we’ve gotten to the point now where we don’t have to tour quite as much to keep the lights on. But I still enjoy touring and get a lot out of it, and it’s certainly possible to take my wife and kid out on the road with me, so I’m sure we’ll be doing a whole lot of that.
I wrote down a tweet that you had…a few weeks or months ago, I can’t remember. But it said, “Male friends in the music business: stop insinuating that my wife won’t want to be a performing and recording artist once our baby is born.” That really resonated with me, because especially in the scene that the site I write for covers–which is sort of the pop-punk thing–a lot of men sort of presume that women have, like, this “expiration date” in the entertainment industry.
(Laughs) Right, right, right!
And I was just wondering if you could comment more on that tweet and sort of what brought that on and what your philosophy is on that?
I don’t want to talk about what brought it on, but I will tell you how I feel about that sort of thing. You know, men are scared of women in the entertainment business because women are better at being creative than men are. So men have this natural tendency to try to…to try to convince women that they don’t…that they’re not always gonna be able to make music, they’re not always gonna be able to make movies or be a writer or whatever, because men are terrified that women are way better at that sort of shit that we are. Because they’re way better at being in touch with their emotional side. So, you know, men try to keep women down that way, and that’s bullshit. I mean, if people can fly to the moon, you can put a baby on a tour bus.
Amen. And I know your wife writes and records her own albums and you guys did an EP together, just with some cover songs, earlier this year. Do you ever see doing a completely double-billed album together in the future?
Maybe! You know, we don’t have plans to do that right now, but yeah, it seems like it would be a lot of fun. We’ve discussed it before and yeah, I think that might be a good thing. You know, it really comes down to songs for us. If we wind up just organically writing the kinds of songs that would lend themselves to that kind of album, then that’s the kind of album we’ll make.
Cool. Um, are there any records in particular you’re digging this year? This is a question I’ve been meaning to ask, because I like everyone you tend to bring on tour or go on tour with, so I was wondering if you had any recommendations.
Well, let’s see. That last Blake Mills album [2014’s Heigh Ho] I like a whole lot. He just put that out a few months back, and he’s an incredible guitar player. Really good producer and songwriter too. And I like that Ben Howard record [2014’s I Forgot Where We Were] that came out a few months ago. I hear there’s a new Calexico [2015’s Edge of the Sun], I really like Calexico a whole lot so I’m sure that album’s really good.
Um, yeah you know, I try to keep in touch with stuff. I like the A$AP Rocky record, what I’ve heard of that I like a lot. My wife noticed that there’s a Lucero sample on that record, which is really interesting, I never would have expected A$AP Rocky to sample a Lucero song, but he did! I listened to it, and she pointed it out to me, and he certainly did.
Which song is that? That’s really interesting.
It’s the first track on the Rocky record. Um, and it’s one of the old Lucero songs, it’s just a guitar part that I guess Brian [Venable’] played or Ben [Nichols]. But…I can’t remember the Lucero song that gets sampled, but if you listen to them back to back, it’s spot on.
(Editor’s note: The A$AP Rocky song is “High Noon,” featuring Joe Fox, and the sample is Lucero’s “Noon as Dark as Midnight,” from 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings.)
You did a…was it a one-off show with Dawes?
Yeah, we’ve got a show or two with Dawes. We’ve done some stuff with them in the past, too.
I’m a big fan of that record too, so I was just wondering.
Yeah, they’re good folks, I like those guys.
As for other country music, I remember on a podcast you did with Brian Koppelman…you guys sort of talked about what’s going on in mainstream music with the “bro country” trend. I was wondering, with that, do you still consider yourself as a part of the country music community, or would you rather steer clear of that. Or, alternatively, do you not care about genre tags either way?
Yeah, I don’t really care what they call me to tell you the truth. I mean, it’s obvious that I don’t fit in with what’s popular in country music. But that’s fine, I mean, you know, you don’t really need to describe music like that to people anymore. You can just send ’em a link, and they can listen to it themselves. I think genres have become really kind of a lazy way to do things. You know, and I’m not marketing myself toward any kind of country chart or commercial radio chart or anything like that, anyway, so…I don’t care.
You know, if people listen to my music and it reminds them of…I don’t know, George Strait maybe? I can see that, I think that’s cool. But, you know, I think it would probably, when it’s done right, the songs of mine that are the best hopefully remind people of John Prine or Guy Clark or Kris Kristofferson or something like that. I just think of myself more as a storyteller than anything else.
As an aside to that, since Southeastern, Dave Cobb really seems to have become the go-to producer for country artists sort of like yourself: the storytellers and the artists that are trying more to preserve the classic side of the genre. He did the Sturgill Simpson record last year and he did the Chris Stapleton album this year. I was wondering, with how in-demand he’s been lately, was it tougher to find time to record with him on this album?
Um, not for me, no. He and I are good friends and he normally finds a way to squeeze me in. I’d imagine he is probably busier now than he has been, but you know, Dave’s really good. He’s got great instincts, he’s very quick, he thinks of things that will really help make the records as good as possible, but he does it while being somewhat transparent. You know, when you listen to his records, they’re not automatically identifiable as a Dave Cobb record. And that’s…I believe that’s what he wants. I think he wants the records to sound like the artist rather than the producer.
And there are a lot of great producers out there. I think of somebody like Nigel Godrich: when you listen to a record that Nigel produced, it’s obvious that it’s one of his. Or when you listen to something that…um…what’s his damn name…with the beard? American Recordings? Rick Rubin! When you listen to a Rick Rubin record, it’s really obvious that Rick Rubin produced that record. But I think Dave would rather do it in a way that’s more transparent and more reflective of the artist. And you know, I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Does he help you arrange the songs at all?
Yeah, yeah he does some of that. He’ll come up with good directions to go at for a bridge or how many times to repeat a chorus or whether to start with a verse or not, things like that. And that’s where his instincts really come in handy, because it doesn’t take him long to get to the crux of a song and to figure out what would work best.
Did he play at all on your last record?
He played some acoustic guitar. Yeah, he did. A lot of times when we were tracking live Dave would go in and sit down and play acoustic guitar.
Did you mostly have the same band for Something More Than Free that you had for Southeastern?
No, we had my touring band, the 400 Unit, play on this new record. And most of them were used on Southeastern also, but our bass player [Jimbo Hart] couldn’t be there [last time], because he was across the country doing something else. But it was…yeah, it was mostly the same people. We added Sadler Vaden, the guitar player, after Southeastern, so he’s on this record but he’s not on that one.
I played your new record when my wife and I took a road trip a few weeks ago. And she–my parents and I and her–we all went to see you in February in Kalamazoo as my birthday gift. But when “If It Takes a Lifetime” came on, she remarked on how happy and lively it sounded, especially in comparison to a lot of the sadder songs on Southeastern. That got me to thinking, because this album in general sounds like it comes from a place of happiness and contentment in your life, which is great to hear. Do you feel like this new album sort of marks the start of a new chapter for you?
Well, you know, I am a lot happier and a lot more comfortable in the world than I was when I wrote Southeastern. You know, when I wrote that record I was just recently sober, I was still adjusting, still trying to find my way. And now I feel a lot more settled so…hopefully the songs will reflect that. I think if you’re writing from a place of honesty, then the songs are gonna sound like your life, and your record should be a record of events more than anything else. So I feel like that’s really something that we captured pretty well on this new record.
One of the songs that really resonated with me right away was “Speed Trap Town,” and that first sort of vignette about the roses in the shopping cart. I was wondering what inspired that song, and if it was autobiographical at all or if it was a character that you imagined?
They’re all a mixture of all of those things. You know, the beauty of writing songs and not writing journalism or novels is that you don’t have to delineate between those. If you’re a songwriter, you can pick and choose. You can write one line about yourself, and one line that you completely made up. So they’re all inspired by real people, you know, and real things that really happened. But some of ’em happened to me, and some of ’em didn’t. One of the reasons I decided to be a songwriter instead of any other kind of writer is that, with songs, it doesn’t really matter. To some extent, they’re all about me. But, you know, I haven’t necessarily had all the same firsthand experiences as the narrator in that song.
I remember you telling a story about how you wrote “Flagship,” and you were in this hotel lobby that you mention in the song, and you were sort of just walking around and observing people. Did you go into that with the goal of writing a song?
Yeah. I had already decided to write a song that night, but I couldn’t come up with anything, so I went down and walked around in the lobby and tried to exercise my brain a little bit, and that’s how that one came about.
Cool. Another one of my favorites is “Children of Children.” On that one, I heard something about it coming to you after looking at photographs, and the song sort of took form from looking at old pictures. Can you tell me a little more about that process?
Well, my parents and my wife’s parents, both sets were really young when we were born. And over time you start thinking about what your parents have lost–you know, especially my mom and her mom–I was thinking about the time and the opportunities they missed because we were kids and they were very focused on taking care of us. Obviously, that’s not a thing that’s their fault, but you still wind up feeling somewhat guilty about it because you benefited from that part of their lives that they’ve completely missed out on while they’re busy raising a child that they might not have expected. So that’s really where that song came from, but yeah, I started getting the idea from looking at pictures, which you can tell is there in the words of the song.
This year, Zac Brown Band included a cover of “Dress Blues” on their new album. How did that happen? Have you guys been friends for awhile, do you know each other well?
We’ve gotten to know each other well since that’s happened. I think Coy [Bowles], his guitar player, was probably the first person to play my music for Zac. He’s come to a lot of our shows over the years. And, you know, they just decided that they liked the song and they thought it would fit on their album. I’m glad that they did that, I’m glad that the story got out and reached more people. I think it’s a good thing.