Jason Isbell Takes a Personal Turn on Southeastern

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The past year or so of Jason Isbell’s life has been filled with some mighty big events. For starters, he got sober. In 2012, his girlfriend, manager and friends convinced him to enter rehab, and he emerged a new man. Then, he got married. Earlier this year, he and that girlfriend — singer-songwriter-fiddler Amanda Shires — were wed in a private ceremony officiated by none other than singer-songwriter Todd Snider.

Compared to sobriety and matrimony, the release of another album may seem like only a minor event, but Southeastern is Isbell’s most focused and accomplished solo record, a refined collection that packs a punch both emotional (the harrowing “Elephant”) and musical (the heavy “Super 8”). It is, as well, far and away Isbell’s most personal statement as he worries over the regrets from his past and the uncertainties of his future.

“There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be,” he sings on the standout “Live Oak.” “And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.” Is that Isbell singing from the gut? Or is it his character, a former outlaw looking for redemption in a lover? Could it be both?

CMT Edge: On Southeastern, you toggle between singing from what sounds like your own perspective and singing from the perspective of a character, like on “Live Oak.”

Isbell: I quit drinking. I got married. I cleaned up my life and became a citizen — an adult, really — for the first time. And you have concerns when that happens. Obviously, a lot of things get a lot better for you, but you also wonder about what you’re going to lose.

“Live Oak” came from that anxiety over wondering what about me is going to be different. Will it be things that make me less interesting to people? Things that my significant other liked about me? Am I still going to be any fun? Thinking about all that, I created that character and allowed him to behave in a way that I thought he would naturally behave. But it was based on personal concerns of mine.

All fiction writers do that, to some extent. They put themselves in the position having characters enact their concerns. But most fiction writers aren’t conflated with their characters the way songwriters often are.

Right. To me, that’s a really beautiful thing about writing songs as opposed to novels. I don’t have to be a documentarian, but I don’t have to just create fiction. I can mix it however I want. It’s liberating. That and the fact that you only have to write three or four minutes worth of material rather than hundreds of pages every time. It’s funny because people never ask Arnold Schwarzenegger if he’s actually the Terminator. But if you write a song from the first-person point of view, people will say it’s about you every time.

So you haven’t really robbed a Great Lakes freighter and killed its crew, as “Live Oak” purports?

Nah. But it’s always good to have an imagination. I think these stories and these characters that I create serve a purpose for me. They help me to explain my life to myself. It’s a nice way to be able to provide some cheap therapy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. All of my favorite writers do it — Randy Newman, Bob Dylan. “Write what you know” is good advice, but it’s not exactly that literal. You know emotions and you know people and you know the way they’re going to behave, and you can write about that.

Obviously, people are going to hear these songs about desperate men trying to redeem themselves and connect them with you getting sober and getting married. Do you feel like you’re putting yourself out there more with these songs?

I do. And I think that’s really what I mean by “personal” when I’m discussing these songs. It’s not that I haven’t always written from a personal standpoint. I just think that I’m allowing myself to reveal things on this particular album. Sometimes you write a line and sit back and think, “Should I really tell people that? Should I let that out?”

Every time that came up on this album, I decided that, yeah, I’m going to give it to them. It makes for better songs. You have to be brave enough to let those things escape. It’s a hard thing to do, but I’ll tell you, if you’re honest with your audience, then as your audience grows, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who are very similar to you. And when the time does come to reveal yourself, they won’t turn their back on you.

It sounds like you have to trust your audience to accept these new revelations.

I’m trying to refrain from controlling my image too much. I’m trying to really let people know who I am and what I’ve done, as opposed to which angle looks the best in which light.

What is it like to live with these songs that contain such personal information? Does that make them difficult to sing night after night?

As long as the craft is there and the phrasing is good and rhymes are decent and the melody is strong and the structure is sound, then I’m happy to perform that song every night. I haven’t played these songs live very much, but I always feel like they’re out of my hands once they’re written and recorded. They belong to the people who are listening to them at that point. In the best possible scenario, they’ll open themselves up to other interpretations. That’s what I want. I don’t ever fight that. I don’t ever tell somebody that’s not what that’s about. I’m not going to do that to folks. It’s theirs. I’ve said what I have to say.

What happened to your band, the 400 Unit, on this album? Did you intend to make this as a strictly solo album?

They didn’t all play on the album. Jimbo [Hart] wasn’t around. He had a scheduling conflict. I wouldn’t feel like calling it a 400 Unit album without him. Plus, the idea initially was to make a solo acoustic record, so I wanted to cut a record on my own. But I got bored with that idea pretty early. It’s boring to listen to a guy play acoustic guitar and sing songs. So the producer Dave Cobb and I started bringing in other musicians.

Do you play any of these songs solo acoustic anymore?

I do some shows that are just me by myself, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at that if the audience is right. If I have the band there, I’m going to use them. Most of the songs have at least something other than a guitar. Some of them will have a little bit of percussion or Mellotron. There’s a whole lot of Mellotron on this album, which is an instrument that I really like.

What draws you to that instrument?

It’s one of those instruments that it accidentally created something really cool, like a Wurlitzer or an electric piano. They set out to make the thing sound like a piano, but it sounds nothing like a piano. I love instruments like that. They made recordings of strings or horns playing a note, and when you hit a note on the keyboard, it plays a tape of that. It almost sounds like strings — but not quite.

I think the first album to feature a Mellotron was the Moody BluesDays of Future Passed, so that’s what you’re hearing on “Nights in White Satin.” Zeppelin used it a whole lot, too. It’s just something that creates its own purpose. You’re no longer going for a string sound or a horn sound. You’re going for a Mellotron sound.

Your album was just released, and Amanda Shires has a new album out in August. Are you planning on touring together?

We’re going to do some of that. We’ll do a week or two here and there together, but we don’t want to get those two careers too intertwined. It’s important for each of us to have our own identity as a performer and a songwriter. We don’t want to be too dependent on each other for that particular aspect in our lives. That said, it’s great to spend as much time together as possible, and we definitely do enjoy playing music together. So that will happen quite a bit.

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