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Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Monday 7th April, 2014 3:49PM

Nashville-based musician Jason Isbell was fresh out of rehab for addiction to Jack Daniel’s and cocaine when he toured New Zealand in 2012 alongside country star Ryan Adams. In fact, it was with the help of Adams and his manager that the former Drive-By-Truckers member managed to face the demons of drink and clean up. Since that sobering journey Isbell has a new record under his belt, titled Southeastern, almost all of which was written after overcoming his addiction. The album deals with some big themes like dependence, cancer and sexual abuse in a beautifully honest way, making it Isbell’s most well-received solo effort yet. He spoke to UTR from his Tennessee home about writing sober and his musical roots ahead of his Auckland show this Saturday...

Heya Jason, how’s your day going I believe it’s nearly evening in Nashville??

Well, it’s been good. It's nearly six o'clock here and I thought it was the 1st of April but it turns out it’s the 31st of March, so it turns out I’ve got a free day, which is nice.

So you are heading over here soon to tour... the last time you were here was in 2012 with Ryan Adams. How was it going on the road with Ryan?

It was great, it was just me and Ryan and a small crew and we were both playing solo acoustic sets in pretty good rooms and concert halls, so I had a great time on that tour.

How did the two of you become friends?

Well, he heard, not my most recent record, but the one before that [Here We Rest] and he called me, you know he just really enjoyed the record a whole lot, it meant a lot to him, so he just called to tell me that. We hadn’t spoken before, but obviously we knew of each other, and after that conversation we became friends and we are still in touch now. We still talk pretty frequently.

Cool... you are coming now with your new record, which you have described as being very “personal”, how does it feel sharing that with the public?

Well, that’s the whole job, if you are song-writer or a poet or a fiction writer, that’s your job to take those things that are a little bit frightening and give them to everyone else to judge one way or another. I’m used to it, but I still have to keep pushing myself to keep doing that though, not to write comfortable. Because you’re selling your audience short if you are comfortable with everything that you write and discuss. It’s not easy, but that’s what we do.

What made it a personal record? I understand it was made shortly after a stint in rehab, is that part of what was fed into it?

Yea... getting sober was a big deal and I got into a relationship that I am very happy in and I got married. So my life changed course pretty quickly right before I wrote this album and I felt it was important for me to document all that. It was good for me that I had something to talk about but it was also a stressful time trying to figure out how to be a musician and a songwriter and a spouse all over again. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s turned out to be really positive for me.

How was it different creating music sober than through a haze of drugs and alcohol?

It was a lot easier. It was easier to find time to do the work and it was easier to focus. Beforehand, when I was still drinking and doing drugs and stuff, I’d written in small bursts of creativity that usually revolved around when I was sober. So first thing after I woke up, I’d write for a few hours, but as the day went on I’d start wanting to drink and my focus would slip. And I didn’t have that in this case. If you are an alcoholic the first thing that happens when you quit drinking is you get a whole lot of time, you get many hours of the day that you are not recovering from the night before and you’re not worrying about getting drunk, so I had a lot more time to work. And it made it more possible for me to hone in on the craft of writing and come up with better material.

And so when you took the material to the studio you recorded the vocals live, which I understand was a unique challenge for you?

Yea, that happened a lot on this record which is something I hadn’t done in the past. Usually I would do a pilot vocal and then go back and sing a vocal which was a little bit more perfect. It took a lot of courage on my part compared to what I’ve done in the past. Even if you are a professional singer it’s not easy to hear your own voice recorded, so in the past I would make sure every note was in tune and every phrase was correct, and do it over and over again until it was perfect. This time I think taking some of those live vocals probably put a bit more emotion in the performances and made them sound a bit more meaningful.

I think it helps bring a certain authenticity to the album...

Yea a lot of people, like Neil Young used to do it a lot, and lord knows he gets a lot of authenticity out of his vocals.

You naturally have a lot of authenticity to your own sound though, your family in Alabama was a big musical family...

Yea, my Grandfather and uncles were the ones who played music in family, my Dad and Mom didn’t play, but they were always big music fans.

What was the main musical lesson you took from your family?

Just the enjoyment of it really. When I was young, 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, my parents would take me to my grandparent's house and leave me while they went to work, because we couldn’t afford daycare in those days. To keep me occupied my grandfather would teach me how to play musical instruments and I really liked it so much and all the memories I have of that are so positive that I don’t feel like I ever had to force myself to practice. It’s a very comfortable, very natural thing for me to sit around and play guitar.

Do you still play for enjoyment when you're at home?

Oh yea, very often. If I’m sitting around at home watching a movie or something, as long as as no one is there to be distracted. Or I’ll try and play my wife’s fiddle but I’m not very good of that. It’s pretty painful to listen to.

I read that the name Southeastern, was taken from the name of your father’s old workplace where he came back with some terrible stories, why did you take a name that had sour memories?

I’d wanted to reclaim that in a lot of ways. Not all the memories were bad. I mean Dad had a job and that was what he needed. But he place seemed like a torture chamber when I was a little kid and heard stories about people getting injured. I thought why would people put themselves through that. Then I realised people who have a family to feed would put themselves through that, because that’s the grown-up thing to do. As I got older I started thinking about that kind of sacrifice and it seemed like a good idea to reclaim that name and use it for my own purposes.

It’s quite metaphorical usage, because you talk about some painful themes on the album, cancer and sexual abuse, as well as your own recovery from addiction. Why did you write about those subjects?

Well, those were the things I was thinking about. It’s hard to write a song about cancer and not be maudlin about it, but I think when those topics are looked at in a different way, you can write songs that affect people in a certain way that feels really honest and I wanted it to be honest.

One last question, you’re 35 and you’ve already done a lot, what’s next?

Well, career-wise I want to keep trying to write good songs and not lose touch of the reasons I started writing good songs in the first place. I’d like to still have that kind of enjoyment for words and melodies for a long time. I’ve got a few things written down for a new record, but I don’t think I’ll start recording that for awhile, I’m not going to rush it, I’ve got my own record label so I don’t have anybody trying to talk me into trying to put an album out too soon and consistency is really important to me.

Here's a video for the track 'Traveling Alone' from Southeastern...

Jason Isbell is performing on Saturday 12th April at Tuning Fork, Auckland. Click here for more details.