Jason Isbell was home in Alabama last week, taking a short-lived hiatus from touring. We sat down to talk about his new record, Here We Rest, which is supported by his band The 400 Unit and will be released next Tuesday, April 12th. The album is his best solo record and one of the finest of 2011 so far.
Other topics discussed include songwriting, the South, war, Boys II Men, Luke Wilson, facial hair, cover songs, and gear.
Its hard to believe its been 4 years since you left Drive-By Truckers. What was it like to make the leap into a solo career and how would you describe the past four years?
Wow, how do you describe 4 years? Its been good. I like having more material on the records and being able to write more. It can be a little bit difficult to pace yourself for live shows and the idea of singing for an entire set is a bit daunting. It took a while to get used to that, but I like the band , the people I play with and travel with.
Your debut was a mostly solitary affair with the help of some friends and session musicians. When and how did you find the 400 Unit?
It all came about right after recording Sirens of The Ditch. I started putting together a band from people Ive known for a long time. All those guys are from this area except for the keyboard player, Derry (deBorja). I met him touring with Son Volt , he played with that band. I pretty much got the first guys that I called. We had a little bit of drummer trouble there for a bit, but we got that settled and have had our drummer for 3 years. Ive known these guys for many years and they are the guys I like to play with and hang out with the most.
Has the addition of the 400 Unit had an impact on your songwriting?
Definitely. Yeah, in every way. The people that you play with , if you play with them on a regular basis , youll start writing with them in mind and it impacts everything you do creatively.
Speaking of songwriting, what first draws me into most of your songs is the storyline. Its often not until I see you live that I gain a real appreciation for the musicianship. Walk us through your process. How does an Isbell song come to life?
Its different depending on where I am and depending on how the song shapes itself. It can be something where Ill start off with a chorus, a line from a chorus, or with a hook. Or with a piece of a melody and a few words. Or I can start from playing guitar or piano and run over a chord progression until words start to appear to me. Probably, more often than not, for me, some snippet of a lyric comes first. Some piece of a conversation or some little phrase or part of speech , something lyrically will usually be the first thing. But not always. Ill take it however I can get it, so its different every time. Ive tried every technique I know of for writing a song and some work better than others, but I wind up using all of them over the course of a record.
And lyrically, is it mostly fiction or is there some autobiographical element in there?
Oh, its always partially true at the very least. Nothing is completely fiction. Nothing at all. I dont think anyone ever writes anything thats completely made up. There are pieces of characters you know or pieces of yourself in all those songs. But most of the songs that I write, probably 90%, come from true stories Ive heard or conversations Ive had with someone about their life or some part of my own life that Im trying to sort out.
You have a unique way of writing songs in plain-speak without being trite or contrived. Its a form of poetry that romanticizes small town life in the South. Maybe more specifically where you live in Alabama. How much of your upbringing inspires your songwriting or how much of where you live geographically inspires your songwriting?
I think it has a lot to do with it. Granted, Ive never lived anywhere outside of the South. Ive traveled quite a bit, so I dont know how different it would be if Id lived somewhere else, but Ive always been drawn to people who have a regional voice and people who speak about the things they know the most which are usually the things in closest proximity to them. And Ive always been drawn to people who write very conversationally. I think as Ive refined my own creative process, Ive gotten more conversational in the language I use. Those are the best songs to me , the ones where you could have overheard the lines in a bar or the grocery store. But someone actually placing it in the context of a song, it becomes more poignant and has more meaning for different people. But I do feel like the area here in Alabama has a lot to do with the topics I write about and the stories I tell because you cant really avoid that. If youre writing from an honest place, then its going to come out.
With all the touring and, do you have any fear that someday youll lose some connection with your roots and subsequently lose some of that songwriting inspiration? Is that a fear for a songwriter?
If you tour too much, you can definitely get to a point where you dont have the motivation to write and its hard to fit into your schedule. I feel most connected to the stories and those people around me when Im home. You have to tour and I enjoy touring, but the fact that I was off the road for a lot of last year made it possible for me to see some of the same folks everyday and get to know them. I got to know what their lives are like and really try to empathize with them the best that I could. And when it came time to write songs, that made it easier for me. If you tour too much, youre in danger of stunting your growth in the songwriting process. You have to keep a balance. You have to keep a lid on it.
I first heard some of your new songs in Atlanta at The Earl back in October , I think “Alabama Pines” and “Go It Alone” were the only songs included on that set list.
Yeah, those were the only two that we were playing live for a long time.
Ive had the album for a few months and Im convinced its your best yet. How do you feel about Here We Rest compared to your previous two albums?
I think its a step forward. Its lyrically more concise. As far as the playing goes, having Chad as a consistent drummer has a lot to do with how the band works together and he makes the performances and the arrangements better. But I think the ultimate success or failure of a record lies in the strength of the songs. I think we had a really good batch of songs to work with.
I agree with you. Can we dig into some of the songs briefly? My favorites keep changing, but Id like to call out a few.
“Alabama Pines.” That song makes me homesick for Alabama and I dont think Ive ever set foot in the state. Whats it about? Who is the character were dealing with?
Im not going to name names, but its about a person whos been away for too long and is in a place of desperation and looking for some kind of help. You can get away from that center really easily. I have a lot of friends who have left the area in search of greener pastures and that doesnt always work. You can wind up in a really desperate place. Think about “The Boxer” , the Paul Simon song. Its the need to go out in search of something better and then you lose yourself.
“Stopping By” was another favorite of mine. Theres a lot of courage in this song about a son seeking out his estranged father.
Or a daughter. There was no mention of a penis in there.
Perhaps I pictured one in my head. Anyway, your lyrics say:
I think the best of me’s still standing in the doorway
Counting cars and counting days and counting years
I could say you made me go through life the hard way
But it might’ve been worse if you were here…
Thats pretty profound. Later you say, “I still have difficulty smiling.” Its clear that the character is deeply affected by growing up without a father. Has he forgiven the old man?
No, this is before any point of forgiveness. And thats not my story, but Ive been around people that have grown up without immediate family. It gets complicated because a lot of times somebody will try to get back in touch and it brings up a flood of emotions because theres so much blame there. Its hard to move it aside to repair the situation. This is a character that is determined to, at least temporarily, remove the idea of “its your fault” or “you did this to me.” They try to accept the situation and move forward.
On “Tour of Duty,” as with “Dress Blues,” you write a song about war without being overly political or pushing any agenda. When you play those songs about a subject as sensitive as war, what message are you trying to get across?
When youre in a small town, theres a higher percentage of people that fight overseas. Im not an anti-war person, but I do think a stupid idea is a stupid idea. Its hard to filter through the media and see what the truth is nowadays. Its almost impossible, but some ideas seem like good ones and some seem like bad ones. I try to go on a case-by-case basis. Surely I wouldnt say we shouldnt have participated in World War II, but at the same time, I dont necessarily think the Iraq war was the best idea.
But either way, Im not here to make policy. My main concern is with individuals and their stories. When I write a song about war, its personal to me. Whats more interesting than being reminded of your mortality on a daily basis? Its a topic that should be on everyones mind all the time. Ive never been to war, so I dont write about being in war itself. I try to write about the effect the war is having on the homefront or on individuals. I do know something about that. Its important to me and so many people overlook it.
On a lighter note, youve got a song on the album called “Ballad of Nobeard.”
Yeah, thats an instrumental. The accordion song.
That’s the one. We recently got back from SxSW and we love tracking facial hair trends. I think mustache popularity is at an all time high. We even saw a guy with sideburn tattoos. Ive never seen you with any facial hair. Is “Ballad of Nobeard” an autobiographical song title of some kind?
It is but Derry, our keyboard player, wrote that and he doesnt have a beard. Hes still a peanut, so I dont know how good a beard grower he would be. Ive got a lot of Cherokee in me, so my beard is really splotchy if I try to grow it out. Its not a pretty sight.
We caught two different sets of yours at SxSW – One was acoustic with Amanda Shires on fiddle and the other was backed by the 400 Unit. That acoustic set was a rare treat. Any chance well get a mix of both acoustic and full 400 Unit on upcoming tours?
Ill be doing in-stores at record stores and radio shows , that kind of thing. If were all there at a show together, I kind of hate going on stage by myself while the rest of the band sits backstage and hangs out. But we do have some instrument changes and some of the songs will have upright bass. There will be some stripped down acoustic kind of things, but as far as solo/ duo stuff, that probably wont come back around for awhile unless you catch me at an in-store.
I did notice youll be at Criminal Records in Atlanta prior to the show at The Earl. Speaking of Amanda Shires, she blew us away at SxSW. I think every man and homosexual woman in the crowd fell in love with her.
[Laughs] Probably so.
Shes great. Who the hell is she?
Ive known her for a long time. I met her at Luke Wilsons birthday party and then did the Austin City Limits Music festival. She was playing with Billy Joe Shaver then – 8 years ago. She has a good solo record called Carrying Lightning and she played on the record. Shes always good to have around.
Wait, youre hanging out with the Wilson brothers?
Sort of, yeah. I talk to Luke. The other one wasnt there , Owen. But my favorite part was hanging out with Harry Dean Stanton that day. He got up and sang some kind of Mexican birthday song and it was just beautiful. A lot of times, especially with the older guys, theyll have a connection to Muscle Shoals. Theyll know someone like Donnie Fritts or Spooner Oldham or others from here and thats my in with older actors and musicians from the 60s and 70s. If I start mentioning my friends from the studio days from back here, then their ears perk up.
I know you and Justin Townes Earle are friends and toured together, including a stop on Letterman. What was that performance like? Was it odd looking over and seeing Paul Shaffer on keys?
Yeah, it was odd playing with Paul, but you know, he knew the material. Hed listened to the song and came in well-prepared. It was exciting to get to trade off with Paul some. As much as people see him, hes an underrated musician. He can play any style. It was fun. Everyone on the show was really nice to us.
Were roughly the same age (Im a year or two older). What were some early records youve owned that might be guilty pleasures or that you might be embarrassed to mention at a party?
You know, I dont do guilty pleasures. I think I can defend anything Ive liked.
There wasnt any Bell Biv Devoe or C & C Music Factory in your Case Logic CD wallet?
No, I didnt have those albums, but I could probably defend Bell Biv Devoe. Those guys were talented. I did have some [pause] Damnit. Who were those guys from Philadelphia? The singing group? They did “End of the Road” and “Motown Philly?”
Shit, Im drawing a blank. They had some a capella skills though.
How can we both not remember this?
I blank out easily. Don’t worry, I’ll Google it later and edit their name back into this interview. No one will ever know.
Okay, yeah. Somewhere theres some footage of this country band I was in, singing one of their songs on a closed circuit television telethon. It was just awful. I was probably 14 or 15 years old, singing a capella. Oh, Boys to Men – Thats who Im trying to think of.
There you go.
Yeah, I kind of dug Boys to Men for a minute. They were pretty good. But the first record I owned that I bought for myself, not a gift from my parents, was Janet Jacksons Rythym Nation. And I like it.
You can defend that one.
Yeah, its a concept record and I think its pretty cool. But yeah, I dont do the guilty pleasures. I dont lke Journey, so I dont have to explain that away. I dont like the Eagles. Nowadays I like the Ting Tings. Ill defend that. But I dont care for the Black Eyed Peas at all. If I liked them Id feel guilty
I wont hold my breath for a Boys To Men cover at any shows, but fans have become accustomed to your cover songs – Into The Mystic (Van Morrison), Sway (The Rolling Stones), American Girl (Tom Petty), Psycho Killer (The Talking Heads), Atlantic City (Bruce Springsteen), The Dock of The Bay (Otis Redding), Never Gonna Change + Stone Free (Jason Isbell + Jimi Hendrix). How do you choose a good cover song?
Its just something thats stuck in one of our heads for a few days. As long as the song isnt covered by every cover band on earth, or even if it is and we think we can do it better, well do it. You know, there’s no scientific method to it. It just floats around the van for a bit and well work it out in sound check.
My favorite cover is your take on Patterson Hoods “The Assassin.” You and the 400 Unit play that song as it deserves to be played. Any chance of getting it recorded or is it forever a bootleg?
Theres a recording of it. I did it for Sirens of the Ditch, but we didnt put it on the record. We may record that again. I love that song. Patterson doesnt really like it. He may have changed his mind by now, but he never liked to play that song live and at one point he said “If you want to play it its yours. Play it as much as you want because I dont care to do it anymore.” So thats what we did. I love the song. Its great allegory and a well written song.
I agree. I love that story. Name your top 3 Drive By Truckers songs that you didnt write.
Thats tough. I cant say top three, but I can tell you three that I like a whole lot. I love “Heathens.” Im not going to say its my favorite, but its the one I wind up singing to myself the most. I think “Women Without Whiskey” and “Zip City” are both incredible songs of Cooleys off of Rock Opera. But I love “Nine Bullets” and Pizza Deliverance. Thats a great record.
For the musicians and gear heads out there, what are your favorite guitars, amps, and pedals?
The amp that I use is a Sommatone. Jimmy Somma out of New Jersey makes those with a guy named Dan Arango. They are boutique amps. They are small run, hand wired amps and Ive had this one for close to three years and really love it. Its my favorite amp that Ive ever had. Its a 40 watt 212 combo class A.
Im playing a Deusenberg Starplayer guitar, Goldtop. Its a really well made guitar. I miss my 335 and it was lost on cruise ship a few months ago. I think they accidentally gave it away to a girl, so Im excited to get it back.
I didnt know you were playing cruiseships.
Well we played that Zac Brown Sailing Southern Ground cruise. It was fun. I like the Zac Brown guys, but it gets claustrophobic on a boat for 4 or 5 days. But anyhow, they found my 335 in Chicago under some girls bed or something. Strange story. But when I get it back, Im going to play it a lot. I love that guitar. Its a custom 335 reissue.
The guitar I played in recording Here We Rest and on Justins album was this old Harmony Archtop Prep model that my uncle found at a flea market in Birmingham. I dont know what he paid for it, but it proably wasnt much. I sent it off to a guy named Scott Baxendale whos in Athens, GA now. He went through it , steamed it apart and re-braced it, put frets and tuners and put a little pick-up in it. Its from ’27 or ’28 as best we can tell. Ive got about $600 in it total and Ive used it in a shitload of stuff.
Pedals , Ive had a couple of Germanium Diode overdrive fuzz pedals from Analog Man that makes good stuff. I use a ZVex Box of Rock overdrive pedal. Thats about it. Oh, and recently I got a POG electro-harmonix octave generator. Thats a really c0ol pedal that you can do a lot with. I hear that pedal a lot on The White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age. You can do the Jimmy Page octave thing , playing but you can mix the octave down and up. Its a really cool pedal.
So whats next? I see some tour dates in the Southeast, including a stop in Atlanta. You taking it easy after that or hitting the road?
Were getting ready. Weve got about another week at home and then were out for about 3 months straight, so Im trying to keep myself in decent shape and get enough rest. Doing a lot of press and trying to figure out the best ways to get the record in peoples hands.
Well, Ive been a fan for a long time and I absolutely love Here We Rest. We wish you all the best this year.
Well thanks. I appreciate it.
You can download “Codeine” off of Here We Rest below: