It’s been a great year for songwriter, singer and guitarist Jason Isbell. His recent record Something More Than Free hit number one on the folk, rock and country charts over the summer. He has received popular and critical acclaim for nuanced, poignant songs dealing with choices people make and the way that and time change them. Isbell writes songs whose details and themes continue to reveal themselves over repeated listenings. He’s one of the best writers going right now. And he’s a hellacious guitar player, too. OffBeat spoke to him in anticipation of his upcoming Voodoo Festival appearance.
Congratulations on a great year. How did it feel to have your album go to number one? Did you ever think it would happen?
It’s hard to quantify that in a simple answer. It’s a good thing, and I was really happy about it. But it was never really the goal. I didn’t expect that to happen. I was really happy that the record had that kind of success right off the bat. It was surprising especially because we put it out on our own small label and didn’t use any kind of a big label machine to promote the record. I was pleasantly surprised by it.
In terms of making the record, what was the hardest thing about it?
Well, writing the songs is always the challenge. That should be the hardest part of making any record. I challenge myself to get every line right, so I spend a lot of time editing. Once you have the song, the process of actually recording the album has never been that difficult if the songs are there. The majority of the time is spent working on the songs before you get to the studio.
What was the easiest thing about making the record?
Oh, I don’t know. Getting coffee maybe? [laughs] None of making a record should really be easy. It was enjoyable. I had a good time. I like working with the producer Dave Cobb. That’s a very comfortable relationship. He has really good ideas and very quick instincts and he’s easy to be around. That’s a tough combination to find. Most of the time, the producer is either your buddy who is doing more engineering than anything else, or it’s a producer who’s got a reputation for doing good work and comes in and takes over. But Dave, he’s pretty transparent and wants the artist to sound like themselves, and that’s a rare thing.
In contrast to someone who comes in with their own idea of the way something is supposed to sound?
One way we avoid that is that we don’t do demos or work tapes or anything like that. I come in with the song and play it for everybody and then we record them one at a time. And we don’t take anything home. It keeps people from falling in love with a certain part. It keeps people from having to unlearn things they’ve already learned.
In your mind, how is Something More Than Free different from Southeastern?
It’s a document of a different period of time. If you were writing a journal, how would today be different from yesterday? It’s a different day. When I make a record, I try to document my life whether it’s through narrative fiction songwriting—sometimes the narrator is not necessarily trustworthy, but it still documents, it’s still explaining my life to me.
Has the live show changed with this record? Is it still the same?
Yeah, it’s changed. We have more money so we have more shit onstage. [laughs] We have a truck and lights and sound and better amplifiers and guitars and better microphones. We have a bigger crew. All those things, the audience doesn’t always notice that, but there’s a big difference between seeing a band in a club or seeing it in a theatre or a festival. We might be playing at noon on Sunday versus somebody who is headlining. One reason those bands sound different is that they have a bigger and better crew and a better production and they are able to afford those things. It’s better to be able to move away from the bar band situation. It’s more entertaining. As far as the delivery of the show, the greatest change happened probably when I quit drinking. When I was drunk onstage—I was drunk onstage most of the time for a lot of years. Now I can sing whole lot better and I have a lot more stamina and my voice is much, much stronger that it was five or six years ago.
Do you tailor the show each time based on where you are? Does it change, or is it basically the same every time?
It changes. I recently started making a set list. I have to do that now for lighting cues and guitar changes. Up until a few months ago, I had never made a set list. But I make a different one every night depending on where we are and what songs those audiences have responded to. If we’re playing a festival show, it’s going to be a little bit louder. We play a little more of the arena rock set for those big outdoor festivals. Usually you don’t have as much time. It’s rare that you get two hours to play at a festival like you do at a theatre, so we try to sort of capture the same atmosphere in a shorter amount of time and a bigger venue.
Are you feeling more pressure with this record? Do you feel more stressed about the success of this record?
No, the more successful I get at this, the less stressed I feel. I think that’s how it supposed to work, you know? I put pressure on myself to write better songs, but as far as external pressure, no. I’ve already gone farther than I’ve expected to. I’m sort of on borrowed time and extra innings, as far as that goes.
Is there a certain purpose or goal in what you write? Is there something in general that you are trying to say or express?
I’m trying to explain my own life to myself. Sometimes it’s therapy, and it very often transcends that. When the songs are at their best, they become something resembling art. Usually I’m writing a song because I think it needs to exist, and I can’t really pin down why. It feels good to sing those songs that I made up and tell those stories to people. I’m trying to communicate to a broader piece of humanity.
I’ve noticed that in listening to your songs, they are about specific people or situations, but they seem to reflect bigger themes. Is that something you do deliberately, or is that something that people hear after you write them?
That’s something you can stumble on once or twice. If you’re not doing it on purpose, it’s going to become pretty obvious pretty quickly. The things I read fiction-wise, they open themselves up to different meanings. I try to work in allegory. I prefer allegory over metaphor. It’s deeper and has a better range. You want to write songs that people will feel like listening to years from now, and the best way to do that is if the listener catches something each time or understands the song in a different way a year after he or she bought the album. If you want to do that, you have to be very careful. But it’s intentional. You can’t really do that by accident. I think the people who sound like they are just stumbling on that are people who are really really good at their job.
You do a lot of interviews with folks like me, and is there anything that you wish people would ask you about?
Gear. Nobody ever asks me about gear. It’s something I want to talk about but nobody’s interested in that. The rare time that I’m doing interviews and they ask about pedals and strings and guitars and stuff, that’s good.
That’s something that I wanted to ask you. As I did research on you, nobody asks about your guitar playing. Do you pattern yourself after anybody with your guitar style?
There are different guitar players. I never got too into any one style. I think of myself as a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player. My early influences are Duane Allman and Dickie Betts, and going back further into blues guitar players. What I do is blues-based rock ’n’ roll, but I’m a white guy. I’m not going to go out there and sing the blues. Nobody wants to hear that. I guess some people do. There is a big market for that in the blues lawyer community. It really comes from that: the blues-based rock ’n’ roll and the hillbilly music my family listened to, the gospel and folk and country music we listened to when I was a kid. That’s what I listened to when I first learned to play. A lot of those flat-pickers had an influence on me. I’m not a bluegrass guitar player, but there is an element that finds its way into the music that I play.
Speaking of guitars, I did hear that when you were in Newport this year for the Folk Festival, you got to play the guitar that Bob Dylan went electric on?
Yeah, the Strat.
How was that?
It was incredible. There are still some people who say that that is not the guitar, but Jim Irsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, owns it now. He has a big collection of impressive guitars. Yeah, it was amazing. It’s still finished and looks like it just came out of the box. It was a year old in 1965, and it didn’t really get played for almost 50 years after that. It was amazing. There is definitely some mojo there with Dylan not really being a guitar player. Even still, in that setting with that instrument, you still feel that it’s a starting point to a big thing for the kind of music that we make now.
If there is one moment that sums up your year musically, what might it be?
Right after my daughter was born about a month and a half ago, we were in the hospital and she was fussy and we couldn’t figure out how to calm her down. My wife said, “Put your album on.” I said, “I don’t want to put my album on. There are people in the room. I don’t like to listen to my own albums if there are other people around.” She said, “I’ve been putting the album on for her while you’ve been on the road the last month, so put the album on. It’s something she recognizes.” Sure enough, as soon as we pushed play, she shut up and calmed down. That’s about as good as it gets for me.