It is probably fair at this point to call Jason Isbell a phenomenon. On the radar of serious music fans since his days as a member of the rough and tumble alt-country outfit Drive by Truckers, Isbell as a solo artist has grown into one of the clearest voices of this moment.
The listening public obviously have a desire to hear what he was to say, as his latest solo release, “Something More Than Free,” became the first album to debut simultaneously atop Billboard’s Rock, Country and Folk charts. Drawing from the strongest traditions of singer-songwriters, classic country and roots rock, the album is a truly fine example of American music. As you listen to the descriptions of people, places and events that unfold across the disc, you realize that Jason Isbell is one of those people whose explanations of himself and the world around him better help you understand yourself.
Isbell is scheduled to perform at the Midland Center for the Arts on June 1. It was a pleasure to have an opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes as a preview to the show.
Here’s what he had to say:
Review: First thing I would like to say is how much we appreciate you coming here. It is an interesting little crevice of the world. I don’t know that I have ever seen that many exclamation points and OMGs among my friends on social media as when it was announced you were coming to play here. You can sure make middle aged men and local musicians act like school girls.
Jason Isbell: That’s great to hear. (laughter)
Review: First, you have been at this about a decade and a half while we have all been watching. You write these songs, you record them and then you sing them to people a few hundred times. Some of those experiences, do they change when you look back over time? Does the song feel different? Do they almost become fictionalized, even though they all really happened?
Isbell: I wouldn’t say they become fictionalized. I mean, not the ones that really did happen. But certainly the perspective changes. If I am performing songs I wrote a decade ago or at another time in my life, I try to put myself in the place I was when I wrote those songs if they deserve it. If there is a song I really feel out of touch with, I will simply take it out of the set list rather than get up there and go through the motions.
But they do, some of them, take on new meaning to me because my life has changed so much over the years. Sometimes you are performing a song that might have had some bitterness to it when I wrote it; you might become more triumphant that you overcome those things, thinking about those lyrics. Like “I am glad I am not the person that wrote this song anymore.”
Review: When you mention that – you are an adult now. You are married. You have a kid. How does that change how you view yourself? Either the “method” you use or what you see when you look in the mirror? What does a 36-year-old Jason see when he looks at his life that he didn’t see when he was 22?
Isbell: I am in a much better place. I have a priority list that makes sense. I think the big difference for me from then to now is now I know what I want. I think that was the hardest thing for me – figuring out what it would take for me to be happy. Once you figure that out it is not nearly as hard to go after it and get it.
For me it took a lot of time and a lot of experimenting to figure out what it was I wanted out of life. I think part of being an adult is figuring those things out and, for me, it’s family foremost, just like it is for my dad, and it was for his dad. Having that at the top of my priority list really frees up a lot of other things knowing my family is taken care of. I can move my challenges into creative pursuits. That is probably the thing I am most proud - that all my major challenges are creative ones and that is about the best position you can hope to be in.
Review: When you say that, you have gotten to the place in your job and life where you are taking care of people, to some degree you have people taking care of you. Do you find that frees you up for more creative opportunities? Are you concerned you might not be in touch with regular things that once demanded attention, or am I completely missing the point of what most days are like for you?
Isbell: I stay very close to the people I grew up around and to my family. My life is not really set up in a way that will let me get disconnected from the reason I started writing songs in the first place. I just haven’t really moved into that world. I haven’t attempted to put myself in that bubble. I still have people who will call me on my bullshit. If I am not working up to my usual standards, my wife will say “That’s not any good, you gotta work on that some more.”
I think that can be a major pitfall for people who have had some success as an artist. You could start weeding people out, so the only people who you are in contact with are people who think you are brilliant, so therefore everything you do is brilliant, because they just want to be around. I think that would be a big mistake, because then you wind up selling yourself short creatively.
It is really not that hard for me to find things to write about. The motivation to do the work, sometimes that takes some scheduling. If you have got a family and you have a lot of things you have to get done in a day, you have to carve out time to work.
You also have to be willing to do that work when you have that time. You can’t romanticize the muse. You can’t sit around and think “when I am struck with an idea, then I will write,” because that is just not how it works at a professional level. It’s a job and you have to treat it like a job. You have to sit down and keep yourself in the seat and write songs.
Inspiration – that’s all nonsense. If you can’t find something to write about, you just aren’t paying attention. Because there is so much going on in the world now and we have such easy access to it. If anyone is going to be an artist, a songwriter, a creative person and you are complaining about not having any inspiration to work or not being able to work when you have the time, I don’t think you are the real thing, you know. I think if you are the real thing, you sit down and do the work. And, if you don’t like it, you keep doing it until you do.
Review: That’s a great lead in to the last thing I wanted to ask. I have written down here a description of you as a “professional noticer of things.” That’s what songwriters do, right, you notice something, write it down, think of something that rhymes.
Isbell: Yeah, I like that.
Review: You also travel. You see America and you get to go see a little bit of the world. What are you noticing now? When I turn on the TV I worry. What are you running into? What do you see?
Isbell: If I watched the news all day, I would probably be wringing my hands. You know, I think being around a small child has reminded me of a whole lot of ways that we learn. I know this is obvious to anybody who has had a kid and paid attention to them. You forget how you really have to start from scratch. It is a long process just to learn how to wave at somebody, or just to learn how to say “Hello.” We take that granted.
Right now I am paying a lot of attention to the process of learning to communicate with the other people in the world around you, because I am seeing the baby have to do it all from the ground up.
But I do feel like the “noticing things” is a big part of the job. Another part is solving puzzles. You have to pick the right details, because that’s what you sit down with. But that doesn’t make for a song. The song is taking those things that you’ve noticed and filed back and putting them in an order. It’s really like my wife calls it, solving puzzles. Just to make it rhyme, make the phrasing right and have some kind of musicality about it.
The older I get, the more I notice that people are the same all over the world. They have the same interests, they want the same thing, whether they know it or not.
Review: I wanted to thank you again for coming to our area. You probably won’t get a chance to see much, but this is an area with its own great original music scene. You should know that your audience will be sprinkled with other songwriters, who would love to be doing what you are doing and have the utmost respect for what you are accomplishing. We are pleased as punch you are coming here.
Isbell: We are too. Great interview. It was great to talk to you.
Jason Isbell will be at the Midland Center For The Arts on Wednesday, June 1 at 8:00 PM. Tickets are available through the MCFTA Box Office, online at mcfta.org or by calling 989-631-8250.