Jason Isbell: The Cream Interview

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There are a lot of reasons why it feels good to root for Jason Isbell. He’s been grinding it out on the road since college, first with Drive-By Truckers, now as the proven frontman of his own fierce, roots-rocking outfit, the 400 Unit. Not too long ago, he stopped leaning on liquid courage and started taking the stage completely clear-eyed. He’s one of the smartest storytellers of his generation, but he doesn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. And even though he’ll always be associated with Alabama — the state, not the band — we can now claim him as our own.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will perform tomorrow, July 12, at Mercy Lounge. We'll have a Critic's Pick in tomorrow's issue of the Scene, and you can read my interview with Isbell below.

Nashville Cream: You’ve made clear that you moved to Nashville for a particular reason, but not necessarily the same reason that a lot of people move here — in other words, for a girl, not a gig. Care to expand on that?

Jason Isbell: Yeah. I don’t really need to live in a particular place to work right now, because I travel so much and what I do is not specific to a certain area. Amanda [Shires, Isbell's girlfriend] travels a lot, but she also does a lot of session stuff. You can’t really live in Alabama and do that. Right now she’s at Sewanee at graduate school, so that’s a lot closer to Nashville than it is to North Alabama. You know, when I quit drinking, I sort of realized there’s just not a whole lot to do in Sheffield, Muscle Shoals. There’s a lot more happening in Nashville. There’s a lot more restaurants. There’s a lot more movie theaters. There’s a lot more museums. There’s a whole lot of stuff you can do without going to a bar.

NC: Will the Mercy Lounge show be your first show as an official resident of Nashville?

JI: I guess it will. We’ve played there a bunch. We did one show at the Cannery, a co-headline with Justin [Townes Earle]. Then after that we played this almost unannounced kind of show at The 5 Spot. I guess that was the last time we played in Nashville, and that’s been a pretty long time ago.

NC: You’ve been doing a mix of things, solo shows, performing as an acoustic duo with Amanda. But this is going to be a full-band 400 Unit show, right?

JI: Yeah, it will be. That wouldn’t be the right place to play by myself, unless I did it at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

NC: There’s so much texture to your storytelling; you reveal a lot about a character in subtle strokes. But you also full-on rock out. Do you ever feel a conflict between the two impulses when you’re performing on a given night?

JI: That’s part of the reason I don’t make a set list. … I like to try and gauge the audience and figure out what kind of mood we’re in and what kind of mood they’re in before deciding what we’re gonna play. But I don’t think I would say it’s a conflict, really. I just like to exercise all the muscles as much as possible. When I play a solo acoustic show, to me, it’s a very different thing. Both of them are just me standing there with a guitar singing. But if the room’s not right for a solo acoustic show, it can be just horrible. But if it’s in the right setting and people are listening in a certain way, then it can be really fulfilling for me. I like both. I’m pretty happy just to be working, to tell you the truth. But I do have to try to gauge the kind of room I’m in and the kind of audience I’m playing for. It’s easier to shift gears when you have a band behind you. You can bring any level of intensity with that. But if it’s just you and a guitar, you don’t have any knobs to turn. You can’t get louder. I had a show in Mobile last month that was just like hell. There were people in front of me talking and talking and talking and laughing, and singing along. One woman was singing along with the songs. I’m, like, two songs in, and she’s just a few feet in front of me and she’s singing at the top of her lungs.

NC: That would be kind of awkward.

JI: It was terrible. I stopped in the middle of a song and asked her to please stop singing. It should have been embarrassing for her, but it wasn’t. She was fucked up to where she didn’t really care. It was tough for me to get back in the mood after that, you know? That’s like an injury when you’re having sex: “There goes that.”

NC: You talked about getting inspiration for the songs on Here We Rest through paying attention to people around you. You’re also in the business of going out and playing those songs for people every night. When you write, do you think of the people you’re writing about? Or how the songs will impact the audience? Are those some of the same people?

JI: I try to go with — What is it they say? — the educated stranger. I try to have sort of an ideal listener in my head that basically remains the same person for every song that I write. I kind of have this person I’ve made up that’s sort of sitting next to me listening when I finish a song, the kind of person I want to play for, I guess. I don’t know if that’s intellectually elitist or the opposite, but it’s just sorta for me, somebody that’s my ideal audience member.

NC: Would that be somebody who reads a lot of novels, but is also thoroughly down-to-earth?

JI: I don’t think describing that person would be a good idea. It’s probably not a male, I’ll tell ya that. [laughs] It’s that and, yeah, I think about the people I’m going to be playing for on a nightly basis. You want to write songs that will affect people. Rarely ever do I think about the people that I’m writing about, as far as trying to judge their reaction. Because I figured out a long time ago that if you write a song about somebody, they’re gonna like it. It doesn’t matter what you say. You can say the worst, most awful things about somebody, but if it’s in a song that’s on the radio, they love it.

NC: You mentioned quitting drinking. You’ve been on the road a decade, and I’m sure you’ve got many more years of that ahead of you. Do you think differently about things like drinking and smoking in your 30s, and make different decisions about what your body can handle?

JI: Yeah, definitely. I think everybody does that as they get older — I mean, everybody who plans on getting older. [laughs] Yeah you have to reevaluate. There’s a bigger question there, I guess. I’ve heard it since I quit drinking, you know? “Where’s your inspiration gonna come from?” I think that’s kinda bullshit.

… But as far as the actual physical issues of drinking and smoking and touring and playing, stuff like that, it’s been a lot easier since I quit drinking. Some of the things as far as anxiety or nerves when you go onstage and trying to enjoy yourself, that took a little getting used to. For me, it didn’t come back all at once. It was hard for me to go out there and feel comfortable elevated and facing everybody else in the room and being up there sober. It gradually got easier, and now I’m getting pretty close to being comfortable with it like I was before. It’s been a hell of a lot easier to sing and play. For me, it just wasn’t worth it. … The smoking thing, yeah, I really wish I could quit doing that. I’m not happy with that one at all. But it’s very addictive, as they say.

NC: You write and play songs with a mature worldview, and by that I mean that you deal with the long-haul of relationships and not just the fun stuff. When you started playing out around the Muscle Shoals scene in your teens did you play youthful music then, or has it always been adult stuff?

JI: That’s a good question. I think it’s probably always been the grownup stuff, honestly. I wasn’t writing anything that was mature when I was 12, 13, 14, 15 years old. But obviously that was just a matter of learning how to do it. The stuff that I’ve always played, it’s been soul covers or classic country or rock 'n' roll songs. I don’t really know that I’ve ever played anything I would consider youthful. It’s really something that’s never been a thing for me, just like I’ve never really hung out with young folks — except for, I guess, women probably when I was drinkin’. [laughs] That’s the only young people I’ve ever really hung out with.

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