Interview with Jason Isbell
Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell just released his fourth solo album, Southeastern, to critical acclaim, influenced by his recent sobriety and personal relationships. The Greenhill, Alabama native was part of the Southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers until he broke away in 2007, forming his own band The 400 Unit, named after the psychiatric ward of Florence, Alabama's Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital. He recently played the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and he will be appearing at WYEP’s Summer Music Festival at Schenley Plaza on June 28, 2013. WYEP’s Joey Spehar spoke to Isbell about his new album, his writing process, and the personal experiences that inspired both.
In addition to being influenced by both Ryan Adams, with whom he toured last year, and Amanda Shires, his wife and fellow musician, Isbell said that the album’s producer played a part in shaping the sound of the record. As opposed to his previous solo releases, which Isbell himself produced or co-produced, Southeastern brought in as a producer Dave Cobb, who’s worked with artists such as Shooter Jennings and Jamie Johnson. “It’s hard to turn over the reins,” Isbell told Spehar, “but Dave has a lot of ideas of how records should sound, and rather than introducing his own signature, he really tries to serve the song as much as possible and tries to make records that sound interesting but at the same time are just a good sonic representation of the song that’s been written.” Instead of having the members of the 400 Unit work out their parts in songs separately, the music for Southeastern was arranged as a joint effort by Cobb and Isbell. “The best way to make my kind of record is try to create a palette for the songs to operate in.”
Spehar asked Isbell if he had any fears about losing songwriting inspiration when he decided to become sober in February 2012, but Isbell said that was never something he worried about. “There’s always plenty of inspiration,” Isbell said. “Anyone that tells you they don’t have anything to write about isn’t paying enough attention to the world around them.” He said, however, that the song “Live Oak” dealt with the difference between the person he was in his past and the person he is now, stemming from that fear of losing part of himself.
When asked if he feels uncomfortable being honest in his music, Isbell said, “I use songwriting as a cheap therapy for myself, and everyone knows you’re not going to get a lot out of therapy if you don’t open up.” He discussed the process of writing the song “Super 8,” one of the less heavy songs on the album, and how the song “Stockholm,” featuring singer-songwriter Kim Richey as a guest vocalist, was an allegory of how forced connections like kidnapping paralleled romantic relationships