When I caught up with Jason Isbell last week, I could hear the sound of birds chirping in the background. It indicated a rare moment of inactivity for the 44-year-old singer-songwriter, who otherwise is in the midst of one of the most momentous periods of his career.
On top of his usual tour schedule, which is on a brief pause ahead of a lengthy summer run that starts in June, he recently appeared in Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed, a Sam Jones-directed HBO documentary about the making of his 2020 album Reunions and a coinciding rough patch in his marriage to Amanda Shires. Unlike most contemporary music docs, Running With Our Eyes Closed does not feel like a PR exercise for the subjects, who open up their lives for the cameras to an occasionally uncomfortable degree. It’s a riveting watch, though at times I wondered if it was wise for anyone to be this honest. But for Isbell, the film extends from a personal artistic philosophy.
“It’s kind of the same thing as what I’m aiming for when I’m writing songs. I’m trying to get to that place where the audience thinks that I know some sort of secret about their lives,” he said. “To get there, you have to allow yourself to be uncomfortable with the way that you are portrayed. But I think the reward makes it worth it for me, because then I’ll feel like I’m actually doing something that makes people feel less alone.”
This fall, Isbell will appear in a much higher profile film: Martin Scorsese’s Killers Of The Flower Moon. While the nearly four-hour epic recently debuted at Cannes and has already earned glowing reviews, not much is known about it among the general public. (Isbell says he hasn’t seen it yet.) When I asked how he ended up in the movie, I was surprised when he replied, “Just in the traditional way. I tried out.”
“We were home and we were not able to tour, and I didn’t know when we would be able to tour again. So I told my agent at William Morris, ‘I’d like to try to do a movie or a TV show or something, if somebody’s working in a safe way.’ And they got me an audition for this,” he explained. “Originally, it was for a smaller sort of cameo role, and then I did a whole bunch of research and read the source material and explained that to the casting director, and they let me try for the bigger part. And I read again, I read again, I read again until I finally got it.”
And then, of course, there’s a new album with The 400 Unit, Weathervanes, which drops June 9. After the fraught Reunions, there’s an appreciably looser and jammier vibe this time around, with several songs knowingly evoking the southern-rock style of his old band, Drive-By Truckers. (He refers to three songs in this vein — which rank among the album’s strongest — as “The Old Assignment” suite.) Throughout the record, he writes perceptively about the struggles of adult relationships as well as canny character studies about school shootings, forgotten bar-band musicians, racist patriarchs, and runaways who find love on the road while hiding out at a KOA campground.
For the people who love Isbell’s songs — not all of whom are sportswriters — none of this will come as a surprise. To be sure, Weathervanes doesn’t reinvent the wheel as much as encapsulate an incredibly consistent discography. Ultimately, the album feels like the work of an artist who is in full command of his toolbox and freely drawing from all eras of his catalog. It might not be the most revolutionary Jason Isbell record, but it is certainly one of the best.
On the new record, there are several songs about men and women trying to get along and not always succeeding. Obviously you’ve written about that on your other records, and you’re clearly writing about characters in these songs. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think about the HBO documentary. How much did your personal life influence songs like “Middle Of The Morning” and “Death Wish”? And is there ever a danger of the audience knowing too much about you and having that affect how they hear your music?
I’m always in there. It’s hard to say how much, because that’s why I’m drawn to writing songs rather than books or movies, because books and movies are either fiction or nonfiction. And with songs, they don’t put them on the shelf that way. Sometimes that means the audience is just going to assume you’re always speaking from a trustworthy, first-person narrator.
I’m sort of insulated in a way. I am in a protected class, being a straight white male. So it’s not really all that dangerous for me. And I don’t care what they think. I control what I am telling them about my life in the songs or in the movie.
You mean women and artists of color are automatically under more scrutiny?
Well, yeah, they have to fit into a certain box. I mean, that’s pretty obvious. There’s just a certain amount of spots for women artists, artists of color, artists who aren’t of an obvious binary gender role. We can have one or two of those, but not too many. So you have to protect your image. I don’t have to protect my image. There are guys who have done terrible, horrible things and are still out playing shows and selling out big venues. So I try to be aware of it and think, “Well, what do I really have to be afraid of here? I might as well just open myself up and let people see me the way that I am.”
One of my favorite scenes in the documentary is that part early on where you and Amanda are having a very arcane conversation about whether to use a past or a present participle in a song lyric. It says a lot about your creative process as well as your marriage. Was there an instance of you two being hyper-critical of a particular lyric on the new album?
No, we didn’t really do this the same way. I wrote most of this record by myself. I mean, I wrote the others by myself, but I also edited most of this one by myself, too. Just because that process is tough. Sometimes you have to step away from it.
On “Save The World,” I had a whole other set of lyrics, and I played it for her and she said, “I think you need to rewrite that.” And, of course, I didn’t want to do it, but I did. I just went and rewrote the whole song, and then booked another day of studio time and went in and recorded the vocal with a whole new lyric. And it worked a lot better. She was right and I’m glad that she said that. But for the most part, on this record, I just sat down by myself and finished all these songs.
Did you approach it that way because you felt like it was maybe better for your personal relationship not to have to fight it out creatively?
Yeah, I think it’s a “choosing a battle” sort of situation. I felt like, “Well, I’ll just do this one this way and we’ll see how that works. Maybe that’ll be a little easier.” But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule for how we’re going to work going forward. That can always change.
“Save The World” seems like a tricky song to write. You’re writing about school shootings, and it could have easily been a pedantic or preachy “message” song. But instead you write about how many of us experience these tragedies on a human level, which is the fear that a parent feels for their own kids. What was the issue with the original lyric?
Those are gone so it doesn’t matter. Nobody gets to have that. That’s done. If I threw it away, it’s dead and it belongs only to me.
But as with most of my songs, it’s more about being specific and finding specific details. That’s usually what the brunt of my refinement process is about — find the bright tales that paint the picture that you want the audience to see. And that was, I guess, most of the work that I had to do on that one.
I had to go from my personal experience with it. The more complicated and deep the topic is in the public consciousness, the more I tend to write from a personal perspective. So the songs where the narrator is mostly me are usually the songs that are about very specific and very heavy things. If I’m writing about love or death, everybody has that in common. Everybody understands that. So if you’re a good songwriter, you can write about that from multiple different perspectives. But something like school shootings, that is a very specific situation. And I have not seen it firsthand. So what I have to do in a song like that is say: “How does this affect me? How does this make me feel? What am I afraid of? And how does that manifest itself?” And go from there.
I think the first version of it, I was trying to skirt around what I really wanted to say, and I wound up getting more specific with how I feel and the paranoia that may not be paranoia. It may be healthy fear.
I like talking to you because you are analytical about your process and you’re articulate when it comes to breaking it down. There aren’t many songwriters I’ve found that want to be analytical about process, at least not with a music critic. The sense I get is that there’s this superstition where, if you think too much about process, it’s like a golfer with a golf swing. You’ll psych yourself out.
I think the root of this is sort of a confidence that I am lucky enough to have. Like, “I can do this again.” Unless I suffer a traumatic brain injury, I will write another good song no matter what else I do. And I know that might sound haughty, but I have been writing songs for a long time and I’ve tried really hard on all of them, so I know what works for me and what doesn’t. And talking about the process of it doesn’t scare me.
Also, if it helps other people figure out how to write songs, that’s great. I like more good songs. We’ve got plenty of songwriters, we just don’t have enough good ones.
I think there’s this idea that creative people are like conduits who receive ideas from God or some higher power. You hear that expressed with a straight face all time.
Yeah, maybe if you’re Lauren Daigle or something. But I’m not writing contemporary Christian music. If I’m a conduit, it might be of the Devil.
The Devil has written a lot of good songs.
The Devil can fucking rock.
The last time we spoke, you talked about how Reunions was not a fun record to make. And that was because you were worried about the songs not being good enough. Clearly, as the documentary shows, there was a lot of tension at the time. Was Weathervanes easier to make in comparison?
This one was a lot easier. And I think the main reason for that was that I just admitted to what was bothering me. It took a long time because I’m still learning this stuff. And I am still a man from Alabama at my core, so sometimes it can be a big challenge for me to actually be honest with myself and say, “Okay, you’re scared.” But once I did that, things got a lot better, and it became much more enjoyable for me to write and record songs again.
It’s something that I struggle with every single day: “What exactly am I feeling and how do I work up the courage to say that out loud?” Because once you do, things just sort of magically start to get better.
Was that professional anxiety? Because when I talked to you, my feeling was that you were psyched out a little bit just because of your previous work and feeling like, “I have to top that or be better than that.”
Yeah. But I wouldn’t call it professional anxiety because it’s just so deeply intertwined. When your job is being honest with people about your life, it’s all kind of one big cauldron. And any kind of professional anxiety becomes personal anxiety for me, and the other way around, because I have, for better or worse, tied my identity to this work that I do. And I think that’s the right move. I still think that that’s something that has served me well. Because then you don’t really feel like you’re going to work every day.
So that extra self-awareness served you well this time?
Yeah. I think being more aware of it and acknowledging it allowed me to deal with it a little bit and say, “Well, I’m afraid that my record’s not going to be as good as the ones in the past.” Well, that’s not my job. My job is not to make a better record than Southeastern. My job is to make a record and to write songs that I think are good. And then you just have that conversation with yourself and you keep going. And it doesn’t mean that you’re going to alleviate all that pressure, but at least you know where it’s coming from. At least you don’t mistake it for something else.
Your character in Killers Of The Flower Moon is named Bill Smith. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
It’s a little more complicated than that. I didn’t play him as a good guy, so I hope he’s supposed to be bad.
What was it like working with Scorsese?
It was a lot. Everybody on that set to me seemed like they were trying their hardest and they were all at the very top of their game. Everybody from makeup and hair people to craft services to Leonardo DiCaprio. They were all people who were really, really good at what they did. And, thankfully, that helped to eliminate ego issues. They were very helpful to me.
But Marty is just a brilliant man, and he’s able to listen to people around him. Which is another thing that I think speaks to his ultimate confidence in his work. Like, there was one night when I said, “Hey, I think my character would do this here.” And he said, “All right, let’s shoot that.” And I thought, “Holy shit. I hope that was a good idea!” But he still kept his vision for the movie intact. And just reading interviews with him, I’ve seen that he listens to people. I think that’s a big secret to his success.
There was that quote from a recent interview where be basically said, “I’m 80 now, and I’m just starting to understand cinema. And it’s too late.”
A lot of people saw that as sad, and I thought it was an amazing thing. Can you imagine getting to the end of that particular life and that career and all of a sudden having this light bulb go off where you’re like, “Oh, I know what this is now. Now I’m excited even more than I was before.” That’s amazing. Everybody gets tired of everything. I mean, has anybody ever had a more perfect job for them than Marty’s had all these years? If you’re still finding new things to appreciate about the work that you’re doing at his age, I mean, that’s the way to live.
Let’s go back to Weathervanes: One of the songs that jumped out at me right away was “When We Were Close.” And what struck me about that song is that, musically and lyrically, it really reminded me of the songs that you wrote when you were in Drive-By Truckers. It’s a heavy riffing song. And the narrative is about this down-on-his-luck bar-band musician, which is reminiscent of something that would have fit on The Dirty South. Knowing that you were in a reflective mood because of the documentary, I’m wondering if that history seeped in accidentally? Because you don’t really write in that style much anymore.
It wasn’t really accidental. There are a few songs on the record that I call “The Old Assignment.” “Cast Iron Skillet” was one of those, and “King Of Oklahoma” was one of those, where when I got about halfway through writing them, I thought, “Oh, this sounds like something I would’ve done for that band.” So I just started thinking of them as a suite of songs that I called “The Old Assignment” in the studio.
What inspired you to revert to that style?
Inspiration is tough for me to pin down because I’m just trying a bunch of different things all the time. And it felt good after I did it for five minutes, so I kept doing it. I mean, maybe the documentary in part. Yeah, that would be an obvious thing that would direct me toward that. But also, it’s been … is it 20 years of The Dirty South now?
So that’s a little bit of a milestone. And that record was a big deal for me because I had four songs on that record. Maybe I felt comfortable enough revisiting who I was at that point in time, as more time passes and I feel more solidified in my sobriety. It’s like an old guitar. A new guitar, you kind of want to let it settle in to being one instrument for a while before you start doing a whole lot of work on it.
We just traveled through a bunch of different levels of humidity. In Austin, it was super humid and some of my guitars got really, really crazy. The neck would move and the action would change. And with a lot of the old Gibsons, that didn’t happen because they have been one piece for so long and they’ve sort of fused.
It also works in a sense for my recovery, my sobriety. I’ve been living this life for long enough now where I can revisit that old one without there being too much danger, without me romanticizing it and thinking it might be a good way to live. Now I can look back on it as a matter of fact and say there were good things about that. And maybe that led me to writing some of those kinds of songs.
That’s really interesting, because my assumption would’ve been that when you went on your own that you wanted to establish your own voice and not just do what you did in Drive-By Truckers. Which I’m sure was also part of it, but there is also that element of putting some distance from your old self.
I was just trying to survive, man. I don’t think much about my voice as a songwriter; I’m just trying to live. And in those days, I was scared of romanticizing that self. Because the sobriety itself is kind of like a baby; you have to keep it at home for a while, and then as it gets older, it gets less cute just like a child. And in fact, when they turn 13, they get to that really gangly stage when you look at them and it’s just disgusting. And sure enough, that’s when you’re supposed to start letting them out of the house more.
It’s like you get past the decade of sobriety and you start thinking, “Well, this is not really cute anymore. I got to figure out what to do with it.”
I wanted to talk to you about “Cast Iron Skillet” because that seems like a really important song on this record. And tying it back to Drive-By Truckers, a thought I had is that it is sort of like the dark underbelly of “Outfit.” In both songs, there’s a dad giving advice, and in “Outfit” it’s this warm and inviting song. But in “Cast Iron Skillet, the dad is a monster. And he is dispensing similar little bits of witty lines, but there’s a terrible undercurrent to it.
The verses were based on real things that happened when I was a kid. Those were real people. I had some friends when I was little that, as we got older, we sort of drifted apart and they fell in with a bad crowd and they wound up murdering somebody. And that was a huge deal in a small town. And then the second half of that story was about a member of my extended family who had a boyfriend who was black and her dad disowned her for that. Those things stuck with me. And they’re both topics that I tried to address in songs for a long time, but it took this particular project for me to really wrap my mind around it.
It felt right to set that against advice that’s various levels of trustworthy. You can tell a lot about somebody from the South by what sort of adages they tend to throw at you. Some of those are more violent than others. The one about the dog [“That dog bites my kid, I’ll kill it”] there’s an undercurrent of violence in there that I feel like really helped develop the character.
It’s not necessarily advice you’re supposed to follow. I mean, you can wash a cast iron skillet. It doesn’t hurt it. That’s a myth. And a lot of these things are myths. Violent, violent myths.
I actually think that “There’s a hole inside of you, fill it” is pretty good advice in terms of just telling someone they need to take control of their own happiness.
Yeah. It could also be bad advice. That one serves multiple purposes. It’s like, “Take care of yourself, clean up your own yard,” or “Put something inside you that allows you to forget about the thing that you really need.”
In your press materials you mention that you have been listening to The Cure a lot lately. Which piqued my interest, as I have also been listening a lot to The Cure lately.
We went and saw them the other night. We were in Texas and we had a night off, so we took all the buses down to New Orleans. Something that I really loved about that show was that the new material — which I hadn’t heard before the set — sounded like the old material. For a band that was that good at doing their thing, that is what I wanted. I was really happy that the new song sounded like it could have been 34 years old. Because it’s not broke, you know? There’s still plenty of territory for Robert to mine. And the band still sounds really good playing that kind of music.
Reeves [Gabrels] is a very different guitar player from Porl [Thompson], and I think it adds a dynamic there that works really well. You don’t have exactly that sort of stacked simplicity that you might have had early on with that band, but it still works. And then when they let Reeves freak out and do his crazy fucking Tin Machine shit, it works perfectly with what they’re doing because it is such a rage moment in the middle of all this sort of controlled dourness.
But just the songs are just really good. And they don’t always have a natural song structure. You know, some of them are two minutes long and some of them have a two-minute intro before we even get to any lyrics. And I love that idea that you’ll find your audience eventually. If what you’re doing is good and it’s honest and you go out and play it for everybody, you’ll find enough people. You don’t have to aim at a target. You can just make something and throw it out the window, and if there’s enough people passing by where somebody will like it, you’ll get to keep doing it.
Were you a Cure fan in high school?
I was too late for that really. I mean, I guess they were mainstream, but where I grew up in Alabama, we just had the hit radio stations and the classic rock radio. So a lot of my exposure to anything that was a little bit to the left musically was when I started touring with the Truckers.
Disintegration. That’s the one that everybody goes to. And I’m kind of boring in that. I had a buddy in college who listened to that record on repeat over and over and over and over.
You brought up Southeastern earlier. The 10th anniversary of that album is two days after Weathervanes comes out. Is that album still a measuring stick for you? It’s an obvious landmark in your career.
I think I have an instinct to feel that way, but I try to fight against that, because my job is not to beat that record, and I’ll drive myself crazy if I try to do it. Because the way that record happened, I couldn’t replicate those circumstances. If I could, I would not want to. Part of it was the craft, obviously. But part of it was also what I was documenting and the time in my life that I was writing those songs. And that’s something that’s not going to happen twice. There was a lightning-in-a-bottle element to that.
I don’t know if you have noticed this, but most of your albums have come out in May, June, or July. And that’s perfect, because your music seems best suited for late spring and early summer.
Yeah, that’s what we do.
So it’s on purpose?
All of this is on purpose.
I own the label, so all this stuff is intentional.
I definitely would not want a new Jason Isbell record in January.
Wouldn’t that feel weird? January’s already sad enough.
I want to be outside when your music is on.
I’m putting these out when people can go listen to them in the pool. Hopefully where they are will help temper some of the sadness of the songs.
For me Weathervanes is an example of what I call patio music. You’re setting yourself up to be king of the patios and barbecues this summer.
There you go. You know you’re about to have something to eat so you don’t get too awfully sad about the music.
There’s a hole inside you, fill it with barbecue and Jason Isbell songs.