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The first thing Jason Isbell’s fans will see when they pick up his latest album, Southeastern, before hearing the music, is the absence of his band, the 400 Unit. The scrappy outfit—which is still touring with Jason—previously backed him for two studio albums and a live release, but this time he decided to go his own way. Which is not to say Southeastern is an acoustic collection, but it documents a very personal vision that formed as Jason was going through some major life changes.
“I set out to make a solo acoustic record, and the producer Dave Cobb and I both got bored with that pretty quick,” explains Jason in a warm Alabama drawl. “Springsteen did it, Tom Petty did it. It makes sense if you’re writing a record that’s pretty much about yourself.”
And while he’s careful to point out that these songs shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted literally, Jason does admit that finding sobriety had an important effect on his songwriting. “I quit going out after the show and sort of cleaned my life up,” says Jason. “That gave me a whole lot more time to work. I had a lot more time to write and read, which I think is a really big part of being a songwriter. If you’re any good, you either somehow get it naturally—which is a miracle—or you have a lot of input.”
Not that his previous work was anything to sneeze at. From his work with Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers to his own albums, Jason has made a name for himself as a serious artist capable of combining the tuneful and thoughtful. But after he cleaned up, he was working with a newfound focus. “I’m proud of the work I did before, but I definitely feel like it was time to step it up and evolve as a songwriter,” Jason says. “The best way for me to do that turned out to be putting more care into it. Putting more time and more practice, more attention into what I was doing.”
Tunes like the impassioned album opener “Cover Me Up” and “Stockholm” perhaps subtly nod at another important change in Jason’s life: his marriage to fellow singer/songwriter Amanda Shires. The newlyweds departed for their honeymoon the day after Southeastern was mastered, which was the day after their wedding. Jason chuckles and says that weekend was “pretty stressful.”
On the other hand, there are more fictional numbers like the haunting “Elephant,” where the two characters drink and carry on to avoid having a tough conversation about one of them fading away and dying. “It was another example of the reason why I write songs: For the most part it’s to really explain something to myself or teach myself more about how I feel,” Jason muses. “I was dealing with death, and friendship more than anything else, and empathy. The characters became very real to me as that song progressed.” He wanted to allow the two characters to just act the way they might in real life, without heroism or anything necessarily being realized. “If you’re telling stories, whether it be in a song or novel or anything else,” he begins, “and you build characters that have some depth to them and you allow them to behave in a way that makes sense, you’ll wind up with a good story.”
Death also pops up in the squalling rocker “Super 8,” where Jason sings of a hellish binge in a cheap motel, surrounded by violence and drugs, though he keeps a sense of humor afloat for the finish. “I’ve stayed in a lot of really bad hotels and I’ve had a lot of really long nights,” he offers. “Wound up in some rooms with people I didn’t really know. You kind of come to and think, ‘How did I get here, and am I gonna make it out alive?’”
That approach—combining his personal experiences with fictional ideas to make a more compelling story—is something Jason has honed over years of trial and error. “I try to follow my mistakes. I think that’s really the only way to develop a personal style,” he suggests. “If you start out imitating people, the ways you mess that up are usually the things that become your own signatures. I try to follow that.”
Though he’s won consistent favor with the Americana-loving crowd, Jason is reluctant to slap too neat of a label on his music. He figures that’s for everybody else to decide, anyway. “I was happy to see that my album was in the rock section on iTunes,” he says with a laugh. “I like to tell people I’m in a rock band. It’s not really necessary for me to think about it. And if I decide where I want to be, it never works out that way. You can’t give yourself a nickname. It’s kind of like that—whatever you get, you’re stuck with. Just hope it’s not something terrible.”
Not a chance.