Posted May 18, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Jason Isbell: Free to serve the song

Jason Isbell, photo by David McClister
Jason Isbell, photo by David McClister

Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell has said that he wouldn’t have become the musician he is if he hadn’t grown up in Northern Alabama. Isbell, who played with the Drive-By Truckers before going solo a few years back, announced that his new album, Something More Than Free, is set to come out in July. The album’s first single, “24 Frames,” is a contemplative tune that sounds a bit like it could be a Ryan Adams’ ballad as Isbell croons, “You thought God was an architect, now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Isbell is currently on tour, playing some shows with singer-songwriter Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady). He phoned from a tour stop to talk about the new album and what it’s like having Finn as an opening act.

When you embarked on your solo career six years ago, how difficult was it to make that transition?
The hardest part for me was that I got used to be in a band with three singers and essentially three band leaders, even though it was Patterson [Hood]’s band. Nobody had to take the full weight of entertaining the crowd and keeping the crowd in the set. That took a little bit of adjusting.

Talk about growing up in Alabama and how it influenced your music?
My family played. My parents didn’t but my grandparents and my aunts and uncles did. It was a natural thing for me. Instead of daycare, they would take me to my grandparents’ house and my granddad played a bunch of instruments. He would get me to play rhythm guitar while he played banjo or fiddle. I spent a lot of hours learning how to play that way.

Is that how you learned to play mandolin at the age of six?
I don’t know if I ever really learned how to play but I got one when I that age and messed with some before my hands were big enough to handle a guitar.

I think you studied English and Creative Writing in college. How did that help with the songwriting?
I had to read a whole lot. I read some before going to college too. I knew that kind of degree would force me to take in a whole lot of literary material. It created good habits and it taught me how to write.

It’s always good practice just to learn how to tell a story.

How has sobriety affected your songwriting?
It comes from the same place, but I have more time to work now. I used to spend a lot of my day my time drinking or recovering from drinking. Now, I have time to work. I can spend seven or eight hours working in one sitting. I don’t feel that need to get up and go out drinking. That’s a good thing. I think that’s helped the craft a whole lot for me.

You recorded the new album at Sound Emporium in Nashville with Dave Cobb, who also produced Southeastern. What was the recording process like?
That’s a good room. We did a lot of things live. It’s a big enough room that we could bring the whole band in. We don’t work on songs before we go into the studio. That’s a bit of a luxury. Many people can’t afford that much studio time. But the band is real good. They’re good listeners and quick listeners it didn’t take us very long. We did the whole thing in about three weeks. I would come in and play it for them for the first time and we’d work on the arrangement. Dave Cobb would help us with that. We’d sit down and start recording before we got it right. It’s a good way to work. It’s not too mentally exhausting because you don’t spend too much time on every little detail. What you get at the end of the day sounds like a band playing together in the same room at the same time. There’s no way to replicate that. You have to do that authentically. I’m really happy with it. I had to come terms with not being so picky about vocal takes and specific pitch issues and things like that. Usually nobody hears that but me. Still, it drives me crazy.

I can’t stand to hear myself sing on a record.

Did you write all the songs before you went into the studio?
All but the last one. I wrote that on a weekend break. We don’t record on Saturday and Sunday. I wrote it on a Sunday.

The album is more sonically diverse. Talk about your approach in terms of the music.
I don’t really aim for that. It’s a matter of listening to each individual song and serving that and recording it the way they want to be recorded. I don’t sit down with that much of a concept. I just try to write the best songs I can and not screw it up when I get into the studio.

“If It Takes a Lifetime” is really contemplative. What inspired it? Is it about your or someone else?
It’s both. I’m not necessarily the narrator in that song. I don’t have a day job I’ve had for years. It’s obviously not me. It’s impossible for me to keep myself out of those narratives. A lot of the issues are things I’ve had to deal with on my own.

“24 Frames” is a reference to film, right?
It is. A lot can happen in a second.

You’re playing here with Craig Finn. What do you two have in common?
Craig’s a great songwriter and a great storyteller. This is the first time I’ve seen him play solo. It’s really good. It’s engaging in a different way than The Hold Steady shows are. He writes specifically about regions—about the Midwest—often. I like that. I like people who write about what they know. He’s a really smart guy. He can turn a phrase really well and make you stop and think about what he said. We’re lucky to have him with us.

How do his fans compare to yours? They can be pretty rowdy.
We’ve only done one show so far. The Hold Steady shows I’ve seen they were rowdy in the right way. I’ve never seen any trouble. It’s just people getting excited about good songs. I’m all for that.

Upcoming 2015 Shows

May 19

May 20

May 22

May 23

May 24

May 26

May 27

May 28

June 4

June 5

June 6

June 20

July 4

July 9-12

July 26

July 31

August 14-16

October 23-26

Westbury, NY – The Space at Westbury

Port Chester, NY – Capitol Theatre

Albany, NY – Hart Theatre @ The Egg

Cumberland, MD – Del Fest

Boston, MA – Boston Calling

Rochester, NY – Water Street Music Hall

Cleveland, OH – House of Blues

Bristol, TN – Paramount Center for the Arts

Cincinnati, OH – PNC Pavilion

Dayton, OH – Rose Music Center at the Heights

Black Mountain, NC – Pisgah Brewing Co. Outdoor Stage

Austin, TX – Texas Union Ballroom – SOLD OUT

Austin, TX – Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic

Winnipeg, Canada – Winnipeg Folk Festival

Columbia, MD – Merriweather Post Pavilion

Fort Smith, AR – Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival

August 14-16 – Lyons, CO – Folks Festival

October 23-26 – Nashville, TN – Ryman Auditorium






Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.