Jason Isbell On The Past Lives That Inspired His New Album, 'Reunions'

May 15, 2020
Originally published on May 17, 2020 9:47 am

Like many other artists, Jason Isbell has had to think on his feet the last few months. Reunions, his new album with his band the 400 Unit — which comprises of Sadler Vaden, Jimbo Hart, Derry deBorja, Chad Gamble and Amanda Shires — came out today on streaming platforms, but that's not the first place it landed. Isbell and company released it a week early to independent record stores to support them during the pandemic.

"We sent people to their websites and some did curbside pickup and some shipped. I think it helped out a little bit for those guys," he says.

Isbell — who got his start playing guitar for Drive-By Truckers, was mentored by the late John Prine and was tapped to help create the roots-rock sound for Bradley Cooper's character in A Star Is Born — understands the value of community. Building on the success of his previous solo records, 2013's Southeastern, 2015's Something More Than Free and 2017's The Nashville Sound, Isbell is one of the most prominent figures working in Americana today, and has been unafraid to advocate for himself and others. "Be Afraid," the lead single from his new album Reunions, includes a promise to that end in the line "We won't shut up and sing."

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke with Jason Isbell about the precarious state of independent musicians, how he's applied the lessons of getting sober to staying sane during the pandemic and what he bought his wife, the musician Amanda Shires, for Mother's Day. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for a transcript of the full interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Mary Louise Kelly: Reunions is out everywhere today, May 15, but has been in independent record stores since May 8. Why do it that way?

Jason Isbell: I was having a lot of requests online from people who were stuck inside their houses, and they were asking if I could put the record out early for streaming so they could listen to it while they were in quarantine. I thought about independent record stores and the fact that they're suffering like all small businesses right now. But even more so, when somebody puts an album out early via streaming platforms, it takes away an opportunity for them to sell the record, in a lot of cases. So instead of putting it out early I thought, well, we'll stick to the same timeline but maybe it would be helpful to those folks if we put it out just through independent record stores a week early. I think it was.

Have you heard from those store owners directly on whether it's working?

Yes, in all the cases I heard from, everybody sold a large number of them right out of the gate when we announced it, so that was a really good thing. The way we operate is at a level where we need a good relationship with indie record stores and small venues and left-of-the-dial radio stations. We aren't really super stars, so we're operating on a level where everybody has to work together, and I feel like it's important that we take care of the people who take care of us.

How worried are you about not only indie record stores but the music industry in general during the pandemic? Especially if you can't tour right now?

I can't control it, so I try not to worry too much about it. I'm at a place where I own most of my operation, and that's given me the opportunity to weather the storm a little bit better than some people that I know. For people who aren't at the level I'm at or for people who don't have so much control over their own property and their own work, then it's going to be extremely difficult. You know, it's disappointing on a lot of levels, but there's nothing we can do. It's better to be safe.

What were you trying to do with this album? Point me to the song where you think you got there.

Initially, I was just trying to write a bunch of good songs and I think that's always how it starts for me. I don't go in with much of a concept because I feel like that sometimes can distract me from doing the real work at hand, which is just writing the best songs I can and documenting where I am at that point in my life. What happened with this record: After I wrote a couple songs, I started noticing patterns. I started seeing the fact that I was going back in time and reconnecting, at least on a psychological level, with a lot of the people, a lot of the relationships that I had growing up and when I was younger and before I got sober. I got sober eight and a half years ago. For a long spell, between the time when I got sober and just the last couple years, it was really difficult for me to revisit those times in a way that was anything less than judgmental. Because I had to look back at myself with disdain and not risk turning back into the person I used to be.

Well, after about six and a half, seven years of being sober, and going through the process and going to see a therapist, I got to the point where I started feeling not necessarily nostalgia, but more of a connection with the person I was a decade or two decades ago. I felt more comfortable and safer going back into that relationship and not judging myself, but coming to terms with the fact that I had good things to offer as well as bad things in those days.

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The first song that I wrote for the record, the one that really kicked all that off, was a song called "Only Children." I was over in Greece, me and my wife [the musician Amanda Shires] and a couple of our really close friends, we were over there on vacation. Both of my friends are writers. We were all just sitting around one night on this little villa on the side of a mountain and we were singing and playing and reading the work that we were doing for each other.

That song came out of that situation. I started thinking, now that I'm a professional creative person, this doesn't happen as much as it used to. You'd find yourself in rooms with other creative people just sitting around playing songs for each other. That's pretty rare once you get older and your hobby becomes your job.

I'm reading the lyrics about living "hand to mouth and reel to reel." That is written from the perspective of a guy who's made it to the other side, but as you say, you're looking back at where you came from?

There was a period in time when everybody around me was desperate in a different way, and you could hear it in what they were doing. And even people who didn't have the gift, or hadn't done the work to be really good at writing songs or writing whatever, they still had that hunger. And nowadays, surrounded by people who are all making a living doing what they want to do, that hunger is kind of hard to find.

You're so open about being an alcoholic and I've been thinking about it at this present moment: As somebody who has been to rock bottom and knows what it's like to suffer, what is it like to look out on this moment we're all living through, when so many people are suffering? Do you feel more empathy than you might have a decade ago?

I think maybe so. I'm glad [the pandemic] didn't happen a decade ago, because I would have been a disaster. I couldn't imagine trying to stay in the house and be safe when I ran out of liquor. Yeah, that would have been overwhelming for me. I do feel for those folks. When you're in the throes of addiction, anything that hampers your ability to get the thing that your addiction needs is gonna really really upend your life. I think the pandemic is taking its toll on addicts all over the place right now.

For me, I feel fortunate I've been developing tools over the last decade that have really come in handy since the pandemic started. I'm somebody who tries to stay in the moment and focus on the process of living and working and being a person. I try to live one day at a time, as the old AA adage says. It's really helpful right now. I can plan my routine, I can plan my rituals and I can plan my day, and I can stop myself from looking too far into the future and asking too many questions about what happens next.

If I may ask, are you finding this moment particularly challenging to stay sober? I talk to so many people who say a drink at the end of the night is one of the few things getting them by right now.

I'm sure that's the case for a lot of people. But no, I'm at home with my wife and our daughter. Our daughter's 4. The more time I spend with my family, the less I think about drinking, just because it's very obvious to me what the rewards are for me to stay the course.

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There's another song on this album that you're making me think of called "It Gets Easier." You sing "It gets easier, but it never gets easy." Were you writing about this, about some of your demons?

Yeah, most certainly. And that line almost felt to me like — when I thought of it, I thought "That's got to be a saying in recovery rooms or something," but I've never heard it before, not that I'm conscious of. The song is about looking at this from a perspective of time, and the fact that the song happens to a person who isn't recently sober, somebody who's been working on it for a while.

For me, very often if I'm trying to find — if not a unique perspective, at least one that's a little bit fresh on ways to talk about the human experience — if I just go forward in time a bit and talk about a romantic relationship a few years down the line or something as tumultuous as recovery with a little bit of hindsight and not from your typical point of "this just happened to me" or "I need this to happen right now," sometimes you can find an interesting angle that way. There's already a lot of songs in the world; a lot of really, really good ones about all kinds of things. So the challenge more often than not for me is to find a new angle.

You mentioned your family, and I know you have a 4-year-old daughter named Mercy Rose. I did wonder if the last song on the album, "Letting You Go," is about her. It's a love letter, from a father to his daughter?

It is, and that one's very personal and straightforward; I wasn't really hiding behind a character or anything in that song. I wanted to write a song about my daughter and there's so many different ways to approach that. It's like a big looming mountain when you decide to do something like that [about] this person who's so incredibly important to me. How do I take that and put it into the context of my work and make it something that's not maudlin or sentimental? And the way that I chose to do that with the song was to go simple, and just tell the story and do it in a way that was reminiscent of a traditional country song like Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings would sing.

I think it worked partially because I tried to play the tape out. A part of what I'm afraid of is the inevitable, so what is the inevitable? And the last verse deals with what will likely happen at some point in her life, the emotions I'm probably going to have having her getting married and finding a partner and moving out of our house.

Is Mercy Rose old enough to know this song's for her?

Yes, but I think she thinks all of 'em are for her.

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Your wife, Amanda Shires, is part of the supergroup The Highwomen. You're in her band, she's in your band. What has she been up to?

My wife has been spending time with Pro Tools and learning to record and that's something that I don't know how to do. She also paints and has an art studio set up in her barn. She's been spending a lot of time recording and making beats. I got her a drum machine for Mother's Day. She was very happy about that.

She's been recording a lot of music and she's learning how to record herself. She was inspired a lot by the way Fiona Apple recorded her album on her own in her house. I think Amanda though "Oh, I'd love to do that." She's got so many different irons in the fire: She has the band The Highwomen and also her solo project; she plays with me quite a bit and helps me out with my work. She's infinitely busy. Even in quarantine, she's staying really busy.

It sounds like y'all are incredibly busy in quarantine — I'm kind of jealous. So many people are talking about how it's hard to get stuff done right now; it's hard to concentrate.

It is hard to concentrate, but I've always been in situations where it's hard to concentrate. That's just sort of my default. And I'm better than I should be at compartmentalizing. So it makes it sometimes easy for me to turn off everything that I'm worried about long enough to talk about the record or to try to work on something new. That can cause its own issues down the line but for this particular task, it's the right tool I think.

I'd love for you pick another song to send us out on, maybe one that feels right for this crazy time we're all living through together.

I'm really proud of the song "Overseas." The reason I'm proud of that song is twofold. I like the guitar on that song and I play a lot of lead guitar on that song. It's fun and it's really hard to figure out a way to play lead guitar on a song that's up to my standards and my wife's standards. It's hard, you don't have a lot of time to solo. You kind of have to have something to say, nothing can be exorbitant. Also the song's allegorical. There are two separate stories running at the same time in that song. That's a difficult trick to pull off as a songwriter. So I was happy that that song made sense in the end.

Give me the brief version of what the two stories are.

One is an expatriate story. Basically there's a parent at home with a child and a partner has left for another country because he or she has just had enough and can't take it anymore. The other one is basically what I was dealing with a couple years ago when my wife was on tour and I was home with our 4-year-old.

The hard part for me there was to make sure that the reasons for the person to be gone were justifiable; there were good reasons in both cases because I didn't want to point the finger at somebody with any sort of undue judgment there. I feel like in both sides of that story you sympathize with both characters, maybe even the one who's left more than the one who's left behind.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jason Isbell grew up in a musical family in northern Alabama. His grandma, he says, looked like Loretta Lynn and sang kind of like her, too. Isbell grew up to play guitar with the Drive-By Truckers. He's now a successful solo artist, four Grammies to his name. Isbell says his new album, "Reunions," was born from giving himself permission to reflect on simpler days on who he was a decade or two ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY CHILDREN")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Cold coffee on the fire escape, we bet it all on a demo tape, but we still had something left to steal remember when we took too much to get a little of the human touch, hand to mouth and reel to reel.

JASON ISBELL: There was a period in time when everybody around me was desperate in a different way. And you could hear it in what they were doing and even the people who didn't have the gift, they still had that sort of hunger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY CHILDREN")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Will you read me what you wrote? The one I said you stole from Dylan, over encouraged, only children.

KELLY: For years, Isbell struggled with alcohol. When he and I spoke the other day, he brought it up and told me it's taken him a while not to look back at himself with disdain.

ISBELL: I got sober eight and a half years ago. And for a long spell between the time when I got sober and just the last couple years, it was really difficult for me to revisit those times in a way that was anything less than judgmental.

KELLY: I mean, you're so open about being an alcoholic. I will confess that I was wrestling with whether to actually ask you about it because I figured you must get asked about this just all the time and be sick of talking about it. But I've been thinking about it in this moment, you know, as somebody who has been to rock bottom and knows what it's like to suffer, what it's like to look out on this moment we're all living through when so many people are suffering. Do you feel that? Do you feel like empathy for - or more empathy than you might have a decade ago?

ISBELL: I think maybe so. I'm glad it didn't happen a decade ago because I would have been a disaster. The pandemic's probably taking its toll on addicts all over the place right now. For me, I feel fortunate that I've been developing tools over the last decade that have really come in handy since the pandemic started. You know, I'm somebody who tries to stay in the moment and focus on the process of living and working and being a person. And I try to live one day at a time, as the old AA adage says.

KELLY: There's another song on this album that you're making me think of, "It Gets Easier."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT GETS EASIER")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) It gets easier, but it never gets easy. I could say it's all worth it, but you won't believe me.

KELLY: I mean, if I may ask, are you finding this particular moment particularly challenging to stay sober? I talk to so many people who say, you know, a drink at the end of the night is one of the few things getting them through right now.

ISBELL: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm sure that's the case for a lot of people, but, you know, the more time I spend with my family, the less I think about drinking just because it's very obvious to me what the rewards are for me to stay the course.

KELLY: You mentioned your family, and I know you have a daughter, 4 years old - is that right? - named Mercy Rose, which I thought was the prettiest name when I read it.

ISBELL: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. I did wonder if the last song on the album, "Letting You Go," if that's about her. It's a love letter - right? - from a father to his daughter.

ISBELL: It is, yes. And that one's very personal and straightforward. You know, I wasn't really hiding behind a character or anything in that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING YOU GO")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Being your daddy comes natural. The roses just know how to grow. It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going, but the hard part is letting you go.

ISBELL: I wanted to write a song about my daughter. And, you know, there's so many different ways to approach that. And it's also kind of a - it's like a big looming mountain when you decide to do something like this. This person that's so incredibly important to me, you know, how do I take that and put it into the context of my work and make it something that's not maudlin or sentimental? And the way that I chose to do that for the song was I tried to, you know, play the tape out and say, well, a part of what I'm afraid of is the inevitable here. So what is the inevitable? And the last verse deals with what will likely happen at some point in her life and, you know, the emotions that I'm probably going to have regarding her, you know, getting married or finding a partner and moving out of our house.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING YOU GO")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Now you've decided to be someone's wife and we'll walk down the aisle and I'll give you away. I wish I could walk with him back through your life to see every last minute of every last day. down here here shack and. Walk. Back to see last minute.

KELLY: Is she - is Mercy Rose old enough to know this song's for her?

ISBELL: She is, yes, but I think she thinks all of them are for her...

KELLY: (Laughter).

ISBELL: ...Which in a small way is probably true. But she does recognize this one.

KELLY: I've read that she plays the tuba.

ISBELL: Oh, no, it's the mellophone. It's the mellophone that she plays.

KELLY: The mellophone - I don't even know what a mellophone is.

ISBELL: Yeah, which is like a - it's a marching version of a French horn. But she does not play it well. It's a stretch to even say - it's a stretch to even say that she plays it. But she can make a sound with it, and she does that a lot. So I'm thinking at some point she will probably start to improve.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I should mention your wife is also in the business. People may know Amanda Shires. She's, of course, part of the supergroup The Highwomen. She plays in your band; you play in her band. I'm imagining the three of you at home with - all jamming together.

ISBELL: (Laughter) Yeah. The mellophone would make - would take any kind of, like, relaxation out of a family jam. But I'll tell you what - my wife has been spending time with Pro Tools, so she's learning how to record, and that's something that I don't know how to do. And she also paints, so she's got an art studio set up in her barn. And she's been spending a lot of time recording and making beats. I got her a drum machine for Mother's Day.

KELLY: You got her a drum machine for Mother's Day. Wow. That's great.

ISBELL: Yes (laughter) yes, I did, and she was very happy about that. So she's been recording a lot of music and learning how to record herself. She's infinitely busy. Even in quarantine, she's staying really, really busy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT GETS EASIER")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) It gets easier, but it never gets easy.

KELLY: Well, Jason Isbell, this has been a pleasure. Thank you.

ISBELL: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

KELLY: The album is where "Reunions." It is out everywhere this Friday. It's been in indie record stores since last week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.