Jason Isbell talks songwriting, sobriety and fatherhood

The Baltimore Sun
Q&A: Jason Isbell on new album, fatherhood and his favorite book.

Jason Isbell is having a busy summer.

In addition to touring North America, the 36-year-old released his fifth solo album, "Something More Than Free," last Friday — not to mention the fact that his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, is expecting their first child in September.

After leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, Isbell started a solo career, exploring his own unique sound: part rock 'n' roll and part country-soul, all with a heavy Southern influence from his bar band days in Alabama. At times, his songwriting is dark, exploring complex themes of failure, mortality and redemption.

His last album, 2013's "Southeastern," was a breakout success, earning praise from critics, three 2014 American Music Awards and high expectations for his follow-up album.

The end result is something a bit more hopeful than his last release, he said, and a reflection of where he is in his life.

"I wasn't comfortable in my own skin [recording "Southeastern"] — I'd spent so many years drinking so heavily and being so exhausted," he said on the phone from Nashville. "I'm a much happier person than I was when I wrote the last one, in a much more stable place in my life. You can hear it."

We caught up with Isbell, ahead of his supporting performance Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion with My Morning Jacket, to discuss his character-driven songs, what he's reading and his thoughts on fatherhood.

"Southeastern" gave you a reputation as an impressive songwriter. Did the success of that album have an impact on the writing process of "Something More Than Free"?

My process was pretty much the same, really. I spent a lot of time editing, rewriting and trying to get everything right. Definitely with the last two records, I've had more time to do things the way they should be done. I quit drinking before "Southeastern" and that was a good thing for my writing. I'm spending full days working now, without wasting time recovering from the night before or spending hours in the bar.

There's a powerful line on your single "24 Frames" that says, "You thought God was an architect, now you know he's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow." Is there a story behind that line?

I was thinking about the fact that you don't have control over your life. I went through the whole process of getting my life in order, settling down in a stable relationship, starting a family and getting sober. But even when you eliminate all the problems you create yourself, you're still blowing in the wind as far as your fate goes — terrible things can happen at any moment and you can't control every aspect of your life. Just when you think things are planned, that's when disaster strikes sometimes.

Many of the songs come off as character sketches. Are they based off of people you observe? How do you come up with song ideas?

I don't write a whole lot about one person that exists in reality, it's usually characteristics of different people that I combine into a character. I tend to think through and try and make characters behave in a natural way. I follow the character and think about what they would do, what decisions they would make. How would they feel about going to work everyday or leaving a father on his death bed?

You tweeted in March that you thought these songs were better than the "Southeastern" batch. What distinguishes them from your older songs?

To be honest, I just feel like I got closer to saying what I meant to say. The consistency is higher, I think, and there are more solid songs on this album than the last. It comes just from practice and doing the work. I've tried to be open to what's going on and paying close attention, not letting things that inspire me to pass me by.

For fans who've seen you on tour before, will there be any surprises this time around?

Well for one thing, there's a lot of songs to choose from now, with five solo albums. I'm hoping that fans will be surprised and that I'll be surprised by some stuff we pull out also. We'll probably play six to 10 songs off the new album, but there's time to stretch out a bit, time to feel out the crowd and have some fun.

You mentioned in an interview that reading is important to any storyteller. What are you reading now?

Right now, I'm finishing up "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy and I'm almost done with that one. I'd say my favorite book in the last 10 to 15 years would be "Shadow Country" by Peter Matthiessen. It's a really beautiful book. It tells one story from a lot of different angles. I always think that's neat, when you can hear a story told from different points of view, different perspectives.

How does it feel knowing you'll be a father soon? Does it change your mindset in terms of touring or songwriting at all?

For one, I'm definitely glad I don't have to tour as much as I used to. It'll be harder to go on the road. In terms of everything else, I'm just going to try and react. We're going to take things day by day, I think. We're excited for the unexpected.

What's next for you in terms of music?

At some point, I'd like to make a record that's more of a self-serving guitar album, because I really love to play. It's not really something I'd expect a whole lot of people to buy, though. I've got a lot of friends in Nashville that are just incredible musicians. It'd be great to call them up and see if they can come into the studio to have some fun.


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If you go

Jason Isbell opens for My Morning Jacket at 7 p.m. Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $40-$55. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.