Over the course of three increasingly strong albums Jason Isbell has proven to be one of the best young singer-songwriters to emerge from the South in the past decade. There were inklings of this during his three record stint with the Drive-By Truckers, but it’s leading his own lean, hungry band, The 400 Unit that’s revealed the depth and diversity of his craftsmanship and raw talent. An Alabama lost cousin to Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello, Isbell moves with stylistic restlessness through barroom rock, pure country shuffles and Muscle Shoals soul on his latest, Here We Rest (released April 12 on Lightning Rod), where his vocal range and subject matter nicely expand, adding yet more curves and angles to what was already a complex, fascinating musician.
You’ve been running your own band for a few years now. How do you feel the 400 Unit is evolving? Leading things is different than simply being in a band.
Yes it is, very different. I think this is what I’m probably most suited to do, either having my own band and sorta having veto power or playing on somebody else’s record and being told what to do. Either way I’m cool but the stuff in the middle I’m not that good at. I have to pace myself as far as the actual physical performance with singing and the like for a couple hours straight, but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s been long enough now I ought to be used to it.
The lineup in the 400 Unit has been relatively steady for awhile now.
That’s made a big difference. It’s made things a whole lot easier.
And you’ve got guys dedicated to serving your songs, which is different than being in a democracy, albeit a ragged one, like the Truckers.
The style of music we were making with the Truckers meant I couldn’t just do anything and it would work. With my band I can explore any whim or tangent I want to go off on.
The new record reflects that diversity in your songwriting. It’s a real creeper; a grower that settles into you. The first few songs charm you a little bit and by the time you hit “Codeine” you’re unleashing a lot of variety. The range of stuff you want to get to lyrically, thematically and stylistically has grown a lot in the last few years.
I get bored with writing the same kinds of songs. Sometimes people say that when a writer does that they haven’t really found their voice, but I don’t see myself writing just a bunch of country songs or rock songs or a whole bunch of songs about me. It doesn’t interest me that much. Maybe some people buy a record and if there’s that many different kinds of songs on there and it bothers them. It never really bothered me before though.
You write a lot of characters. In some ways it reminds me of Steely Dan, where there’s this unique universe they populate.
Yeah, no shit, it’s a different planet for those guys. I’m definitely interested in characters. Randy Newman does that and he’s one of my favorites; I think he has to be one of your favorites if you’re a songwriter. But yeah, it’s a whole collection of folks, and you’re in each one of them, where some of your characteristics spill over. I like going to that world to resolve my own issues.
Is that one of the roles of songwriting for you, pulling stuff out into the light to deal with it?
It can be an unpacking experience for sure.
Is that scary though?
It’s definitely scary as hell. Everything’s scary if you think about it [laughs]. I just don’t think it’s very honest to not put some of myself in. I don’t have a problem with that. Most of the things I struggle with are the things most people struggle with.
Finding that common ground is one of the roles of music. The reason why we’re gathering around this particular campfire is because it’s a story we all need to hear. However, you do get into some heavy subject matter on the new album. Going back to “Codeine,” there’s a creepy sweetness to it that shouldn’t be there.
There’s a humor to it – a miserably, hung-over humor – which I guess was the mood I was in when I wrote it. It’s pretty dark thematically but there’s something about it that cracks me up. There are certain lines I really thought were funny and I didn’t want to run from that, which is really easy to do, to be too serious when you’re writing a serious song. It’s the mood I was in. It was really early morning and I really didn’t need to be woken up at that hour, and it all came very quickly, as quickly as I could write it down on a piece of paper.
It’s a gift when creativity comes to you that way, and it’s also a gift when one doesn’t filter out the dark bits they find funny knowing full well others might not chuckle.
Sometimes I can’t tell if something is an inside joke with myself or not, but whatever [laughs]. If I come back to it later and still get a kick out of it then I’ll keep it.
And it’s not as if the humor isn’t balanced by commensurately heavy stuff on the rest of the record. “Tour of Duty” is a really heavy ending note for an album.
The album sort of starts heavy and ends heavy, but I don’t mind that. You can always put something else on after the albums over [laughs]. If the album puts you in a bad mood you can put on Natasha Bedingfield afterwards.
Nice example. I don’t listen to much mainstream music but I don’t like to be ignorant of it, so I force myself to watch the video blocks on CMT, VH1 and MTV. I refer to it as “Looking Into The Abyss.”
[Laughs] I can’t make myself do that much. I don’t really mind it and some of it’s pretty good, but I don’t get much out of it. It’s a different job, different career for those folks. It’s the difference between being an ear, nose & throat doctor and being a podiatrist – it’s opposite ends of the spectrum.
Embracing things you laugh at that not everyone else will – because they refuse to or they’re too uptight to or whatever – is helpful to the rest of us. There are likeminded people out there and you’ll find them if you really have something to say.
I think growing up here in [Alabama] and being different forced me to laugh at things. There are a lot of people here now that have found each other. There’s a real collection of weirdoes but it’s taken a while. It’s taken me 30 years to find people in my own hometown that I actually like hanging out with. I know it was that way for Patterson [Hood] and [Mike] Cooley, too. We had that conversation a lot. It’s not like in their day they’d go to school and find ten people to talk about Elvis Costello or XTC with. And me going to school, I’m not going to be able to find people to talk to about R.E.M., at least the first few records. You have to learn how to laugh at that.
You have to learn to communicate with folks about their artless lives and discuss whatever they want to talk about that’s not the least bit interesting. I think that skill has developed in me to the point where the level of poignancy increases. When you put up with people for a little while you get to the root of something that’s very similar. Maybe they don’t have this book to read or record to listen to but there’s something coming out of them on a Saturday afternoon listening to Kenny Chesney on the radio. They’re getting something out of it that’s pretty serious.
I’ve tried to have more empathy for that as the years have gone on. At 43, I’m not as anxious to piss all over somebody’s tastes if what they genuinely want is to listen to Trace Adkins or some shit. If it’s firing them up or giving them some pleasure it’s not for me to take the wind out of their sails.
Some of those folks care way more about Trace Adkins than some of my hipster friends care about Bloc Party – WAY more. They will fight you if you say you don’t like Trace Adkins. The hipsters aren’t fighting over Bloc Party. They just aren’t doing it.
So, what’s kept you in Alabama? For someone so interested in art and culture, why aren’t in New York City or San Francisco?
I like my family. I like being close to them and spending time together. And I have siblings that are young, and hopefully I can be some sort of influence on them to follow whatever crazy ideas are in their heads and do whatever it is they think they want to. My sister’s 11 and my brother’s 14 and it’s really easy for kids that age around here to fall into the same traps and routines as they kids around them and wind up working in a gas station. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what they want but I don’t think that’s what these particular kids want. Also, I like going to ballgames and dance recitals. I like hanging out with my mom and dad, and they’re not in a situation where they can move. I’m gone so much that I don’t feel traveling hours to see my family once or twice a year.
The 400 Unit is a hard touring band.
Not so much last year but this year we’re getting shot out of a cannon again [laughs].
Whenever I’ve seen you play you always seem all in, no matter if it’s a handful of people or a thousand. When you get up on that stage it seems like everything else drops away.
That’s the only place you can hide sometimes [laughs]. Some of these venues don’t have a dressing room and the only place I can go where people don’t get at me is where I’m facing them under the lights. More than that, I really love playing, and no matter how my day has gone until that point, once you’re there you’re there. It’s great. It’s really the whole reason I do this, even more so than writing and making records. The connection with the band, the improvising every night onstage, and just playing music with a group of people you know are really good players is still probably my favorite thing about all of it.
When I started out, it was family members I was playing with. When I was very small, it was just part of the routine where we’d all get together every week. My granddad was a Pentecostal preacher and all of his family would wind up playing music at his house on Sunday. That’s how I started enjoying music in the first place.