Jason Isbell: Just another record about murderers and revenge plots

Jason Isbell's new album explores the darker recesses of human nature. It's part of his therapy, as Andy Gill discovers

Stockier and more muscular than your average pampered pop star, Jason Isbell has the candid gaze of a man who's had to face down demons to get this far along, and isn't afraid of confrontation. But when he speaks, the natural politeness of a well-mannered son of the South tempers that initial physical impression. On his left forearm, a tattoo in Gothic script peeps out from beneath the cuff of his leather jacket. It's the last lines from Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather": "Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled/From across that lonesome ocean."

It's a sentiment reflected throughout Isbell's new album Southeastern, which is peopled with characters trying to get home, to find their old friends, their old lives, their old selves: the trucker tired of "Traveling Alone"; the singer scared of dying in a "Super 8" motel; the traveler hijacked by love in "Stockholm". While the underlying impetus undoubtedly stems from Isbell's time on the road, both with his own band and Drive-By Truckers, his characters are rooted in reality but grown in fiction.

"That's one of the good things about writing songs, as opposed to novels or journalism," he says. "Three or four people will become one character, from the parts I find the most interesting. Then I just try and let those characters behave as naturally as possible."

In some cases, that's not a good thing. Take the schizoid protagonist of "Live Oak", scared that his lover has fallen for the wrong part of him: eventually, his dark side wins out, and the song ends with him burying her. The song arose from Isbell's own fears battling alcoholism.

"When I quit drinking, got married and got my life together, I was worrying about that thing I might lose," he says. "Because there is something, some kind of an effectiveness, that you think might go away when you stop doing those things: you might become a sort of person that you never set out to be. Part of you says, 'Well, I don't know if I'll be any good if I clean up, maybe I won't clean up, not just yet.' That's how the addictive mind works: there's a little truth in it, and you stretch it till it becomes huge.

"I don't know if I could write that song now because most of those fears turned out to be unfounded. I'm pretty comfortable with who I am at this point. But that did come from a worry I was having, and I separated myself into two very different personalities: in the song, the bad guy wins and returns; but hopefully that won't be my story too."

Born in Alabama, Isbell was raised on a rich and varied musical diet. His parents' arena-rock, singer-songwriter and classic country tastes were augmented by the rootsier leanings of his grandfather, a fiddle-playing Pentecostalist preacher. "My parents would be at work and I would spend time at my grandparents' house," he says, "and to keep me occupied they taught me to play musical instruments. Music is more in the foreground of people's lives in the South: it's the reason that people gather together. And it keeps families close: every family function, people would be playing music."

But it was only when he reached his teens that Isbell realised people could actually make a living from music. "When I realised people could make a living from this, and didn't have to go work at the tool-and-die plant, from then on nobody was going to discourage me from that."

The sparse folk and country settings of Southeastern represent a change of approach for Isbell, whose previous albums have reflected the gritty R&B and funk grooves he learnt as a teenager. A local licensing quirk that required drinking establishments to sell more food than alcohol meant he was able to get into "restaurants" underage to watch local musicians such as David Hood and Spooner Oldham, who played on legendary soul sessions at Fame and Muscle Shoals studios.

"My parents would drop me off at the restaurants and I would stay there for hours," he says, "just watching those guys playing covers of songs they had originally recorded. And sometimes they would get me up to play with them. I didn't know a lot about the history of the area at that point, but when I was around 16 or 17 I started going back and researching the music they had made, so I got real big into The Staple Singers and Aretha and Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding and Percy Sledge and Eddie Hinton."

It was through these gigs that he met David Hood's son Patterson, whose band Drive-By Truckers were just putting together Southern Rock Opera. "He and I got to talking and playing music together round the dinner table, and played a few shows, then that spot came open in the Truckers, so I joined his band. I'm really glad I did. Some parts weren't easy, especially towards the end, but any time you're trying to do something meaningful you're gonna have hard times, the process is not easy. But I loved the experience overall, in hindsight."

It was the start of his career as a travelling musician, which took him around the US and brought him to Europe – something of a culture shock.

"Some of it may be to do with the polite Southern ways I'm used to at home," he says. "If you're having a conversation with someone in Scandinavia or Holland, they can be very direct. In Holland one time after a Truckers show, we were about to go to Germany, and this guy came over and said, 'They'll love you in Germany – they're behind on their music'! How about that!"

Though now happily returned from across "that lonesome ocean" to his native south-eastern homeland, Isbell's creative muse seems firmly fixed on the darker side of life. Besides its unhappy wanderers, Southeastern also features songs about murderers, revenge plotters, and people dying of cancer. Is that just the way, I suggest, that his imagination leans?

"I guess so," he says. "I hope there is hope in my material – it's not tragic or bitter, I don't think it comes off like a disaster this record – but it's very dark. It's a cathartic kind of thing for me: I write best when I'm doing it for therapy, to explain the way I feel about things to myself. Usually when I'm happy that doesn't need any explaining – if I'm feeling good about something I'd rather not mess with it, just leave it off the page. Maybe in the future."

The album 'Southeastern' is out now. Jason Isbell tours from 18 to 25 November

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...