interview

Americana star Jason Isbell on sobriety, social media and Trump: ‘I can handle stupid rednecks but I don’t want Nazis’

The Grammy-winning artist speaks to Louis Chilton about his latest album ‘Weathervanes’, and working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese on ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Thursday 01 February 2024 06:00 GMT
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Jason Isbell: ‘I’m not Adele, people aren’t paying to hear my beautiful voice’
Jason Isbell: ‘I’m not Adele, people aren’t paying to hear my beautiful voice’ (Danny Clinch)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Just months ago, Jason Isbell’s mouth was a battlefield of dental dysfunction. Of course, the multi-Grammy winner’s naturally crooked grin always seemed more or less in keeping with the unvarnished look of a hard-living Americana star from rural Alabama. But after a 15-hour stint in the dentist’s chair to treat bone loss and severe infection, Isbell’s smile has been rebuilt. It’s picturebook: straight and white.

Isbell may not be a household name but he is a songwriter of great depth and intelligence. Blending country, folk, roots and rock, his music is soulful and alive, with deceptively sophisticated lyrics about addicts, runaways, lovers and outsiders. Naturally, his vignettes of the American working class have seen him compared to Bruce Springsteen, though his quieter songs bear the traces of one of his late mentors, the master American songwriter John Prine. On Sunday night, Isbell’s latest album, Weathervanes – recorded with his band the 400 Unit – is up for three Grammys (Best Americana Album, Best Americana Performance, and Best American Roots Song).

I’m meeting him in the green room of London’s Cadogan Hall, a couple of hours before he’s set to take the stage for the first of two intimate short-notice solo shows in the capital. He’s in the UK to receive the International Trailblazer prize at this year’s UK Americana Awards. “It felt a little bit like a lifetime achievement award,” Isbell, only just 45, remarks bittersweetly. There’s something subdued about his demeanour, but his answers, delivered with a whispery Southern twang, are frank and unapologetic. He’s known as one of the genre’s more outspoken figures for a reason.

Until recently, Isbell would habitually turn to Twitter as a means of airing his opinions and scuffling with dissenters: in 2019, an online argument with the musician saw a gun advocate’s fears of “30 to 50 feral hogs” memorably become a viral meme. These days, Isbell is mostly swerving social media. “Twitter is just a f***ing garbage fire now,” he says. “It’s partially a conscious move and partially it’s just not any fun. There’s real Nazis on Twitter now! I can handle stupid rednecks, but I don’t want to hear from real Nazis. I don’t want that to go into my brain every day.”

Isbell’s other claims to fame are rather less frivolous. Even if you’ve never heard his albums, chances are you’ll know him from the movies: Bradley Cooper clawed his way through an Isbell original, the deathly, finger-picked “Maybe It’s Time”, in 2017’s A Star is Born, while Isbell gave a brilliant, understated performance as Bill Smith in Martin Scorsese’s recent Killers of the Flower Moon. Before all that, though, he started out as a teenage prodigy, drafted into the rock outfit Drive-By Truckers in 2002 and kicked out after five years, thanks to his worsening addiction issues – alcohol, mainly, and cocaine. It wasn’t until he got sober in 2012 (thanks, in part, to his now wife, musician Amanda Shires) that he was able to fulfil his potential: his fourth solo album, 2013’s Southeastern, was an immediate classic of the Americana genre. Eleven years and five records later – including the potent, electrifying Weathervanes – he has nothing left to prove.

Isbell performs at Love Rising in March 2023
Isbell performs at Love Rising in March 2023 (Getty)

Just as he is forthright in person, so too is he on record. Especially when it comes to the US government. His work has become increasingly direct in its political messaging – his 2017 release The Nashville Sound encapsulated the voice of a progressive suffering through a Donald Trump presidency in songs such as “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road”. (“I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well/ Uninspired and likely mad as hell,” he sings on the latter, a refrain that somehow never stops feeling timely.) With the prospect of a second Trump term an increasingly real possibility, Isbell is starting to worry. “I feel as bad as you could possibly feel,” he says.” Scared and angry and disgusted, and that’s it.”

“Save the World”, one of Weathervanes’ singles, was written in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting and sees Isbell reckon with raising a child in a country ravaged by gun violence. He has specific and detailed thoughts on the changes needed to gun legislation – banning the manufacturing of assault weapons, not just the sale – but is less than optimistic about the future. “I don’t know that it will ever get any better,” he admits. “But we’re all just here for a little while, and then we’re gone. So any cause that you throw yourself into is pissing up a rope after a couple of thousand years anyway. You might as well pick one and go for it.”

Isbell’s progressive political stances are not without contention in the world of country music, where battle lines are drawn across the US’s stark political divide. “I think the good guys are winning,” Isbell says. “You look at people like Casey Musgraves, Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers and Chris Stapleton and these are the people selling tickets. Of course, Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs are too, but there’s more people who come from our side of the fence.

Isbell and his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires
Isbell and his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires (Getty for Americana Music)

“If the music is song-driven, lyrically strong, most of the people that make it are gonna be pretty good folks – not always, but most of the time if you spend your life with words, trying to tell stories about other people, you’re gonna learn how to empathise a little bit. As soon as you do that, you are no longer a Trumper.”

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Watching Isbell perform, you get the sense that he is most himself when on stage – even with a few (minor) illness-related vocal issues, he holds the audience in thrall. Backstage, he’s a quieter proposition, dialled down and easygoing. He chats about movies, music, the latest series of True Detective; I watch him fish a teabag from a cup using a plastic pen. It could be that he’s deliberately keeping things low-key – not for the first time, he’s picked up “just enough” of a respiratory illness from his and Shires’s young daughter. “I’ll always figure something out,” he insists. “I’m not Adele, people aren’t paying to hear my beautiful voice. They’re paying to hear the songs and the words. I could probably get up there and talk the songs if I had to.”

Weathervanes was, significantly, the first album Isbell had self-produced since getting clean. This was no coincidence. “I think part of the behaviour of an addict, especially in my situation, was this attempt to control things, the myth of that,” he says. This would prompt him to “go down the rabbit hole in the studio”, obsessing over unnecessary tweaks to the sound mix. “It takes a structural self-confidence to produce a record and know when to stop.”

I don’t really do ‘lonely’. I have an ‘avoidant attachment style’ – I like being by myself and I’ve never really gotten tired of it

Jason Isbell

He continues to address addiction in his music, either from a personal standpoint – in sobriety-themed songs like “It Gets Easier” or “Cover Me Up” – or the observational “When We Were Close”, another Weathervanes track which addresses Isbell’s friendship with the late singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died of an overdose in 2020. (Isbell doesn’t outright identify Earle, but the song leaves little room for doubt.) “That song is about a relationship that deteriorated before somebody passed away, with an addict,” he explains. “It was a tough one for me to wrap my mind around because if I eulogise him in a way that’s completely forgiving, I’m gonna make other victims.

“You know,” he continues, “I had somebody in my family come to me because her husband was addicted to painkillers. And she said, ‘I just don’t want him to die.’ And I said, ‘You will before he does.’ Because that’s what happens. They don’t just take a bunch of painkillers and die. They take a bunch of painkillers and they ruin everybody’s f***ing life and then they die.” If there’s something blunt and callous-seeming about Isbell’s response, it’s one born of lived experience – his own demons as much as anyone else’s.

Isbell with his band, the 400 Unit
Isbell with his band, the 400 Unit (Catherine Powell)

It was on the set of Flower Moon that Isbell wrote much of Weathervanes, including the haunting “King of Oklahoma”, another song about addiction which drew – unintentionally, Isbell says – on the relationship between the film’s central characters: Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone and Ernest, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Isbell is effusive about his co-stars (“[DiCaprio] takes his job very seriously … There’s only one Lily Gladstone”) and about Scorsese, with whom he would discuss music, and quiz on the making of the epochal 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. “I had to ask him, ‘What was it like backstage? I know they were a mess…’. He said, ‘I had no idea! I was out front making a picture. I didn’t even know it took us all night to make it. I just got lost in the work’.”

A question about DiCaprio prompts Isbell to speak about loneliness. “I think acting, as a job, makes for some pretty lonely people. I don’t know if Leonardo DiCaprio’s necessarily one of them. But you do a lot of travelling, you stay on set for a long time… especially when you reach a certain level, you’re pretty isolated.”

Killers of the Flower Moon trailer

As Isbell sits in the muffled room, waiting, subdued, to come alive on stage, I can’t help but wonder if touring is really any less isolating. The fact Isbell usually performs with his band helps, of course. But it’s more than that. “I don’t really do ‘lonely’,” he says. “I have an ‘avoidant attachment style’ – I like being by myself and I’ve never really gotten tired of it. If I’m with my daughter, it feels like I’m by myself because I don’t have to act for her, but most of the time I’d prefer to be alone. That’s how I wound up becoming a musician in the first place… I was just sitting alone and playing guitar and singing for hours and hours and hours.

“It’s not as bad as stand-up comedy. That’s the loneliest job in the world. That’s like, long-haul-truck-driver-lonely,” he laughs.

Winning the trust of a director like Scorsese is a hell of a way to enter the movie business, and Isbell hasn’t written off more acting work down the line. But don’t bank on a full change of career. “I love my regular job,” he says. “There’s nothing that I’ll ever do that I will like more. I could be a f***ing candy taster and I would not like it as much as playing music.” These are reassuring words, for Isbell, for Americana music, and – not least – for his teeth.

‘Weathervanes’ is out now. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will return to the UK for a tour in November 2024

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