By Timothy Dwenger
While he’s seen quite a few over the last five or six years, it was almost exactly one year ago that Jason Isbell experienced one of life’s truly great miracles; the birth of his daughter Mercy. Despite the fact that he said, early on in our interview as he walked the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, that he didn’t want to get too personal about his experiences as a parent, Isbell’s relatively new fatherhood is clearly at the core of his being these days.
From casual mentions of taking Mercy out on the road, to fatherly expressions of pride and protectiveness, it was immediately clear that Isbell’s daughter has changed his life. Despite the fact that people like John Mayer have called him “the best lyricist of his generation” and his last album, Something More Than Free, topped the country, folk, and rock charts at the same time, Isbell was quick to prioritize his family over his career. “I want her to have a good experience, I want her to have happy memories of her childhood. The way she sees me as an artist in my career or my job really doesn’t matter to me. I would like her to see me in the way that I see my dad. He was willing to make a lot of sacrifices in order to keep me happy, and educated, and safe. I want that to be her impression of me. I get enough accolades and enough respect from enough people that I expect to earn her respect in a different way.”
In recent years Isbell has earned tremendous respect from the music world as he has shown not only that he could successfully turn his life around and pull himself out of a crippling drinking habit, but that he could refocus his energy on songwriting and be incredibly successful. Sure, the raw talent was always evident in his work, but with his last two albums Isbell has risen above his peers in a way that few are capable of and now he is poised to head into the studio to record another batch of songs. “I’ve written a lot, I’m pretty far along as far as the writing goes and I think we are planning on going into the studio in January. So, with no major problems, we are looking at late spring or early summer as a good timeline for the next record.”
This is great news for fans of the former Drive-By Trucker who have been hanging on every vivid image and painstakingly crafted couplet of Isbell’s last two releases and, despite the way the record industry tends to work, he is confident that his next album will come out on time. “I like being in the studio but if I spend too much time on an album, it ruins the process for me,” he explained. “A lot of my favorite records were either made in a really short amount of time or they took a long time because the people making them were fucked up and we don’t have that to worry about. I don’t like to dick around producers and engineers.”
Isbell went on to explain his process by saying “I usually go in with the record written, sometimes I’ll have 15 or so songs finished when I go in and I’ll play the songs for everybody and we’ll work on the parts and arranging and that kind of thing. I don’t road test material because when you do that you fall in love with parts that may not be right. We don’t do demos, we don’t do anything like that. The first time everybody hears the songs is when I sit down and play them for them in the studio. ”
While Isbell didn’t share details of who he’s played the new material for, expectations for the upcoming album are at a fever pitch. It’s possible that the only people who have heard the new songs are his wife, an accomplished artist in her own right, Amanda Shires, and Mercy, and that would probably be appropriate as it sounds like this is shaping up to be a project that reflects a lot of what they have brought into his life. “Anything that is going on in my life is going to be reflected in the songs I write,” he explained. “I try to look at the records as documents so there is definitely going to be some stuff on there that references her or, more often, is inspired by the entire situation. It has caused me to pay more attention to detail which I think is really the best thing that can happen to a songwriter.”
For those who are intimately familiar with Isbell’s writing up to this point, it might seem almost impossible that he pay more attention to detail, but he went to explain a little bit more about what he meant in a way only a parent could. “Being a father causes you to relearn and pay more attention to how you learn things in the first place,” he said. “If you hand a baby something to play with, first the baby has to figure out that it’s not a piece of her hand, then she has to figure out that it is something to use her imagination on, and then she’s got to figure out how to play with it. We take a lot of those things for granted; everything is a symbol for something else and the adult mind immediately recognizes that. That has opened my eyes to a lot of different levels of learning.”
It is almost as important for writers to learn and soak up their environment as it is for babies, so Isbell’s keen observations of his daughter are bound to yield rich results. As he discussed what he is learning from his daughter, and the power of symbolism in writing, he shared a very powerful insight into what makes his writing so universal. “Almost all the metaphors are clichés now, so the more direct your language gets, the more you avoid that and the more you actually speak to a detail in somebody else’s life that they might hear in a song and think ‘how does this person know?’ That’s what you want. You want to get very, very, very specific in a way that applies to everybody and I think that’s ultimately the purpose of a songwriter — to remind all of us that we are very similar. It seems impossible, but that’s the trick. The trick is that all the little details that you think belong only to you are the same for somebody that might have grown up 2,000 miles away from you, and dressed differently, and lived in a completely different fashion. They are the same details,” he said.
While the details in Isbell’s writing do appeal to millions of fans around the world and are inspired by the struggles and triumphs in his life, he is not counting on his daughter growing up to be a fan. “I’m not expecting her to like my music,” he admitted. “In fact, I’m expecting the opposite of that, so at the very least I won’t be let down if she doesn’t.”
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