Southeastern is the success story that almost wasn't. It's the fourth in a line of solo records from singer-songwriter Jason Isbell — the previous three mostly unremarkable, with a sparkle here and there of something great. That was before the former Drive-By Truckers' guitarist got himself in rehab and then got himself straight. The songs still poured out of him, just without that thick layer of whiskey this time. The result, Southeastern, is a beaut of a record, dealing in redemption and intimacy and loss and newfound love.
That love part comes from Isbell's new wife, fellow songwriter and fiddler Amanda Shires, who walked Isbell into rehab and then married him when he walked out. That's her violin on Southeastern's standout track (one of many) "Traveling Alone," sweetly riding along with Isbell's voice. That — and the story behind it — is just one bit of what makes his new album so affecting.
Isbell will play at the Vogue on Tuesday.
NUVO: Some of these songs, you're speaking from some universal human experiences – getting sober, dying of cancer, sexual abuse. What characters from your own life are you drawing from for these songs?
Isbell: It's usually combining a few people together to get the stories. There's something about songwriting that I like a lot. You don't have to differentiate between what's true and what's fiction. If you're writing a book, they put them on different shelves. If you're making movies, they call them documentaries or not, but with songs, you can pretty much get away with anything in that world. There's a lot of it that comes from personal experience, because I think it's harder — for me any way — to notice the right details unless I'm talking about something I've had experience with.
But the reason these things are universal is because, by definition, is because everybody's dealt with them. I don't know anybody who hasn't been affected by cancer, or too many people honestly, who haven't been affected by sexual abuse in one way or another.
NUVO: That brings to mind the difference between a casual listener of this record and a listener who's more informed by your own biography and life. A casual listener wouldn't know, for example, that in "Traveling Alone," the violin is played by your wife, and it's a duet between the two of you. That really appeals to me, that second meaning can be unlocked for the listener. I've seen it referred to as a public proposal.
Isbell: I did write that song in that way. We'd been to a wedding of a friend of mine who used to work for the band, and he wrote this song for his wife. He's not a songwriter by trade, you know, but he wrote a song for his wife and played it for her at her wedding. I was inspired by that, to write a song specifically to and for one person, which is not something that I'm used to doing.
It was difficult. She and I were doing this thing where we would separate for a few hours and go to opposite ends of our house. She would write a song and I would write a song. Then, we'd come together and sing it for each other at the end of the day. "Traveling Alone" and "Cover Me Up" started from that. "Traveling Alone" started when I was out on the road, just in an airport singing into my cell phone, trying to record the chorus. But the rest of that song developed after I got back home and was able to reflect a little bit.
NUVO: I've had musician friends tell me they need to get sober, but they're afraid of it — for fear of how their writing and performing and musical habits will change. What's been the most surprising thing about writing songs sober?
Isbell: Well, you know, that's an excuse. When anybody tells you that, that's an excuse to keep drinking or doing whatever they're doing. Just like writer's block. All that stuff is bullshit. It's all an excuse to not do the work that needs to be done. Before I went into the process of sobering up, I thought that way too. I was a little bit delusional there, because the fact of the matter is, you didn't learn how to play music in the first place when you were drunk. Most people didn't. When I was seven or eight or nine years old, playing the guitar, and then 12 or 13 trying to write songs, I wasn't drunk. I spent more time on it then, when I was that age. I lived and breathed music and records and instruments and songs. And I've gotten back into that since I've had the time in the day to work on those things. I don't wake up needing two or three hours to recover from the night before; and when the sun goes down, I don't immediately think I need to be out somewhere raising hell. It's given me a whole lot more time and a lot more focus to actually do what I'm supposed to be doing.
NUVO: Let's talk for a moment about song ordering. The album ends on this uplifting note with "Relatively Easy" after the gut punch of the several songs before. I'm sure that was deliberate, but can you talk me through the deciding process of how to order these songs?
Isbell: That can be a complicated process, because I go with themes and subject matter, but I also go with keys. I'm not going to get too geeky up in here, but I try to put a little bit of musical theory into that. What key a song is in, what the last chord you hear is, then the first chord of the next song. I like those to be thirds of fifths, sometimes, or even relative minors, depending on what direction I want the record to move in. But, I did want to end this record on a happy note, because I know there's a lot of darkness there.
NUVO: I know you did a lot of live vocal recording, and I feel like I can hear that particularly on the chorus of "Yvette." Would you do it on another record?
Isbell: It's a hard thing to make yourself do, because you're not always going to sing on key or on pitch. Well, not me. I'm sure there are a lot of singers who could nail it every time. Sometimes people don't necessarily need to hear things that are on key; they need to hear things that are a little bit more visceral and emotional. That's something that Dave Cobb when he was producing he coached me to do that and to be okay with some of those first-take vocals.
It's a lot like just letting someone take a picture of you and post it on the Internet without looking at it yourself first. But I think it's what was needed for this particular project, because the record is very personal and emotional, for lack of a better term.