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Jason Isbell on embracing life's uncertainties in new album


For Jason Isbell, the lyrics are everything.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) There's a warm wind blowing through the laundromat. There's a young man crying in a cowboy hat.

DETROW: That's always been clear to fans of his music. Isbell writes vivid songs about memorable, complicated characters.

JASON ISBELL: I think, like a short story writer, sometimes you work from a more honest place when you just make people happen and then follow them around and pay attention to them.

DETROW: An HBO documentary released earlier this year revealed just how much pressure Isbell puts on himself to write.


ISBELL: If I was making people dance, I wouldn't sit there and waste my time on prepositions (laughter).

DETROW: He and his band, The 400 Unit, are out with a new album filled with songs that embrace the uncertainty of life, songs like "King Of Oklahoma."


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Molly don't believe me, says she's going to leave me. The kids won't even know my name.

DETROW: Isbell did most of the writing for "Weathervanes" on the set of another movie, a Martin Scorsese film out later this year, where Isbell makes his debut as an actor.

ISBELL: I try to write with this sort of sense of place just because it's a good way to start.


ISBELL: I was exposed to a lot of people that I didn't know, people that I didn't see every day. And I spent a lot of time either on my own or just sort of bumming around Bartlesville, Okla. And it was really great for the songwriting process.

DETROW: That's one of the songs I want to talk about because that's such a great example of that classic storytelling song. You hear the story of this guy with a serious opioid addiction, what he's doing to feed it, how he got there. What's the starting point for that one?

ISBELL: For me, I will start with a character. And I'll try to find the right detail, so we get sort of an overview of that character. And then I'll just follow him around, you know, and see what he does.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) I was emptying my bladder on a 20-foot ladder - should have climbed down and found myself some shade. Doctor took a quick look, and I got out the checkbook and left with a pocket full of pills.

ISBELL: It's sort of like you're doing three jobs at once. You're trying to tell the story. And you're trying to paint this picture that people can visualize. But you're also trying to make something that's really singable, something that works as a song. And it's a fun challenge. It's not all that different from a crossword puzzle because you have a certain amount of space that you have to get a detail into.


ISBELL: I try not to have a finished product in mind when I start.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) She used to make me feel like the king of Oklahoma, but nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore.

DETROW: You produced this album entirely yourself. What was different about that experience for you in the day-to-day compared to other albums?

ISBELL: We worked with Dave Cobb on the last four records, I think. And, you know, I loved working with Dave. When I got sober 11 years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to turn over some control of that part of my work so I could just do my job, you know, write the songs, bring them in and say, tell me what to do. And Dave was great. This time, as I was writing the songs, I thought to myself, I think I can do this without screwing it up. You know, I think I can actually go in the studio and not take my ego in there with me so much and not feel like I have anything to prove and just serve the song.

DETROW: Did that lead to any moments of you making decisions, any particular moments on any particular songs where maybe if you had a producer, you'd be pushing for something else. Knowing that he could say no and you'd have that back and forth. but you're in the moment of saying, OK, it's all up to me, so maybe this is the choice I need to make here?

ISBELL: We spent a lot of time on the analog synth on "Save The World." It was tough, but when we finally got it, it was super rewarding.

DETROW: I guess I did kind of appreciate the synthesizer in "Save The World." But I'll say to you, as a parent of a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, that's not what stuck out to me about that song. For context, this is a song about how a parent processes school shootings. It seemed like you were particularly writing about Uvalde.

ISBELL: The problem with that one was I had to write it a couple different times because it's a delicate subject. It's extremely heavy. And it's so hard to write about something like that in a way that seems honest and true and right. And for me, coming from my personal perspective usually proves to be the best move on that. All I know to do is say, well, this is how I feel.

DETROW: I mean, the feeling of living in a world where that's a possibility is real for a lot of people.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) And when you said the cops just let them die, I heard the shaking in your voice, and for a moment you began to cry. Then I heard you make a choice.

DETROW: For me, that jumped out because I have this visceral memory of the day that happened, picking my kid up from school and watching him play on the playground as the news alerts made it clearer and clearer, just the scope of it and, you know, just hiding that from your kid. And that's such a hard feeling that I feel like so many parents make a lot.

ISBELL: Like, we know that we're not supposed to do that. We know that if we have these feelings and these fears, that they're supposed to come out and be expressed for what they are so they don't come out in different ways. But when you're in that kind of, you know, survival mode that you go into, you think, well, I have to continue to take care of this person and teach this person how to function. And also, I don't know what to say. I don't know how to explain this to a child. You know, I can't make this make sense. So I'm just going to shut up about it and bury it somewhere. And that sucks.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Can we keep her here at home instead, and can we teach her how to fight?

ISBELL: I don't have the idea that songs like this are going to change any kind of policy or motivate anybody that hasn't been motivated before. I think it's more a matter of saying, hey, I know what you feel. I feel like this, too. And when people hear that and they hear it in a specific way, and it, you know, makes them feel like you know a little bit of a secret about them, then all of a sudden, at the very least, they don't feel like they're all alone in those feelings.

DETROW: Yeah. The label branded this as an album about grown-up stuff, you know. That's how you framed it. And listening through, I would say there's not a lot of resolution in a lot of these songs. There's a lot of uncertainty. There's a lot of dissatisfaction. There's a lot of drifting. "If You Insist" is a song that jumps out to me about two people almost circling each other and saying, is this working? Is this not working? I don't really know.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) If you insist on being lonely, can you leave a couple smokes?

DETROW: Is all that part of being grown-up to you, just not really knowing what step is next?

ISBELL: Yeah, that might be the No. 1 thing about being an adult is figuring out when to stop looking for an answer. You get to a point where you go, OK, this is not my business anymore. You know, I don't know what happens after we die. I don't know what caused this problem. I don't know how to fix it. There's something there in sort of my own personal development of masculinity, because I've always been the type of person who thought, you know, if there's a problem, I need to solve it or I need to suggest some sort of resolution. And being married for the last decade, it has occurred to me better late than never, I guess, that sometimes your job is just to listen.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Don't wash the cast iron skillet. Don't drink and drive. You'll spill it.

DETROW: I want to ask a couple of questions about the documentary that came out the other month. This is an HBO documentary looking back at the process of your last album, "Reunions," which you talk in it at one point about this need to keep proving yourself and keep topping yourself and make sure that the next album is better than the last and always moving forward. And I can see the way that that's a positive artistic motivator. And I could see the way that that is a negative personal life thing to deal with in your brain. And I'm wondering, has that feeling changed for you at all over the last two years? Did you feel that pressure with "Weathervanes"? How did you work through that?

ISBELL: I felt it, yeah. But once I acknowledged it, you know, going through the process of making that documentary, it helped me to understand how I was feeling about that, and it helped me to say it out loud. And, you know, it's the most obvious thing in the world, but it's the thing that I personally, you know, don't get around to doing until way, way late. But when we went in to make "Weathervanes," you know, I didn't run from it. I didn't hide from it. I didn't try to turn it into something else. I just said, OK, this is a lot. I'm stressed about this. It's hard to go back in the studio and make an album and know that it's going to be compared to the work that I've done in the past, but I'm going to go in and do my best. And it really, really helped a whole lot. You know, it was just another case of me just trying to appear tough and not trying to actually be tough because the real brave stuff is when you just say it out loud. It helped a whole lot.

DETROW: The last thing I want to ask you, I mentioned before, I've got a son who's 5 now. I listen to a lot of your music in the car. And there was a moment about a year ago where I realized that he was intensely listening to your lyrics, too. And he...

ISBELL: Oh, no (laughter).

DETROW: It was mostly OK. It was mostly OK.


DETROW: There were a few moments. But he just started asking really deep questions that, as a parent, I was like, I don't actually have the answer to that. And I thought I could get him to ask you one of his deep philosophical questions from your lyrics and see if you can help.

ISBELL: I would love it. I would love it.

DETROW: This is this is my son, Josh.

JOSH: Why can't you ever take you back in time?


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Daddy said the river would always lead me home, but the river can't take me back in time. And daddy's dead and gone.

DETROW: I didn't have the answer. Why can't the river take you back in time?

ISBELL: Because the past, Josh, is a figment of our imagination. It doesn't actually exist at all. Because your recollection of the past, of going back, what would be going back in time, that's from your perception. So what you saw and what you heard was only one little tiny piece of the whole entirety of the moment. So when you try to travel back to that, you can't travel back to something that only you saw and only you heard and only you remember in that way. We can't go into the past because the past doesn't exist.

DETROW: I might have to save that for when he's a little bit older, but that's a really good answer.

ISBELL: He's 5, though. Yeah, it's tough.

DETROW: (Laughter).

ISBELL: Because the river only goes one way, Josh. I'm sorry.


ISBELL: He's a good listener, I think.


ISBELL: Not all kids pay attention to the lyrics like that. That's great.

DETROW: He's got a lot of questions, so we have for now kept listening and talking about it. Jason Isbell, he and The 400 Unit's new album, "Weathevanes," is out now. Thanks so much for talking to NPR.

ISBELL: Thank you. I really enjoyed it. I always do.

DETROW: This was my first day hosting the show. Thanks for listening. I hope you will join me again tomorrow evening and over many weekends to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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