Jason Isbell on Missing John Prine, Digging Fiona Apple and the Fine Art of Honing Heartbreak

In a bonus conversation, Isbell digs further into the craft that went into writing his "Reunions" album, and talks about how he approaches humor differently than his late pal Prine.

Jason Isbell Variety Magazine Feature
Alyssa Gafkjen for Variety

In Variety‘s feature story this week on Jason Isbell, a lot of territory was covered: where he fits in genre-wise, his willingness to be an emblem for rock’s recovery movement, the blowback he sometimes gets for being politically outspoken, and the songwriting sensibilities that were further crystallized still in his masterful new album, “Reunions.”

And yet there was even more to discuss than that. Like: What does he think of a competing album-of-the-year candidate, by Fiona Apple? And what does he aspire to most, career-wise, about one of his friends and heroes, the late John Prine?

So we reunite you with the thoughts and words of Isbell via this bonus Q&A, in which the venerated singer-songwriter touches on those topics and more, including where the hidden jokes are in his songs, and why he doesn’t worry about playing a cancer ballad in the middle of the afternoon at a rock festival. So especially if you have “Elephant” on, or a touching new song like “St. Peter’s Autograph” or “Letting You Go” — or even if you don’t — read it and weep.

VARIETY: You’ve tweeted that you’ve been enjoying the Fiona Apple album (“Fetch the Bolt Cutters”), along with the rest of the world.

ISBELL: It’s such a good album. People call it experimental, but I don’t think she’s experimenting, really — not any more than usual. I just think she’s doing a great job of being herself.

People do focus on her album as being odd and eccentric, but underneath the sounds there is some songwriting that is really conventional, in a good way — each song is about a subject that you can pin down and identify that she nails.

Yes. And they’re catchy. I think usually when people use the word experimental, they mean there’s nothing you can really latch onto. But these songs have big hooks, and she’s such a masterful musician, and obviously that gets overlooked, partially because she’s a woman and partially because she had some commercial success early on. But she can really play, and she knows the theory behind what she’s doing. These songs feel constructed to me in a very deliberate and beautiful way. I don’t think an amateur musician, even a really creative one, could have come anywhere close to this album.

Speaking of albums, it seems like you’re a big believer in the album, as a form, and your fans are more likely than most to want to sit down and listen to “Reunions” beginning to end. Maybe that’s one of the nice thing about this shut-in, that, as with the Fiona Apple album, people may first experience it in full through headphones, not in five- or six-minute increments in the car. Do you like the idea of people listening to this from start to finish and having that experience out of it?

Yeah, I think so. But I don’t mind people listening to it one song at a time or skipping around or just downloading one song; that doesn’t bother me. I put the work into sequencing and all that just for the people who want to listen to it that way, because I normally listen to albums that way. That’s just my nature. But also I don’t want to feel like the old man yelling at a cloud, saying, “You kids don’t listen to albums all the way through anymore,” because it doesn’t really matter all that much. If there’s something that moves somebody on a record, I don’t want to tell ‘em how to consume something that they’ve already purchased from me. So I don’t mind that changing, because there are still just so many people out there. I think everybody forgets how many people there are. Even though there definitely aren’t as many as there were a week ago.

But there are a lot of people out there listening to music in all kinds of different ways. And for me, for anybody to give a s— about the songs that I’m writing, at this point in my life, it’s a pretty special thing. But I do think what’s most important to me is documenting a specific period of time. I’ve never made a record where I’ve gone back through my catalog and looked for old songs. All these songs on “Reunions” were written in the year and a half or so leading up to the recording of this album. That’s the way I always try to do it, because to me a record is a document, and even if it’s not a concept album, even if it doesn’t have a theme that’s linear, I still feel like I get a lot personally out of looking back on these albums as a document of where I was at that point in my life. And so I put the work into the album as a whole with that in mind. It’s really more for me, I think, than it is for anybody else.

You’ve written songs that have a socially conscious tack or that somebody could consider “message songs” before, like “White Man’s World.” On “Reunions,” you start right off off with one of these, “What’ve I Done to Help.”

I think when you’re writing songs about the imperfections of society, you can usually count on those songs to be relevant for a long time. You know, I think about John (Prine), and I think about what he said about “Sam Stone.” He thought the Vietnam War was going to be over in less than a year, and nobody was going to care about that song anymore — and of course, he would have been perfectly fine with that. But I saw him performing it 40 years later, and it was still just as relevant as it had been when he wrote the song. I think that’s something as a songwriter that’s sort of one of the sad truths: if you’re writing about the flaws in our society, then the song’s not gonna go out of fashion anytime soon.

There are so many points of commonality between you and Prine. But one thing that may be a little different is that, obviously, he had kind of this whimsical tone that he could revert to. Certainly not all the time, because “Hello in There” is not a funny song. But the word “humorist” comes up a lot with him — and probably not so much with your work is anybody going to go there right up front with that. On the other hand, you’re practically the funniest person on Twitter. It’s always a little bit surprising when people you don’t think of as natural comedians in one aspect of their work turn out to be, off-screen or off-record. You must get that comment sometimes, like, “Wow, I never would have guessed from hearing ‘Elephant’ [a song about a relationship with someone with terminal cancer] that you were this hilarious guy.”

But you know, there are jokes in “Elephant.” There are lines that are very much meant to be funny in that song. I just think it’s a situation where not everybody knows if it’s okay to laugh, because the humor in my songs is very subtle and very dry. I remember right around the time when I met John, Amanda (Shires, the recording artist who is Isbell’s 400 Unit bandmate and wife) and I had gone to see a movie, and John had gone to see it that same weekend. We were talking about it and we had both had the same experience where we were laughing in the theater and nobody else was. I think that happened a lot to him, and I know it has to me over the years, where it’s like, I don’t have any problem laughing at something if I find it funny, and then just dealing with the consequences after.

Now, that being said, John was way better than me at making people laugh in a song. You know, Todd Snider’s great at it, and Hayes Carll is great at it. And there are a lot of moments on that Fiona Apple record that are completely hilarious. And I’m just not that good at that — at being funny and touching at the same time. I feel that the humor in my songs is very easily confused with seriousness. Maybe that’s the next frontier for me is to try to write something funny. But John had no problem with that. His imagination was so vast, and he had no problem being just goofy and silly. And I think that probably came from how he had a lot of confidence in his mind, in how smart he was and how perceptive he was, and he didn’t mind people seeing him as a goofy person, because he knew that that was okay.

Can you think of any line you’ve written that, to yourself, is funny, but people don’t know it’s okay to laugh at?

Hmm. Well, I mean, definitely the line with the F-word in “Elephant” I thought was hilarious. I don’t know why most people don’t. And then in “Traveling Alone,” where the character was too drunk to pick up a prostitute, I remember Craig Finn from the Hold Steady told me that he laughed so hard at that line, and I thought, “Thank God somebody did.” Of course, Craig would get it, knowing the kind of humor he has in his songs. But most people don’t laugh at that at all. And in “Flagship,” “the boy you left in tears in his Corvette,” to me, is so f—ing funny, just that image of a guy crying in a Corvette. But I think sometimes the seriousness on either side of those lines makes it hard for people to take a deep breath and laugh at ‘em.

It does seem like Twitter has been an outlet for your humor. It’s probably because you’re so good at economy in your songwriting that you do pretty well in 250 characters.

I think it comes down to how you phrase things sometimes. There’s a timing of Twitter that you have to get. You know, if you give too much information, then you lose the joke. And Twitter is kind of like trying to make somebody laugh, but they have really severe ADD. It’s like, “I only have this second for your attention to be on me. You’re about to see a squirrel. And then my joke is not gonna work if it’s too long.” So it’s like, how do I make this person laugh if they’re having a hard time paying attention to me? [Chuckles.]

When we think of some of the great lyricists, like Elvis Costello, there are a lot of words, typically. That’s not the case with you, too much. Is there a lot of editing involved?

Elvis Costello has a lot of words, but they’re not there to fit the meter and they’re not there to fit the phrasing. They’re there because he has a lot to say, and a very specific way that he wants to say it that happens to be verbose. For me, the way that I like to say things is more often than not with some brevity, I guess, or concision.

[Doing] that, to me, you take away the separation between the reenactment of an experience and the experience itself. And I think when you do that, you move the audience closer to the screen. I think that’s when a song works its best for me, is when the audience feels like they’re actually in the movie. To do that, you have to work really hard to keep narrowing the distance between you and them. You want people to forget that they’re hearing a song, just like you [as a journalist] want them to forget that they’re reading something that you wrote in a magazine or a newspaper. You want them to just experience the stories. And to do that, you have to use some sleight of hand. You have to spend time working the puzzles, because there are so many different combinations of ways of saying things and singing things. You have to find the right one.

On the new album, “Be Afraid” is probably the one that most feels like it could have been a Drive-By Truckers track at some point. You have such a facility for writing songs that could be big rock ‘n’ roll numbers out on the road that it’s almost surprising that you fill the albums with so many dominant quiet songs, not necessarily thinking about what’s going to get people on their feet at shows.

Right. Well, yeah, that is a temptation that I’ve had to work to overcome early on. I mean, after leaving the Truckers and starting this project (going solo and using the 400 Project), it was difficult sometimes to have the patience on stage to play quiet songs. But I think a lot of it comes down to pacing. I mean, we have enough fast, loud music to get through. If we wanted to play three hours, we could do that and still keep everybody awake. Also, part of it was just admitting to myself that we’re not a party band. The entertainment aspect of it is secondary for me, and always has been and always will be. And for that reason, I probably won’t ever be as mainstream or as popular as some people are.

But to me, it’s more important to communicate real emotions and to tell people’s stories. And I think you can do that and still keep people entertained, if you really mean what you’re saying, and if your intention is always good and if you’re not phoning anything in. Because a heartfelt slow song is way more entertaining than a fast rocker that you’re just phoning in and playing by muscle memory. I think live, the most important thing to me is to stay engaged and to stay in the moment, and that sort of alleviates concerns about tempo and pacing.

It is interesting that you have these amazing guitar moments and barnburners people expect from the shows, but possibly the three songs that everybody most expects or hopes to hear, I think, are “If We Were Vampires,” “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant,” which are three slow, really emotional songs. Are those hard to sing every night because they’re so intense? Or do you look forward to those the way the audience does?

You know, I don’t always do “Elephant.” That one to me is sort of dependent on the situation. “Elephant” and then the song “Dress Blues” that was on my first solo record, those two aren’t for every audience. Now, it doesn’t mean that I won’t play ‘em at 2 o’clock in the afternoon on a big festival stage. I’m not afraid of that, but I feel that those songs move people in a way that you have to be aware of and you have to be respectful of. If it’s too much of a party scene, I’m not going to break out a song that’s gonna make half the audience cry, because I don’t want them to be deprived of the experience of feeling those emotions if they want to. And I also don’t want them to feel like I’m not taking those songs as seriously as I should. But for the most part, I’ve always got something loud in my pocket, so I don’t worry about the physical setting as much as I worry about the emotional setting when I’m choosing to play those songs. But I always like playing them. You know, they’re great songs. So I’m not going to get up there and worry about, “Oh, what’s going to happen when I have to play this great song that I wrote.” You know, f— that. I wrote a great song and I get to play it for people.

The song “Overseas” has been intriguing since it became the first song from this album that you started performing out on the road last year. When I saw you play it on the tour with Father John Misty, Amanda was out of your band and off doing her own headline tour, and so it was easy to think: Oh, maybe this is about him missing her. But as you listen more closely it seems to be more fictional, about a more severe separation.

That’s an allegory, that song, and I think how allegory is supposed to work. I think you’re supposed to hear it on one level and then it sort of expands to another level later on. And I’m proud of that song because that’s not easy to pull off. It’s much easier to sit down and write, “Okay, this is what my experience is like, and this is what I do next. And this is how I feel. And this is the bridge, and this is the end.” And it’s hard to go, “Okay, I want to tell two stories. I want to use two different narratives to explain my situation more thoroughly.” And so I took the narrative of an expatriate, who left a family behind, and used that to sort through my own feelings about my wife being on tour and me being at home with the baby. I feel like it worked because I never had to break that fourth wall, and I never had to jump from one story into the other one.

And also, it’s just a whole lot of fun to play. I don’t do a whole awful lot of mid-tempo rock ‘n’ roll. And we played it live so many times that I think it’s cut completely live on the record, even the solos and stuff. Also, melodically, it’s very satisfying to me —it’s got that change that’s kinda like Elton John, kinda like “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” in the chorus — you know, that big build that just sort of keeps going up into a seventh chord. I like playing that song. I don’t know if it’s my favorite one on the album, but it was one of the first couple that I wrote for this record, and it sort of set the tone for the rest of the project.

Thinking of the character in that song, there could be some kind of correlation to the guys in “Last of My Kind’ or “Cumberland Gap” — guys who seem stuck somewhere they don’t necessarily want to be, as other people have moved on, and maybe feeling like strangers in a strange land, even though these are their homes.

I think on both sides of the relationship, it’s important in a song like that for both people to have good reasons for what they’re doing. In “Overseas,” it’s not about bitterness, it’s about awareness of the situation and dealing with the decision that you have made — the right decision. In “Overseas,” the person who has left and the person who’s left behind both have good reasons for that. And that to me was maybe the most important thing in the song — these aren’t bad decisions. This is the result of living with a good decision. Which I think to me is far more interesting than “I’ve done the wrong thing and my life is f—ed up because of it.”

I think that can be extended to a song like “Last of My Kind.” “Cumberland Gap” is a little different because it’s more about desperation and about not having choices. And I think “Overseas” and “The Last of My Kind” are both about making a choice, and doing what needed to be done, and then dealing with the consequences of that. To me that is a little bit more of an interesting storyline, I think, than just “This is what I was forced to do” or “I made a bad choice and now I have to live with that.”

We’ve talked about John Prine’s music a little, but we would be remiss not to ask about how you and Amanda are handling the loss.

It’s hard for me to put into words how valuable that friendship was to me and to Amanda. You know, he and Amanda were super close. He cared a lot for her. She grew up playing (fiddle) with the Texas Playboys, just surrounded by a bunch of men in their seventies, and so she’s really drawn to old men, and she’ll sit and talk to them forever and keep ‘em talking. She’s really good at that. And luckily for me… hopefully, I don’t run her off before I’m an old man. But John, I think, really fell in love with that about her, and they spent a lot of really great days together on the road, and at his place with Fiona and the kids.

If he wasn’t the songwriter John Prine, it would still be a huge loss for us, because he was a great person to be around and had no airs about him whatsoever. No obvious ego. He just was a sweet old guy and very smart and very funny. Right up until the last time we saw him, he was always very quick, very witty… I’d feel very fortunate that I knew John, even if he wasn’t the same John that I had listened to as a toddler in Alabama. It’s a very special thing for us, and I doubt if there will ever be another relationship that comes about due to our careers that’s that important to us.

Having thought about his career as long as you have, or having been a fan for so long, was there anything aspirational in it for you? He had so many ups and downs, and there were — to quote one of his album titles — kind of the missing years, where a lot of people stopped paying attention before he really fell back into favor. Maybe you’re less likely to drop in and out over a period of 50 years But do you feel like there are lessons for you in how it went for him?

I don’t know, man. If you have a long enough career, you’re bound to have some ups and downs, I think. John found a lot of success right at the end. And I can’t really think of a better thing to aspire to than that. We went out and toured with him some in the last few years of his life, and he was playing to the biggest crowds of his career, and that’s amazing. I mean, the man was in his seventies, going out and filling up rooms that he’d never filled up before. It was really beautiful to see him still making incredible records and still writing great songs at that age, songs that hold up with the rest of his catalog.

But you know, honestly, the thing that moved me the most about John’s work and about his career, and the thing that I would aspire to the most about John was — not on a personal level, but on a music level — he never wanted to get off stage. And as much pain as he was in sometimes, and as many times as he’d been on stage in 50 years, he always hated when the show was over. And I think if you can make it that long and still enjoy it that much, then you’ve really gotten as much as you could get out of this career.

(To read this week’s full Variety feature on Isbell, click here.)