If this was the touchy-feely ‘70s, and Van Morrison hadn’t already used the title first, Jason Isbell might have called his new album something serious and evolution-conscious like A Period of Transition instead of simply dubbing it Southeastern. It’s that kind of sobering-life-changes album, literally — among other things, it finds the onetime Drive-By Truckers member meeting his newly found sobriety head-on, while embracing other major changes, like “settling down” — Southeastern was finished immediately before the Alabaman’s marriage to singer/fiddler Amanda Shires. It also marks Isbell’s first outing sans backing band the 400 Unit since his 2007 solo debut, and in place of the band’s firepower it offers some intense, arrestingly personal balladry about, well, a period of transition in the 34-year-old’s life. Check out this exclusive premiere of Southeastern and Isbell’s thoughts on writing one of his more personal collections of songs to date.
What led you to make such an intimate, emotionally revealing album?
It’s sort of a version of therapy for me. I’m able to explain my own feelings about these things to myself. Also, if you’re honest enough with your audience over the years, you’ll see that the audience feels very similar to you. Even if they don’t agree with you all the time, they’ll still respect your opinions, and they don’t get to the point where they turn their back on you because you’ve revealed a part of yourself. A lot of pop performers … they make music for a large group of people who aren’t really similar to them personally, and then you’ve got a situation like the Dixie Chicks, they’re on stage and they say something that is from the heart, and a lot of people turn their back on you because they weren’t really all that similar to you to begin with. A good way to keep that from happening is to tell people who you are, then if they’re gonna give up on you, they’ll do it early.
In some ways, Southeastern almost seems like your equivalent to Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love: a scaled-down album without your regular band, made around the time of your marriage, staring down the barrel at a certain sort of maturity…
He did it, [Tom] Petty did it … I don’t know if for them it was about becoming an adult and a contributing member to society but you kind of get that feeling that you don’t really feel complete until those things happen, until you’ve matured. I certainly appreciate that comparison, because I feel like I probably have a lot of the same concerns that they’ve had over the years, and I can understand it.
I’m thinking of a song about identity and perception like [Tunnel of Love’s] “Brilliant Disguise” in relation to something like “Live Oak,” where you sing, “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be/And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.”
I can see that — “Live Oak” certainly does that on my album, it’s got that division of two identities. I always thought that “Brilliant Disguise” was a much more complex song than people gave it credit for. The inspiration for writing “Live Oak” did come from personal anxieties: when you do make these kind of changes, what parts of you remain and what parts of you will you lose? I would certainly say that it’s been for the best in general, growing up and finding a stable relationship and staying home at night has helped me out a great deal in a lot of ways, but you do worry. The parts of me that my significant other was attracted to, or even that my audience was attracted to, are they still gonna be there, and am I gonna be able to reconcile that if they’re not? So I can certainly see that, you don’t even really know yourself until you’ve fully developed as an adult, and then it’s probably right at the end of your life. [Laughs.]
Even when you’re singing about other characters, like the woman with cancer and her companion in “Elephant,” it feels like you’re talking about very real situations.
They’re all based on things that really happened, but that one, like almost all the songs I write, has characters that are based on other characters. The two people in that song aren’t two people that I know, but each of them is two or three people that I know. That relationship in that particular song became very important to me. I wept for those two people, even though they don’t exist in real life. But it was an amalgamation of people I’ve known that have dealt with that kind of thing.
In the past, you’ve made a running joke out of a monomaniacal fan at a show who kept screaming “Quit fuckin’ around and play [Truckers-era tune] ‘Outfit!’” How do you think that contingent of your audience will deal with you hitting the road to support a new album full of quiet ballads?
I’ll still play that song. Any time you put out a new record, especially if it’s a bit of a departure, you’re probably gonna have some people who aren’t too happy with it. But so far I’ve been lucky enough to have an audience that really appreciates the changes that I go through, so I’m not worried about it. I mean, what are you gonna do, you know, not play your new songs? There’s nothing that can be done about it. If a few of those guys get upset, they’ll just have to be upset.
Southeastern is out June 11 on Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers.