This week Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit release their excellent new album Here We Rest on Lightning Rod Records. The new record finds Mr. Isbell and his crew sounding assured, confident, and boldly expanding their sound in a variety of new directions. The result is the finest and most cohesive album by Mr. Isbell. It is an effort that is easy to revisit and a hard one to push aside.
The singer-songwriter once gain looks within himself to express some rich autobiographical experiences, but also confidently steps into the shoes of fleshed-out characters to spin tales of the everyman. Sonically, Here We Rest includes a satisfying range of country-rock, as well as sparse acoustic numbers, full-band rockers, and R & B influenced jams.
In addition to releasing the new record this week, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit hit the road on April 13th, and will even be co-headlining some special dates with Hayes Carll along the way. As busy as he is right now, Jason was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his new record with me.
You spent a lot of time at home in 2010 writing and recording Here We Rest. Can you describe how your home in Northern Alabama influenced your songwriting for this album?
Jason Isbell: I had an ear to the ground, so to speak. It's easier for me to empathize with regular, hard-working folks when my life is similar to theirs, and it isn't similar at all when we're traveling. Since a lot of my songs focus on these people's stories, it was helpful to see them every day and occupy the same spaces they occupied.
What would you say makes the area especially unique for you?
JI: The Muscle Shoals area has a rich musical heritage, but I'm more interested in the people who live and work here now. The studios are well-equipped, the engineers are skilled, and there are a lot of great musicians and songwriters from the Shoals area currently making an impact. The Civil Wars, The Secret Sisters, Dylan LeBlanc, Nashville writers like Chris Tompkins and Brad Crisler, and the older generation of session players like Kelvin Holly, David Hood, and Spooner Oldham are all currently seeing substantial success. It's a really good time for us.
While you took time off from touring, you worked with Justin Townes Earle, Middle Brother, Abby Owens and Coy Bowles. Can you describe some of these experiences?
JI: I really enjoy working on albums that don't have my name on the cover. Justin and I have known each other for quite a few years now, and I have lots of faith in his songs and the way he delivers them. That project was a very creatively fulfilling one, as was playing guitar with Middle Brother and Coy. I produced and played on an EP for Abby that turned out really great. She has a beautiful voice and some heartfelt and passionate lyrics. I'm sure we'll do more work together in the future.
How did these experiences influence you while writing your new album?
JI: I wouldn't say they influenced the writing so much, but the recording process reflected some of that work. Most of those projects wound up sounding live and very honest, and I tried to summon the courage to make our album sound that way. I even kept a couple initial vocal tracks that were meant to be scratched after seeing that work for Justin. That takes some guts.
When you set out to begin writing and working on the songs for the Here We Rest, did you set any specific goals in mind?
JI: Only to write a number of quality songs, produce them in a way that served the actual material (rather than create material to serve a production style) and have fun in the process.
How do you see Here We Rest in the span of your own discography?
JI: I'm not tired of listening to it yet, so it must be better than most of that other stuff.
What does Here We Rest have in common with your previous releases?
JI: They all have the same aforementioned goals. I haven't tried to re-invent the wheel (yet), just tell solid stories and play well.
What would you say are the biggest differences, and what sets Here We Rest apart the most from your previous albums?
JI: I think it's a better album, honestly. The lyrics are more concise, the band sounds more familiar with each other, and the production serves the songs in pretty much all cases. We're always learning how to play with each other, what spaces each player tends to fill up or leave empty, and what styles of playing allow each individual to be the most creative. It's an intense, but very fulfilling process. In my mind, we keep drawing closer to creating music that serves our own tastes.
Lyrically, the album feels like a mix of your own personal first-hand accounts and some more character-driven perspectives. “Tour of Duty”, “Alabama Pines”, and “Save It For Sunday” come to mind. Can you discuss your decisions to speak from your own experiences as well as assuming different points of view?
JI: I've always been influenced by writers who use the "untrustworthy narrator." Randy Newman, Springsteen, and Dylan obviously come to mind, but there are pieces of those writers' personality in every song they write, even if the story isn't exactly theirs. Of course I'm going to write about my life, since it's my most direct source of inspiration, but once your house is in order, you have an obligation to look out the window at the very least.
What were the first songs that you wrote for the album?
JI: Probably "Alabama Pines" and "Tour of Duty," but I can't be sure. The timeline never really seemed important.
Did these first tunes give you a sense of direction to follow while writing the album? Or did the songs themselves shape the record on their own?
JI: I don't think they did, at least not on a conscious level. I might have thought, "I need more rock songs," or "I need more up-tempo songs," but they come as they are. It's not really controllable for me.
One thing for me that I really enjoy is the variety of musical styles on the album. Folk, Rock, R & B, and Country are all there. Can you describe some of your stylistic decisions?
JI: I get bored with an entire album in the same style, and I don't just listen to a certain kind of music. There are topical and sonic threads that can connect an album, but most of my favorite pieces of work are a bit scattered in tone and style. I could have taken a song like "Codeine" and tried to make it less country, but I've reached a point where the novelty of that technique has worn off. The songs tell you the style they want to be recored in, and it's probably more honest to pay attention to that, if you have the players.
Who would you say are some of your biggest musical influences and what were you listening to at the time of working on Here We Rest?
JI: I love Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, all the obvious songwriters. I'm really moved by James McMurtry's lyrics and Thom Yorke's melodies, and I think Kurt Cobain was a genius. However, I was usually listening to the classic rock house music in the pool room during this particular period.
The album has a real organic and natural quality to it. Can you describe your experience recording at the legendary FAME Studios and Nutthouse?
JI: We did some at FAME and some at the Nutthouse in Sheffield, AL. Both are great rooms, but they have very different vibes. Nutthouse is very new and a little more isolated, but FAME has an incredible NEVE console and some great ghosts. They each have their strong points, for sure.
How collaborative is your songwriting and recording process with the 400 Unit? Can you describe how you and the band work together?
JI: I write the songs myself, then bring them in and play them for the band. We work on instrumentation and some arranging together, and I rarely have to change the direction of the performances. Usually the band comes up with great ideas for parts and we stick with that.
How did you decide to go with Lightning Rod Records for this album?
JI: Logan at Lightning Rod doesn't make creative suggestions and I can always get him on the phone. If he's cheating me out of the dozens upon dozens of dollars I should be making off record sales, I haven't caught him yet.