Singer songwriter and guitarist Jason Isbell is a modest chap… he recently scored a Grammy nomination for Best Americana for his latest album Something More Than Free. It’s no pressure for Isbell, who laughs that ‘nobody had ever heard of me before!’
While awards don’t change that much, Isbell laughs, ‘It ensures that I’m not going to have to go back into the workplace any time soon. That’s a good thing. I don’t put a whole lot of stock in those kinds of things but I’m always grateful for them. I have a lot of favourite bands and favourite artists who never win any awards. I can’t really tell myself that I deserve these things, but I’m definitely going to be thankful when they happen.’
Isbell recently collaborated with Australian artist Tommy Emmanuel. ‘He asked me if I would come in and sing and play guitar, and when I got there I said I’ll sing but if I’m playing guitar I’ll play slide guitar. Anything else you don’t need me for. I hadn’t heard Tommy play much slide guitar. I said if you need me to do that, I can, but I’m not going to finger-pick with Tommy Emmanuel. That’s not necessary. He can handle all of that for himself! It was really fun. Tommy’s a sweetheart and seriously one of the best guitar players anybody has ever seen. Yeah, that was an honour for me.’
Isbell’s new album The Nashville Sound tells the story of Nashville, and the myriad different music that comes out of Nashville now.
‘Nashville sounds a whole lot different than it used to because there are a lot more types of music coming out of that city than just the traditional or commercial country music that folks are used to. I think more than anything else I was trying to document a moment in time in which I feel like there are many different genres being represented in a really good way in that city.’
Like music of Nashville, when it comes to songwriting, for Isabel there is no formula.
‘I’ve used every method that I’ve ever heard of. If there’s another way I’ll try it but sometimes it’s rare that they come out fully formed. That don’t happen much at all. It’s happened a few times over the course of the last 20 years for me but most of the time it involves just… You know that feeling when you are reading a book or watching a movie or something and you look up and you think about what you just heard or somebody just said or what sort of situation just happened? You gain a little insight. That’s usually where the songs start. If I overhear something in a conversation or read something I start thinking about it. My vision tunnels in on the different types of meaning that a phrase could have and that will find its way into a melody. Then I pick up the guitar. That’s more often than not how it works.’
Isbell always wanted to be a musician. ‘I knew I wanted to be a musician before I knew that I was any good at it. That’s for sure. I think that’s usually how that happens. I think the decision was made in my mind very early on. It’s like falling in love with somebody at first sight. I enjoyed it so much. I got so much out of playing an instrument that it became the only thing that I wanted to do. It still is with the exception of spending my time with my family. These things go hand in hand, but if there’s nothing else I have to do I’ll pick up a guitar. I’ve never really had to make myself practise or anything but I think around the age of 10 or 11 I realised that the people I was listening to on the radio probably had a similar experience to mine. And I thought well, maybe I can do that myself one day.’
And he did.
Catch Jason Isbell at Bluesfest this year. For tickets and program info go to www.bluesfest.com.au