Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Jason Isbell Talks Surviving Isolation, Mental Health & How Black Music Shaped Him
Working for years on a new album only to have it released during a worldwide pandemic and one of the biggest periods of racial tensions and civil unrest in half a century could devastate any artist. Jason Isbell, just a few weeks removed from the unveiling of his seventh LP, Reunions, prefers to focus on the bigger picture. “We're all healthy and in the house,” he says. “There are worse places to be, so we're all right.”
Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires — a singer/songwriter, virtuoso fiddler, and one-fourth of The Highwomen — have been holed up in their Tennessee house since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. When she had to cancel the remainder of her tour, she decided to keep the show going on YouTube with a series called “I So Lounging,” a daily concert series in which she was accompanied by her touring guitarist Seth Plemmons and, when he could join, Isbell from the barn on their property. They performed originals and covers, answered fan questions, shot the breeze about what they were going through, and used the time to raise funds for both Shires’ crew and the MusiCares COVID-19 Releif Fund. The charity is one Shires and Isbell have close ties to: It helped pay the medical bills for a hand injury that could’ve derailed her career and funded his well-documented stint in rehab. They reiterated the message throughout the performances — there’s help out there and there’s no shame in asking for it.
With that in mind, MusiCares caught up with Isbell to talk about what he’s learned from life in quarantine, supporting the Black Lives Matter protests, getting back on the road, and how to stay sane, married, and sober when it feels like the world around you is going to Hell.
So you just announced 2021 tour dates with Lucinda Williams. How is planning to return the road working out with everything that’s going on now?
Well, those new dates aren't happening until next year, so we got a lot of time to figure all that out. I would love to be able to tour some this year, but I don't think it's going to be feasible. I don't think it will be safe, so we just moved everything back a year, basically. We were supposed to be out right now, and Lucinda was going to be touring with us quite a bit. We were looking forward to it, but it could be worse. So, we're just waiting until things crank back up.
In the meantime, you and Amanda have been raising money for MusiCares with your live streams. What inspired that?
Almost everybody I know and work with has reached out to MusiCares for some type of assistance at some point. And for the last few years, we've been very fortunate and I've had some success, but things weren't always that way. They helped me get sober — it's been about eight and a half years now. People have come to me since asked me, "What do I do? How do I pay for going to rehab or getting the treatment that I need?" and I always send them to MusiCares. The way I see it is, artists who have had some success and might not need as much assistance have a responsibility to give back to the artists who are still struggling and working extra hard without a whole lot of reward, and MusiCares is a great way to do that.
What Amanda and I did, it was her idea to do the "I So Lounging" thing, of course. She had been on the road and her tour got canceled. I actually called her the night that California canceled all the large gatherings. She was headed into California the next day from Canada and I said, "You're not going to be able to do that. You're going to have to come home because California is not having any kind of large gatherings or shows or anything." So, she came home and immediately got to work doing those live streams from our barn here. I think a big part of that was her just needing to continue the work she was doing and sort of have an airlock between being on tour and being at home. It just made sense to donate some of the proceeds because we had all used MusiCares’ assistance in the past and felt like it was a good idea to try to put some back in the pot.
I enjoyed that one joke you made about asking them for some new shoes: "How much does music really care?"
Yeah [laughs]. It's a cool thing, though. And I think a lot of musicians, people who work in the music business, touring professionals, don't understand. They, of course, are reticent to look for a handout and they've got a lot of pride. But at the same time, I don't think they understand sometimes that this thing is set up specifically for people in the music business who need some type of assistance, and that's why it's there. It's not like this fund is going to go somewhere else if people in the music business don't use it. I mean, it's there for us, so we tried to encourage people who needed it to reach out.
Do you have any idea how much money you raised?
I think Amanda did like a month of shows and it was in the six figures, I believe. And she was getting emails from people who were watching and couldn't afford to donate — they were emailing her apologizing for not being able to give or not being able to give more. It was really moving for me and her because we weren't charging people to watch the stream. We were just asking for donations if people could. It just meant a lot to me to see how many people were struggling and still taking the time to write and apologize for not being able to do more. It really restored some of my faith in humanity, in a way.
The past few months have really shown a lot of generosity that people might not have even known they had in themselves.
Yeah, I think so. People have been motivated to give their time and their money and their resources in a way that we haven't always seen.
Also, you and Amanda both have been recently promoting a lot of Black artists on Twitter, just to do what little part you can to amplify others' voices.
Yeah. But it just baffles me that we haven't gotten farther in race relations in America. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine last night and we were talking about just how much easier it would be if we had solved these problems 50 years ago in the Civil Rights movement, or a hundred years ago, any of the chances that we had to solve the issue of race in America. If we had actually solved it then, put the work in, and gotten to a point where everybody was really treated fairly, how much easier and fulfilling our day-to-day lives would be now. How cool would it be to live in a country where everybody's voice was heard equally, even for us? I think our lives would be better, just as white people. It would be a better world all the way around. We've missed so many opportunities to fix that.
And my introduction to any kind of black culture was music. Because where I grew up, it was just a bunch of poor white people in a small town in Alabama. Not even a town, we didn't have any red lights or anything like that. It was just a rural area in Alabama that borrowed the neighboring town's ZIP code and post office. We were just out in the middle of a cow field, a whole bunch of white kids, so my introduction to any kind of Black culture was musical. I became so obsessed with Black music, with the blues and R&B, that it occurred to me that a lot of the things that I hear when I'm in school can't be true. Because I was listening to records that were made in Muscle Shoals, the area where I grew up in Alabama: Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett. I'm thinking I understand what they're singing about and it moves me so much that we can't be very different, really. If I'm responding to this music in this way, on a really emotional level, on a basic level, there's no way that this guy who's singing this song could be all that different from me, despite what I hear when I go to school every day.
I don't know, I think a lot of people had a similar experience to a culture different than theirs. When they really start to consume the music of that culture, they start thinking, "Man, we have a lot in common." Music is a good bridge between different cultures in that way, so I'm just telling people the stuff I'm listening to. I mean, I don't even really have to filter through my playlist to promote Black artists because I just put up what I'm listening to at the time. And more often than not, it is a Black artist.
You tweeted about how people say you’re going to lose some of your audience by speaking out against racism, but at least you’ll still have your soul. Do people still really not get where you're coming from?
It's hard to believe it. But you make new fans along the way, and the more popular you get, the more people who come in who don't really know what you're about. I have a larger audience now than I had a year ago, or two years ago, or 10 years ago, so I think some of the people that are coming in at this point are kind of confused. I mean, people don't know whether to call me a country singer, or a rock singer, or a singer-songwriter, Americana, or roots music. So some people come over thinking they're coming to hear this country singer, and some people come thinking they're going to hear something that reminds them of Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, or something.
It depends on where they're coming from. If they're coming in thinking they're going to hear straight-up country music and that's all they know, then they might be a little bit surprised. But the folk audience is never surprised. They're ready for anything. Also, I think it's just people who disagree with me trying to find ways to disagree with me that are painful or damaging. I think they know for the most part what I'm about — they're just looking for a way to say something. Very often they'll regurgitate the “shut up and sing” concept because that's easy for them. If they did things the hard way, they would have learned something by now. We know that people on that side of the argument are trying to find the easiest way to hurt people's feelings. It doesn't bother me, though. I don't mind.
And it can be fun to mix it up with the naysayers on Twitter, now and then.
It is, yeah. You’ve got to sometimes use them as a prompt. You can't respond to everybody — that'd just be too negative — but every once in a while, somebody will say something and I'll think, "Okay, I can use this to make a point." That's when I wanted to respond, usually.
While we’re on the topic of turning negatives into positives, what are some things you’ve learned during the past few months that might help some other people?
Something that's helped me a whole lot, I was thinking about, is when I got sober in rehab, was to just keep your head and your ass in the same place. It's really about living in the moment, trying to be present, and focusing on the process. My friend, Will, we had a long conversation about a lot of different things. We do that every few days, but he's a Ram Dass guy and he's into the “be here now” philosophy. I find that that's really something that carries over into a lot of other disciplines. He and I have had this conversation about similarities between the best athletic coaches like Nick Saban and Ram Dass’ philosophical teachings. If you can somehow find a way to be in the moment that you are in, it makes things like this turn from a very negative situation to what could potentially be a very positive situation.
"Just keep your head and your ass in the same place. It's really about living in the moment, trying to be present, and focusing on the process."
Amanda and I have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and a huge part of us staying sane and staying happy in this quarantine, lockdown, whatever you want to call it, is trying to understand that she's not going to be a small child for very much longer. The time that we have now all at home together, we would not have gotten otherwise. If we were out touring, we'd be busy, we'd be working all the time. She would either be with me or be with Amanda, but she wouldn't be with both of us, and that's something that you can't get back later. She'll be older and she'll be interested in her own thing, and I think we'll wind up looking back on this, grateful for the fact that we had the time as a family.
That's not everybody's situation, and we're very lucky to be in the position that we're in, where we can spend quality time with our child and not be terribly concerned about how we're going to get our next meal, or what's going to happen if one of us get sick. But I think that the idea of trying to stay in the present moment and take one day at a time, like they say in AA, is something that really applies to this whole concept of repeating the same day over and over, which a lot of people are doing right now. They get up and they have the same day over and over, and if you think of it like that, it can get pretty depressing. But if you focus on each individual moment and each individual day, for me, that's made it a lot easier.
You’ve also talked openly about seeing a therapist, something a lot of men don’t want to admit. What have you learned from that?
Oh yeah, I've been going to the therapist for close to three years now. It's something that has helped me understand why I do the things that I do and why I feel the way that I feel. It's forced me to sort of go back and unpack some of the baggage from my childhood. I think if you can be aware of your own intentions and be aware of your own reasons for doing things, it really helps you understand the rest of the world. Just being able to talk every week, or sometimes twice a week, to somebody who is impartial, somebody who is not going to have to bear the burden of my pain... I go in and I pay her money and I sit down and I talk to her, and I don't leave there thinking, "Man, I just put a burden on somebody else."
It's not easy to do that to your wife or your mom or your kid, because sometimes you feel like you're making their life harder. But to have somebody who is qualified and trained, where I take all these things, say them out loud, get them in the room, sometimes she doesn't have to say anything at all. It just helps me to verbalize all these feelings that I'm having.
I think everybody needs therapy. I think everybody in the whole world needs f**king therapy. And I don't think there should be any sort of a stigma associated with it because, really, the people who are not doing their best are the people who aren't trying to get any kind of help. It was like when I went to rehab and there were so many people in there who were ashamed of going to rehab. It's like, “Man, you should have been ashamed of sitting on a bar stool.” Going to rehab is the right thing to do, trying to actually make some kind of difference in your own life so you could be a better person for the people you care about, or the people you might potentially care about somewhere down the line if you don't have anybody right now. Eventually, somebody's going to give a shit about you and you're going to want to be prepared for that. And to do that, you got to actually do some work on yourself. And that, I think is the thing to be proud of.
With Reunions coming out in the midst of all this, what did you learn about the bigger picture of your career?
Well, it's made me aware of how fortunate I was. It's reinforced the idea that me going out and playing these shows for people was not a right, it was a privilege. It makes me more grateful for the fact that that is still my job, and there will come a time when I get to do that again. It's also shifted my priorities. I mean, at first I was upset about the idea of not being able to go out and play these shows. But as time has gone on, more important things have come to light. Issues with the virus, trying to figure out a way to stay safe and survive, and then the issues with race in our country right now, and trying to move that conversation forward and get to a point where people are actually treated equally from a systemic point all the way up, those things are way more important than me going out and playing shows.
And I'm grateful for the perspective. I feel like I'm very fortunate to be able to look at this situation and think, "Okay, my problems aren't the biggest problems in the world, and I should be thankful for the things that I have and the platform that I have and the fans that I have and the guitars that I have, and all of these things that I will eventually get to return to." That's a great privilege for me. Anything that rearranges your priorities in a way that's backed with good intention is a good thing, eventually, if you survive it.
And with good intentions, you promoted indie record stores by releasing your album early through them. How did that work out?
Oh, it was great. I saw a bunch of people asking me online, "Why don't you just put the record out now? Stream the record and put it up on the internet so people can download it and get it? We need entertainment." And I thought, "That's true." I mean, I'm sure the record would be appreciated if it came out early, but it would be another nail in the coffin for a lot of these independent record stores. I depend on those folks and have throughout my career, because I've never really relied on a major label to promote the work I was doing. I've never been able to rely on commercial radio. So, I've had to go out and do the legwork and play in stores and rely on the guy behind the counter recommending my album to somebody. That's made a difference in my career.
I wanted to come up with something I can do that would help them because I know they're struggling. It was my idea to put the record out in the indie record stores a week early, and they sold a bunch of them. And they were really happy to have the business, and I was really happy that they were out there spreading the word. We need those places or else the only music that we're going to have is music that is heavily promoted by huge corporations. And I'm not going to say that that music is better or worse than what I do, but the way I've done things is through relationships with independent venues, promoters, and record stores, and they're having a really, really hard time staying in business right now.
I've made it to a point now where I will always have a career, but I'm very lucky. There are a lot of people who are coming out right now who make really interesting music that may be a little bit left of center, a little bit different than what they would play on popular radio stations, that aren't going to have the same chance to build things from the ground up that I had unless these record stores and these venues are able to survive.
Has being quarantined and performing for almost every day with Amanda inspire you both to start working on anything new?
Yeah, we've both been writing some. She's taught herself how to use Pro Tools, so she's been recording. I don't know how to use Pro Tools, so I'm still behind on that stuff. I sit on the floor and play the guitar for hours every day, and it's not necessarily to write anything — it's just because it's good for me. It makes me happy, so I've been doing a whole lot of that.
Will "I So Lounging" come back at any point?
I think there will be at least another "I So Lounging," if not more. I don't know how many of those that she'll want to do. But yeah, if nothing else, we'll do one to celebrate being able to get back out of the house and get together again, whenever that happens.
With everything being so uncertain right now, a lot of people might be stuck in isolation again soon. Based on your experience, do you have any advice for those who are in relationships and could be spending a lot more time with their significant other than they’d planned?
You’ve got to figure out how to give people their space. If there's anything in your relationship that's the slightest bit codependent, that's going to bite you on the ass, because we're used to having our own routines, being able to go to work separately. It's important to have time away from somebody, no matter how much you care about them. Other than that, I don't know. Just do your best. Be nice, even when it's not easy to do.
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