“Only Children” is an obvious example of a track that meditates on the past, but songs like “St. Peter’s Autograph” allow us to revisit these ghosts, reflect on their pain and encourage us to heal from it. In classic Isbell fashion, Reunions mixes songs that build awareness with songs that allow the listener to react with compassion for both themselves and the other party. “Sometimes it’s nothing but the way you were raised, and that could’ve been worse,” sings Isbell on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” reminding us to be kind to ourselves and to those who might act out of pain, not purpose.
The conversation the album provokes with his last album, The Nashville Sound is striking. Written in the aftermath of the 2016 election and after the birth of his daughter, The Nashville Sound questions much of what many white people took for granted before that election. Now, three years later and with more meditation on what transpired, songs like “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid” speak directly to the fear that we might be about to experience the same thing all over again, asking the listener to reconsider the comfort provided by our delusions — to consider that the pain still exists and that there’s a chance we contributed to it.
Over the course of a phone conversation, we spoke to Isbell about releasing the album but not being able to tour it, the death of the beloved songwriter John Prine, and the way Isbell’s storytelling has changed in the 20 or so years since he started writing songs.
VMP: How are you working through not being able to tour this album immediately?
Jason Isbell: I let myself think about when we will be able to tour, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. It’s nice to have something to look forward to, even if it’s not at a very specific date, you know? I don’t have a timeline really, I don’t think any of us do. But I do feel confident that at some point in the future we will be out playing shows and touring behind this record and playing these songs and that makes me happy. That helps me get through the day. I considered moving the release date but then I thought, you know, people like music and they probably need something new to listen to and I feel pretty confident that the songs will hold up. That keeps me from worrying about people forgetting about the album or dismissing it now that there are bigger concerns. But it is a little scary. You know, part of you feels like, “Man, this was gonna go really great and then all this happened.” But there’s nothing you can do about it. And we’re all alive, it could be worse. We have friends that are no longer here, so it’s like, you know, I’m trying to be grateful of what we do have.
I read your eulogy for John [Prine] in the Times and that was very beautiful, thank you very much for sharing.
It was difficult; you know, I’m sure you know that. But it’s hard to write something when it’s that emotionally raw. We all cared a lot for John.
He was definitely very cared for by a lot of people. It was so nice to see all of the outpouring for him.
It was, and I think it helped his family, you know. I know it made us feel better because, you know, I was talking to my friend Will Welch about it just a few days before John passed, when he was still very sick, and we were talking about the fact that he got to be John Prine for 73 years, you know? And as sad as it is to see him go, it’s pretty incredible that that person got to be John for that long.
And how lucky we are to be able to have lived in that same 73 years.
Yeah, no shit. No shit. I mean, we could’ve been born at any time, we could’ve got Pol Pot, instead we got John Prine. (laughs) I mean, I guess we got Pot, too, but you know what I mean. And also, I took a little bit of just deviant pleasure in knowing that cancer didn’t kill him. As hard as it tried it didn’t get him. If you had asked anybody who knew John 10 or 15 or 20 years ago how he was gonna die, that’s what everybody would have assumed. And he fuckin’ beat it.
Something that really strikes me on this record is the balance that it’s created with The Nashville Sound. And it’s made me think a lot about, especially with “What’ve I Done to Help,” the way that it talks with The Nashville Sound and all of that emotion, and how it encapsulates this feeling of “scoping the landscape three years later, what are we doing, what have I physically, actually done?” And I was wondering what you’re feeling now, three years later, through these songs, what you’re seeing of your experience now?
You know, for me, the biggest thing is always awareness. Just trying to stay aware of my own role and people’s lives that aren’t very similar to mine, what they’re dealing with, what their experience is like. Success can be looked at so many different ways, from the definition of success to the response and the reaction to it. And there was definitely a time in my life where I probably would’ve written a record that had more in common with the Post Malone album than this one does, where it would’ve been, you know, “What are all the downsides of this?” Or The Weeknd, you know, one of these young guys who feels like he can’t trust anybody. Now, I understand that aspect of things, but you know, when I got older, I think I started realizing you don’t really need to trust all that many people. But you do have to be able to trust yourself and your own response to selling some records or some tickets, or not being as emotionally fucked up as you were 20 years ago. And that caused me to look around and think, “How am I actually activated and motivated to make other people’s voices more heard and make people’s lives easier?” When I’m really stressed out about somebody else’s situation or even about my own I wind up going back to Curtis Mayfield and thinking about “If one of us is chained, none of us are free,” and it kind of gets stuck in my head some days. And has for years. It’s like, unless everybody is receiving the same kind of treatment and unless everybody’s voice is being heard, none of us can really fully relax. And you know, the older I get the more important that gets to me, because most of my problems are miniscule at this point in my life. I’m fairly safe and happy and comfortable and I have all these things that I want but don’t need. But I guess the real question is: Do I have the things that I need? And how do I continue to need other people to be comfortable and to be safe. That’s a big consideration for me when it comes to my response to the trajectory of my own career and my own life.
Do you feel like that was kind of influential on the headspace that you were in when you were writing this album?
Yes, definitely, because I was going back, you know, “What’ve I Done To Help” is a very obvious discussion of that, and “Be Afraid,” I think, is an obvious discussion of it and to some extent “It Gets Easier” also, but there are more subtle versions of that on the album where I go back and think, maybe this person that I knew 20 years ago or 30 years ago that I don’t know anymore, or who has passed on, maybe this person was experiencing more pain than I realized at the time. And I think that very often is what a ghost is, you know? Somebody who comes back and says, “You didn’t notice how much pain I was in.” It’s almost always that, isn’t it? Every story — unless it’s just a shitty horror movie — every story about a ghost is somebody coming back to explain to you what you missed about the pain that they were feeling. There’s ghosts all over the record, and that’s why I called it Reunions, because that’s what a ghost is: reuniting with somebody long enough for them to tell you what you missed the first time around.
How do you feel like the stories and the way that you tell them has changed since you started writing songs? Or do you feel it’s changed at all?
I don’t think the motivations have changed. I don’t think the types of stories I want to tell have changed all that much. But I’ve just done it so much now. You know, every time I go into writing a song I try to make it better than the last one, and I try to challenge myself to do a better job of hiding the trick. And I try to get the audience closer to the action and the way I do that is by refining the language to a point to where it sounds incidental, where it sounds like you aren’t listening to a song, you’re just experiencing something. For me, that’s the real creative challenge, how do I make this less like a song and more like an actual experience. And of course, you’re never gonna get all the way there because you’re playing a recording of a song that you wrote for somebody. But I think the thing that I’m striving for is eliminating the distance between the storyteller and the audience. And to do that I think you have to work really hard to find the right combination, the right words, the right melodies, the right phrasing. So I edit more now than I used to. I spend more time with each individual song to try to make it sound more natural, more “overhearable,” for lack of a better term.
Do you feel your process is changing at all? Or do you find yourself having to dig deeper into yourself to find these stories?
I don’t know that I have to, but I choose to, I think. I think I'm more willing to reveal...You know, I’ve gotten older in a way that has allowed me to solve a lot of the problems that I used to have. Twenty years ago, when I first started writing songs that people were going to hear, I was afraid to talk about myself. And I’m less afraid now because I think I’m more confident. A lot of that comes from just having quite a few years of making pretty good choices and caring about myself and other people and actively doing that. Whereas 20 years ago my life was a mess, and so it was much easier for me to write a song about mom’s dead uncle than it was to write a song about my own heart. But now I feel confident that even if I paint myself in a less than favorable light, that’s OK because I’m good, I’m doing a good job here, you know? And so that’s freed me up a lot, and I think that’s made the work better because the more of a realistic portrait of yourself that you can give to the listener, the more they’re gonna feel seen.
photo by Alysse Gafkje