The “southeast” of Jason Isbell’s new album, Southeastern, could be in Australia, where a guy sits across from a friend at a table in the song “New South Wales,” “1,000 miles from [their] mothers,” as they think about the people they used to be. (Maybe Isbell himself is one of those guys, and the other is singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who helped Isbell get sober.)
Perhaps that “southeast” is Ybor City, Florida, where, in “Traveling Alone,” a wanderer recalls being “so high the street girls wouldn’t take [his] pay.” Or maybe it’s the Tennessee highway, viewed from 30,000 feet above the ground in “Flying Over Water,” looking organized and civil from up there, but substantially less forgiving when you’re on the ground. It might be the seedy “Super 8,” in Isbell’s Skynyrd-worthy southern-rock stomper, where a violently ODing singer gets slapped back to life by his mistress and a hotel maid (after they call his wife).
Wherever that place is, Southeastern stands as one of the best albums of 2013 so far. Isbell, an entertaining presence on Twitter and an outspoken commentator on technology and current events, will perform with his wife, the super-talented Amanda Shires, on Aug. 4 at Arch Street Tavern in Hartford. He spoke to the Advocate by phone about the new album, speaking his mind on Twitter and being outspoken about artists’ rights. [Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
I love Southeastern. Are you happy with the way the album turned out?
I am happy with it. You know, first of all, it’s done. You’re never going to hear me say, “I wish this was different,” “I wish that was different.” I hate it when recording artists do that, when they finish the record and they say, “I wish I could have done this differently.” You had the time. You should have stayed in there and finished it. The reception’s been great. It’s been better than any of us could have expected. It’s really nice to see.
Would you say there’s been an increase in media attention and interest since the release of Southeastern and the Dwight Garner New York Times article?
Yes. That’s the direction you want those things to take. The New York Times piece helped a whole lot, and the Wall Street Journal piece that same week — from there, it’s just been a whole bunch of stuff... Sometimes I get a little tired of talking about myself, but there’s worse things you can do for a living.
You’re one of the more interesting musicians to follow on Twitter. It strikes me that there’s at least some maybe distant connection between a Tweet and a line of a song, in terms of its length and the creativity it may offer. Is writing Tweets like writing lyrics?
There’s not as much editing, though maybe there should be... I pretty much just think of something and send it out there... I think that particular medium is used best when people are pointing out different angles on the obvious, and I think that’s a lot of what writing a song is too: a relationship, or a concern, a situation from a different angle than what you’re used to. I think that’s probably what they have in common. But I like Twitter because it’s like being at a huge dinner table. You can stand up and say something and have everybody’s attention for a second and then sit back down and not have to respond, not have to say anything else for a day, or two days, or a month, if you don’t want to. I think it’s a really interesting platform for folks to exhibit their personalities. You get to find out what athletes have a good sense of humor, for example, or what musicians are concerned with what causes. It’s nice to see people’s personalities, at least the parts that they want to reveal to the public.
At the same time, I’ve read your take on Spotify and people holding up their phones at shows: here’s this other side of technological world we have access to, all the time. And yet those things: do they inhibit the lives of musicians? Is that fair to say?
I think so. It’s clear that the way people consume music is changing, and it’s changing so quickly that we don’t know what’s for the best and what’s not. The Spotify thing: I’m still hearing arguments on both sides — good arguments, really — but I just don’t think anybody knows. I don’t think the numbers are in yet, to tell you the truth. We don’t know what that model is going to do and what sort of precedent that’s going to set. But I can tell you with certainty that it is strange to be playing music and to have people pointing their camera phone in your face. That is not a good thing. That much I know.
I was at Bonnaroo and I was doing a panel with a couple of comedians and a couple of other musicians. One of the comedians said, "We’re trying to bake something for you, and you keep opening up the oven and poking it before it’s done." In their situation, I think it’s even worse, because they rehearse this material, they work up this material and spend so much time on it before it’s really out there for public consumption. They’ll make a DVD or two or an HBO special, or something like that. For us, it’s not that severe, because I do feel like we’re well rehearsed and pretty strong on any given evening. But it takes so much away from the community in the room. I wish people would just use common sense. That’s all it takes. I love the opportunities we have, the technology now to find music and to get music into people’s hands, but I just wish people would use common sense.
It’s also kind of rude. [Disclaimer: I’ve done this at shows.]
That’s the thing! If you have any sense of what’s rude and you want to avoid it, you’re not going to wind up doing that. You’re going to wind up participating in the show in the right way, in the communal way, and you’re not going to point a camera at somebody or take a photograph of somebody unless you ask them first.
You’re playing a show in Hartford, and somebody out in, you know, Arizona can’t get to it, for obvious reasons. And yet, maybe somebody’s streaming the show, or there are artists who authorize streaming of shows. What are your thoughts on that? In my mind, it allows other people to participate, but they’ve not paid for a ticket.
I think it’s up to the artist. The hippies have been doing that for a long time, though not necessarily in real time. But they’ve been taping the shows and getting them out to the fans, jam-bands and so on. There probably is a little less of a financial concern for those folks, if they’re, you know, full-fledged hippies and that’s what they want to be, they don’t need to be concerned with who’s paying a ticket price. But I think it’s up to the artist. It’s not the experience, when you’re sitting at home watching something on your TV or laptop, or whatever. You’re not getting the same experience as when you’re sitting in a crowd of people who are all sharing the atmosphere in the room. But if the artists don’t mind, then it’s alright. I know there are some other options now. Either today or tomorrow, they’re going live with that service that is working in conjunction with Atoms for Peace — Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich. They’re going to be streaming live shows, but I believe for a monthly rate that gets divvied up somehow among the artists who are on the site. I think that might be a good alternative to just free streaming.
The song “Elephant” [from Southeastern]: that song stays with me. It’s not necessarily important whether or not it’s based on a real person, but I kind of wondered.
There are combinations of multiple friends. That’s not somebody’s story, per se, but it is a combination. We’ve all known probably half a dozen people or more who’ve dealt with cancer, or died from it, or recovered from it, or whatever. Both of those characters are fictional but they’re created out of real people, as you have to do if you want to tell a story well.
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Jason Isbell w/Amanda Shires, Aug. 4, 8 p.m., $20-$25, Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610, archstreettavern.com, manicproductions.org