The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist joins Simon and Brian in London to mark the milestone of their 100th podcast episode
We’re proud to bring you a sample of Sodajerker’s conversation with the Grammy winning songwriter, Jason Isbell. He first emerged as part of the Drive-By Truckers, who he was a member of from 2001 to 2007, before departing the group to embark on a hugely successful solo career. He’s just released his sixth solo album, The Nashville Sound, which made it to No 4 in the US and No 26 in the UK.
Born into a musical family and taught to play various musical instruments by his grandfather, Isbell has songwriting ingrained deep into his being. Our friends at Sodajerker have picked a truly marvellous songwriter for the subject of their hundredth episode. You’ll be pleased to hear that they’ve also found out some of songwriting secrets of this brilliant artist and reveal them to you below.
You were pretty young when you got involved with FAME Studios
“That was the same year that I joined the Drive-By Truckers; I was 21, so it was the fall of 2001.”
That’s an incredibly rich history of songwriting. Did you pick up much about the technical aspects of songwriting?
“Not as much from that period. They were supportive of me, but I’ve never been one to co-write a lot and that was kind of how their system was designed; it was more like a Nashville style where you write with other writers and get better at it and hopefully you’ll write a hit song, for somebody else to sing. That was never what I did. I started writing for their staff but really I just did what I’d been doing and what I’ve kept doing, which is just writing my own songs and putting them on my own albums. At that time it was Drive-By Truckers albums and luckily we were selling just enough copies to pay fame back for the advances they’d been giving us over the years.
“But they never really knew what to do with me, and that was fine because I didn’t have any income at all and I didn’t want to go back into the workforce – I’d just gotten out of college and wanted to play music for a living and they said: “we’ll give you a couple of hundred bucks a week to be on our writing staff.” And that that’s a fortune. So I took it. And then the Truckers picked me up a few weeks after and then I went out on the road.”
We’re enthralled by your new album, The Nashville Sound. We thought the most immediate song was Cumberland Gap. What was your starting point with the writing of the song?
“That first line. And I sat on that for months because I just thought: “that’s so good!” Just they way that it fitted together, the way that it rhymed and the way that it sounded like you might just overhear in a bar, or somebody just sitting there staring at their hands, being despondent. Then after that I just thought “I’m gonna have to write!” You know, you can’t just follow that up with a bunch of bullshit; if you’re gonna write a great first line then it’s like okay, know you’ve got the start of a great novel and now you have to write the rest of the book. So it took me a few months to get the rest of that song written.
But I was very happy that it turned out to be a rock song, because it could have been anything; I can’t steer a song in a direction, I just have to write the best song I can and whatever it sounds like it wants to be is what it winds up. I’m more of a sculptor than a painter, I feel like artists either start with nothing or a whole bunch of stuff and then just slug away until they get to the heart of it and I’m the latter really.”
So your songwriting is a process of subtracting what’s not essential?
“It is, yeah. I’ll start out with just a flood of work and then taking out what’s not essential is the majority of my editing process.”
You’ve said that a lot of the time you start out with the lyrics. Was that the case with The Nashville Sound?
“Usually, yeah. On most songs I’ll start out with a phrase, just a little part of the lyric; the initial spark will be a phrase that rolls over and over in my head until I start hearing the musicality of it. Then the melody appears in direct relation to the phrasing, or the rhythm of the words. I know you guys might not need an explanation of that, but maybe some of the listeners do. The phrasing is very important because that’s where you get a suggestion for the melody, from the timing of the words and the stresses, the syllabics, of the words – there are entire genres based just on that.
“It’s kind of like Western food, your romance food, your Italian or your French are all based on how it tastes first and then you’ve got your appearance and texture down underneath that, but Japan, Thailand, Philippines, they start off with texture and presentation, as far as what’s most important. Well, lyrically, country music starts with your subject matter and then they go into your rhyming and your phrasing. Whereas, hip hop starts with phrasing and it 90% phrasing and then after that you have your subject matter. But because it’s such rhythmic music, that’s the most important thing about hip hop. Whereas us folk songwriters we’ll just usually use our phrasing to make a melody and then we’ll use our melody to make lyrics, and lyrics usually wind up being the thing that’s most important.”
And the process of doing that is to set lyrics to music using guitar and looking around for chord sequences?
“Yeah. Because I’m a better guitar player than I am a piano player. Sometimes I’ll write on a piano just to throw myself a curveball. But it’s almost always guitar because I know where the weird chords are and if I need one I can find it pretty quickly, I don’t have to waste time going: “aargh, what button do I push!”
It’s great how you spot potential of music to develop. Is that a question of taste?
“Definitely. It comes down to that really; the magic in it, the part about writing and composing songs that I don’t understand, the part that I’ve not been able to take apart and study, is how to translate your taste into your creations. Because I know a lot of people who listen to really great music and cannot make it, even though they make music. And they listen to wonderful music, music that’s really evolved and that has a lot of work go into it and it really beautiful. And then the music they make is like a terrible nightmarish… like the beer goggles version of what they’re listening to. So I’m like: “how can you love Leonard Cohen and then write like a bad writer?” But the taste part just comes from you look at a million paintings and you’re an art critic, you know, it just comes from trying to keep the input happening as much as possible. And that can always be improved, always.”
Are you staking a claim with the title of the album that this progression, thoughtful approach to songwriting is the Nashville sound?
“Yeah. I think that taking a working concept of creation, of art really, is something that Nashville has been able to do for a long time. I remember thinking how strange it was when my best friend from high school moved to Nashville to write songs, because he clocked in and worked normal business hours: he sat in an office all day and just happened to be writing songs with people all day. I thought: “you’re not an artist.” It turns out that’s just the Nashville approach, and, yeah, it was probably to commodify it early on, but there’s something about studying what works and just the craft of art; that’s something that they’ve done in Nashville for a long, long time.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have more than 100 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the special extended interview with Jason Isbell – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.