"Finding Stories Rather Than Just Being Autobiographical"

21 March 2016 | 4:35 pm | Ross Clelland

"[You're] trying to be cool but actually it's like a bad acid trip — you're suddenly worried that your tie's on straight, your shirt tail's tucked in."

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If you'd followed the backstory of Jason Isbell's fearsomely personal Southeastern album, it seemed to provide all the happy endings. The Alabama-born singer conquered his demons, found the love of his life, and made the record of his career.

But life doesn't come to such neat full stops. Back in the real world, the work has to go on. There's a next record. That is Something More Than Free, where Isbell looked more outward. Rural towns, family ties, dreams — often unrealised.

Jason Isbell knows these people. He appreciates he's come through the fire. "Yeah, it does seem like it's all fallen into place — but it took a lot of work," he admits. "Sure, a lot of good things started happening once I got sober — my personal relationships, and the way I treated people got better.

"Most of my challenges are creative ones now. It's better than digging ditches, sure — I've had the shitty jobs, I've waited tables, worked in factories. This is the work you enjoy, the effort you want to put in."

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Something More Than Free became as lauded as its predecessor. To the point of taking him, and the woman he credits for much of his life's improvements, violinist and singer Amanda Shires — "She somehow saw the potential beyond the abusive person I was" — to the Grammy Awards, actually winning two.

He's still processing that: "I'm not sure I ever thought about such a thing. I know people who work as hard as I do, who wrote songs every bit as worthy who don't get recognised. I'm complimented, of course. But I really wouldn't have been pissed off if I didn't win. Isn't everyone supposed to say that?"

Then there's things no one would expect. Like the guy Isbell found singing his own Travelling Alone back to him. "In the moment I really was just trying not to freak out. 'Sure, that's Bruce Springsteen singing to me,'" he chuckles disbelievingly at the memory. "Trying to be cool but actually it's like a bad acid trip — you're suddenly worried that your tie's on straight, your shirt tail's tucked in."

Other things Isbell found impressive: "He'd just done his typical three- or four-hour show — and he's got a cloth around his hand, because he's been bangin' heck out of his guitar. Even after all this time, he can still get so lost in playing that much, be playing that hard. That's inspiring."

So where else does Jason Isbell find inspiration? "That's different now — finding stories rather than just being autobiographical. You don't really have to go looking — you just have to keep paying attention.

"Then there's family stories. There's plenty of inspiration there. Although my mom has told me they're now a bit more careful about what they say around me," he admits. "There's times at reunions we'll just be talking old family gossip and someone will turn to me and say 'Now, don't you be writing a song about that...' They're not making it easy for me."