Jason Isbell on the Making of ‘Weathervanes,’ Acting for Martin Scorsese, His Candid Documentary and the Role of Empathy in Music

Jason Isbell has a new album out, “Weathervanes,” and he says, “I’m happy to be talking about it. You know, I’ve been talking about a lot of other stuff lately, and it’s nice to actually discuss the job that I chose for myself.”

Nothing against the Other Stuff on his part, mind you. He’s proud of the much-heralded HBO Max documentary that director Sam Jones made about him, “Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed,” even if it did open him and his wife, Amanda Shires, up to a huge amount amount of personal scrutiny. And he’ll sure be spending an even bigger part of the year than he is now talking about his dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which he now feels confident did not leave him in the position of “be(ing) the one guy that screws up this $200 million movie.”

His latest conversation with Variety inevitably got around to those topics, too — but the chief matter at hand is the latest in a superb series of solo albums that Isbell has put out over the last 16 years, since leaving Drive-By Truckers to strike out on his own. “Solo” might not be the right word; his ensemble the 400 Unit is co-credited on “Weathervanes,” as it is on most of his records. And in this instance in particular, he thinks he came closer to capturing a live band sound than he has in the past, due partly to him stepping into the role of producer himself. The shifts in sound make for an interesting point of departure in conversation, but a talk with Isbell is always going to meaningfully shift toward the words that have made his songs both literary and relatable, and the responsibility he takes for putting the right ones out into the world, as a rocker who doesn’t mind admitting he has a conscience as well as a penchant for confession.

Isbell has plenty of ambition, but what he’d really like to do is connect. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Did you have a design in mind for “Weathervanes” where you thought, “I want to do this different from ‘Reunions’?” It would seem that the fact that you self-produced might indicate that you did have some kind of different intention.

Yeah, I think so. And it’s nice when you recognize that you only have to do one small thing (to affect a change), because every decision that you make when you’re going into writing or recording an album sort of has the butterfly effect, and if you do one thing slightly different from the beginning of the process, by the time you get a finished product, it’s gonna sound very different. You don’t have to work too hard, in my experience, to keep things varied in that way. So really just deciding to produce it myself led to everything else being done slightly differently, and by the end, we had a record that sounded very different from what we’ve done in the past.

What’s most different about it?

There are still a lot of quiet moments and a lot of dynamics, but I think it reminds me more of the feeling of of one of our live shows.

On the tracks that are more full-band songs, it sounds almost like more of a wall of sound.

I think so. I think everybody was contributing a little bit more… You know, Dave Cobb [who produed “Reunions”] has a style where he serves the song and the singer first and foremost on our records. I don’t know that he does that on all of his work; I know he makesrock records andhe did the Greta Van Fleet — he knows how to do a full band album and serve that purpose. But when it comes to my work, Dave hones in on the lyric and the vocal and pushes that to the front, and that’s worked really well for us in the past. But this time around I kind of wanted to make something that sounded more like a band project. And to do that, I just sort of let everybody have some time and let ’em work on their parts, and really, most of my producing was just veto power — just the ability to say, “All right, let’s try something different here.” And I didn’t have to do that a whole awful lot. It was really instinctive.

When did you make the record?

Last summer, so it’s been quite a while. We had to wait for a long time for all the vinyl to get ready, which is a good problem to have, because if we didn’t need so much vinyl, we wouldn’t have had to wait so long. I try not to complain about it too much.

“Miles,” your seven-minute closing song, is a little bit Neil Young-sounding, or it even sort of starts to turn into CSNY somewhere along the way.

Yeah, it’s kind of an epic journey on that song. While we were in the studio, I called it Neil Young and Wings.

In that song you’ve got anecdotal kind of verses about a marriage where maybe there’s some infidelity going on or something, and then a girl going off to college, and then by the end, the song is just about all of life. It becomes less anecdotal and more about the passage of time.

Yeah, I started off with the idea of, if you’re not emotionally available, how does that play out, and where can you wind up? What is it like to go through a normal life, making all the small decisions that you make that add up to the way that your life ends — what if you make them just like 10% more selfishly than you should? And by the end of that, it sort of expands into this disconnected loneliness that the character feels. It’s really just my way of encouraging myself to keep working and keep trying to be more connected to the people around me. A lot of the songs that I write are like that — some are narrative-driven — but they’re still about this idea of: How does the path diverge, and what’s down either path?

You have a lot of songs about consequences, and in that song, it sounds like, just even the consequences of neglect or not taking care of things.

Yeah, you don’t have to make a huge mistake. It’s like how we were talking earlier about making a record. With the small decisions that you make, it depends on how early in the timeline you make them. And if you make a choice that you don’t have all the best motivations behind it, early on in your life, early in a relationship, that can widen out to be something that causes a real chasm between you and your partner, or you and your child, or you and anybody that you care about.

With your character-driven songs, you have kind of an empath quality. You’ve got a song on the album called “King of Oklahoma” about a guy who’s stealing copper to feed an opoid addiction, who might not be the most sympathetic figure, and then you’re like, well, how did he get there? And then you have the almost comical image of him peeing off a ladder, which results in the accident that causes him pain, which brings him to that kind of ruination.

It’s hard to talk about peeing off a ladder in a serious song. … You know, there’s always reasons, and those reasons aren’t always excuses. But something that I am interested in is how we are forced into certain paths. I have been lucky enough throughout my life to avoid being pushed into one corral or the other. I’ve been able to make my own decisions and wind up where I want to be, really. For the most part, I get to do what I want with my time and with my life — and knowing that, I look around and I see that that’s not the case with everybody. It’s very easy to judge what you consider to be the finished product of a series of mistakes. But those mistakes are weighted, and it’s much easier for some people to make those mistakes than it is for other people, too. I like to examine that with characters and think, “Well, yeah, he’s here and this is a bad place for him to be, but how did he get here? And how influenced was he by his circumstances?” That idea of free will is tricky. It’s almost like object permanence. It’s kind of like we don’t really conceptualize of someone else’s circumstances. We just look at the finished product and we say, “Well, this is good or this is bad.” But I prefer to go back and examine what led to this. How did they wind up here and what were their options? That’s a big question for me. If your options are unlimited, it’s very easy to make the right decision.

You have different kinds of songs on this record, as on all of them. There are kind of message songs that get at how we should behave, and taking responsibility for our actions. And then you have objective songs, like, OK, here’s what happens to people in life, without necessarily putting the value judgment on it.

And the heavier the subject matter is, the more objective I tend to be. Because that makes it hard to argue, you know? Ultimately, I do have a point to make, and I don’t know if that is “This is what you should do or how you should behave,” but I think if anything, it is “There are consequences to our actions. There are not consequences to our thoughts or to our desires, but there are consequences to our actions. And you’re not your thoughts; you are your behavior. You’re not what you believe. Nobody cares what you believe. How you behave is all that really matters.”

Taking that into account, once you start writing about extremely emotional topics, like in “Save the World,” with that song… Because I’ve not been in a school shooting, I’m not gonna start writing about what it’s like to be in a mass shooting, or any sort of big violent event. But I always feel qualified to say “This is how I feel.” And if you stick to that — like in the song “White Man’s World” from a few records back —I’m not qualified to say “This is how you should feel,” but I can very easily say, “This is how I feel.”

“Save the World,” which touches on the school shootings, is something you’ve said was the hardest song on the album for you to write.

Yeah, it was really difficult. I went through a couple different versions of that before I finally landed on the right one.

What made the difference in getting that song right?

Detail. Usually that’s what it is. The more concrete details I put into a song, the better it is most of the time. Because when you get so angry and so worked up about something, you want to yell nonsense into the void — “This is bad, this is wrong.” But “I’m scared, I feel bad” doesn’t really work in the framework of a song, and what people need, I think — and what I need as a communicator — is to give concrete details. So I started thinking, “OK, what is it like to be in the grocery store with a kid and you hear a balloon pop and wonder for a second if something’s going to happen?” And, “What’s it like to send your kid off to school knowing that you can’t be there to protect him?” This idea of sending a child out into the world when our world is as dangerous as it is, how exactly does that feel? And how does that feeling manifest itself in your everyday life? And when I started getting more specific, the song got a lot better.

That’s a good example of a song that is topical and deals with stuff that matters to the world, but also ends up being kind of a personal relationship song. The feeling that comes across from the song is, “I don’t deal well with evil in the world, and I might crack up, so keep an eye on me, or I’ll keep an eye on you.”

All these things are important because I love you — that’s really what it boils down to. These issues wouldn’t matter so much to us if we were all just wandering around in the world on our own and fending for ourselves. And sometimes the stress of the everyday world can lead people away from those kind of connections, because it’s safer and easier to make yourself less vulnerable as time goes on. The only way to really make yourself less vulnerable is to not love as many people, and that’s tough. I don’t want to live that way. I would rather be in a situation where I have a whole lot to lose. And that’s what the character in this song is talking about: He’s talking about how much he has to lose and why these things are so important to him.

To talk about the ratio of songs that are character songs or fictional songs versus songs that are maybe overtly autobiographical… The Sam Jones documentary focuses, for good reason, on the songs that have details that tie to things in your real life. And so people who don’t know your catalog might leave the film thinking, well, he writes purely confessional songs…

That’s the beauty of it, though. I mean, they’re all true, you know? Even the songs that are narrative-driven, where I may not be completely 100% the first-person narrator of the song, I’m still in there. And that’s still the purpose for writing the songs. You know, every other kind of entertainment is classified based on what’s true and what’s not. If you go into a bookstore, you’ve got fiction and nonfiction, and if you go looking at a DSP with movies or TV shows, you have documentaries and then you have everything else. It’s just not that way with music. Music is not categorized that way. To me, that says that you can play with that however you want. And sometimes I think, “Well, people are not gonna know this song is about me,” or “People are are gonna think this song is about me.” And then I chuckle to myself a little bit, because I like that. As time goes on and more context becomes clear to the people who care about that kind of context, they’ll see that I’m in all of these songs.

You’ve got a song seemingly about abortion on this album, “White Beretta.” That’s the one where you actually stuck in like a date that ties it to you, singing that you were 19 in 1990, which you were. When you do throw in a specifically personal detail like that, is that meaningful to you, that you want people to know this is your experience?

Yeah. But I play with those too. I change those around sometimes. I mean, I was that age that year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that in that year, this exact thing happened to me. I feel like it’s kind of like something people get hung up with, and I know it’s probably not fair of me to say, but I don’t think it matters at all. I think if you’re doing the work right, it just doesn’t matter if it all happened to you in that way or it didn’t. I think it all happened to somebody, you know? And that whole idea of the confessional songwriter, that’s sort of offensive to songwriters, just in general, because it’s like: I’m doing my job. This is my work. People don’t think Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator, and the movie wouldn’t mean more to ’em if they did.

But with that being said: Yeah, “White Beretta” was a very personal song, and I used a lot of personal details. Among other things, it is about terminating a pregnancy. But it’s more about the idea that how you’re raised can sometimes prevent you from supporting people that you care about in the way that you should. For me, that was the case personally. I was raised in a very conservative place around a lot of people who were judgmental of those sorts of things. So when it came time for me to deal with real-world experience myself, I was torn, and I didn’t know —Are you doing the right thing here? I thought that was the question. The older I got more, I realized that’s not the question at all. The question is, what is my role here and how can I best fulfill my role? And I wish I had known that then, because I feel like I could have been a better partner.

You have a line in “White Beretta” that directly echoes something that was in the documentary. In the song, you write, “I was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man.” And in the film, there’s a moment where you seemingly half-jokingly say to Amanda, “Of course, I want and need to be alone. I’m a Southern man, dammit.” Or, actually, “a man who came out of Alabama.”

Yes, that’s true. And that is something that I still work on every day, that idea of masculinity that I was given growing up. And for the people who taught me that, that was about survival. And it was something that they felt was necessary, and in a lot of cases, it may have been at that time, in that place. But a big part of growing up with Southernness is unlearning all those things that you might have needed to survive when you were a kid, but they don’t serve you very well now. Nowadays you’ve got a different job, and you’re trying to do it with the same tools.

Speaking of dealing with Southernness, you are in a real hotspot area of the country. You’ve shared a lot about issues that are important to you that are affecting the country right now, and you do that every day on Twitter and elsewhere. Of course it’s not as if the issues that affect Tennessee or Alabama are different than what the whole country’s facing, but the concentration is a little different. … Tennessee has been such a hotspot with the trans issues — and you took part in the “Love Rising” benefit — and the gun issues. I know there are lots of people there who are having sort of a fight or flight instinct to things. The Nashville area is a blue outpost in one of the reddest states. How is your mood, being in the midst of that?

It seems to be that way everywhere that I have lived. And I think that’s intentional. I think I stay in these places because maybe I feel like people like me are needed here, in some ways. Not that it’s gonna fix anybody’s problems. But, you know, I’m hopeful. I don’t know that I have a lot of faith, but I have a lot of hope. And you know, you don’t need any sort of evidence for hope. To have faith, you have to actually believe something’s gonna happen. But hope, you can just throw that around. That’s what hope is. And I have that because I’ve gotta sleep at night, and I have to be a pretty generally joyful person for my family and for my friends. …

Something that I like about Tennessee and like about living here is that there are enough of us to make some noise and to take these issues to a national stage. But it’s as frustrating as you will allow it to be. I could sit here all day and think about how slow the progress is and how much pushback we’re receiving and how difficult it is to make any kind of positive change. And there would be plenty of ammunition for that for me to just sit and worry myself sick about it all day long. But there’s a point of diminishing returns, and I try to stay on the right side of that. I try to stay effective, but also happy and satisfied and grateful, that I have the things that I have in the people that I have around me.

If I moved somewhere where the state had more progressive laws and things were a little bit more settled in my favor, then I would feel like some part of me is just retiring and going to sit in the sun and not really doing my job anymore. And I’m certainly not ready for that yet.

You’ve said a lot of these songs on this album were written while you were on the set of “Killers on the Flower Moon.” How long were you on that set?

About three, three and a half months. A lot of that was due to the fact that the weather caught up with us, so there was a lot of time spent waiting to film because most of my scenes were done outside, waiting for the weather to clear up so we could work. So I had a lot of time to write and I wound up writing probably close to half of this album while I was out there.

But it was an incredible experience. It’s something I didn’t have any experience with before, and when I went into it, I didn’t try to fake like I knew what I was doing. I just went in and thought, well, I’m gonna ask these people when I need help and, and surely they will let me know what to do. Because I’ve never seen a Scorsese movie before and thought, “That was great, except for that one hillbilly that was messing everything up.” And I thought, he’s not gonna let me be the one guy that screws up this $200 million movie. After a couple weeks of it, I had a few good scenes where I felt like, OK, I’m here for a reason, and Marty and his casting director and his assistant director know what they’re doing, and if I just follow instructions to the best of my ability, I will not embarrass myself. … It was a really great experience. This story is amazing, and it’s one that I feel should have been told a long time ago. But I think the way it’s being told now is gonna be really respectful and really impactful. And I think it’ll be a great movie.

I was just happy to be there, just to tell you the truth. I was really, really scared. I was like, I’m out here with all these real actors and I am just a musician and an interloper. So I tried to keep my head down and do my best.

Did you feel like you required a lot of direction or did Scorsese just kind of feel like you had a natural instinct for it and it didn’t require a lot of like, “OK, Jason, here’s how to act?”

 Well, I think he wanted me to work from a place of natural instinct, and that was another thing that sort of occurred to me out there. I thought, man, if he wanted a professional, he could get one without any problems. So he wants me for a reason. And knowing that I’m not a lifelong career actor, there’s something about that that’s gonna help him make his movie and tell the story. So, I don’t think I required a lot of direction — but probably more than most of the people who were there. … You know, I think the accent did a whole lot of work, because the way I talk naturally is pretty similar to the way people talked in Oklahoma a hundred years ago. So I think that got me a long way.

Do you have a very big role?

Yeah, it was pretty substantial. [Isbell hadn’t yet seen the film at the time of this interview.] I had a lot of scenes, and I don’t think they cut my scenes out. You know, originally I read for a couple of parts that were more like cameo parts, but I think I worked my way up to a bigger role. I told ’em that I thought I could handle that, and I went back and did a whole bunch of research on what happened to all these people in real life. I did sort of a deep dive, and I even went back and looked up old arrest records and things for some of the characters in the movie and came in as prepared as possible. And I think I wound up getting a little bit bigger role than maybe they had planned on initially.

And then to talk about your other movie, which has had an incredible reaction. It’s easy to imagine you could have some mixed feelings about it, although you must feel generally positive. It’s candid enough that maybe people feel like they know everything about you and Amanda, even though there is so much that doesn’t make it to the screen, and what it portrays took place several years ago. But you’ve always wanted to feel known in your songs, it seems like. So how does it feel now to know that people feel like they kind of know you through this movie?

I’m more comfortable with it now that it’s out and I can see the response, because I feel like the response to the movie justifies the need for making it, and that was the question for me. It’s like, why are we filming all this? Why are we doing all this work? To me, for it to be worth it, it would have to be something that connected with people in a way beyond just entertainment. And I think it did that, so it makes me feel positive about the whole experience.

You know, I’m not looking to over-promote. I’m not looking to become more well-known or more famous or anything. What I really want to do is: I want to have all of my guitars, and I want my family to be comfortable and happy, and I want to make connections with people and hopefully let folks know that they’re not alone. And feedback I’ve gotten from the documentary is that a lot of people think, “Well, I have had that experience. I’ve been in that place. I’ve felt that way with my work or with my relationship or with my family, and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in that, and so that’s really reassuring for me.” To me, that was the ultimate point of it. Like, we can just let people know that we have felt that way too, and we’ve had those experiences too, and I think the movie succeeded in doing that, so I’m happy about it.

I was thinking about what makes you unique in the landscape. There are those artists who are really good at feeling empathetic with their audience and wanting ’em to not feel alone, as you mentioned, and kind of wanting to claim some responsibility in the world. And then there are people who are just really brilliant writers who may have no empathetic qualities whatsoever. A lot of our favorite artists are not necessarily the greatest human beings 100% of the time, or just don’t want to take on anything beyond being observational. The intersection with you that, that you can write these brilliant, sometimes blatant, sometimes mysterious, not always rabble-rousing songs… but then there is also this outward-leaning quality in your social media and interviews and elsewhere where you actually care about things. We don’t always get all those things in the same package.

That’s true. And it’s not something I think everybody should aspire to, you know? Because it just works for me that way. I think probably because all those things — my work and my personal life and opinions —are sort of woven into one… I put all those eggs in the same basket, to tell the truth, because my work, I think, is an extension of myself, and my opinions are an extension of myself and an extension of my work, and it’s all one big thing for me. That wouldn’t be the case if I had a different job, if my job wasn’t creative in the ways that it is. I think it really is my way of showing that I’m grateful for being allowed to do this with my life instead of getting up every morning and going to some job that I hate, and then having to turn that off when I come home in order to be an effective and empathetic person.

I have been afforded the opportunity to really, truly do what I want almost all the time. And one way that I express my gratitude for that is by weaving all those things together and trying to show my audience my growth as an individual. To do that, you have to be really wide open. And it holds me accountable. You know, it makes me feel like that there are more people out there who care about me making good choices and good decisions, and continuing the work of making myself a better person, than there would be if I didn’t tell people what I was like or how I felt all the time. So it’s really just I think just my way of saying, I’m very grateful to have the life that I have. I’m very proud of all these things that I get to do and these opinions that I get to express, and so I continue to just show ’em off, you know?

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