Exit Interview: Jason Isbell on the Difference Between Being an Artist and Entertainer

One of today’s most gifted songwriters talks about regional cover albums, parasocial relationships and acting alongside Leonardo DiCaprio
Jason Isbell
(Credit: Alysse Gafkjen)

During a year when most of us racked up a lot of time streaming videos, Jason Isbell had a banner year: Not only did the Grammy Award winner head back on the road with his band the 400 Unit, he also recorded The Georgia Blue album to celebrate Biden’s victory in the state, recorded a twangy version of “Sad But True” for Metallica’s The Blacklist tribute album and found time to star alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon. Oh, and his beloved Atlanta Braves also won the World Series for the first time since 1995.

In addition to all of these accomplishments, Isbell also made some personal growth along the way. “My therapist tells me that if I argue with people on Twitter, then I don’t have to do it with people I know and love and care about at home. She said it’s a good idea because I’m the type of person who is gonna argue with somebody.” He’s also the type of person who talks about Hill country blues in the same sentence as Metallica and although likely sleep-deprived, doesn’t seem to mind taking our call an hour earlier than intended due to crossing yet another time zone.

We caught up with Isbell in between gigs to discuss his thoughts on 2020, his relationship with his fans and why acting in a major motion picture feels like playing bass in the Beatles.

(Credit: Danny Clinch)

SPIN: If you had to describe 2021 using one adjective, what would it be?
Jason Isbell: It was challenging. It was going to be that way for everybody, but it was also better than 2020.

As promised, you and the 400 Unit recorded the Georgia Blue album this year after Joe Biden won the state. I assume you weren’t planning on putting a record out so quickly after [2020’s] Reunions.
Right. That was not a planned thing at all. Maybe after everything that happened in 2020 with losing people that we cared about and so many awful things, it was the kind of thing where I thought, “if you want to do something, go ahead and do it.” When I was watching the election last year I thought, “I should do something to celebrate, the year’s been so hard and this administration has been so hard on everyone. If Georgia goes blue I should do something fun.” And that was the first thing that I thought of. That’s the most fun thing for me: recording music or playing music. So that’s how that came about, but that was totally just a spur-of-the-moment decision.

I saw on Twitter you said if Beto O’Rourke won the Texas governor race in 2022, you would do a Texas-themed album. Is that something you’ve seriously thought about?
I thought about it just then but I will definitely do it if he wins, yeah.

Have you thought about who you’d like to cover for that yet?
Not yet. I mean obviously there would have to be Freddie King and ZZ Top. I think I could probably get away with some Lucinda Williams even though she’s not from Texas, but she lived in Austin and made a lot of great music. I imagine [Isbell’s wife] Amanda [Shires] would have to do some Bob Wills because she played with the Texas Playboys when she [was a teenager. Probably Billy Joe Shaver, you know? I guess Willie Nelson would have to be in there. It would be really easy. Texas is kind of like Georgia in that I could do a whole box set without having to spend too much time thinking about who because there are just so many great musicians down there.

Over the past year, some of your fans were supportive of masks and some weren’t. How do you think this year has changed your relationship with your fans?
Well, you know, that’s not my job to consider my relationship to them because I’m not an entertainer primarily. I think the entertainment part is second to the artistry–and I know that sounds pretentious but that’s really how I approach it. I’m doing this thing over here and if y’all want to watch me come do it, that would be great. But I’m doing it in order to get people to watch me do it, I’m doing it because I have a need to do it on a personal, creative level. So if I’m going to go out and play shows and we’re going to make a communal experience out of it, which I think is possible and beautiful, I’m not going to do it in a way that makes me uncomfortable.

I try to stay away from the parasocial situation; I don’t really know them and they don’t really know me. I know one thing about them and they know what I have allowed them to know through the songs and interviews. But I’m not going to change the way I believe or move my boundaries for anybody, whether they’ve bought a ticket to a show or not. So I feel like whatever happens, just happens. I mean if there’s one person who chose to get the vaccine in order to come to a show and that person wound up getting the virus and not dying from it or not getting the virus, then it’s worth 10,000 who said “fuck you” and didn’t come to the shows anymore.

But the fact is we haven’t seen that much of a change. The people who are coming to the shows are making up for the ones who aren’t at the merch table because they’re so excited to be there and they’re buying a bunch of T-shirts and posters and stuff. So I haven’t really felt anything change in a negative way.

You also filmed Killers of the Flower Moon this year, acting alongside Leonardo DiCaprio. Was that fun or nerve-racking?
It was all of the above. I didn’t want to feel like an interloper but the advantage that I had was the accent. A lot of the real pros still had to have some coaching on how to talk like they were from Oklahoma 100 years ago, but I guess I was close enough where they didn’t really need to change my accent that much. I told my wife it was kind of like being asked to play bass in the Beatles. I can do it, so if I was asked of course I would play bass in the Beatles. But I’m not really a bass player and you have Paul.

That’s kind of how it felt: I’m not really an actor and you have Leo, but I’ll do it because it’s awesome. So I was just trying not to get fired and not to piss anybody off and still to learn about the process of doing the job, which I did, I learned a great deal about it. It’s not as much acting in a lot of situations as it is traveling, being able to take you to the place you need to go to deliver an emotion.

Which seems like something you must do in your music all the time.
Yeah, definitely. When I’m writing and also to a certain extent when I perform.

What’s one thing you’re looking forward to next year?
I’m really looking forward to going to the movies. I’ve been once since the pandemic started. I snuck into a matinee show by myself somewhere, but I really miss going to the movies and going with my family. So I look forward to that a lot.

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