The Grammy-winning Jason Isbell song that almost never was
The day Jason Isbell wrote a Grammy-winning love song he was watching Hoarders.
It’s a reality TV show about people who just can’t let go.
“It's the kind of show that I just veg out and watch,” the singer, who is in Australia this week to play at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, as well as his own side shows, tells Double J’s Henry Wagons.
“My wife caught me watching that show and she said ‘you have to go into the studio on Monday’.”
This was a few days before he started recording his most recent full-length album, The Nashville Sound, with his band The 400 Unit.
“I already had 12 or 13 songs written, so I said, ‘I've got plenty of songs, it's fine’.
“She said, ‘anybody could sit here and watch Hoarders; you have to write another song’.”
And so he did.
“I wanted to write a love song, because I still really like love songs, when they are done the right way,” he says.
“And I thought: what is it that most love songs get wrong? And I started from there.”
The reasons people fall in love with someone (or, in fairness to hoarders, something) are not necessarily the ones you hear about in songs, Isbell suggests: the way a lover looks on a particular evening, or the softness of their touch at a particular moment.
“I tried to get deeper into the truth,” he says.
I am just constantly trying to fight off death.Jason Isbell on his health regime
“By the time I got to the chorus, I landed on something – the fact that there would be no motivation to open yourself up to anybody if we had unlimited amount of time on the planet.”
As he sings in the chorus of ‘If We Were Vampires’:
'It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get 40 years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone.'
“Once that idea hit me,” Isbell says, “I knew exactly where to go with the song.”
His Grammy wins, for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song, followed two wins in the same categories in 2016.
It signals the continued success of an artist who seems to be finding great momentum after a difficult early period, personally and professionally.
Isbell, 39, spent six years playing with the Drive-By Truckers during his 20s, a time he admits he’s a little hazy on, owing to an overindulgence of Jack Daniel's.
“I used to think I didn’t drink in the morning,” he told The Huffington Post in 2013, “but my wife pointed out to me that I didn’t usually wake up in the morning.”
He got sober around 2012, after an intervention at the hands of his wife, Amanda Shires, his manager and his friend Ryan Adams.
Songs like ‘Different Days’ – 'Time went by and I left and I left again, Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin' – from his 2013 album, Southeastern, suggested a reckoning around that time with the person he was before.
Now, he says, he exercises five or six days a week, trying to stay healthy.
“That can be tough on the road sometimes, but also it gives you a little period of time where the post office is closed, as we say.
“So, there's an hour-and-a-half a day where nobody can reach me, and I've let everybody know that this is the time of day when I'm doing things for myself.
“I feel better for the shows, I'm able to run around on stage and not get all out of breath, my voice is better, my breath is better, I can sing a lot stronger, especially since I quit smoking.
“I am just constantly trying to fight off death.”
Becoming a father to Mercy Rose, in 2015 – who travels with him when the band tours the US – has likely helped Isbell stay straight.
It’s also given him a greater empathy, he says, something he noticed recently when he spotted Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, in a hotel lobby.
That kind of rendezvous would normally be a private moment, significant only to those present, if it weren’t for the release of ‘Mr Tillman’, a new Father John Misty song, last month.
The song is told from the point of view of a hotel receptionist who is struggling to contain their frustration with a guest, “Mr Tillman”, who seems to be experiencing delusions and paranoia.
Isbell says the song, which includes the line “Jason Isbell’s here as well and seemed a little worried about you,” is based on a real incident.
“If you had seen [Tillman] that day, you would have worried about him, too,” Isbell says.
“I think anybody would have been concerned on that particular day.
“It was one of those where you don't have to have a whole lot of empathy after you've seen the guy, because he did not look good. He looks a lot better now and I am happy about that.
“I think maybe after having a child you start thinking everybody was somebody's little baby at some point.
“It changes you.”
Jason Isbell plays the following shows:
Saturday 24 March – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Sunday 25 March – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Thursday 29 March – Bluesfest, Byron Bay
Saturday 31 March – Bluesfest, Byron Bay