Jason Isbell on Dr. John, Frank Ocean and what makes a "good" song

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Jason Isbell, performing at a tribute to Dr. John in 2015. He performs Oct. 22-23 at The Joy Theater,
  • Jason Isbell, performing at a tribute to Dr. John in 2015. He performs Oct. 22-23 at The Joy Theater,

Jason Isbell likes to wander. When the songwriter stops in New Orleans, he likes to do some people watching, stop at Faulkner House Books, and then there was that time last year he performed among a dozen New Orleans artists and Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and Mavis Staples in a salute to Dr. John. That tribute performance, captured on The Musical Mojo of Dr. John, is out now,

His appearance preluded a masterful 2015 release, Something More Than Free, a gorgeous gut punch of life lessons and graceful storytelling. Isbell is back in New Orleans performing two nights at The Joy Theater on Saturday, Oct. 22 and Sunday, Oct. 23. Below, the songwriter talks about his next album, meeting Springsteen, Frank Ocean's stunning 2016 album Blonde, and what he looks for in a song.

On performing in front of Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre:

Isbell: I was exhausted. We’d just come back from overseas. We played in California and fallen back in New Orleans. It was really intense. I met Bruce Springsteen that night. He had Southeastern so he had heard it and he actually sang a little bit of one of my songs at me, which was exciting but kind of unnerving.

But Allen was there, and Irma, and obviously Mac, and they were all having conversations with each other — you could tell they all had a crazy history together but probably didn’t wind up in the same room together a whole lot. I tried to be a fly on the wall and listen to those guys talk. It was pretty incredible to be in the same room as that many legends of New Orleans music, and American music.

We went through [“Blow Wind Blow”] once the day before. If you over rehearse those kinds of songs, you’re not really serving the spirit of the songs. Those are the kinds of songs I’m sure Mac probably never played the same way twice. I definitely wouldn’t want to to that in tribute them.

On his diverse taste in music:


[Psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard], that’s a great band — they’re so good. They completely ignore song structures and cliche formats and just get up and play. It’s really fun to see. [The album Nonagon Infinity] is like one long rock ‘n’ roll song.

I like the Selena Gomez record (Revival). That’s probably surprising. I really like Lily Allen a whole lot. She’s really smart and really funny and her songs are really catchy.

There’s a lot of different things that can be good about a song. I like good lyrics, even if by "good" they’re not necessarily insightful. Sometimes they can just be witty or catchy, and sometimes that makes a good song. If the writer or writers have accomplished what I believe they’re intending to accomplish, it’s a successful song.

On Frank Ocean's Blonde:

That’s a really cool way to experiment with individuality with samples and loops, and he’s got a beautiful voice. I really like that record. Anything that’s that interesting I consider to be a success.

You could probably assume some things didn’t go exactly how they wanted to on that album. There’s probably some parts that Frank at some point in his life will consider to be ‘mistakes’ or shortfalls. But I like it when somebody really goes for it and takes themselves really seriously. That’s a good thing for creative people to do.

On producer Dave Cobb, who produced Southeastern, Something More than Free and his next album:

He’s really easy to get along with. We’re good friends and have been quite a while. I like how Dave brings out the best in whatever artist he’s working with, but he doesn’t have a signature sound. A lot of producers, even great ones, have a sound you can immediately recognize. You hear their imprint on a record pretty immediately. Dave’s not that way. You listen to a rock ‘n’ roll record he’s done, as opposed to a country record, and they sound completely different. Someone like Mutt Lange — who did Def Leppard and Shania Twain — they sound the same. A Def Leppard record sounds just like a Shania Twain record. The same sounds, the same process. I appreciate that Dave Cobb doesn’t do that.

He breaks down the boundary between artist and producer. He doesn’t like to sit behind the glass and judge you. He likes to play guitar, or some kind of percussion, and be in the room with the band when you’re recording.

On writing his last two albums:

I think they probably made me more ambitious when it comes to writing complete albums, albums that are good from start to finish. That’s become really important to me. A lot of people I think after they’ve been at it a few years feel like two or three songs is all you need for a good album. Two or three good songs and you can fill the rest of it up with other stuff. After the last two records I really feel like it’s sort of my duty to make records that are good all the way through. That’s something I hold myself to.


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