Jason Isbell talks HBO Max doc, Martin Scorsese, before Red Rocks show
Jason Isbell’s voice can be a strapping, mournful thing, muscular and dripping with vulnerability as he chronicles his life in song. And on this day, it’s still waking up.
“This time of year I drink my black coffee cold so I can get it down quicker,” the 44-year-old singer-songwriter said over the phone from his Nashville porch on Monday. “I’ve spent so many years working late at night that it makes it hard for me to get on with normal life. It’s tough, you know? But I think it’s tough no matter how you do it.”
Isbell’s family and acclaimed music career test his resolve while giving him motivation to stay sober and productive. He has won a quartet of Grammy Awards since 2018 — about a decade after getting kicked out of his former alt-country band, Drive-By Truckers, for drinking and drugging — and would seem to have nothing to prove in the music industry. At least from the outside.
In the HBO Max documentary “Music Box: Jason Isbell — Running with Our Eyes Closed,” which was released on April 7, we’re afforded a close-up on his life as he records the album “Reunions” with his band, the 400 Unit. His intimate musical and romantic partnership with wife Amanda Shires (herself an acclaimed solo artist), his love of his daughter Mercy Rose, his past divorce, and the shock of the pandemic are all there in vivid cross-section.
“If you’re a recording artist or entertainer with any kind of success, you don’t want to spend too much time looking back,” said Isbell, who was born in Green Hill, Ala., to a 17-year-old mother. “It’s a self-centered way of living. But one thing I was surprised by watching the (documentary) is that I’d forgotten how hard those old days were, growing up where I did and having addiction issues. It was nice to see but painful to watch, that all of this was real and really happened to me, even if it’s long in the rearview.”
Isbell will headline Red Rocks Amphitheatre May 3 and 4 with the 400 Unit, on tour for their new album “Weathervanes,” to be released June 9. The lead single “Death Wish” has already been covered by Jack White and featured on “American Idol.” Isbell’s melodies channel Americana, folk, country, rock and blues. His lyrics are cutting and urgent and full of visceral metaphors. On “Death Wish,” he sings:
“I wanted action, she wanted answers / Sunrise with the dealers and the dancers / It takes a whole lot of medicine to feel like a little kid.”
It’s not all grit, but Isbell works hard on every single song, he said. In the “Music Box” documentary, he can’t get away from songwriting, but that’s not always the case. Isbell will appear in Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which stars Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jesse Plemons, among others (there’s no current release date for the Apple+ production). He was cast alongside musicians White and Sturgill Simpson in the Oklahoma-based crime drama. And he won’t play music in it.
“Everybody around me had an Oscar, or more, and I was just kind of asking them, ‘What do I do here?’ ” Isbell said of the filming experience. “Luckily they were kind enough and invested enough in the project that they didn’t just say, ‘Leave me the (heck) alone!’ … It was really hard. It took everything — all my ability as a creative thinker and also a large dose of letting go of any kind of self-awareness or self-consciousness. But I appreciated the opportunity to do it, just because it wasn’t easy. In your 40s, how often do you get to be terrified?”
It helped that, prior to production, Isbell asked Lyle Lovett for acting advice, given that Lovett had averaged roughly a movie or TV series per year since 1983. Lovett shared some wisdom that director Robert Altman gave him on the set of 1992’s “The Player,” which was the first of what would become four collaborations with Altman.
” ‘Don’t act; just go out there and be,’ ” Isbell said. “He said it was the best advice anyone’s ever given him.”
Whether or not Isbell’s Hollywood career takes off, he won something in the experience: During production downtime in his trailer, he wrote a bunch of new songs.
If you go
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. With Angel Olsen, May 3 and 4 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Parkway in Morrison. All ages. Tickets: $50-$100 via axs.com.
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