By Kurt Wolff
For Jason Isbell, making a record is serious business. It’s fun a time, sure, but it’s not a process he approaches casually.
Isbell doesn’t come right out and say this, mind you. Instead, during a recent phone interview from Nashville, I find it tucked into the answers he gives, as he describes his process of learning songs with his band; how he uses studio time to carefully craft each song’s arrangement, flow and tone; and his plan for how he will unveil this brand-new music to the public (he’s yet to play any of the new material live).
“I’m thinking July,” Isbell says, regarding a release date for the as-yet-untitled album. “We’ve already done all the primary tracking, and right now we’re mixing and seeing if anything needs any overdubs.”
Isbell is speaking from Low Country Sound, the studio run by producer Dave Cobb in the Green Hills area of Nashville. Cobb also produced Isbell’s acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern, a superb batch of songs that earned the Alabama native (he grew up in the musically rich Muscle Shoals area) the three top categories at last year’s Americana Music Awards: Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year for his powerful and deeply personal ballad “Cover Me Up.”
As a producer, Cobb has worked with a number artists who operate (rather well, mind you) on the outskirts of the country music mainstream, including Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, Nikki Lane and Sturgill Simpson.
“He’s really nerdy when it comes to sound and gear and microphones, compressors and guitar pedals and amps and all that good stuff,” Isbell says of Cobb. “But the thing that I probably value the most in Dave is his instinct for what works and what doesn’t. He’s really good at doing essentially what a producer should do, which is provide a standard of taste in the studio.”
Isbell’s most recent time in the studio with Cobb began a few weeks earlier, at larger Nashville studio called Sound Emporium (a space that was once owned by legendary producer and Country Music Hall of Fame member “Cowboy” Jack Clement). Isbell and his band the 400 Unit spent two weeks at Sound Emporium, recording the basic tracks for the album. The mixing, though, is taking place at Low Country.
“We’ve recorded 14 [songs],” he says, but as for the final number, “we’ll probably wind up with 10 or 11. I’ll make out the list out when it’s all mixed, before it goes to mastering.”
That process, he continues, “usually takes three months, once we turn in a master.” Which means, he calculates, that “we might be able to hit early July” for the album release time frame. “I’m not positive yet, but that’s the goal.”
Below we speak to Isbell about the recording process, including how all work on the new songs takes place in the studio (“we don’t do demos” or “practice the songs on the road”), his approach to songwriting (“observation is where it should always start”) and if there’s any tone, theme or concept running through this new batch of songs.
Radio.com: Where are you in the recording process for your new album?
Jason Isbell: We’re almost done. We’ve already done all the primary tracking and right now we’re mixing and seeing if anything needs any overdubs. We were [at Sound Emporium] for two weeks, then we can over here [to Low Country Sound], starting on Monday, to mix. We’ve recorded 14 [songs], we’ll probably wind up with 10 or 11. But I’ll make out the list out when it’s all mixed, before it goes to mastering.
Did you write every song yourself?
I did. I don’t really cowrite with anybody, I write all my songs myself. Some of the arrangements we worked out once we got in the studio. Dave Cobb helps a lot with those things, he’s got really good instincts for what direction to go in.