Jason Isbell On His 'A Star Is Born' Song, Texting With Bradley Cooper & How Nashville Is Changing
He tells Billboard about his personal highlights from the year.
As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie, Kali Uchis, Dan + Shay, Swae Lee, Lauv, Old Dominion, Mitski and Sofi Tukker.
Jason Isbell’s 2018 included two wins at the Grammys back in February; a significant songwriting credit on the soundtrack for A Star is Born; the October release of his live album, Live From the Ryman; a guest spot playing guitar on wife and fellow roots rocker Amanda Shires’ latest album, To the Sunset; a chance to produce Josh Ritter’s forthcoming full-length; and ample time at home in Nashville.
But the highlight of his year can be summed up with a simple, three-letter word scrawled by his three-year-old daughter, Mercy: Dad. “My daughter read a couple of words, and that without question was the proudest that I was all year,” he answers when asked about his biggest accomplishment of the past twelve months. “She just turned 3 in September, and she’s really smart. Her language skills are really good. She started being able to sound out complete words, so that was by far my proudest moment.”
Below, Isbell reflects on parenting, speaking out for causes he believes in, championing Shires, texting with Bradley Cooper and more.
I’m looking at your list of 2018 projects, and it's a lot -- especially considering how this was an "off" year that didn't include a new studio album. How do you feel at the end of 2018?
I’m good! I’ve actually had a lot of time at home, because a lot of those things didn’t involve traditional touring, so I didn’t have to do an exorbitant amount of traveling this year. I played 80 shows or something, but it wasn’t like, over the top as far as traveling. I was able to work on other things like Josh’s record, things that involved songwriting or production, and that was fun. I got to stay home with the toddler more than I did the year before.
You and Amanda have been open about the parental balancing act, and how it’s been a learning experience as you both follow your respective musical paths. How did that go in 2018?
You know, it went really well. Amanda was touring a lot. She was on the road quite a bit. I wound up hanging out with the kid quite a bit myself. I know it’s hard for Amanda. When I’m away from our daughter, I miss her, and I miss being around her, but I don’t have an ancient part of my caveman brain that tells me that if I’m outside of the cave, something’s going to eat the baby. Women have that. She’s programmed somewhere in the old part of her head to think for a fleeting second every five minutes that she’s doing something wrong. It’s a process that’s sort of evolving, really, as much as we can do to teach each other that being happy and satisfied, fulfilled parents is going to set the best example for the child. Your cave brain doesn’t necessarily understand nanny cams and childcare and cars and airplanes, so it’s kind of a process for us, of teaching each other that it’s okay to work and do what you need to do -- everything’s going to be taken care of.
How was it to watch Amanda shine in 2018?
Her record [To the Sunset] is great, and the songs are great, and I still don’t feel like she gets the respect she deserves from the music world. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that she’s a woman. At some point throughout the year, we were comparing the amount of money we made in shows compared to the amount of money we made off of album sales compared to the amount of money we made at the merch table and streams and radio and publishing -- all this. We like to sit down and see how we can improve at certain points in our career, because we both own our own publishing and our own labels. We have to be business people, too. It occurred to us at some point that guys will wear a shirt with another guy’s name on it, but they won’t necessarily wear a shirt that has a female artist’s name on it. Women aren’t that way: Women buy Jason Isbell shirts just like the guys do. We started thinking about that.
There are so many little places in the business where it’s not balanced. I’m starting to wear a bunch of Pretenders and Amy Winehouse shirts. Anytime I’m wearing a rock 'n' roll shirt, it’s going to be from a female artist or band. She started making all the guys in her band wear women rock 'n' roll shirts. We’re trying to start a fashion movement. It’s another thing you don’t really notice until you sit down and start doing the numbers. I was happy with the way her album was recorded and the way it was written and produced and all that, but I wasn’t necessarily happy with the way it was received, because I think she deserves to be heard a little bit more than she was.
The obstacles facing women in country music and Nashville was a big topic in 2018. Did you see any improvements?
There were some improvements on certain fronts, but I think most of that had to do with the fact that people are open about having that conversation now. That dialogue has really ramped up, but the results are definitely not changing yet, because we didn’t have any women in the top 20 of country radio [earlier this month] for the first time. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. I think a lot of what happens -- obviously, you have people like Keith Hill who are just complete f--kin’ idiots -- but then a lot of people see a button that they push and the money comes out. So they’re just going to keep pushing that button. The formula this time around doesn’t call for women artists, so they just keep pushing that button until the money stops coming out. I do think some people are playing active roles in keeping voices quiet, and I think this has been a good one for people to speak up against the mainstream establishment in that way.
You’ve been speaking up in other areas outside of music as well: Both you and Amanda supported get-out-the-vote efforts in Tennessee around the 2018 midterm elections. How was that?
It felt good. It felt good to figure out who our allies were and get together and work on something as a group. I really appreciated what Taylor Swift did. I thought that was huge, and I think it was smart of her to hold her tongue until she felt qualified and passionate enough to say something. When she did, I thought the timing was great. What she said was really smart and much needed for a lot of us. It was a good thing. Politics is not a football game, and I think that’s where a lot of Americans make a mistake: They root for one side, and when that side wins, they rub it in your face, and when that side loses, they get really pissed off and saying the game was rigged. It’s not a sporting event. It’s real. Whoever wins, we all have to deal with it, for better or for worse. I did what I could so I was able to sleep at night, no matter who won.
Before the elections in November, we had the October release of A Star is Born. You wrote one of the best songs on the soundtrack, "Maybe It's Time," which was Jackson Maine's signature song. What was it like to watch the movie and its music grow into a phenomenon?
It was great! I was really surprised that they would reach out to me. I think Dave Cobb had a lot to do with that. When they were looking for a song to be the anchor of Jackson’s character in that movie, they gave me the screenplay, and I read it and thought to myself, “This is actually not bad!” That was surprising, because they were remaking this movie again for the third or fourth time, Bradley Cooper’s not directed anything before, and he [was] gonna direct it, so you’re thinking, "Okay, this is probably not going to be very good." But when I read it, I thought, "This has a chance to be something I’m really proud of."
I wrote the song for the character, and Bradley really liked it. We were texting back and forth. He recorded a demo of him singing the song and sent it to me on my cell phone. I was terrified, because I thought, “I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to say, 'Bradley Cooper, this is bad! You’re gonna have to do better!'” He sent it to me for my approval, and I just didn’t open it. I had to get on a plane and was like, “I’m not gonna listen to this yet.” It was a long flight, and I was on there for five hours or so. [At some point] on the plane I listened to it. When I got off the plane, I texted back and was like, “Man, it’s really good -- you did a great job and your voice is good! Thank you very much!” I didn’t realize that he was actually staring at his phone waiting for my response!
They did a panel at a premiere of the movie, and he said that was the most difficult, nerve-wracking part of the whole process for him: waiting to hear back from me on whether or not I liked his demo. I thought, "Bradley Cooper’s not gonna care if I like it or not", but no, he was sitting on there waiting on it. I went and saw the movie at a movie theater in Franklin before it came out and was amazed. I thought it was really well done and emotional, but not sentimental -- at least not too far on the sentimental side of things. The music was handled really well and respectfully. The instruments were correct and the sounds were right. I was blown away by it. It was a really great experience.
In terms of general 2018 favorites, what’s a song you couldn’t get out of your head for the majority of the year?
Amanda listens to that Lennon Stella album all the time, and that song, “Bad,” that was stuck in my head forever. I like that album a lot. I think it’s really good pop music.
Who’s an artist you’d invite to a holiday dinner with your family, and why?
We get together with the Prines at the holidays, so we’ll probably be eating dinner with the Prines this year. I’d say John Prine. But if I could pick any artist, I would totally have dinner with Kendrick Lamar. I just think he’s a super interesting artist, and I would like to know more about his process. I would probably be a miserable guest because I’d ask him interview-style questions the whole time. I think he’s really, really good. My wife would like that, too -- she’s a big fan.
And Mercy too, obviously.
Yeah! Mercy, I know! She knew that one song. If she hears somebody sing a song she’s heard a recording of a lot of times, she freaks out when she realizes it’s the same person. She loves the version of Brandi Carlile’s song with Sam Smith, “Party of One” -- she loves that song. Amanda sings it to her all the time and plays it for her. Brandi was at the house a couple of weeks ago and started singing it, and Mercy just freaked out: “THAT’S YOU! THAT’S YOU THAT SINGS THAT SONG!” It’s really fun to see that happen.
That’s awesome. Does she do that with you both, too?
She does it with our catalogs, yes. She requests specific songs from us at naptime and stuff. [Laughs]
To wrap this up: One of my favorite performances from the year was watching you with David Crosby at Newport Folk Festival. Can you walk me through that moment?
Yeah, that was awesome. Newport wanted us to bring out a guest, and I thought Crosby would make perfect sense. It’s the world’s most famous folk festival, and politically, our times right now are in need of good protest music. Crosby is definitely a legend of that particular genre. I was really excited about it. The thing that surprised me the most about that situation was how strong David’s voice is. I mean, it’s really amazing. We were rehearsing before we went onstage back in the dressing room, and he was sitting next to me, and it was startlingly loud how he was singing. I asked him, “How is that possible?! How are you still singing that strong?” He said, “I have no idea. I’ve done everything you could to kill it, but it just won’t die.” That was pretty great.
We talked about Joni [Mitchell], too: I had to take the opportunity, if I’m gonna get to hang out with David Crosby, to ask him about Joni. He still talks about her in the same way he did forty or fifty years ago. To him and to a lot of folks in that scene, she's the best of all of them. It was really nice to hear somebody that that’s legendary talk about someone he’s in awe of still.