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Southeastern is not a record Jason has made before, and not simply because the glorious storm and drama of his band, the 400 Unit, is absent. They will tour together; it’s not a break-up record, not an album of dissolving, but, rather, songs of discovery. And not at all afraid, not even amid the tears.
Which is to say that he has grown up.
That it has been a dozen years since he showed up at a party and left in the Drive-By Truckers’ van with two travel days to learn their songs. And then taught them some of his songs in the bargain.
Jason Isbell’s solo career has seemed equally effortless, from Sirens of the Ditch (2007) to Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (2009), through Here We Rest (2011) and last year’s Live From Alabama. Loud records, unrepentantly southern, resplendent with careful songwriting. Songs which inspire and intimidate other musicians, and critics. “
A heart on the run / keeps a hand on the gun / can’t trust anyone,” Jason sings just now, his words brushing gently atop an acoustic guitar figure “Cover Me Up,” the song with which he has chosen to open Southeastern. Such tenderness. An act of contrition, an affirmation of need, his voice straining not to break: “Girl leave your boots by the bed / We ain’t leaving this room / Till someone needs medical help / Or the magnolias bloom.”
He sighs into the phone, considering what he’s done, and why. “I’m really purposefully ignorant of any sort of sales consideration, or radio considerations, or anything like that,” Jason says. “Before I’d felt like, this song needs to be this length, or this song needs to be mastered in this way, or this song needs to have drums on it, or this song needs a bigger hook. I just completely did away with all those considerations for this record. And made it as if I were really just making it for me, and for people like me who listen to entire albums.”
Raw, open, and reflective. Sobriety can be like that. Jason’s made it past his first year, which is rather more than a promise and will always be far from a guarantee.
Treatment programs teach that one should let go, easier said than done. Perhaps that’s why
Isbell was willing to trust his songs to David Cobb. Cobb has produced Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson and the Secret Sisters, but it was a Squidbillies’ session with George Jones which finally brought his work to Jason’s attention. “The song that he did with George Jones was a minute and a half, two minutes long,” Jason says, But the production of it was perfect because he nailed every single era of George’s career, and that really impressed me. A lot.”
Jason Isbell chooses his words carefully and speaks them softly, only the gentle lilt of south Alabama left for shading. “A lot of my favorite songwriters and recording artists are afraid,” he says. “Afraid to turn anything over to a producer, so they continue to make the same record over and over and over and over. More often than not, really. It’s really frustrating for me.”
There had been other plans for the album, as there always are, and for the first time Jason had the songs done well before production commenced. In the inevitable way of things, it all came together in a rush. They finished recording at midnight on a Thursday. Friday he and Amanda Shires went to their rehearsal dinner, got married Saturday, and had to wait until they returned from their honeymoon to approve the mastered album.
It is Amanda’s voice and violin joining with Jason on “Traveling Alone,” as evocative a song of a loneliness as anyone’s written since “Running On Empty.” A promise.
The songs are invested with Jason’s particular, personal truths, but they’re not about him. Or, rather, the emotional truths are probably about the songwriter, but not the stories he’s telling. “Live Oak” opens with an a cappella verse: “There’s a man who walks beside me / He is who I used to be / I wonder if she sees him / And confuses him with me?” It is the kind of question a man asks as he readies to marry a woman who met him and knew him and loved him before sobriety stuck (and a question a singer might well ask his audience under the same circumstances), though the story is about a roving criminal in either the 18th or 20th centuries.
It is not, to be clear, an acoustic album. “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8” have more than the requisite amount of guitar squawl to propel them. But it is the quite, contemplative songs that lure you in out of the rain, and those songs especially that draw one into the arc of the entire album. To the elegance of “Songs That She Sings in the Shower”: “With a stake / Held to my eye / I had to summon the confidence needed/To hear her good-bye.”
“I’ve done my part,” Jason says, his dry chuckle trailing off. “I make things and other people try to sell those things. I try not to mix the two together. I think that’s just a better way to make more quality things.”
He is, of course, right.
“Let’s not give away what all the songs are about,” requests Amanda Shires via email — shortly after an hour-long interview discussing exactly that. “I think I prefer for the listener to decide for themselves what stuff means, because I always hate it when I think a song is about a horse, and then it turns out to be a damn trip to France …”
And so, by artist request, there will be no handy track-by-track cheat sheet for Shires’ new Carrying Lightning. But if you really can’t deduce what the songs are all about on your own, then consider yourself equally blessed and cursed, because odds are you’ve never been knocked on your ass by the wrecking ball of human desire — the kind so lovingly bottled by the young Texas songwriter in the album-opening “Swimmer, Dreams Don’t Keep”:
“April was the last time I think I saw you
You were carrying lightning
The way you walked into the room,
If I was a flower I would’ve opened up and bloomed
I say I don’t care, but I’m a liar
Look how easy a heart can catch on fire …”
That same charge of romantic/erotic tension courses throughout the entire album, which sways from innocent daydream (“Swimmer”) to restless longing (“Love Be a Bird”) to explosive lust (“Shake the Walls”) to blissful contentment (“Sloe Gin”) and, finally, back to wistful fantasy (“Lovesick I Remain”). The specific, behind-the-scenes details — such as who or what inspired each particular song, or to what extent each stems from Shires’ own life vs. her sheer imagination — need not be divulged or even probed, because, as the mysterious little messenger in “Ghost Bird,” “all feathers and a heartbeat,” puts it best, “Baby, we’re all running from the same things: broken hearts, broken homes, the tired and the loneliness …”
“I guess the theme of the record as a whole is just, ‘get wrecked in love — and be loved,” says Shires. “Or, to steal a quote from Sylvia Plath: ‘Wear your heart on your skin in this life.’ That’s my platform.”
The quote may be borrowed, and the emotional terrain of the songs universally relatable, but Shires’ voice is distinctly her own. Her Texas twang and fetching vibrato (“less goat, more note!” she teases herself with a laugh) can dance playfully around a melody or haunt a line like a mournful ghost, and she deftly employs her fiddle/violin, ukulele and even whistling skills to similar effect. The resulting sound is a beautiful but woozily surrealistic swoon — as well befits an artist who cites Leonard Cohen and alt-country dark horse Richard Buckner as two of her biggest musical influences. Or, as a review in Americana UK once observed: “At times, her energetic, jittery vocals and eccentric lyrical subjects mark her out as a young female heir to the godfather of strange, Tom Waits. In her more conventional moments, Shires sounds like the weird young niece of Dolly Parton.”
In fact, Shires is just a down-to-earth, self-effacing West Texas gal currently residing in Nashville, working her tail off trying to find her niche in the music industry as an independent artist. In the recent Hollywood movie Country Strong, she played the fiddle player in the band backing Gwyneth Paltrow’s fictional country superstar. In real life, Shires runs with a decidedly more left-of-mainstream-type crowd, including Jason Isbell (she sings and plays fiddle on the former Drive-By Trucker’s latest, Here We Rest) and Justin Townes Earle (she’s the lovely model gracing the cover of his 2008 debut, The Good Life). She also maintains strong ties to the Lone Star State, recording and occasionally performing with the Lubbock band Thrift Store Cowboys (which she joined while still in college) and sometimes even teaching fiddle at Texas Playboys’ singer Tommy Allsup’s summer music camp. She was only 15 the first time she played onstage with the Playboys (the Western swing band made famous by the late Bob Wills) — a mere five years after she coerced her father into buying her first fiddle, a lime-green Chinese instrument from a pawn shop in dusty downtown Mineral Wells, Texas.
In 2005, while still a regular member of the Thrift Store Cowboys, Shires released her solo debut, a mostly instrumental showcase for her traditional fiddle chops called Being Brave. But the fertile Texas music scene was overripe with side-person work for the talented young player and backup singer — so much so that Shires feared sliding into a complacency that, left unchecked, threatened to stunt her growth as a songwriter. So she relocated to Nashville — “to get uncomfortable and make myself grow some guts,” as she put it once — and dived headlong into the process of writing and recording the first two albums to really put her on the roots-music map: 2008’s Sew Your Heart with Wires, a collection of duets co-written and recorded with singer-songwriter Rod Picott; and what Shires calls her “true” solo debut, 2009’s West Cross Timbers. Both were met with enthusiastic reviews and radio support, with the former being voted the fourth best debut album of 2008 by FAR (Freeform American Roots) Chart reporters and the later reaching No. 21 on the Americana Music Association Chart. The Gibson Guitar company featured Shires on their website as one of 2009’s breakout artists, and No Depression called West Cross Timbers one of the 50 best releases of the year.
Shires was eager to get right back into the studio, but a busy touring schedule — averaging 120-160 dates a year, including at least one or two annual trips to Europe — necessitated that the follow-up to West Cross Timbers, be recorded piecemeal. “We did it over the course of 16 months in multiple sessions, just coming back and forth home to Nashville between tours,” she says of Carrying Lightning, which she co-produced with Picott and David Henry at Henry’s True Tone Studios. Fortunately, although it was hard to find time to lay down tracks, writer’s block was never an issue for her.
“Some people only write when they’re at home, but I just write, whenever or however I can,” Shires says. “We ended up recording 20-something songs for the album, and the hardest part was trying to decide which ones to use. But having the whole process take so long is what ultimately helped give the record its shape and focus. I was really able to think about which songs fit together the best, as opposed to just, ‘I’m going into the studio to make a record, and in two weeks I’ll be done.’ I had a lot of time to sleep on this one.”
In fact, even now that the record’s mastered, pressed and ready for release, Shires still isn’t quite finished with it. Taking full advantage of the DIY promotional opportunities afforded by the age of social media, she plans to film videos for every song on the album, with “When You Need a Train It Never Comes” and “Lovesick I Remain” already uploaded to YouTube and more on the way. “We just shot one for ‘Shake the Walls’ today, and ‘Ghostbird’ will be next,” she says. “I want ‘Ghostbird’ to be animated.”
What’s more, she’s still haunted by some of the songs that didn’t make the Carrying Lightning cut — if only because they didn’t quite fit the theme of the rest of the record. Some of these she hopes to release before year’s end as a separate EP.
“They were just too dark and would have seemed too random, I guess,” she says of the orphan tunes. How dark? One of them apparently involved a girl getting her skin sliced off.
“Actually, that one was kind of a love song,” she admits with a sheepish chuckle. “Maybe I should have left that one on the record!”
“Godfather” Waits would be proud.
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