Words and self-realizations:
I did a lot of the writing for Here We Rest last year while we took a break from the road. I had a backlog of songs that I’d written, but I try really hard to stay emotionally current. I’m not going to go back and use something that I wrote years ago for an album that I’m trying to make now.
I think it’s a positive thing to be home, although I do crave the road sometimes … that’s just sort of how I’m made. But yeah – it was a good period to rehabilitate and recuperate for the band and myself. And I think we got some good material out of it.
I feel like I’m getting to a point where I’m writing more of what I want to hear. I don’t know if it’s a good thing creatively or not, but I don’t care because I like it … it’s fun to write songs that you enjoy listening to. Not that I don’t still love some of the stuff that I wrote five or ten years ago, it’s just that now I’m getting closer to what my tastes are – and I think that’s just starting to show in my writing.
I know instantly if I’m reading Cormac McCarthy or Barry Hannah and I come across a sentence that’s absolutely perfect. I just know it; I know it in my heart. I think subconsciously I‘ve been trying to work on recreating that knowledge of something being as good as it could be. If nothing else, maybe my self-editing process is getting a little bit better.
Add to that – and this is strange; I don’t know how it happened – I feel like I’m able to listen to a piece of music that was recorded with a detached ear now. I’m learning how to listen to my music without being the person who created it. I know that’s odd – but I don’t know how that happened. I’ve actually wanted to be able to do that for a long time. But when you listen as the creator of something, you listen to individual details really specifically.
Now I can listen to a song that we’ve cut or an album that we’ve cut and I can hear it like someone who’s hearing it for the first time. I don’t know if that’s a good thing either, but I’m enjoying it.
I think all of these changes have helped me – I feel like this album is the best thing I’ve ever done.
Jason Isbell, author?
I’ve done a lot of regular writing, but there’s nothing that I’d want released to the public just yet. There’ll come a time when I’ll feel strong enough to do that. It’s got to be something that I really believe in … I feel like my reading tastes are pretty specific, so my writing tastes should be the same way.
I do have plans, though … I have a lot of beginnings. (laughs)
There are some really great American writers out there right now. I don’t want to throw something into the pot until I’m sure that it’s quality.
Plus, there are a lot of good songwriters who turn out to be bad fiction writers … and I don’t want to be one of those. (laughs) There are a couple of guys who can pull it off: Steve Earle’s one – Willy Vlautin is another. But there are a lot of songwriters who say, “Man – I wrote a cool song; I can write a book.” And it’s just not anywhere near the same process … it really isn’t.
Recording with the 400 Unit
We went in the studio towards the end of the summer –we’re probably looking at about three weeks total recording time from the first session at the end of the summer to when we finished in November.
Here We Rest was done a little bit more live than the last record that we did or my first solo record. We used a lot of first takes – even on vocals – and recorded a lot of stuff more live in the studio. You know, there are always things that you go back and touch up – with me there is, anyway. (laughs) But, yeah – we tried to capture that feel of playing live during the sessions.
I was inspired by Justin Townes Earle: when I sat in on the sessions for Harlem River Blues I noticed a lot of those songs were first vocal takes. I was amazed at the courage it takes to do that. And I thought, “Man … to sing that once and not have to go back and sing it 50 times to try to get it perfect … I think I’m going to try that.”
This band is good enough to pull that off more often than not. It’s really a hard thing to walk between musicianship and creativity for a lot of people. That’s probably one of the main reasons why I’m so happy to have the band that I have – they’re great players, but it never gets in the way of them being creative … and that can happen for a lot of folks.
A lot of your best technical musicians on earth are playing in cover bands – while a lot of your worst technical musicians are some of my very favorite independent artists … so it’s hard to find a balance there. Luckily, I have folks who play for the song and are still able to nail it pretty damn quickly. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time playing things over and over on this record – which saves you some money and keeps everybody fresh.
We didn’t play these songs on the road before we went in the studio. I’d go in and play something on the piano or on acoustic guitar and we went from there.
Amanda, Abby, Derry, and “Alabama Pines”
Amanda Shires does some really beautiful fiddle work on this album, including “Alabama Pines”. She sang on some songs, as well. We hope to have Amanda do some shows with us in the months ahead. She’s got her own album coming out in May – Carrying Lightning. You should check it out. Abby Owens also did some vocals on the album – she’s got a great, great voice.
“Alabama Pines” is a good example of Derry’s playing – he really is a different kind of keyboard player. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t need to play all the time and play all over everything. Derry is really selfless with the way he plays; he takes to the song really well. I think some of the songs on the album might sound a little stagnant if it wasn’t for some of the moving keyboard lines that run underneath.
I’m trying to think of exactly what sort of place I was in when I wrote “Alabama Pines”. I don’t really remember, but I was probably on the road when that one got started – pretty exhausted and not taking care of myself the way I should’ve been.
“Alabama Pines” was the first track that we cut for the record. I’d just sat down and played it for everybody when Chad got a call that a really close friend of his had passed. He was devastated, of course; we were all shook up and trying to figure out what we should do about it.
I went outside with Chad to have a cigarette … I just asked him if he wanted to work or go home or what he wanted to do. He wanted to stay there and work and keep himself occupied and focused on what we were trying to do. What he was feeling had a lot to do with the recording of that song … it added a whole lot of weight to the process.
It was odd that “Alabama Pines” was the song we were working on, because it deals with some of those kinds of issues: the guy has been away from home for a long time and is pretty despondent … and it’s not clear just how he’s going back home.
And a shout-out to Wayne’s …
Oh, yeah – there really is a Wayne’s Liquor store. Wayne’s is great. If you’re headed north from Birmingham, it’s the last one where you can get liquor on Sundays. I bet I’ve stopped there a thousand times. (laughs)
Browan Lollar: guitarist/artist
Browan’s guitar playing is just so good all over this album. He always complements the song.
Browan sort of came out of nowhere down here; he was doing some art stuff and delivering steak sandwiches when I put the band together. I asked him if he wanted the gig; he was really into the music I wanted to make right from the beginning … just a natural fit.
That’s Browan’s painting on the album cover, by the way. He’s a great artist, besides being a great guitarist.