Solving your own crossword puzzle: Jason Isbell in conversation with Maggie Smith

Following a COVID-related postponement, the Nashville musician will join his band the 400 Unit in concert at the Palace Theatre on Thursday

Maggie Smith
Columbus poet Maggie Smith and Nashville musician Jason Isbell

Earlier this month, I Zoomed with Jason Isbell, who was home in Nashville getting ready to go on tour with his band, the 400 Unit. (The concert, initially scheduled for Jan. 16, was postponed until Thursday, Jan. 27, after Isbell contracted a breakthrough case of COVID-19.)

We talked about “Hoarders,” Nate Silver, the ridiculous Bob Dylan “Must Be Santa” video, the difference between what you do and who you are, poetry as an oral tradition, the Beatles starting out as a “boy band,” parenthood and, yes, Twitter. (“I love it! The huge, flat hammer that everybody is hitting everybody else with is hilarious — the whole thing is a prop gag from Monty Python, it’s the bring out your dead thing,” he said, and then we both did a little of the sketch in high-pitched British accents.) 

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I’m a fan of Isbell’s music, and in particular his songwriting, and if you’ve heard “Cover Me Up,” “Stockholm,” or “If We Were Vampires,” you know what I mean. The man can write the hell out of a song. But Twitter — that “prop gag” of a space — is how we became friendly over the past couple of years. 

Isbell was as genuine, curious, funny and no-bullshit as I expected. We laughed — a lot, because we agreed that we have to, especially right now — while I picked his brain about his creative process, maker to maker, in advance of his Thursday concert at the Palace Theatre, with the equally incredible Adia Victoria opening. I hope to see you there.

Maggie Smith: One of the things I’m most curious about as a poet is where the poems come from. As a teacher of writing, I have to demystify the process of building a poem, but as a poet, I want to stay mystified. I don’t really want to know too much about where they come from, because I’m afraid I’ll scare them off. What about you? Where do you think the songs come from?

Jason Isbell: I think it comes from the form, and whatever you do with that is where the magic happens. … A lot of my process is focused on trying to make something sound different from something I’ve heard before. … If you’re committed to create, then you start from the form. … And there are rules, and you can break them, but if you break them, you’d better know them really, really well. Because you’ve got to get back to them.

Smith: Are you more comfortable “breaking the rules” now than you were 15 or 20 years ago? 

Isbell: I don’t know about more comfortable, but I’m better at it. I was better at ignoring the rules then.

Smith: What does your creative process look like? Do you have specific habits or rituals that get you there?

Isbell: I sort of lump creators into two categories, either a painter or a sculptor. You either start with a blank canvas and add things to it, or you start with everything and carve away. I’m the latter. I carve away. … I sit and I squeeze my brain for so long. I sit and I stare, and I work in here [points to head] so hard, and then I write two words. And then I do that again. And then when I get a song, I go back and start looking for weak spots or cliches, or somewhere where I feel like I’m not exactly communicating what I want to communicate.

Smith: Revision is my favorite part of writing — having the not-right words in the not-right order but trusting myself to get there.

Isbell: Yeah, I start with a melody, like McCartney and scrambled eggs, singing nonsense first and trying to find the actual words that fit. I’m just singing over and over and over, and thinking that’s almost it, that’s almost it, and then it happens. You know that moment is going to happen. Like, sometime soon, it’s going to hit you. And then that’s when you really want to jump up out of the chair and go, I got it, I got it, and it scans, and it sings, and it rhymes, and it works. Every time it’s magic. It’s really just working a crossword puzzle, but it’s still magical every time.

Smith: It’s not a crossword puzzle! You made that thing from scratch!

Isbell: A crossword puzzle you made yourself, sure, but a crossword puzzle. You’re solving your own crossword puzzle.

Smith: OK, so you said before that songs aren’t poems and poems aren’t songs. We can agree on that. Some songs, if you just look at the lyrics on paper, don’t work. 

Isbell: Oh no, no, not at all! Hilariously.

Smith: But yours do. So, I’m curious: What are you reading? What are you taking in?

Isbell: I try to read a lot of good books. I like to read a lot of literary fiction. … But in the last couple of years, I haven’t taken in as much as I should, just by my own standards, because I went into sort of protective mode, and protective mode for me is sitting in a room with a guitar and an amp and just going into the flow state and staying there for as long as possible, therapeutically.

Smith: Does your relationship to the songs change when you start playing them in front of an audience?

Isbell: Yeah, I think so. They become more or less muscular. … Sometimes I’m like, oh, this song has more power than I realized it had, you know, or less. I try to go with it, I think. If the song makes itself smaller when I perform it, then I try to keep it small. And some songs end up being louder and longer live — oh, this song wants to be a big ol’ bonehead.

Smith: I love that some songs just want to take up more space. 

Isbell: Me too, but it’s not a predictable thing. Some songs you really think, man, I’ve written an anthem, people are going to sing along, I can close the show with this, and then you get up there on stage and you’re like, oh no, this is tiny, this is a tiny song. It’s not about the instrumentation or the production or the performance, it’s just about the song itself. That’s really interesting to me. Let’s find out what these songs want to be.

Smith: Like, what kind of creature are you? You don’t really know until you let it out in the room and see.

Isbell: Like a kid — I know I made you, but I don’t know what you’re going to do next.

Smith: I love that. It’s about possibility. 

Isbell: I think this is why I’m not an instrumentalist, because I started playing guitar long before I started writing songs. There’s twelve notes, and there’s an infinite combination of syllables.

Smith: I wonder: Are you scrapping songs for parts like I scrap poems for parts?

Isbell: Oh, totally. I’ve kept entire musical compositions and completely changed the whole lyric. And everything in between. 

Smith: Yes! Sometimes the wheels from one poem can work with the bumper of another one.

Isbell: There’s a guy named Alexander Dumble, who is the probably greatest amp builder of all time. … He listens to you play and just starts reaching and pulling things down off the wall, and by the end of it, it’s suited perfectly to the way you play the instrument. So, it’s not the parts — we’re just using the same words they’re using on the New Year’s Eve party in Times Square on CBS. It’s the same words, we just have to put them in the right order.