Country Star Jason Isbell Reveals One Important Thing Music Writers Should Do: ’Remain Open and Don’t Judge Yourself’

While recently visiting Cory Wong’s podcast “Wong Notes,” country music star Jason Isbell shared one of the most useful pieces of advice for young musicians who are writing their own material. Asked to give “insight to any budding songwriters that are trying to find that thing about their voice as a writer,” he replied (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“Stop looking for it. Immediately. Stop looking for your voice as a writer. I was thinking about that this morning. Something I read this morning, somebody talked about finding their voice as a writer. And you’re looking for the wrong thing.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - "Overseas" - May 4, 2023 - Morrison, Colorado, USA

In order to further explain his stance on the matter, Jason made an interesting analogy while remembering how he asked everyone that he could about making long marriages work. He said:

“When Amanda [Shires, his wife] and I got married, we went around to a lot of couples — And we still do this — but a lot of couples that have been together for a long time that we knew.”

“And we asked them what’s the secret. And they had different answers. For a lot of people, it was a sense of humor or just ‘Don’t give up on each other’ or ‘Stick by the decision that you made no matter how hard things get.'”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Cast Iron Skillet (Official Lyric Video)

However, the best piece of advice came from none other than the late country singer-songwriter legend John Prine. And, interestingly enough, this was not only a great marital advice but also something that Jason, or anyone else, can apply to songwriting or any other art form. Isbell continued:

“But John Prine said ‘You have to remain voulnerable.’ And of course John Prine is going to give the best answer to just about anything. That’s what he did.”

“He had a very recognizable voice as a songwriter. And it was the fact that he was open emotionally. And he realized that he had something worth saying. And so he just let himself talk. I think that’s kind of the trick.”

John Prine and Iris DeMent - In Spite of Ourselves (Live From Sessions at West 54th)

Although it’s not easy to explain or fully wrap your mind around it, but there’s really something about letting go and not trying to constantly judge your work as you’re writing it. Isbell continued:

“And I think it is a little bit ethereal, it’s kind of hard to pin down. But just don’t run from things that you might consider mistakes, if you think that this doesn’t sound like any song that you’ve heard before so it must not be right.”

“Second-guess that instinct and think ‘Maybe it doesn’t sound like anybody else because it’s mine.’ And if you do that over and over and you remain open and don’t judge yourself…”

Jason Isbell on Austin City Limits "Cover Me Up"

Discussing it further, Jason also recalled Neil Young and what he had to say about writing:

“This is the thing, this is the Neil Young line where he says ‘People don’t wanna hear a song you like, they wanna hear a song you wrote.'”

“And that’s huge for me. Because it’s like — don’t judge the work while you’re doing it. Save that for later. Later on, when you’re in the [vocal] booth, you can judge whether it’s any good or not. Or after it’s mastered, figure out if you want to put it out.”

In the end, Isbell explained how you always need to give yourself some space and think of the bigger picture:

“Give yourself a whole lot of leeway and a whole lot of time to do what you think might be a mistake. Because just like playing the wrong note, it’s not that — it’s the one that you play right after it, you know?”

“And I think that’s the thing. That’s it. Just let yourself screw up and then keep moving. And then, eventually, you’ll have the chance to go back and fix it if it’s wrong. But more often than not, you’ll find out that not wrong, that’s just me.”

As of this moment, Jason Isbell is gearing up for the release of his ninth studio album. Titled “Weathervanes,” it’s slated for June 9 release and will be out through Southeastern Records. The album, of course, sees him working alongside his backing band The 400 Unit.

Photo: Bryan Ledgard (Jason Isbell – Cambridge Folk Festival 50th Anniversary)

David Slavkovic

David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.

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