In an interview just after the release of 2020’s Reunions, Jason Isbell said the difference between a good songwriter and a great one was whether or not you could write about a subject beyond yourself without making it feel vague. Ten years out from the confessional rawness of Southeastern, not only are Isbell’s lyrics ever closer to his ideal, but he’s got a sense of musical nuance to match. Reunions and 2017’s The Nashville Sound all blend anecdotes and memories from Isbell’s past with fiction, but Weathervanes tells a broader story with these vignettes, one with a message that became painfully clear to him throughout the pandemic: You can’t fully appreciate and acknowledge the good in your life without experiencing, and holding space for, the bad. “When I went into writing these songs, it started sort of at the tail end of the lockdown period and continued through our reentry into society; it kind of feels like a new world, for better or worse,” Isbell tells Apple Music. “A lot of these stories came from that, because when you start adding up the things that you're grateful for as somebody who tells stories, then automatically I think your mind goes to the counterpoint of that or the inverse of that. And you start thinking, 'Well, where could I be if I hadn't made the choices that led me to here?'” This led to a fundamental shift in his approach to songwriting. “The more specific and the more intense something is, the more likely I am to come at that through a character,” he tells Apple Music. “If I'm writing about love or death or having kids, I will go from the first person and it'll be me. But if I'm writing about something like a school shooting, it feels like I have to say, 'Okay, this is how this affects me, and this is how this makes me feel.' The only way I can be honest with that stuff is come at it from a character's perspective when it's a very specific topic like that.” Sometimes, that means creating these characters—or even reflecting on a younger version of himself in a difficult situation, as he does in “White Beretta”—and trusting them to lead the song down the path it needs. “So many times I didn't know what I was talking about until I got to halfway through the song, and I like it best when it happens that way,” he says. “I'll just get started and I'll say to myself, 'If I make a real person here and actually watch them with an honest eye, then after a couple of verses, they'll tell me what I'm writing about.'” Below, Isbell tells the stories behind the songs of Weathervanes. “Death Wish” “This is the kind of song that I have wanted to write for a long time. It's expansive from the production, but also you can tell from Jack White doing the acoustic cover that he did, it still feels like a broad, expansive sort of thing. That's a modern type of songwriting that I'm really drawn to, but it's also antithetical to the roots-music ideal. And after 'Death Wish' is over, I feel like, you've hung in there with me through this sort of experimental thing. Now I can give you something that is a little bit more comfortable for your palate, something you're a little more used to from me.” “King of Oklahoma” “I was out there filming in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. There was a project that I had been asked to be a part of with Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, and I think Mike Mills, and a couple of other people. For a minute there, I was like, ‘Well, if I can get home in time to record with you all, that sounds like a really fun time. So I will do that.’ But I was never home in time because they kept changing my filming schedule, so I just missed it. But I wrote that song thinking, ‘Well, maybe I need some songs for this; I don't know if this is going to work for them or not.’ Eventually I thought this should be just a song of my own.” “Strawberry Woman” “This one's probably the closest I come to nostalgia on this record, I think, because there are a lot of moments here that are things that Amanda [Shires, Isbell's wife and frequent collaborator] and I shared together early on in the relationship. There's an undercurrent of the beginning of a relationship when you really need each other in ways that, if everybody's progressing like they're supposed to, you might not wind up needing each other in the same way 10 years down the road. And there's loss in that. It's a beautiful thing to grow as a human being, and both of us have, I think a lot, but then all of a sudden, at the end of that, you start trying to figure out what you still have in common. Even though you might not have the codependent nature that the relationship had early on, it's still something worth doing and worth working on, worth fighting for. You have to adjust your expectations from each other.” “Middle of the Morning” “After the experience of Reunions, Amanda and I took a little bit of a break from doing that stuff together. For the most part, I just sat and worked on my own until I got all these done. ‘Middle of the Morning,’ I don't know if she likes that song or not, maybe she does. That one's very personal as far as the perspective goes. That was a tough one to write and a tough one to sing, because I know there's some assumptions in there, and there's this sort of feeling of living in under the same roof through the pandemic and feeling so disconnected from each other.” “Save the World” “It was right after the Uvalde school shooting, but I didn't know that that's what I was writing about when I started. When I started, I was writing about leaving my wallet behind, and then I was writing about a phone conversation, and then all of a sudden I was writing about a school shooting. Once I realized that's what I was writing about, I thought, 'Oh, shit. Now I've got to do this and handle it correctly.' It took a lot of work. I finished that song and played it for Amanda, and she was like, 'I think you should write this again. You're not saying what you want to say. And at this point, it doesn't have enough meat, doesn't have enough detail.' And I was like, 'Yeah, but that's going to be really fucking hard. How do you write about this without it seeming exploitative?' And so it took more than one stab.” “If You Insist” “This song is from the perspective of a woman, and I wrote it for a movie—I don't remember the name of the movie, and I wound up not using it for the movie. They had given me my own song ['Chaos and Clothes' off The Nashville Sound] as a reference, and so I wrote something very similar to that in feel. I just really liked the song, and whoever we were negotiating with for the situation with the movie, they didn't want us to own the master, but I said, 'Well, I'll just keep it.' And so we just kept it and I put it on the record.” “Cast Iron Skillet” “I think for a lot of songwriters that are writing whatever ‘Southern song’ or outlaw country they feel like they're writing is to go into this idea of, 'This is all the stuff that my granddad told me, and it's this down-home wisdom.' What I wanted to say was, 'There is an evil undercurrent to all these things that our granddads told us, and there is darkness in those woods.' I don't mean to sound like I'm better at it than anybody else. Sometimes people are aiming for a different target, but I get bored with songs that do the same thing over and over. I wanted to turn that on its head and say, 'Let's frame this with this nostalgic idea of our romanticized Southern childhoods—and then let's talk about a couple of things that really happened.'” “When We Were Close” “This is about a friendship between two musicians, and a lot of people ask me who it's about, but that's not the point. It's about me and a whole fucking bunch of people, but it's fairly specific. I had a friend who I made a lot of music with and spent a lot of time with, and we had a falling-out, and it never got right. It was so severe, and then he was gone, and that was the end of that. There was no closure. I remember when John Prine died, I was very sad, but I was also very grateful that the grief that I felt for John was not complicated. You don't have to be angry and you don't have to feel like there are things left unsaid or unresolved. This story was really the inverse of that, because it was like, yes, I am grateful for a lot of the things that we did together and that person showed me and a lot of the kindnesses, but at the same time, it was complicated. I have to be able to hold those two things in my head at the same time. You could call that the theme of this whole album, honestly.” “Volunteer” “The connection that I have to my home is complicated, because I am critical of the place where I grew up, and also, I'm very, very fortunate that I grew up there. But my heart breaks for small towns in Alabama, and those small Alabama towns are scattered all over America and all over the world. I go play music in a lot of them, and I feel welcome, but not entirely. I also feel like an interloper. This story is a narrative based on a character that is fictional, but it came from that idea of like the Steve Earle song, 'nothing brings you down like your hometown,' that same thing. It's like, why can't I really feel like I have a strong emotional connection to this place where I grew up? And also, why can't they get it together? The older I get, the more I think I feel comfortable discussing that and discussing the place.” “Vestavia Hills” “It started as me writing about somebody else, but the joke was on me. I got about halfway through the song and I was like, ‘I see what I'm doing. You asshole.’ Then I thought about, man, what would it be like to be an artist's crew member? Let's make our character the crew guy, the sound guy who has been doing this for a long time and really believes in the work and really cares about the artist, but he has had enough. Basically, this is him turning in his two-week notice and saying, 'I'm going to do one last tour with you, and then I'm going home, because my wife makes a lot of money. We have a nice house in a nice neighborhood and I don't have to put up with this shit anymore.'” “White Beretta” “At this song’s heart there's this regret, and it's not shame, because I love the concept of extracting helpful emotions from shame. I feel like shame is kind of to protect you from really looking at what actually happened. I can look back and say, 'Well, yeah, it wasn't all my fault, because I was raised a certain way to believe a certain set of things.' I didn't say, 'Don't do this.' I didn't say, 'I don't want you to terminate this pregnancy.' I was just kind of on the fence. But I was a teenager; I didn't know what to do, and I had been raised in a very conservative place, and there was a lot of conflicting emotions going on. A song like that is hard because you have to make an admission about yourself. You have to say, 'I haven't always been cool in this way.' I don't think you can give an example to people of growing if you don't give an example of what you're growing from.” “This Ain’t It” “This is sort of post-Southern-rock, because it sounds very Southern rock, but the dad in this song is somebody who would completely, unironically love the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The perspective is he's basically trying to sneak back into his daughter's life at a very inopportune time. It's another one of those where the advice might not be very good, but he certainly believes it, and it's coming from his heart. I've proven what I need to prove about my tastes and about serving the song, and sometimes the song just needs to have a bunch of guitar on it and rock, and maybe even some fucking congas.” “Miles” “I kept trying to shape it into something that was more like a four-minute Jason Isbell song, and then at one point I thought, ‘No. I think we could just play the way that I've written it here.’ I would have a verse on one page and then that refrain written out on a different page, and I had to go back through the notebook and figure out what belonged to that song. The approach was kind of like if Neil Young was fronting Wings. It was like a McCartney song where it's got all these different segments and then it comes back around on itself at the end, but also sort of with Neil's guitar and backbeat. It felt like I had a little bit of a breakthrough in what I would allow myself to do, because I've always loved songs like this, and I've always sort of thought, 'Well, you need to stop.' When Lennon was out of the picture, McCartney was making 'Band on the Run' and all this stuff. It's just one big crazy song all tied together with little threads.”

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