Students Join Jason Isbell Recording Session with Dave Cobb
The last time acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and highly sought-after producer Dave Cobb made an album together—last year’s Something More Than Free—the result was three Grammys between the two of them. Cobb also won a Grammy for producing Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, and last Friday, his latest project was released: a much-anticipated compilation album, Southern Family. So now that Isbell and Cobb have reunited to lay down new songs, the hottest ticket in Nashville wasn’t a ticket at all, but rather, an invitation extended to Berklee students to attend what would normally be a closed recording session.
The students—in town for the college’s annual spring break trip to Nashville to learn about the music industry in Music City, U.S.A.—encircled the musicians and engineers in the historic RCA Studio A, which was host to Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings, among others. They watched as Cobb produced the track of the day—a rollicking rock tune from Isbell—from the floor with the musicians, rather than from behind the glass at the console. In between takes, Cobb, Isbell, and the rest of the studio musicians and crew took time to answer students’ questions.
Watch a lyric video for Isbell's "24 Frames," produced by Cobb:
“Every time I go into the studio, I learn something from somebody else,” Cobb said with an easygoing smile and a humility that may help explain how he is able to make artists feel comfortable enough to turn in some of their best performances. “I learn a lot of new tricks from veteran players.”
“What did you learn today?” asked Pat Pattison, Berklee songwriting professor and leader of the annual Nashville trip for the past 31 years.
“Well, I learned how to make a track in front of 122 students,” Cobb said, drawing chuckles all around in Studio A.
The day before the session, Isbell stopped by Warner Music Nashville to deliver a two-hour clinic to the Berklee students in Nashville. In a wide-ranging discussion, Isbell freely shared stories of his childhood and youth growing up near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, his struggle with alcoholism and path to sobriety, and, of course, songwriting tips.
On the latter, Isbell emphasized the importance of embracing vulnerability. “It’s terrifying every time you do it, but that’s being brave,” he said. “It’s hard to do.”
If one can overcome that fear, however, Isbell said, the audience will feel, “‘Okay, they’re really giving me something here.’”
That was also the feeling among students sitting in on Isbell’s session, such as Sebastian Zimmermann, a software industry veteran who left a lucrative but ultimately unsatisfying career after studying with Berklee Online. Zimmermann is now attending Berklee’s Boston campus, where he is pursuing a dual major in music production and engineering and electronic production and design, and the trip to Nashville opened his eyes to possibilities he hopes to turn into personal realities.
“It’s just really cool to be where, one day, I hope I will be,” Zimmermann said, his eyes scanning the historic walls of RCA Studio A with a look of hopeful wonder.