If “Blood Sweat and Tears” wasn’t already taken, the name might be perfect for Andrew Isbell’s debut album, July.
It wasn’t easy putting a first album together. And a few tears were shed when Isbell, whose stage name is “Estes,” suddenly left his last group, The Band CAMINO.
“It definitely was hard to write because I had never filled that role before,” says Isbell, 21. “What also was difficult was overcoming everything I had to process — leaving the band and being on my own.”
A native Memphian, Isbell studied classical piano and classical percussion before picking up guitar on his own.
Then came drums. He and Graham Rowell, who later became CAMINO’s bass player, were in a group called Soundscape when they were at Briarcrest Christian School, where Isbell’s dad was band director. “He had this little ‘commercial music ensemble’ — is what they called it — and I played drum set in that and I just loved that way more than anything I had done previously.”
He and CAMINO lead singer Jeffrey Jordan met at one of Jordan’s concerts before Isbell graduated from high school. “Jeffrey wanted to form a band for the summer just to play his solo music and he called me ‘cause he wanted somebody new and fresh. And I was really looking for an opportunity.”
For two years, Isbell played drums in CAMINO, which also includes Spencer Stewart on keys, guitar, and vocals. “I loved a lot of things about it. Musically, it was a lot of fun. The chemistry between us four was uncommon. At least in my eyes. And we wrote music really quickly. Jeffrey is a fantastic writer and that allowed me to just add to his writing with what I could do on drums.”
And, Isbell said, “We had a unique sound and I think there was a lot of energy because we were all so young.”
Isbell left the group when CAMINO was on the rise. “It wasn’t a negative thing for me to leave. I just thought it was the decision that I needed to make for me personally. We all cried. We weren’t so pissed as we were sad. ‘Cause they didn’t see it coming.”
And, he said, “Obviously, the friendship took a hit.”
Isbell bought a cheap keyboard. “I went home and I made a full cover of this hymn that I absolutely love: ‘Come Thou Fount.’ I remember showing my friends and I was like, ‘This is really cool, isn’t it?’ And they were all really into it.”
Isbell particularly likes the last verse: “‘Prone to wander, Lord. I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.”
“It’s a very helpless song. Admitting that you don’t really have everything together and knowing that the person who’s caring for you knows that just as well as you do.”
Isbell began writing new material. “I’d never had creativity like that before, ‘cause I’m just not really a songwriter. But all of a sudden I could do it. And I had this journal and I was writing all the time.”
He began to formulate an album. And he came up with a stage name for himself — “Estes.” “I got it out of Estes Park, Colo., this city that I really love. When I was in high school I had gone there for a camp through my church. And it was very coming out of my shell, personally. Where I just felt I could actually do what I wanted and not rely on other people and what they wanted. I could do my own thing.”
He entered a selfie competition when he was at that camp. He got two friends to hold his legs while he leaned off Eagle Cliff to take the photo.. “They leaned one way so that I could lean the other way and my weight wouldn’t pull me down. That was the dumbest thing we’ve ever done.”
Isbell didn’t win the contest. “Some guy found a marmot and he posed with that. I was pretty upset. He didn’t risk his life for it.”
Isbell wrote most of the songs for July by the end of the summer after he left CAMINO. “If they weren’t directly about the subject of me leaving the band, they were about the struggle of me figuring out what to do next. I had no idea what I was doing and where to go. So, all the songs are basically just me trying to figure it out.”
He recorded his songs at the studio of University of Memphis music business professor Ben Yonas. “I had some friends come and play a couple of things, but for the most part I was recording like the drum track and then I would go play drums. Then I would come back and play piano. Just circle around playing everything and singing it.”
His friend Daniel Waterbury, who Isbell performs with in a worship band called MoveLove, helped out on some songs. “He’s like on call for just about everybody.”
The album begins with Isbell’s song, “Walking Out” and ends with “Come Thou Fount.”
The music is “pretty rocking” but at the same time it’s “very gentle music. I was listening to a lot of folk music at the time.”
He completed the record around Christmas of 2017. “During this whole time I hadn’t said a single thing online about what I was doing. I just kept it all to myself.”
Some people asked him what he was doing. “I would tell them that I was working on a solo project. That’s sort of all that I would give them. So many people thought I had just dropped off the face of the planet, ‘cause I kind of receded into my shell and hung with maybe four people and didn’t talk to many people. And I had a blast. I kind of liked doing that. It’s easier for me to do that than to be social.”
Toward the beginning of January, Isbell made an announcement online. “I put up on Instagram that I was doing something new and I tagged the page. I had like 300 followers within the week and I got offered four shows immediately by people who had never heard any of this. They just liked me and they were like, ‘Come play at this fraternity.’ ‘Come play this show.’”
He played his first show — a house show — on January 19th, with his band, which includes Waterbury on guitar, Kyle Neblett on drums, and Neblett’s brother, Harrison, on bass. “I put up online ticket sales and I charged $15. I was kind of going for it. (It’s) a high price. Somebody donated a sound system. The band was all playing for free. Somebody donated lights. (The host’s wife) and my mom made a ton of food so we had appetizers for everybody. It was BYOB. And I made a gift bag for everybody to leave the house with. It was a piece of candy and a handwritten thank you note for buying a ticket.”
Wearing jeans, boots and a black shirt, Isbell was “terrified” on stage. “I’m a drummer for sure. And that is where I’m comfortable. That is my sandbox and I can live there all day. So, being in the front of a stage is not my strong suit. Especially not at that point. And so I was shaking.”
His audience “got a first taste of everything.”
And, Isbell says, “Everybody loved it.”
Isbell’s next gig was at a Christian fraternity party in Fayetteville. “This time I had 400 people singing with me and it was beautiful.”
He was invited to a party after he and his band played a show in March. He knew Jordan, who he hadn’t seen or talked to since he left CAMINO, was going to be there. “I walked in. He was sitting by himself in the living room. He got up and he ran and picked me up and he runs around the house with me on his shoulders. And we took off. We took a huge walk around his block just catching up.”
They now send each other their songs to critique.
Isbell released “Windshield,” his first single from the album, on June 1st. “People loved it.”
Isbell now is stronger than he ever was. “I feel more myself than I have in a while. I think that was part of it. In the place I was, I couldn’t grow where I wanted to. I feel like I’ve grown a lot in a bunch of ways, personally. It doesn’t even have anything to do with music. But it’s just like my brain and my heart. I just feel like a new person in a lot of ways.”
Estes album release party with The Wldlfe and Scottie Spiegelman at 8 p.m..July 6 at The Hi Tone. Tickets: $10.