Interview: Gregory Alan Isakov ahead of Belfast & Dublin

Singer-song writer Gregory Alan Isakov was in Belfast last December when I spoke with him in a room, within a warren of rooms, way back stage at the Waterfront Hall.

He had been supporting Passenger on a European tour for the previous two and half months, and this support slot was a solo run without his band; without his violinist, or his cellist, or his drummer, or his bass player, or his ghost orchestra. When he was on stage that night in Belfast it was just him and his guitar.

Isakov writes a certain type of other-world into his songs. There’s the music that paints the distance and the depth. There’s the pacifying, straight-talking voice, and there are the words that add the detail, the flesh and the blood, paper and stone.

Last year he released his sixth album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, a collection of songs from his previous albums performed with the band and the orchestra; adding a wider lens, a larger canvas to frame the songs.

That initial idea of going solo as support for Passenger had been pretty scary he told me. Conversely, the idea of being relentlessly on the move, travelling from different cities, to different countries, day-in, day-out, not so much it seems. But that makes sense because Isakov is a traveller, a voyager, from a long line of voyagers.

My great grandfather was Lithuanian but I’m from South Africa” he told me when I asked where his name came from. “I think during World War II they were clearing out all the Jewish people. Everyone got word that armies were coming and my grandfather hid on a boat when he was 19. He didn’t know where he was going and he ended up in Cape Town,” he continued, absolutely matter of factly. “Then he got a job and made some money and brought his family over.”

The story doesn’t stop there. The gathering of time and place that Isakov writes into his songs seems to stream from a family line of footprints through history. “I was such a small kid when my parents moved from South Africa to America” he explained. I asked did Apartheid have anything to do with why they left. “It has everything to do with it.” The answer was accompanied by an explanatory nod, nothing more to be said.

Isakov was five and a half years old when he landed in the States. “The only thing I knew about America was the Wizard of Oz and tornadoes” he was laughing, “I remember I was scared of tornadoes.” Seems the die for his song writing was cast at an early age; the sense of the ever-shifting, the parallels of fiction and its ability to mirror fact. Is there no place like home for the constant traveller?

Gregory Alan Isakov has made a point of making a place like home. He now lives and works on Starling Farm in Boulder, Colorado. His passion for horticulture and working on the land has been the other side to the songwriter. “You have to work or your hands go soft” he told me, but there is more to it of course. “It’s a huge milestone for me to own my own land because I’ve only ever gardened other people’s property. I found a piece of land [around four acres] and rented out some of the houses. I built a little spot in the barn for me and that’s great because it’s cheaper than it was in town … there are three artists, a fair few of my bandmates, and, you know, the usual riff-raff that come along … “We have sheep, chickens, a few bee hives ….” and they harvest the heirloom seeds that they grow on the farm, in order to keep the strain alive.

He has supported heirloom seeds and other sustainable farming projects in other ways in the past. A few years before he had permitted his song “Big Black Car to be used in a McDonalds advertisement, consequently donating most of the money to projects close to his heart. “It was tricky” he explained. “I’m not a very political person. I’ve never been able to eat McDonald’s because I’m vegetarian and plus it’s a terrible industry you know all of it … all of it.”

When he was made the offer and told it was for McDonalds he “was like yeah but I’m an organic farmer, it probably isn’t the right fit. Then they said we can give you $40,000 or whatever it was. Meanwhile I’m having like bake sales to pay for gas.” It still didn’t feel right but a discussion with bandmates came up with the idea of going ahead with the ad and giving most of the money away.

They knew it wasn’t going to look good. “We were expecting some bad comments, and we got them – about hipsters selling out. I just kind of avoided the internet for three months or so … I think in life you’ve just got to figure out ways to say yes to shit and make the best choice … It felt awesome. I’ve never been able to do anything like that.”

As we talked about the two distinct sides to his life he picked up his guitar and started to sing one of his songs to illustrate his point. “Sometimes when you’re writing a song it doesn’t want to finish itself. I have a song called “Dandelion Wine” off one of my earlier records [This Empty Northern Hemisphere], and I have this first line,” and he started singing.

Summer days were just a magazine, a magazine
a magazine….

Cutting grass for gasoline, for gasoline
so I can see ya soon…

Then he stopped. “It was just empty, and every time I went back to the song it was the same for months. Then one day the rest of the song happened. I don’t know if it’s because I needed it to sit for so long, but writing for me is a kind of sacred space. I don’t want to sound too precious about it. I don’t like to force stuff, I like to wait until it’s ready because you can beat a song to death and not want to hear it again. For me I think my biggest ally in writing songs is space. Places where I can take words out, or hold a note out for a little bit too long. Just that play of space in music, that can be my kind of go to place.

Needless to say, song writing is important to him, and he has a work ethic to match the importance of his craft. “I write a lot; I write everyday … you kind of have to have that punching in mentality. When I was growing up I thought, ‘so I’m just going to wait until I’m inspired,’ and then you don’t to do anything.” It’s a work ethic that was espoused by one of his major influences, Leonard Cohen, who had passed not long before our interview. “His death, it’s affected me more …” he paused, searching for words. “More than some people that I had known when they passed on. And I didn’t know him, I never met him. Yeah I stared out the window for two days.”

I’ve never felt like I’m at the folk table or passing on a lineage of any kind” he was keen to point out as we discussed how little he cares about genres. “I definitely draw from those routes sonically and instrumentally, I like acoustic instruments, but I like electric instruments too. I use a lot of electric on records; it’s kind of like the atmospheric stuff.” He plays a lot of instruments. “On The Weatherman I played pretty much everything – drums, keys, guitar, banjo. I’m master of none” he shrugged.

The idea for his latest album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, came from a ritual he performs with his manager every year. “She’s kind of a hippy and every year we write down what we want to do and bury it in the garden. It was just one of those things that we wrote down and thought would be so cool.” Within six months they were working with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

I thought this is such a special show, let’s record it and release it as a live record. Originally there was an audience so we recorded the whole show it was amazing. We filled up this hall and I felt like I was in this ocean of sound. It was beautiful. We recorded the rehearsal as well, I really loved the rehearsals, they just had the space in them, you could feel the space in the room. The show was a sold out house, and it was like it had the cool factor, but it just didn’t make me feel as much as the rehearsal. So I went back to listen to the rehearsal tapes but they were unusable fidelity-wise. They were just sort of like a quick snapshot. So we contacted the orchestra and asked them if they wanted to repeat it all in front of nobody, and they did. We recorded it again, and then we ended up touring the scores to 16 other symphonies across the country. Yeah! We played them with all of those different orchestras – the Portland Orchestra, the Seattle Orchestra, the National Symphony DC, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta …”

Of the 16 songs on the album, only one has never been pre-released. “Liars” is a song that Isakov had tried to record before but it hadn’t worked. “I’ve tried to record that so many times and it just never fit on the record for some reason.” Written by Ron Scott, it is a dark, at times foreboding song that gradually builds into an orchestral drama. The others on the album have their own original versions featured on previous albums.

At the end of last year he was talking about his next album. “It is mostly written, and mostly recorded,” and will be released on his own label, Suitcase Town Music. “We haven’t put anyone else’s records on the label just mine. We run it out of my barn. I’m proud of our little label I’m glad we went that route. We were inspired by the Ani DiFranco way of doing things. I think by the time that I started to get any label interest I’d already started doing it on my own two feet. I can remember having a meeting in LA with a fancy label and I remember thinking that if I signed this, then I couldn’t pay my band. Yeah, it feels good to be doing your own thing.”

Gregory Alan Isakov plays Voodoo Belfast this Friday 31st March, and the Green Room at The Academy in Dublin on 1st April, with support from Leif Vollebekk at both gigs.