Q&A: Gregory Alan Isakov Gets Universally Personal

Colorado’s quintessential singer-songwriter gets universally personal in and about his music. Here he talks about his latest album, its home-state inspirations, and the organic growth of both his Boulder farm and musical career.

Boulder-based folk musician Gregory Alan Isakov has been crafting his warm sepia songs since 2003, in between summer seasons spent as a working full-time farmer outside of Boulder. Rolling Stone once dubbed him “Best Subtle Storm,” and his latest album, Evening Machines on the formidable Dualtone Records, is getting worldwide notice.

In between an extensive European tour and two sold-out Colorado Springs shows at Stargazers Theatre, Feb. 7-8, we caught up with Isakov about his creative approach to songwriting, how he knows when an album is done, and his way of channeling Colorado into such moving, “universally personal” soundscapes.

Springs: All of your albums feel like Colorado love songs in some way to me, but did Colorado serve as inspiration for Evening Machines in any new ways from previous albums?

Gregory Alan Isakov: I think probably more so than other records, I wrote a lot of the songs in Colorado. I write a lot at home, but I write a lot on the road too. I found that because I’ve been farming full-time, during the main part of the season I would have to leave The Farm to get anything done creatively. When I needed to get away from The Farm, the first place I would go is the Sand Dunes [Great Sand Dunes National Park]. There’s no one there, and I can sleep in my van, and I just kind of knowit by now over the years. I feel like a lot of the Colorado landscapes made it into the songs — and I never set out to do that. The whole songwriting process for me is really ineffable, and I don’t understand it, but I know that Colorado definitely does make it in there.

You’ve talked about writing songs that can be “universally personal.” Can you tell me more about what that means in your music?

I think about it a lot — are we all experiencing this the same, you know? We are connected by these experiences of hope and grief and joy, but I guess in some ways it all goes back to that question of “Well, what does green look like to you?” I know that we all experience things so differently, but there are these really human experiences that I can only see if I’m tapping into it through an emotive sense, and I think that’s why music is so powerful. I think for me, if a song can work on me that way, especially in the beginning of the process — before I’ve, like, changed the tempo, and changed the oil, and recorded it three different times, and been like “Oh, I think it needs to be in E-flat,” and at that point you don’t even knowanymore. That’s really regular for me, like, I’ll get where I won’t know, but I think I have to trust that initial spark.

You talk about the songs on Evening Machines being born out of a chaotic, anxiety-filled series of months touring in Europe. Did you write any of the songs while on the road? Is that a typical thing that you can be creative while on the road touring?

Usually my process is that a lot of writing happens when I become quiet, and stop moving around, but I always have a little recipe in my back pocket, something I’m working on, messing around with a certain place or a town in the back of my mind. So with a lot of those songs, those scraps, when I come home I can piece everything together.

Of all the dozen of songs that you wrote that didn’t make it onto Evening Machines, are they buried in a music graveyard, or do you think they may yet see the light of day? Do you perform any of them live?

I do play some of those songs out, but for me, it was clear this particular group of songs that made it on the album wanted to live together — they really made sense as a record. I’m sure you can relate to this because you’re a fan of records, but I don’t know how to make something that doesn’t feel complete to me, as a record, with a beginning and an end. Full albums are so important to me. And it’s not that I have any judgment on anyone who listens differently to music — that is such a personal thing — but for me, I love just putting on a record and listening to the whole thing. I don’t ever skip around, I don’t pull up a song from somewhere else — that just isn’t part of my life. So that was the main intention behind the album for me, and some of those songs, however proud of them I am, just didn’t seem to live with the other ones. But of those, I found another batch of songs that work together, and I’m going to be finishing that project soon.

You just sold out one Stargazers show coming up in February and added a second night. What’s been your overall arc or trajectory of playing in the Springs? Has it taken longer to break into our town that some of the other Colorado locales? [Note: The second Stargazers show has since sold out.]

I think Colorado Springs is actually an amazing music town, and I would love to play it so much more than I have, if I could. I feel like the crowds are always great. For us, they always feel like really good shows. I remember playing Ivywild down there, after the Chapel Session [in 2015], with Nathaniel [Rateliff], and that was such a good show.

gregory alan isakov in field
Gregory Alan Isakov, photo by Rebecca Caridad

Speaking of your Chapel Session, I was just noticing that we’ve now surpassed 3.2 million streams on YouTube of [your cover of Iron & Wine’s] “The Trapeze Swinger!” That’s crazy. [Editor’s note: Recorded in Colorado College’s Shove Chapel, the Chapel Sessions were hosted by writer Heather Powell Browne and her Fuel/Friends blog.]

That’s cool. I didn’t even know that either! I’ll still be in, like, Belgium or something and someone will yell, “Play that trapeze song!” And I’m like, “How do you know about that?” [laughs]

It’s funny because I got a tour with Iron & Wine right after we did that session, and I felt like I was a little bit shy, like “Oh s—, I covered one of your songs, and I didn’t even think about that you’re an actual person running around playing this song, you know?” And how bizarre that felt. I think Sam [Beam, of Iron & Wine] is probably the same, or even less internet-ty than me, and he may have never even heard my version of it. Maybe thankfully. I just think that it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever.

So, what are you planning to plant on The Farm this summer? Do you do all the labor yourself?

I’ve been getting into this mini-gem romaine called sucrine, hakurei turnip, red stem, arugula, carrot, beets. … I’m going to be doing tomatoes in a greenhouse this summer, also a lot of fennel and basil. Most of the work, it’s just me, and then I hire a person in the busy part of the season for maybe two days a week, for washing and packing, and that’s really it. I have irrigation set up, so I pay a lot of attention to if there is water in the ditch during that time of the week if I need to get out of town in the summers.

In some ways, I’ve known you as this unlikely hero who was never looking for huge followings but seems to be gathering them wherever you go. How do you balance going from handmade albums to a powerhouse label and bigger venues? Is it a surprise to you after 10 years of these slow-growing, rooted efforts?

You know, it’s always felt really good, the whole time it’s been growing. I always feel like I have the slowest-growing musical career of anyone I’ve ever met, you know? [laughs] But I think the beginning was slow-growing, and the middle as well, and now as well too, you know?

For instance, we played a show in Portland [Oregon] with the symphony, and it sold out. And my local friends were all there, and they were like, “Congratulations for selling out the Schnitz [Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall], that’s amazing!” And I was absolutely like, “Thanks for saying that! It is so cool.” But then I started counting, and it was, like, my 18th show in Portland, and every time I come back, maybe there’s, like, four more people. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but it has that slow feeling to it, which I really do like, and I feel like I’m so lucky because it has been growing in a way I can do it, and keep doing it.

Catch Gregory Alan Isakov Live

If you missed tickets for Gregory Alan Isakov in February at Stargazers, start planning for these upcoming Colorado shows:

June 20-23 at Telluride Bluegrass

Aug. 4 at Red Rocks Amphitheater

Heather Powell Brownehttp://fuelfriendsblog.com
The writer of the nationally-acclaimed Fuel/Friends music blog for the last decade, Heather Powell Browne curates the acoustic, downloadable Chapel Sessions and helped launch Ivywild Music. When she’s not writing, she enjoys warbling harmonies in friends’ bands, playing drums in her basement and coordinating international educational adventures for students at Colorado College.

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