Get to know Gregory Alan Isakov
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov is a giant in the worlds of indie-rock and folk. He’s toured across the planet and played with several national symphony orchestras.
Isakov released his first four full-length studio albums through his independent record label, Suitcase Town Music; his fifth and most recent album, “Evening Machines,” has been nominated for a Grammy award for Best Folk Album.
Isakov’s tour season typically runs autumn through winter, built around the needs of his small Boulder County organic farm.
Isakov will be playing in Steamboat Springs at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at Strings Music Pavilion. The event is sold out.
Explore Steamboat gave Isakov a call to hear more about his inspirations, his music and his farming life.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Explore Steamboat: What’s your earliest musical memory?
Gregory Alan Isakov: I remember listening to this single record — I had one of those Fisher Price record players — and my parents had gotten the “We Are the World” single by Michael Jackson, and I just listened to that over and over and over. All my favorite musicians are on that song: Bruce Springstein, (Bob) Dylan.
ES: As a child, you lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, then Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What did you learn from each city’s music scene?
GAI: I grew up with African music in the house, so I was influenced a little bit, but I think I was like a parents’ basement musician most of my childhood, with no audience, and not a lot of influence, really. My brothers and I would play music together, and I had band throughout middle school and high school — I was really into metal. Most of the songs I would write were similar to the ones I write now, but I didn’t think they were very cool, so I kept them to myself.
ES: What was the transition like between being a singer-songwriter who kept most material to yourself to being one who was performing and sharing your music?
GAI: At first, I’d play in coffee shops and stuff. I thought, “This is good; this is probably important for me to do.” I remember being conflicted, like, “is it insane that I think people should hear this?” It scared the s*** out of me. But there was something about sharing it that raised the bar for me, and really made me dive deeper into it. I still feel that way.
ES: When you’re putting a new piece of music together, you’ve said your writing process is mysterious, with the music coming from an unknown place. So I’m curious to hear not about the technical part of your process but the emotional part — what it feels like when you’re coming up with something new.
GAI: The relationship I have to that other world, I guess, is really — it’s a time-consuming relationship, to spend time in another world. I was thinking about this song today: “All Shades of Blue,” an old song. There’s a line that doesn’t make a lot of sense — “turned the scrub oaks to timber and you’re left without friends” — but from this world where I write from, it really did. I’ll wait for a while, in this world, for that line to come, for that scrub oaks line to come. It’s a very intense relationship, and it takes a lot of time, just like any relationship does, so it’s a difficult thing to put on hold and then come back to.
Emotionally, it feels — I think that’s the main compass for me — if it’s emotive, if it makes me feel something, then that’s a start. If it makes me feel something, then maybe it will make someone else feel something. That’s kind of my only gauge.
What: Gregory Alan Isakov
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
Where: String Music Pavilion, 900 Strings Road
Event is sold out
ES: I’ve heard that you do a lot of your writing/recording at night. Is that mostly due to practicality, or are there elements of nighttime that you find inspiring?
GAI: The road by the recording studio is kind of busy, so I wait til that for mellow out to record. Writing kind of happens all over the place; I write a little bit every day, always working on something in the background.
ES: Did I hear correctly that you also write short stories and poems? What are you working on currently?
GAI: Yeah! Mostly poetry. I’m working on a movie script with my little brother, back and forth in a Dropbox document. I usually fill out a postcard worth of poems a day, that amount of space — that’s my practice. I like to write more than that, but at least that.
The other day, after a show, I was talking to some high school kids, and they were saying things like, “We love your lyrics,” and I was telling them, “Thanks a lot, but I throw away a lot more than I keep.” No one shows you the trash pile.
ES: You’ve collaborated with a huge range of other musicians — from your brother to the Colorado Symphony. What’s that process like?
GAI: I think writing songs with another person is such an amazing thing. I discovered that really late in my writing journey — it’s such a private thing, and it’s hard to do that with someone else. But I’ve had so much fun writing with my friends because it brings something so different — they write from such a different place that I do — they use such a different language.
ES: Is there anything you wish more people knew about the importance of supporting small, local farms?
GAI: I had no idea what food even tasted like before I started farming. I didn’t grow up wealthy; we didn’t have an organic food culture when I was growing up. When I had my first garden, it was like, “S***, I’ve never tasted this!”
ES: When you’re playing a show in a city or town you’re not familiar with, how do you like to explore that place?
GAI: I like to shoot photographs a lot. I was in Dubai (a few weeks ago); and I had a really good time walking around Detroit. I’ll wake up early in the morning and go wander around, and you find all these amazing things on the way.
Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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