Gregory Alan Isakov

Interview: Gregory Alan Isakov


Gregory Alan Isakov photo by Shana Leigh

Gregory Alan Isakov is as Colorado as Colorado gets. The South African-by-way-of-Philadelphia singer-songwriter now lives in Boulder County, where he runs a farm and makes music that reflects the beauty and the mood of his adopted home. His sixth album, Appaloosa Bones, comes out on August 18. I spoke to Isakov while he was on tour, three days before the release of Appaloosa Bones. We talked about writing and recording during a pandemic, translating that new music from farm to stage, and what cassette seems forever stuck in his truck’s tape deck.

Americana Highways: It looks like you’re doing a sweep through Western Canada right now, Calgary tonight. How’s the tour going so far?

Gregory Alan Isakov: It’s been amazing so far. We’ve been doing a couple festivals, which we don’t do often, but they’ve been great.

AH: Are you playing some of the new stuff on the road?

GAI: We are. We just started last night playing some new songs. We were in Saskatoon. It’s been great.

AH: Which of the new ones seem to be working out the best so far? What are some of your favorites live?

GAI: When I make records, it’s funny, I make them mostly alone, pretty sparse instrumentation. But with the band, we kind of rethink a lot of stuff live, even just songs from old records that we play sound quite a bit different now. So we’ve been kind of writing new arrangements for some things.

AH: This is your first album since 2018 [Evening Machines]. I’m imagining you worked on quite a bit of it during the pandemic.

GAI: Yeah, I think that’s when I was working pretty hard with Andrew [co-producer Andrew Berlin] during the pandemic, and even quite a bit before that. But it landed kind of in that zone.

AH: How do you think that affected the album?

GAI: There were definitely some songs that made it that were really written during that time. I just had a lot more time. I noticed that when everything kind of shut down, everything slowed down for me, I’m sure, like everybody. It gave me a good opportunity to sort of evaluate some songs that just hadn’t seen the light of day for a long time, stuff that I’d written a long time ago, even made it. It was a great…I feel kinda weird saying this, but it was a wonderful time!

AH: I think a lot of people felt that because, like you say, we all had chances to slow down. Some people learned how to bake bread or whatever little hobby they always wanted to do. But a lot of musicians I’ve talked to feel like it helped them to get off the road, get back to writing, and maybe they got more ideas than they normally would. Is that kind of what happened with you?

GAI: Yeah, it was a very affirming time, because I make records slowly in general. I think a normal period of time for me is this period of time, between four and five years between records. And I’m working on them the whole time, but it’s nice to be validated in taking a step away and then coming back and making sure a piece of music is going to live for a little while. And it’s not something that you just walk out of the studio feeling like, “Oh, this is amazing” because it’s new and it’s exciting. But this is actually going to be useful for people. So it’s always nice…that feeling’s really great and validating. And I hope I take that with me. I think I am taking that with me – that feeling.

AH: Do you feel like maybe you spent more time crafting the songs, working on little bits and pieces of everything more than you would for a normal record?

GAI: I do tend to spend time on one line of a song for months. For this record, I think I recorded over 30 songs, which is kind of a normal amount for me, and then sort of waiting for a record to present itself. And some of the songs that I recorded, I actually absolutely loved – it just didn’t fit this kind of landscape in this record that I was going for, you know?

AH: So is that something that we might see sooner than four, five years?

GAI: Yeah, maybe so! Totally, yeah. You know, I have this section of my studio, just songs that are…I call ‘em the Parts Yard. It’s just songs that, for some reason, even though maybe they’re finished, or I thought they were finished, I would come back to them after a month or two and realize that there’s something that isn’t working, and I don’t know what it is. And so it’s a nice way to just step away. And a few of the songs on this record came from that area. Just songs that I’ve had for 15 years that, for some reason, weren’t working before, but then, with a new set of eyes on them, finished themselves pretty quickly.

AH: I’m noticing a lot of your songs have some pretty vivid imagery, but also leave space for listeners to fill in their own details. When I was listening to “Sweet Heat Lightning,” that happened to me.

GAI: Cool!

AH: Is that kind of intentional, something you hoped for?

GAI: Yeah, I mean, that’s my main kind of intention with songs. For me, my favorite records are records that I feel like are mine now. Like, they don’t belong to the artist anymore, they’re mine – they’re part of my day. They make me feel…at home? I think, right now, the same record has been on for the past few months! But that’s the dream for me, to make a record like that for someone else. And I think that’s a lot of us, our dream, is to make a record that you feel is going to be useful, you know? There’s so many useful records, whether you’re super into two-step dancing – I love two-step! – or just certain records, like Hank’s records, or something that are just great for that. And that’s not really what I do, but there is a utilitarian aspect to it, with making records.

AH: So, tell me a little bit about Starling Farm, your “other” career, so to speak.

GAI: So I’ve been on this particular farm, it’s my ninth season. I work with three other people, and we run almost 100 CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] member market farms, and we do a few chefs as well, Boulder and Denver chefs. Things have been going great, actually. It’s funny – I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’m starting to feel like things are getting more efficient, but I’m also feeling very similarly, musically, like I don’t know anything! Like, everytime I start, again, a new season, I’m like, “I know nothing!” It’s amazing. But it’s fun – it’s getting fun, really fun.

AH: It’s kinda like, the more you learn, the more you realize that you need to learn.

GAI: Totally, yeah. And everything I thought very fundamentally about before I’ve realized holds NO merit – at all! And I feel that way with songwriting, too. I know this is my sixth record, and I don’t feel like it’s an evolutionary process, where it’s like, “I’ve made so many records – I’m so good at this now!” I feel like, every time, I’ve never written a song, I don’t even know how this works. And I think it’s one of my favorite things about it, actually.

AH: So, if you absolutely had to choose one, would it be farming, or would it be music?

GAI: It’s funny – people are always surprised that I’m a grower AND a musician. To me, we’re just capable of so many things. I remember, in school, there was all this pressure, and we all felt it – “What are you going to do? What’s your major?” And all these kids are freaking out about it. And, really, we want to do so many things. For me, I’ve always had this weird obsession with soil, this weird love affair with soil, microbiology, stuff like that. And I don’t know why I’m just obsessed with it, but music was just sort of something I just did after dinner. It was part of my day, but I NEVER thought I would be doing this FOR REAL, you know? In front of all these people, and putting out records people are actually going to hear. It’s just, it’s MIND BLOWING. I guess, to answer your question, I’d probably do even more if I could. I think we are all so capable of loving so many things, and being good…TRYING to be good at so many things. And, for me, the music thing – I always just had crippling anxiety about playing live. I’ve always loved writing songs, but it was so against my nature to get up in front of people and play them, and I would go through this major, crippling anxiety about it. And I thought, “I should probably do this…more.” I just had this feeling that, if I can get through this, there might be something magical on the other side of it. And I think that’s what first drew me into doing the playing in front of people and kind of pursuing it more. And I thought it know, I’ve played thousands of shows now, and I thought it would get easier, and it has in a way, but that anxiety’s never really gone away. It’s sort of just, I’m cool with it now? Like, I’m cool with being uncomfortable, and it’s been MORE magic than I’ve ever experienced. It’s been amazing.

AH: Do you feel like your music would be different if you lived somewhere other than Colorado?

GAI: It’s funny – I remember when I first went on tour to LA, and I was playing all these songs that I’d written in Lyons, where I used to live in Colorado, and the songs didn’t make sense to me over there. I remember that feeling where I was, “Oh, these kinda sound weird at the beach” – I guess maybe with palm trees and stuff. I remember actually feeling that way at one point – I haven’t thought about that in a long time. But I’m sure they would be. Landscape makes it into my writing quite a bit, and almost this world that, as artists, we sort of draw from, I think everyone has their own kind of world that they draw from, and for me, there’s a lot of character in nature – it’s a giant character in this kind of world that the songs come from.

AH: I like to listen to your music while I’m driving around in the mountains, and I saw that you drive around in your ‘86 Toyota pickup listening. What do you listen to while you’re driving around?

GAI: Oh my gosh, so, I only have a tape player, and I only have a couple tapes that still work really well. And one of them is [Bruce Springsteen’s] The Ghost of Tom Joad – I love that record so much. It’s one of my favorite records, and it’s funny because, nowadays, I don’t even think…I have no judgment on how anyone digests music, because it’s so personal, and it’s so holy to everybody. But for me, whether people listen to singles on Spotify or playlists – I feel like that record would not be on Spotify, it wouldn’t “playlist” – there’s not a single from it or anything, Just as a whole record, you feel like you’re in this other world, from the beginning of it to the end of it, and it’s my favorite thing. So I listen to that probably too much – I love that record.

AH: Is there anything current you’re listening to, either Colorado artists or anyone – new stuff that you’re into?

GAI: There’s so much great music coming out right now. It’s incredible – I almost can’t keep up with it. My friend Jeremiah [Fraites] put out a record last year, and it’s just a piano record, called Piano Piano. We listen to it a lot while we’re in the wash station – it’s our wash station music, when we’re at the farm, and we just wash and pack and stuff to that record all the time. It’s beautiful. He’s the piano player and drummer in The Lumineers. He’s actually opening our Red Rocks show, doing that music – I’m so in love with that record. My friend Leif Vollebekk has a great record that I love. We’ve been good friends for a long time. He actually played piano on my record – I love his music so much. I just got Anais Mitchell’s new album in the mail the other day, and I love that. I’ve been listening to some Sierra Ferrell – she’s great. My scope – I feel like I’m living in a cave, and I’m not really hip to what’s happening too much. My girlfriend’s always like, “Maybe it’s time to change that Townes Van Zandt record. It’s been on for four months.”

AH: But why would you do that?

GAI: Yeah, exactly. Maybe I’ll flip the side.

AH: Anything else you’d like to tell people about Appaloosa Bones?

GAI: I hope it’s useful and it’s inspiring. I realize more and more, recording records is really like a service – it’s a service industry, and making records is a service job, kind of. Because I’m never gonna hear them, probably, again? And so I want to make sure I really bleed into them, I put everything I have into it, and I hope they find people that love it.

Read our review of Appaloosa Bones here:

Go here to order Appaloosa Bones (out Aug. 18):

Check out tour dates here:




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