Gregory Alan Isakov Is Fueled by Fear (and Heirloom Vegetables)
Gregory Alan Isakov
Photo by Erin Preston
"I think a lot of people don't realize how important heirloom vegetables are."
Gregory Alan Isakov is explaining what an average day is like on his four-and-a-half acre plot outside of Boulder, Colorado, where he and nine or so friends operate a farm, a couple of beehives, a bunch of chickens, and a sheep named T-Swift. ("We love Taylor Swift. Everybody does.") While Isakov — who will perform at the Beacon Theatre on September 24 — spends a good chunk of the year out on the road, he's found a sweet spot that allows him to maintain his original life's work, too: horticulture. It's a topic that elicits an audible excitement in his voice, the kind that makes you wonder if maybe you have been sleeping on the whole heirloom-vegetables thing. "We see them in the grocery store. They're the weird-looking tomatoes, and it's like, 'Oh, that's an heirloom!' But we don't really understand that those are varieties that have been kept for so long, hundreds of years." You get the feeling he could talk for another hour about the benefits of these oddly shaped crops over the ones from mass-produced hybrid seeds (and you're tempted to keep talking about it), but Isakov demonstrates that same appreciation for imperfection and patience with the process in his records, too.
"Sometimes I'll work on a song for a long time: The tracking will go perfectly, and the whole band's on it and we're out of budget, but it still doesn't really have it," he says. Isakov's latest album was 2013's The Weatherman, a haunting folk gem that marked his fourth full-length release; the artist is known for taking relatively long breaks and touring extensively between records. "I think we did, like, sixteen versions of [Weatherman track] 'Second Chances.' We just could never get it to this place where it struck a chord as a listener. [For the album] we took the really rough version. It just seemed like it had that kind of feeling about it."
Isakov's homegrown approach — he releases his records through his own label, Suitcase Town Music — has allowed him to work without time constraints, adding in new numbers and reworking the tracking until the record is a cohesive body of work of its own complex, richly detailed world.
"When you play a show it's this giant group consciousness," he says. "But with records, you can get away with a lot of whispering; you can have songs that are really subtle, with little details in the music that bring you to a certain place. [Maybe] it's a piece of the morose that's just in this one moment of music you could never re-create live; those little subtleties I get really into."
Having first performed in coffee shops during his late teenage years, Isakov got into playing professionally by way of his love for travel, selling homemade records and gigging at small shows for "gas money" that allowed him to bounce between national parks.
"Music was something I always did as a part of my day, like eating dinner," he says. "I didn't need anyone to hear it." As he started filling out his calendar, the shows gave him a particular kind of motivation in his writing, too. "I was very shy about it," he says. "I don't think I'll ever get over that. I've realized how much it just scared the shit out of me, playing in front of other people. I became sort of obsessed with that fear. I found that the more that I performed, the more I took the writing seriously. It was sort of something that fueled me. 'Oh, there's this show coming up — shit, I better get some stuff done.' "
Using shows as makeshift deadlines isn't something Isakov has abandoned since earning a sizable fan base and landing spots on TV and in commercials. He says he still tries to play at least two new songs during every set, and the way he performs unreleased material onstage plays a role in what arrangements make it into the studio.
"A lot of times I'll write a record by myself, and by the end of the tour the songs have totally taken different directions. Sometimes I like them way better," he says. Isakov is constantly creating, so much so that his meticulousness in the studio can't always keep up with the outpouring of thoughts and lyrics and melodies. "I'm a few records behind myself, I think. I'm constantly trying to find that balance of, 'Did I wanna keep working on this material that I've had for years, and put that out? Or am I gonna follow the stuff that's coming right now, that's really fresh and really new?' "
He says he favors fresh material when he's recording, but onstage he doesn't tire of the old stuff. Rather, he looks at every live setting as a blank canvas, an opportunity to engage in a unique experience with that specific audience on that specific night. The care and consideration he puts into releasing records reveals itself in the staying power of every number.
"I always think about making records for one person: My music collection is so important to me, really intimate. It's not this public thing. It's very personal. I'm very connected to it; it's very much a part of my life," he says. "I'm gonna die one day, and I just want to leave behind something that I feel all right about."
Gregory Alan Isakov opens for Passenger at the Beacon Theatre on September 24. For ticket information, click here.
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