Interview: Gregory Alan Isakov Discusses Colorado Symphony LP, Farming in Colorado and Growing Up in South Africa
A few days before the summer solstice, Gregory Alan Isakov celebrated the release of his latest full-length record. This wasn't a normal album for Isakov, though: Instead of entering the studio and recording brand-new material, the folk singer-songwriter joined forces with the Colorado Symphony to re-imagine 11 previously released tracks, all captured on the aptly titled LP, Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony.
The new record features a powerful collaboration between Isakov -- a musician who was born in South Africa, raised in Philadelphia and now resides on a private farm in Colorado -- and a cast of characters such as Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa, Jay Clifford of Jump Little Children, Isakov's longtime partner Jamie Mefford and Scott O'Neill of the Colorado Symphony. Together, they rearranged Isakov's material and put together a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind listening experience that rises to the top amidst a summer packed full of new music.
Throughout the summer, Isakov has been on the road in support of the new disc, performing with various local symphonies when he can and other times with his own Ghost Orchestra. He recently took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to catch up with The Boot about Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony, what it's like being away from his farm while he's on tour and more.
Congrats on the new album. Since the day it hit the streets -- it touched the No. 1 spot on iTunes' Singer-Songwriter chart, after all -- it seems like you've been enjoying a lot of success. And on top of that, you've taken the music out on the road, getting to play with some of the best musicians across the country.
It feels great. It's been crazy. I never thought that we'd get to play with all of these symphonies -- we're just trying to keep our s--t together the whole time.
I have to assume putting this album together has been completely different than anything you've done previously. You didn't have to write new songs, but you had to rearrange songs you've poured your heart and soul into. What was that like?
It was crazy. It took about six months for Jay and Tom to kind of put the arrangements together, and they were going off of some songs they didn't have recordings of ... They were going off of live shows that we had given them. The arrangements are quite different than the originals, so it was a back-and-forth process. And it was great because I was learning about that world, too.
It's also crazy to get to play with these amazing musicians. They see this music once and just nail it. You know, the album was actually going to be a live show, but I don't really like live records. I consider a record a separate medium than a live show: The record is for one person; I'm sort of whispering songs to an individual in a car, you know? Our shows have always been heavier and louder and more electric. But this one, we recorded a bunch of shows and a few of the rehearsals and absolutely fell in love with the rehearsals. It was this empty room, and it was so relaxed. It didn't have the show energy -- which I love -- but the music breathed in a different way when there was no crowd. We realized it really could be a record. And we've actually been working on a new record for the last year and a half, and it's almost done, and we just wanted to take a second and honor all of these hands who have made these symphony shows happen.
So the album itself is comprised of the rehearsals?
Actually, we fell in love with the rehearsal tapes and then called Tony and got everyone together for a couple of days and recorded everyone again. We really thought of this as a real record, and everyone was so into it. So, last summer, we just went through all the songs and picked the ones that made a good "beginning to end" record, which has always been important to me.
What was the biggest obstacle for you during this process?
The mixing. We mixed it at the farm, where we have a studio. Jamie and I both live there, and it was a lot. It was a lot of channels -- I think there were more than 100 channels that we were mixing. It was a beast to mix. [Laughs] That was the challenge. There were so many different ways that the songs could come through with different mixes, too. The tracking went really smoothly, though. It was great.
How long have you wanted to do an album like this?
[Laughs] I don't even know, it was just sort of like one of those "bucket list" type of things. We all have those, right? Like, on the solstice every year, Tara, my friend who helps me with management and label stuff, we always go find a field and bury a bunch of notes ... that kind of hippie stuff that we do, you know? And I think this was one of the things we wrote down and buried once, and just thought, "Yeah, that would be cool." We just think of things that are too far out there, and then I actually saw some bands who played with symphonies -- like Brandi Carlile, it was one of the most beautiful shows I've ever seen. It was so inspiring.
Throughout the promotion of the record, it seems like the press has enjoyed learning more and more about your horticulture background. For me, though, one of the things that strikes me more than the farming is the community in which you do it. Who comprises the farm?
There are, like, eight or nine of us, depending on things; I think, right now, there's 11. It's just always sort of changing. Steve [Varney], our guitar and banjo player, is there. Jamie is there -- although he's out right now with Nathaniel Rateliff, and we have a new guy who is out with us. We rehearse at the farm and record there, too. There are about six other people that kind of just live there all the time. Everyone is an artist, and they all have their own thing, but we take care of the gardens and other things together. We're growing a bunch of seeds right now, which is one of my favorite things. I've never done it before, and it's been really fun.
Is it tough to be away from that when you're on tour?
Jesse, at home, sends me photos, and I always think so much changes when I'm gone ... I'm always watching it.
When you're on the farm, what does a normal day look like?
I feel like a crazy person, one of those people in bunny slippers and a robe, running around the place. If it's winter, we're lambing, and some of the lambs are bottle feeders, so you have to wake up super early and feed them every six hours. All of the gardens are on ditch water, so we have to make sure the pumps are always clear throughout the day. It's pretty much full-time, you know? And then I'm in the studio and working on music -- I try to do both every day. But sometimes when you get home from tours, "guitar" is like a curse word, and you just let it sit in the corner for a bit and focus on the other things.
You were born in South Africa, raised in Philly, and now you're farming in Boulder. How did you originally wind up in the states?
My dad moved when we were really little kids. Everyone was moving ... it was the height of apartheid, and he didn't want to raise kids in that kind of environment. Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful, and my parents were born there, so they have a lot of history there. It was hard for them to move, but it's been awesome being in the states. I talk to a lot of immigrants -- they're the most patriotic American people that you'll meet. I had a cousin at a show recently, and he was like, "This would never happen in South Africa." To just have an idea and be able to actually execute it ... there are so many opportunities like that here.
You never get too political in your music.
Nope. I read The Onion. [Laughs]
Obviously you can't compare the two, and I would never want to make light of what happened in South Africa, but I'm curious what your thoughts are of the current political climate, having grown up in the time of apartheid.
People were scared all the time, and I think that's kind of going on here, too. Over there, racism was so in your face, and here, it's so under the water. Nobody talks about it. But, listen, I think people are good; I think we're all just trying to figure it out. It's been hard with the shootings, you know, just trying to take all of it in. I'm trying to stay in a positive place and try to not be in that place of fear all the time. I'm trying to come from a good place.
As I talk to friends and musicians, it seems like everyone agrees music like this is so important right now.
Yeah. For sure, it's really important.
You're described as a guy who is constantly on the move ... Do you feel at home in Colorado?
It's the closest thing that I've found. I never thought I would get a chance to work on a piece of land for more than a year, so that's a really cool feeling. I never thought I'd get that feeling.
You briefly mentioned something about a new album. What's on the horizon for you?
We're trying a lot of the new songs at the shows and seeing how they live. I take a while between records -- it's not the material; I always have too much material actually. I just think time for a song to sit is the most important part of my process. I think everyone loves the new s--t when they're making the new s--t, so you're attached to it in a different way. But I like to come back to it like six months later and see if it still makes me feel things, you know? I just want things to live. I want to make things that are going to live.
Listen to "Master and a Hound" From Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony