Heartstrings Interview

University of Portland – KDUP’s Interview with Gregory Alan Isakov

Article/Interview by Arran Fagan (KDUP), Photo by Lauren Jahoda

There’s no doubt that come Wednesday, February 18, Gregory Alan Isakov and his band of talented musicians will be playing a sold out show at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. During my recent interview with Gregory, I felt a true sense of who Gregory was as a person. He was easy to talk to, kind hearted, modest, funny, and truly genuine. His music is a sonic scape of folk music. Surrounding himself with brilliant and professional musicians, his live performances are a true emotional, intellectual, philosophical and spiritual experience.

Gregory makes his music available to his audience, in every sense of the word. His sound and words are an open invitation, as he masterfully crafts his melodies and lyrics to create feelings on many different planes, and yet relatable to anyone. Gregory doesn’t create fast songs and he doesn’t throw his lyrics or ideas in your face. He brilliantly builds each song slowly, sonically and meticulously. In his words “This kind of music that happens to me is sort of like a ride. As if someone is getting on a ride, you start in the beginning and it sort of clicks up the track, you can’t see the next turn, and you end up somewhere different. Sometimes for me, songs are like that, because it is not going to repeat a specific point. I mean sometimes it does and it really works, the whole verse/chorus/verse/chorus thing. I have tried that out too, but the most natural way for me to write ends up not being that way, and I don’t know why that is.”

While setting up to do a phone interview with Gregory, I was having a rough day, a day where little things continued to keep going wrong. Just two minutes before our scheduled phone call, after setting up the sound equipment, testing it out, and testing it for a second and third time, the recording mic and my garage band software stopped working. I frantically started unplugging the USB mic, restarting my software and reconnecting the mic to the computer in a desperate attempt to not kill my chance at recording the interview. It was time to call Gregory, and although I hadn’t fixed my software I hoped the day would turn up and with Gregory at the other end of the call, it certainly did.

Gregory greeted me and patiently waited for me to get my act together and fix the software. He had no sense of urgency, as we chatted a bit. He explained that he was in the middle of insulating his barn after getting back from a string of shows with Leif Vollebekk. The topic of conversation moved to Newport Folk Festival, where I had seen Gregory and Leif perform separately on a very rainy day this past summer. Just like magic of that happens at Newport each year, the software and mic suddenly began to work.

I gave Gregory the option to have a conversation instead of having structured interview and his response: “Yeah, let’s do something different.”

Arran Fagan: A lot friends are going to your show in Portland on February 18, at the Wonder Ballroom, and I asked them if they had any questions for you. A friend of mine is dying to know what 3 AM is about.

Gregory Alan Isakov: 3 AM, yeah, you know, they all happen so differently and I have this sort of strange relationship with songs in general, where I think I start out with sort of a seed. I am after a sort of feeling and I am sort of working with this piece of music like it’s a living thing. You know I would be weary if someone or any artist said, “Oh yeah man, this is about this and this is about that, and I know every word, where that came from and that came from.” But for me, it’s just this co-created process where I am sort of working with it. I remember that song (3 AM) in particular because I was mixing a record (That Sea, The Gambler). I was driving back to the farm from the studio and it’s about a 20-minute drive, so I could get through about five songs each way. I was mixing it myself, my reference speakers were my Toyota pick up truck. And I don’t know, I was trying to come up with an order for the songs, which is really important to me, making records that feel cohesive. I got about half way through the record and I was just thinking “I don’t know, it just needs something really honest, really close up and honest” — kind of like a rambling song, and I wanted to just make it by myself. I just pulled over and it all came out at once. I think it was in the middle of the night, it was around… actually it was 3 AM (laughs) and so I pulled over on the side of the road and wrote that, sketched it out when I got back to the house and I kept that sketch.

Wow. That’s a good story. So you talked a little bit about recording — do you normally record by yourself, do you have a studio that you use? I read somewhere that you recorded all of your last record on analog.

Yeah well I sketch a lot by myself, I will do sketch guitar, vocals, and then we use this little studio in the mountains here in Colorado. It is this tiny, amazing analog studio called The Mountain House, and they have a computer there but it is really old (laughs). They have great old boards, a tape machine, some really wonderful microphones, and you can sleep up there. It’s really amazing. Jamie Mefford, who is our producer and engineer, he also lives here on the farm with me, he and I work up there for two-week chunks at a time and then come back (to the farm) and not listen to anything, and then go back (to the studio) and work for another two weeks. We did that for the past year, and that is what we kind of came up with (referencing his latest album, The Weatherman). Every record is different, the record before that was tracked out using pro-tools, and we mixed it all to tape. The way we tracked it out, maybe some of my stuff was live and we tracked on top of that. For our first record, a lot of it was live.

Which way do you prefer? Do you like doing the pro-tools, one track at a time or would you rather record everything live?

Well, I kind of never really trusted the live-take thing. It’s like you get everything great and then there is just this one thing that you wish you did different. But now I am realizing that’s the best. I’m love the little imperfections and the decision making process. It’s so much easier when you are just like “did we get it or not?” And then you just do it again, and do it again until it feels good. I really like that process, which is how people have been recording forever, it makes sense that it works for me. I just typically don’t trust it, you know?

Yeah I get that. Leif Vollebekk’s North Americana record was all live, and it just has an amazing tone to it.

Exactly. With tape, it sort of gels everything together and makes it feel like a record. I remember in high school I was working with a four track tape player, and I remember chucking it against the wall one day because I had been working day in and day out trying to make a record that sounded like a record (laughs) and for some reason it just never did and I couldn’t understand why. My recording knowledge was very limited and I just didn’t understand, I was thinking that I was doing everything right, reading all of the tape off…everything. I just couldn’t get that gelled sound for some reason. I finally realized that there is a lot more to it then I was doing.

Everything comes out more built-up, in a sense, because you have more time to look at it. With sounds though, listening to your first records they have a more stripped down acoustic vibe, also with some band backing. But with the newest record, you have a lot of sonic sounds in there. Did you work on that in the studio? Or was it influenced by the musicians you play with?

Yeah, exactly, and honestly, a lot of it is just me and Jamie fucking around with sounds. We find a Broom or a Saw or an old Wurly or an old Delay, and we just made sound-scapes a lot and set them way back in the recording and brought out certain parts for certain times. I think that is the stuff that maybe nobody notices but you kind of feel. People may not know why they like something, they think, “Oh this sounds good and I don’t know why,” and in the process, it’s because there is this subtle moment of noise right here that is really important.

This is a college radio station and I’m trying to be a musician myself, as well as a lot of other people, and I know that this is the worst question to ask any artist, but what is your advice for a person wanting to pursue music as a career?

For me, I think you just need to really cultivate that need to make music, and that love for making music. So that it kind of overwhelms you in a way, because if you spend most of your time creating, it is apparent to you that it is something that you really need. It’s like eating dinner, it is something that you have to do.  A lot of people that write me, or I will meet a kid at a show and he will ask me and say “Yeah, I am trying to get out there more” and I am always saying, well, just really work on your craft. Work on your music and work with music and don’t worry about anything else, don’t worry about Facebook crap or whatever, or Twitter, don’t even think about that stuff. Just make shit in your room and really find that love for it, because I really think that if you have that, the rest sort of just takes care of itself.

That is a really cool idea, I think from looking at a lot of people, unfortunately due to social media everybody looks at the self-mades who started playing shows every night or got picked up by a record label immediately and became famous.

Yeah and it can be really intimidating, and all it is, is this false sense of community, and you know we all have it. We all want to let people know that “My life rules!” (laughs), but it is all bullshit, and I can tell in three seconds from someone getting up on a stage, or a band playing, that “Oh yeah, they need this, they need to play, this is in them.” I can tell right off the bat, and I think everyone else can too, and I think that is the most beautiful thing about it. There are those who are like, “ I am really just trying to get more likes on this thing, or win this contest.” I think it is really apparent, the people who I can connect to, or the audience can connect to, because we all need music. It is so important.

Music is definitely at the top of the hierarchy of needs, personally, it is something we all basically need as humans. It is in every culture and truly is an addiction.

Oh yeah, and for me, I never ever thought I would get to do this full time. I went to horticulture school, worked on a bunch of farms and stuff. I was a landscaper and a bunch of stuff. I would write in the mornings and play at night and it was just something that I needed to do and eventually I guess it had its own sort of plan for me. Now I am just doing it all the time basically. I am so shocked that I get to do that.

Oh yeah, and you seem very humble about it, which, honestly, is fantastic.

Oh rad! Its funny, music is just this thing where people are like “Oh that is so cool that you play music,” and I think it is an amazing thing to do with your life, work with your hands and make stuff, and that is what we are all doing. It is also the loneliest, most introspective kind of nerdiest thing to do (laughs). So many nights of my life are spent feeling like a mad scientist with this light bulb swinging over my head, and its definitely not at a party or while hanging out with a bunch of cool people either (laughs).

Yeah, you are sitting alone in your room stoked and thinking, “This is the best!” (laughs)

(laughs) Yeah or I am playing with this amp that wont work or something (laughs)…It’s like “There is nothing cool here.”

Oh yeah and you aren’t dressed in a suit or something while making the music either, you are probably sitting in your underpants on your couch.

(laughs) Oh yeah, definitely not a suit, for sure underpants.

So you live on a farm, are you doing business out there? Are you living off the land?

There are about 9 of us out here. Jamie (our engineer) and I live out in the barn and then we rent out the houses to pay for the mortgage and stuff and then we all just grow food. We have a bunch of fruit and we have sheep, chickens, and bees. The farm is only four acres so it is pretty small. When we are on tour, Patty and Brian who live next door take care of everything out here. It’s kind of like a little super groovy seventies commune or something (laughs). It is really rad though! I only want to have enough stuff to fit in my van and then move to a different place that I have to move. If I am going to be on tour for three months then I am not going to pay rent. I have been really lucky with friends and farmers around here that I know that can support me and let me work and then go on tour and now be more rooted here in Colorado. It has been amazing. I has been really good.

That is awesome, why did you move to Colorado?

I came out here for horticulture school at this small Buddhist College called Naropa. I studied there and I originally came out there because I was really into Buddhist psychology and meditation and stuff and I had always gardened and loved plants. They had a really cool horticulture program so I ended up doing that.

Horticulture is very much like music in a sense, you are working with it, and so you are kind of doing the same two things.

Oh yeah it actually works really well for my schedule because when you are in a van, or the bus all the time you are not moving around a ton, you are playing shows, and then when you get home it feels good to work with the ground again, it feels great.

Are you Buddhist?”

I am not religiously Buddhist or anything. I go in and out of a sitting practice but man, I wish I could say yes to that (laughs). It would be bad ass if I did meditate before every show, but I do not (laughs). I definitely go for a walk every day. I think it is more of a practice that I have of just noticing. I think I have been working on my muscles to notice more and come back from the crazy world of our minds, spinning out all the time. Especially on stage that is something that really helps, there will be a couple songs during the set where, it is amazing what you can think about while you play a song, and I will have to tell myself “Dude, there are all these people here trying to hear this song and what are you thinking about right now?” (laughs) I am always constantly reminding myself to be here, in the present.

Do you usually start with a melody? Or do you write poems?

Yeah I write a lot of prose, short stories, and poems. Once in a while something will make it into a song. I write every day and the song and the melody have to be all at once. I will write a bunch, forget about it. Come back pick up the guitar and see what happens. And then sometimes, I will notice a line from something that I was writing earlier and then instinct will come in. It seems like it is a little different for me every time but that seems like the way that it seems like it works. I don’t really know, I have no idea how it works and I don’t know.”

You mentioned that your songs often lack a chorus, do you ever write a chorus (laughs)?

You know I love pop music, like I LOVE IT. I think it is amazing, even super mainstream pop like Taylor Swift. I will listen to her and be like “Damn, that is so bad ass!” I love a lot of kinds of music but I think there is this kind of music that happens to me that is sort of like a ride. As if someone is getting on a ride, you start in the beginning and it sort of clicks up the track and you can’t see the next turn and you end up somewhere different. Sometimes for me, songs are like that because it is not going to repeat a specific point, I mean sometimes it does and it really works, the whole verse/chorus/verse/chorus thing. And I have tried that out too but the most natural way for me to write ends up not being that way and I don’t know why that is.

You have something else to say instead of the chorus over and over. It is a different thought being added into the song instead of filling time with extra choruses.

Yeah I love a good chorus though, that is for sure (laughs). I think for some people that is their gift, like Chris Martin from Coldplay, there is something just so badass about it. It is like cocaine, like “Here you go, (pretends to snort a line for affect)…here just repeat this, you are going to love it, and redo.” But then there are other writers like Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t really write that way.

Who are your favorite songwriters?

Oh man, I am into so many people right now, but you know a lot of my friends I end up listening to the most. Like Leif, or Nathaniel Rateliff, and Jolie Holland is coming with us on the east coast, I love her music.

Watch Gregory perform the “The Stable Song” on the legendary Woods Stage at Pickathon 2014 (Video by Heartstrings Magazine):

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