Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing Gregory Alan Isakov at the Great American Music Hall. He recently sat down for a few minutes to chat with Rabbits Black about touring, studio recording, the universe, the new album, and horticulture. Hit the jump and check out the highlights to learn a bit more about this talented singer-songwriter from Boulder, Colorado.
Gregory Alan Isakov probably has the most diverse and unexpected background you could imagine. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Isakov grew up in Philadelphia before moving to Colorado to study horticulture. Seriously! On Sunday night, Isakov treated the sold-out San Francisco crowd to a very special event: A solo set, with a special appearance by Blind Pilot’s Israel Nebeker.
Isakov, who considers himself a writer above anything else, began his musical career in tandem with the launch of his studies in horticulture. Since his start in 1999, Isakov has released four records (Rust Colored Stones; Songs for October; That Sea, The Gambler; and This Empty Northern Hemisphere), and toured with such acts as DeVotchka, Fiona Apple, Mumford & Sons, Brandi Carlile, and, of course, Blind Pilot. Isakov is about to go into hibernation in the mountains of Colorado to record his next release. This space-themed album will be another independent release from Isakov, as he and the band have decided to once again forego the record label route.
Expect the new album sometime in March, with a supporting US tour in the Spring. Last time the band headlined at Cafe du Nord out in San Francisco, the show sold out. Up next? Headlining at the Great American Music Hall. No complaints here! Rabbits Black will let you know as soon as the new dates are announced.
Rabbits Black (RB): Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and talk with us! So, on Sunday, you mentioned that your band left you stranded and solo in San Francisco. Do you often play without your band?
Isakov: No, this was actually the first time probably in six months, and it scares the crap out of me. So I usually perform with a trio, or with a group of five or six band members.
RB: How often do you overcome your fear of playing solo?
Isakov: About once a year, maybe… there’s this cool cabin that I play at every winter. It’s always fun because I’m just a huge song nerd, so I get to select and play songs that I like. I usually write songs with the band in mind.
RB: So how do you rework the songs for the band for your solo set?
Isakov: I simplify them a bit. It’s challenging to play solo, though, aside from the obvious reasons of being by yourself. Melodically, it can be challenging to incorporate what you’ve arranged with strings and drums, and try to figure out the best way to get that sound through by yourself.
RB: On Sunday, although you were alone, you brought Israel (of Blind Pilot) up on stage with you for a few songs. Was this something you two had been planning?
Isakov: Actually, no, it was arranged just a few minutes before the show. We hadn’t done it before and we thought we would just try it. We had opened for Blind Pilot for about 10 or 12 shows, mostly over in DC, New York, and Toronto. We were actually doing our own tour in the Midwest, when they called us and said they needed some support. We were already out on the road, so we just hopped on with them. Then we split off, I did some shows with the Indigo Girls, and I flew to San Francisco just for the show at Great American.
RB: Well, it turned out great! When can we expect to see you in San Francisco again?
Isakov: Thanks! Well, we come to San Francisco about once a year. It’s a great city, it really truly is my favorite city. There’s this venue there that we absolutely love, called Cafe du Nord, but last time we played, it sold out. So we’re thinking of headlining next spring sometime at the Great American Music Hall. We just love the room, and it’s such a great place for shows.
RB: Well, solo or with the band, I am sure it will be a great show. At the show on Sunday, you kept mentioning that the new songs were all about space and the universe. Do you think this is an extension of the traveling and on-the-road theme of Empty Northern?
Isakov: You know, I consider myself more of a writer than anything else. I don’t really know where these songs and themes are coming from, or what they’re about. With songs, and in the writing process, I just sort of see it through and follow where the song wants to go. There’s a sense of place that comes into the writing, so I’ve been writing a lot of country and cowboy songs, and songs about space, but they just kind of happen.
RB: And is this process the same with recording, or is that different from writing?
Isakov: Records have a mind of their own. We really wanted to make a solid, rock record with Empty Northern. It ended up a really sleepy album, and every decision we made for each recorded song was for the song to stand on its own in the record. So you never know what you’re after and where you’ll end up, but it’s a long process.
RB: When will you start recording the new album?
Isakov: Actually, I am about to go into a sort of hibernation. We found this studio up in the mountains near Denver, so I’m heading up there on Friday, staying in for the winter to record the new album.
RB: How long do you expect that to take?
Isakov: Well, I started writing this album last October. Recording will take until the end of February, probably. I have friends who can go into the studio and record in a week, and be done. I’m really jealous of them. For me, it’s a really long process. The last album took about a year and a half to record.
RB: And what about Brandi Carlile?
Isakov: She’s fantastic! I really believe her voice belongs in a museum.
RB: Will we be seeing her again on the new album?
Isakov: We’ve written a couple songs together, but we’re still not sure what will make it onto the album.
RB: Well, we hope to see more of her! So, Gregory, I have to ask. What got you interested in horticulture?
Isakov: Why did I study horticulture?
RB: Yeah. I’ve never met anyone who has studied horticulture, let alone a singer-songwriter with a passion for horticulture!
Isakov: I’ve always loved gardening. I worked on a farm for a long time, and I’ve always loved working with plants. I have my whole life, my grandmother did as well. It always felt like a really fulfilling part of my life, being able to have a craft. We’re all just searching for one, and horticulture to me felt really viable on a lot of levels. Knowing your sense of place, knowing what’s going on with your food. It feels good to connect with the land you’re on. It’s actually something I miss a lot when I’m on tour, so I like to take my summers off to reconnect.
RB: Maybe you can find a pocket garden or something to keep on the bus! Well, Gregory, thank you so much for speaking with us. Best of luck recording the new album, and we’ll see you in San Francisco next spring!
Rabbits Black would like to thank Gregory Alan Isakov for his time. To help support Gregory and his band, or just to check out what they’re doing next, visit their official site, or check them out on facebook. You can also follow Gregory on Twitter @GregoryAIsakov.