Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gregory Alan Isakov On His Past And Future

After listening to Gregory Alan Isakov's recent Daytrotter session, I began to wonder what he has been up to since his last album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere . With a few clicks, I quickly discovered that the Johannesburg, South African-born now Colorado-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has some new live dates scheduled and a new full-length album in the works.

In light of Gregory's news, I felt like it was the perfect time to check in with Gregory and share his latest happenings with fans, as well as take this opportunity to introduce his work to new listeners.

Can you discuss how and when you began learning and playing music? Which artists and albums were most inspiring to you?

Gregory Alan Isakaov: Music was always a big part of my life. My folks moved around a lot, first from South Africa, where I grew up, and then we moved around a bunch on the east coast. I was always at a new school every couple years or so, and records became pretty important. They had this sense of home, I guess.

My dad had two records in particular when I was a kid that I played over and over. Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and this "We Are The World" single, that I would get lost in all the time. It sounds funny now, but that was a big one.

I played jazz saxophone throughout school, and when I was home I would borrow my brother's electric guitar and I kinda just hid in the basement for hours playing. I never really wanted to be a guitarist, it was more of something that I wanted for myself. I didn't want a school or a music teacher in my head when I played. I guess that's what stuck.

When did you begin writing your own music?

Gregory: I started writing a lot of songs when I was fifteen but I never thought anybody would hear them. Even now, I feel that way sometimes. I play a lot of instruments, mostly because of making records, and needing some banjo or drums on a couple of songs. I got an old piano I traded my couch for, and I learned pedal steel for this record I'm working on now. 

Can you discuss your experiences writing and recording That Sea, The Gambler?

Gregory: That Sea, The Gambler was the first record I had ever made in a studio. Before that, I had made a couple collections of songs on this four-track I had. I used to record in the barn a lot, tripping over cables, and going through tons of tape. I think I eventually threw it against a wall.

I met Morgan Harris, the engineer of That Sea, the Gambler in Colorado, and we just gelled really well. We worked for about a year and half making that record along with some amazing musicians, Jen Gilleran, Phil Parker, Jeb Bows, David Bivens, Jon Souza, Jesse Burns and J.C Thompson.

I was living on this farm about 20 minutes away from the studio, so I would reference a lot of the audio in my 1986 Toyota pick up. Which I still think that record sounds best in. I wrote a lot of those songs driving home late from the studio, so I think there are a lot of driving songs on it. Some of the songs I wrote driving to California and spending time on the coast near San Francisco. 

When did you begin work on This Empty Northern Hemisphere?

Gregory: Soon after making That Sea, The Gambler I met Jamie Mefford, an engineer and producer in Denver. We started sketching songs together, some of which turned into This Empty Northern Hemisphere. We spent another 2 years making that record together. Some of it at my house, and this empty bookstore, and some in Brandi Carlile's house outside of Seattle.

Can you discuss your experiences making the record?

Gregory: It was the hardest thing I had ever made up to that point. I had just left the farm I was working on, and living in the truck for the summer, until I found this trailer on a friend's farm, which I wrote a lot of that record in. I think that I poured everything I had into that record.

It felt like my life fell apart making it. I had just turned 28 and all the questions that come along with that... about what we are doing here, and how change can feel like the hardest thing in the world. I always had titles for both records before making them. It just worked out that way. But it definitely lent a hand in some of the song choices I made. We had about twenty or so leftover songs that didn't quite fit. 

What do you see as the strongest connections between the two records? Biggest differences?

Gregory: I think the writing on both of them is pretty different and called for different instrumentation. That Sea, The Gambler has a lot of Irish folk instruments on it like the tenor banjo and 5-string fiddle. It is not really a Celtic record or anything like that, but there is the essence of that sound. This Empty Northern Hemisphere called for a lot of strings, and we spent a lot of time on the arrangements. Jamie and I spent a lot of time on electric sounds. He's super good at making them. I call them "God noises".

Which artists and albums have influenced your songwriting musically?

Gregory: I probably listen to too much Leonard Cohen, if there is such a thing. I played Songs From A Room every single night before I fell asleep the year I made This Empty Northern Hemisphere. And Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad. I think he has this incredible ability of giving you a sense of place throughout his records, and that's definitely something I aim for in making records.

Can you discuss your biggest influences on your writing, lyrically?

Gregory: I love John Steinbeck. He would have made an amazing songwriter. Lawrence Ferlinghetti too. I'm a huge fan of Kelly Joe Phelps. Somebody described him well, and said, "When I listen to Kelly Joe Phelps, I'm not sure whether to drink whiskey or go to church", or something like that. I got a chance to open for a couple tours of his, and it was creatively life-changing. He passed me a book of poetry once, called Nine Horses by Billy Collins, and I instantly fell in love with his writing too.

How does traveling inspire your work?

Gregory: I love traveling. I think it would be pretty difficult if I didn't love the travel. Sometimes it feels like we mostly drive, and once in a while we'll play a show or there. Getting out of my element and being on the road is great for writing.

I really enjoy learning the plants in different parts of the country, weather, stuff like that. It all makes it's way in there. I usually take a lot of the summers off to grow a garden. I went to school for Horticulture so that's a huge part of my life. Sometimes summers can get busy with festivals, but for the most part I'm usually home.

I really enjoyed your Daytrotter Session. In fact, that's how I learned of your work and was inspired to track you down for an interview! Can you talk about how that came together?

Gregory: Thanks. We had a good time there. It happened really fast. I don't know how we ended up there, but I was so glad about it. We were on a tour with our friends "Fairchildren", and we all met up in Rock Island, Ill. The Daytrotter studio was our meeting place. The guys at Daytrotter are great people and have a lot of integrity in what they do.

Can you discuss the new record that you are working on?

Gregory: Sure. We are playing some shows this summer, but mostly finishing the record, which should be out this year. We have been working on it for about a year and a half.

Jamie and I rented this studio up in the mountains and we'll go up there for a few weeks at a time and come back to town to let the songs sit for a while. It's been a great way to work because we have all of this space around the sessions to hear where the record wants to go.

We have been playing some of the songs live and some of them we have sort of just kept aside. I'm really excited to get the songs out there. The recording has a very raw sense to it that I'm really into right now. It is kind of a throwback to my old 4-track tapes, but we have been using some great old gear. The songs are always trading themselves out for brand new ones, and I think that's why it has taken us so long to finish.

Some songs really want to be recorded while others don't. It's kinda weird like that. We have most of it finished now, but I write a lot, and so new ones make it on last minute. That's been the way with the older records too. There's at least one song on every record I've put out that has an "instant song", I call them. I just run the tape and see what happens. No rewriting. The last one like that was a song on Empty Northern, called "Fire Escape".

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