Gregory Alan Isakov | Q&A

by Steven Ashford

Maybe it's appropriate that Gregory Alan Isakov's name sounds more like that of a 19th Century Eastern European Classical Composer than of a contemporary folk singer/songwriter. There's something classic about the songs the Johannesburg, South Africa-born, Philadelphia-raised, Boulder-located musician writes and sings.

Alan Isakov spoke to Hear Nebraska about his songwriting process, landing a song on Showtime's "Californication" and about playing songs about sleeping with goats. He performs at the Waiting Room Lounge Wednesday, Oct. 26 with Kyle Harvey and Great American Desert.

Hear Nebraska: You seem to have been raised in many distinct places. Do any of these residencies, past or present, influence any of the music that you write?
Gregory Alan Isakov: Yeah, you know it definitely has influenced my writing a lot. For me, songwriting is an entirely mental phase that I go through, and lately I've mostly been writing when I'm at home, since I haven't been traveling lately. When I am on the road or visiting new places, it is sort of like a practice wherever I am.

HN: So, in regards to being influenced or getting any sort of inspiration to write new material, does any if it derive from your experiences on the road or reflecting on the different places that you have lived previously? What gets you motivated when writing new material?
GI: Well I try and write everyday. They don't necessarily start out as songs as they do prose, and I don't really know what ends up making it into a 'song,' whether it's that it comes up at the same time I'm writing it or when I sit down to play. It really is kind of a mystery to me and I don't know about it all that much and I think I like that about it. A lot of times I'll be working on something and I really don't know what it means, and I'll go ahead and sit on it for a few and it will eventually reveal itself to me later ... that process of discovering myself through writing and songs and stuff is what I really love about it.

HN: In other words, it's a pretty natural process?
GI: Yeah, it really seems like it. Yeah, every once in a while, if a song doesn't make it in a couple of weeks, whatever, I kind of throw it into the "junk pile" and try and come back to it or use a part of it. But lately I've been sitting on songs for a couple of months. Then it sometimes starts to feel like I'm slaving over a certain piece, so I'll set it down for a while, come back to it later, and work on something else in the meantime.

HN: You're currently recording under your name, but you also play and tour with a full band. Has the material always been recorded solely under your name, or have you gone through other band names?
GI: Actually, we used to change our name a lot. We used to go under The Freight, and there's been a few other bands that we've had throughout the years. But I never thought that people would actually hear the records so I put out the first record under my name kinda like you're putting out a book under your name, you know? I never really thought about it much until people started really hearing the records and I thought, 'Oh, well, maybe that's a little long!' (laughs). But now it's sort of just fallen into the way it is.

HN: During your career, you have played large festivals such as the main stage at Monolith at Red Rocks and Telluride Bluegrass festival.  When it's not a festival, you seem to be playing smaller, more intimate club settings. How do you feel about playing such a wide range in regards to the size, the demographics, day or night? Do you have a preference?
GI: You know, it definitely changes a lot with me. I used to dread playing festivals and playing outside just because there's no acoustics, or much less acoustics. But then, for places like Telluride and Red Rocks you have the natural amphitheater and you can hear the music coming from everywhere, which is crazy. And, you know, we do a big theater in Colorado, and then once we get out further the venues become smaller and smaller. I really look forward to hitting the road and getting to play small shows. I think there's just this 'sweet spot' when it comes to the size of a room and some of my favorite shows are just tiny. But then again, we just played the Fox Theatre the other night, and that's about 600-700, which felt really intimate as well, so I think you can kind of achieve that anywhere. But in the end, it just comes on much more naturally when the venue is smaller. 

HN: Your latest album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere, was released in 2009. Is this current headlining tour that your doing promoting any sort of work that is coming out in the near future?
GI: Yeah, I've actually been working on a record for about a year now. I started it last October and I'm still working on it, so my goal is to have it out by the spring, which we're all really excited about. But for this tour we thought it would be nice to just get out there and not promote a record — basically, just going out there to play. It was a good idea to get away from the studio. We wanted to get out of the whole rat race and the whole "pushing a record" thing and just have fun.

HN: Will you be incorporating the new material on this current tour?
GI: Oh yeah, and we always have. Even when we first put out a new record there will be newer songs that we have that we like to throw in there just to keep it interesting. We've also been working really hard on the new material so we're definitely excited to go and play it on tour.

HN: So Wednesday you will be rolling into Omaha to play at the Waiting Room. Will this be your first time coming through or have you played in Omaha previously?
GI: I have played in Omaha before, I played a show with there opening up for Brandi Carlile. I can't remember the name of the venue anymore, but it must have been a bigger place.

HN: Are there any rituals or warm ups you and your band partake in before hitting the stage?
GI: (Laughs). Oh yeah. We like to play a pretty 'crass' bluegrass song every time before we go on stage.  It's actually funny because we just played a festival not too long ago and there was a band there that kind of, like, meditates before they go on, and they were really great — but then before we go on we sing this song about sleeping with goats (laughs). It's really just something that helps us loosen up before we go on.

HN: So what are your plans for the near future once the tour wraps up?
GI: Well, I come home and I think I do a couple songs with Brandi Carlile and um, I go back out in support of another friend's band called Blind Pilot.  After that I'll go back home for just a couple weeks before I go back out and head to Austin to write songs with a couple of my friends that are down there, and then I'm just working on my record for the rest of the winter.

HN: Wow. So you'll be staying pretty busy for a while.
GI: Yeah, and we like to silk-screen our own posters for shows and we're always kinda workin' on something and people are always stopping by and helping out. We were actually talking about this the other day and how you just never know what tomorrow is gonna be like, but you know it will probably be busy.

HN: So your song, "If I go, I'm goin'" is getting a lot of recognition due to its recent feature in "Californication". How were you approached to do that?
GI: Well they have a really great music supervisor there, and I'm not exactly sure how we got in touch or where they heard the song, because we're not on a label and we don't have a publishing deal or anything like that. So it was something that was really unexpected and exciting for us. It was just something that happened in a natural, grassroots kind of way. It made me really happy because I wrote that song with my really good friends, so it really helped them out too, which is really cool.

HN: Have you noticed any newfound recognition from your song being featured? Would you say that it was good publicity for the band?
GI: You know, more so in Europe when we went there earlier this year. I guess people really watch that show there a lot. And we didn't used to play that song very much just because it's really really slow. And in some cases, it did make sense to play it because we have some other pretty slow songs, but this song was just one notch too slow. So it was cool to hear a lot of people wanting to hear that song — it was just something I never really thought twice about.

HN: Another one of your tracks, "The Stable Song" is featured in the Putumayo Acoustic Cafe compilation. Can you talk a little more about this?
GI: Yeah, that was really cool. I don't know how that really came about. They wrote me once and asked if they could use that song, and I know they couldn't use the whole thing and they kinda had to fade out some of it. I didn't know exactly where they were going to fade it out, so I know it's kind of just a shortened version of it, which I think it makes sense of the song that way. ... But yeah, I just got it in the mail the other day. I still need to listen to it.

HN: Are any of the other artists that are featured on the compilation, artists that you have worked with in the past?
GI: No, I don't know any of them, but I am a big fan of Justin Townes Earle. I really like his stuff.  I just don't know a lot about many of the artists but I'm definitely excited to check it out.

Steven Ashford is an editorial intern at Hear Nebraska. It's less than a week out until Halloween and he has yet to make a concrete decision on a costume. Maybe the Holy Ghost? If you have any costume ideas or comments/questions about the interview, post them below or email him at stevena@hearnebraska.org.