Interview: An Afternoon with Gregory Alan Isakov

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In anticipation of his upcoming showcase at AmericanaFest, we interviewed Gregory Alan Isakov about everything from stealing lines from himself, his harmonica mic and his vow to never watch a video of himself to his Colorado farm and his degree in horticulture. We were even able to discuss two of many GAI favorites — “All Shades of Blue” and “If I Go, I’m Goin.” To top it off…well you’ll have to wait and see, but all I’ll say is that there was no shortage of singing during our Thursday afternoon conversation.

During our interview, I told Greg that I felt his trademark is without a doubt his use of the harmonica mic for some of his vocals. The truth is that there is a quality to Greg’s music which projects far greater than that marvelous vintage tone coming from his harmonica mic. Rather, his trademark lies in his ability to access an ultra-private and intimate place, one of which we, like Greg, can say “I’ve only experienced by myself.” There is relevance to every listener in every GAI song, making it a shared and peaceful endeavor; three to five minutes of unrestrained communication. As Greg told me, “It seems almost impossible, but it’s totally amazing when it happens.”

Greg takes the stage at Third Man Records at 9 PM this Thursday, during this year’s AmericanaFest in Nashville, Tennessee. His showcase will be one OF his last US shows before his extensive European tour this fall, and thus this performance is an opportunity that should rise to the very top of everyone’s AmericanaFest schedule.

Lauren Jahoda: You have 3 full-length albums so far and that’s a lot to choose from when making your set list for a show. How do you choose which songs you’re going to play for a particular venue? Does it vary? Do you pull from one album more than another?

Gregory Alan Isakov: My manager would probably want me to push a certain record but I never do that. I walk into the room for sound check and I usually scribble a little set list right before we go on, once I see the room, because there’s always this balance between what I’m really feeling and what we can get away with in a space. Lately, we have been so lucky being able to get away with songs that might be really slow or really quiet. But sometimes, you can’t get away with those and you sort of have to play the room, and that’s a whole craft in itself – choosing the right music for that evening or room. I usually never stick to a set list much, but I definitely pay attention to how I open the show a lot, and I try to do that as intimately as possible.

LJ: It’s nice to hear that because you generally assume the artist is going to play the most recent material, from the most recent album. I was at Pickathon and I saw both your performances, which were full of the old stuff too, which I love.

GAI: Oh, yea. Thank you. It never feels tired. Playing live is such an amazing thing because every time we do, it feels new, especially when there’s a group of people that you are playing with all the time, because you feel like you can be present with them.

LJ: Every performance has it’s own fingerprint. They’re never the same.

GAI: Never the same.

LJ: Seeing you play so many times over the past several years, I’ve noticed that you often remind the audience at the beginning of the performance that the guys up there on stage with you are your closest friends.

GAI: Yeah. When I started writing songs, I just played by myself wherever, and then I noticed that the people that were my friends, who I was just around, I ended up playing music with, while we we’re all living in the same building, which is how I met my band. It just felt regular as opposed to seeking out these great players from Nashville or wherever. It’s was way more important to me I think and I just got weird-lucky because they’re amazing and we’ve all kind of grown a lot together playing. So I think about that when I’m writing.

LJ: I love to hear you say that. It’s very comforting as a spectator because I feel the performance I’m getting on stage is the same performance you guys are creating in your living room. It’s an insider look.

GAI: Yeah. It does feel that way. That’s important me. That’s cool. I’ve never heard that before. That’s cool.

LJ: This may sound a bit gushy — I think Steve Varney is just about the best banjo player I’ve ever heard.

GAI: Isn’t he? And he would laugh at you so hard because he’s just like “I’m just fakin’ it.” He was just a guitar player and he’s just a killer, killer musician. He’s got such great taste.

LJ: He’s really amazing and seems so versatile.

GAI: He totally is. He’s amazing.

LJ: When you guys did Serialbox Presents, I saw the video you did for “Saint Valentine,” but then you also recorded “Big Black Car.” You have to scroll to the very bottom of the screen to find it, but I have to tell you, I probably listened to it about 100 times in a row because the banjo in it is just so haunting.

GAI: I never watch those. We worked so hard on that arrangement with the banjo because I play banjo on all our recordings and I think it took Steve awhile to figure out how…because at first, I was like no, no you’re too good, can we put a pencil in your hand? And then he took my aesthetic of banjo and did his own thing, which I really love.

LJ: So you never watched the video for SerialBox?

GAI: (laughs) No, I haven’t. I don’t really watch videos of myself ever.

LJ: Why is that?

GAI: I think I tried that a couple of years ago and I remember feeling… the next time I was on stage I felt really self-conscious and said I’m never going to watch myself again (laughs).

LJ: Well that’s commitment, I have to say.

GAI: I live on a farm and I don’t have Internet, which is actually a blessing. If I have to do work or whatever, I have to go to the coffee shop. It’s just one of those things– the last thing I need is more about myself (laughs).

LJ: Are you based in Colorado? Is that where your farm is?

GAI: Yeah.

LJ: Do you plan on going back to Nederland to record your next album?

GAI: Oh yeah. I’m actually writing now. Jamie, our engineer and producer, he also does sound for us when we tour, he lives here on the farm as well, in a trailer, and right now we’re building a studio here in the barn and so our goal is to record here, but we’ll definitely be going back up to the mountain house to do mixing.

LJ: You were born in Johannesburg, South Africa. How long were you there?

GAI: I was there ‘til I was almost 7. So I definitely have a very distinct memory of before and after. I’ve been back there once since I left with my family, and we still have some family there but a lot of us moved all over the world during the apartheid, so we have family in Australia and Canada and all over the place.

LJ: Is that where some of your album art aesthetic comes from?

GAI: I’ve never thought about it.

LJ: I get this 1920s/1930s Wright Brothers feeling to it, myself.

GAI: Yeah, I don’t know where…It’s funny, all the stuff that we’re drawn to. The aesthetic is so interesting. I was just having this conversation with a friend of mine.  We were talking about music and how in Colorado there’s a big bluegrass scene and bluegrass has always had a sports vibe to me (laughs). Like how fast can you play!! (laughs) And then you’ll hear a song that holds one chord and it will keel you over and how little playing fast matters, ya know. Most of it is just a sense of aesthetic really, how important that is. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s so weird the stuff that we like. I don’t know why we like what we like.

LJ: It’s so prominent too, which is even funnier. I was looking at your albums and they kind of all have it in their own way. I love it, I think it fits really well even though we might not know what it is.

GAI: Yeah, totally.

LJ: Your brother — I remembering you saying at a show that he writes songs with you. What’s that like? What’s the process?

GAI: It’s awesome. He’s just like this weirdo-genius kid. He used to live with me in the summers and then go back to Pennsylvania to work. He teaches piano and writes scores for documentary films. But he’ll like break out a mandolin and just sing. We wrote a song called “Second Chances” together and so he has that like…you know, on the mandolin one day and he’s just playing it and… (sings) “If weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone,”  you know, on the mandolin, and I was like, I didn’t even know you played the mandolin! (laughs). So then I was like, hold on and I ran outside, and I wrote the verses…I ran in the garden and wrote the verses, came back in and we finished that song real fast. But a lot of times, he’ll have these seeds that I think are just brilliant that he might not even pay any attention to. He’s just amazing.

LJ: Yeah. Sometimes you need someone to pick it up for you and it works out really well. That must be an awesome experience.

GAI: Yea, it’s really cool. I’m really close with my brothers. I have two brothers and we’re best friends. It’s awesome.

LJ: That’s funny. I’m one of three girls so I know what it’s like.

GAI: Really?

LJ: Are you the middle child?

GAI: I am, yeah.

LJ: I am also.

GAI: Oohh, that’s awesome! I got lucky that way.

LJ: It is kind of a cool role.

LJ: I really like the female vocal in That Moon Song. Who is that?

GAI: She sings back up on This Empty Northern Hemisphere. Her name is Brandi Carlisle. She’s amazing and she’s a really good friend of mine. Her voice fucking belongs in a museum or something. She’s amazing. She’s such an inspiring artist to me. Her energy and her musicality is mind-blowing to me.

LJ: The two of you together on that song – it’s enchanting.

GAI: Yea, she’s got it, and those were one-takes. I just saw her play actually. I was on a long camping trip in my van. I saw her play for the Portland Symphony. It was so awesome.

LJ: Let’s talk about your sound from the two microphones you use while performing — I consider that your signature. How did it come about?

GAI: I love camping in the wilderness and for me music was never a plan as a career. I was in horticulture school. I loved the wilderness. I loved camping and so I would go on long camping trips and I’d play at coffee shops to pay for gas. I’d do one show in Bozeman for 15 people and try to sell 10 CDs and then do Missoula 5 days later (laughs). I’d end up playing these gigs at bars and you’d get 9 PM to midnight or 1 AM, so 3 1/2 hour shows…that’s a lot of music. I’d have to learn a couple of covers but a lot of them are original and I used to play through a harmonica mic and then I just started singing through it just to give myself a break during a 3 ½ hr show. Then I got really into the sound of it. Within a year after that, I started writing for that microphone. Kind of like this subconscious voice I had that seemed to really work. And that mic is a piece of crap. I’ve re-soldered it so many times. They’re really cheap harmonica mics. It’s not going through anything, it’s just going through the house which is great. And Jamie has a love/hate relationship with it because it feeds back a lot so…(laughs)

LJ: I love it. It’s definitely your trademark.

GAI: Yeah. That’s cool. It sort of just happened because I was tired of hearing myself for the 3 ½ hours (laughs).

LJ: About your degree in horticulture — I view gardening and horticulture as a very emotional and sentimental activity that is often passed down from generation to generation. How did you get into it?

GAI: I dropped out of high school and I ended up moving to the city with my drummer, in Philly, and I realized oh man, I can’t live in the city ever. I ended up kind of falling into this really dark place for quite a long time, and a friend of mine said “Hey, I’m going to hike some of the Appalachian trail, do you want to come?” And I didn’t know anything about hiking and camping, and we went to K-Mart or something and I bought a bag and the first 10 days I had canned food. I didn’t know anything about backpacking and we were out there for a long time, and I don’t know, I just woke up to the scent of the natural world and plants in general where I just felt this really strong connection to plants. And my granny, my grandmother was a gardener and I grew up gardening a little bit. But it never had that kind of profound effect on me and even then I didn’t know why I was so drawn to working with plants. I still don’t get it. The weirdo new-age hippy part of my brain it goes “Cool. Well, maybe the earth needs more of those and they made you like it,” you know? (laughs). It’s a weird thing to love but, it’s a huge part of my life.

LJ: You were in the right place at the right time. You sort of needed to be in that moment to be grabbed by something else.

GAI: Yeah. I think when I first had my first vegetable garden around that time. I thought man, I’ve never even tasted food before. I don’t think I’ve ever really known what food was actually like until I was picking it out of the garden.

LJ: I know what you mean.

GAI: It was a cool feeling.

LJ: I met a friend at Pickathon. Apparently he’s a mutual friend of ours. His name is Asher. He said you used to play at a place called The Gryphon Café. Was that a pivotal place in your career?

GAI: Oh yeah. I love Asher. He’s a really old friend of mine from back in those days. Gryphon was an old school coffeehouse that you would picture in the 60s at that time. You could smoke upstairs. There were all these shows every night and all the little vagrant kids would hang out there all the time. We would always cut high school and hang out there all day. It was that place.

LJ: This is a personal question, but I have to ask it. Who do you write about?

GAI: I don’t think it’s a specific person. I’m not in a relationship or married or anything like that. The characters that make it in to the songs are a mixture of people that are either from my past or that I meet here and there. A song about a town might be maybe about really three or four different places. For me, songwriting is never quite that literal. Even when I go for that, when I try, and say like “I’m going to write a story song like Springsteen” or something, that’s a hard thing for me to do for some reason and it never feels like the songs write themselves that way, in my experience and yeah, there are definitely pieces of people in all the songs I write.

LJ: Can I ask you about “All Shades of Blue”? How did you come up with that? That’s a favorite of mine.

GAI: Oh, really, I love that song too. Actually, I was just fishing in Colorado, here in Lyons, with my dear friend Annie and we were working…and my friend Johann, a friend in Austin, we’re super nerdy together — we write a lot of songs together, and we were fishing and I had just come up with …(sings) “when the wine stop workin’ and you’re all run out and all of your high hopes have all headed south…” and then he would be like…“and the songs left the stable…” — and it’s funny, because he’s like, that’s something you would write (laughs) and so we just started swapping these lines and that song just kind of wrote itself and is like, really strong.

LJ: That makes sense because before the song officially came out, I watched a video of you performing it and the lyrics were different than what’s on the album, slightly.

GAI: Oh, yeah, I know. This is a problem that I have. (laughs) This happens to me all time. Which, I don’t think people were as worried about before YouTube or whatever. But, a really huge way for me to finish songs is for me is to play them live. Last night, we booked a secret show, just last minute at a bar. So we played for a couple of hours at this little bar here, just for about 20 or 30 people that were there and I was just playing new songs just to see how they were gonna happen, and I remember that’s how I used to write a lot…just kind of in that moment of that pressure, of like okay just finish…your kind of like pleading the song to finish itself. It’s a really good tool for me to finish songs because I have a lot of starts and sometimes they don’t finish themselves unless I put ‘em on the spot. I think that song kind of found its words later after playing it out a bunch and figuring out what sang well. And then another problem that I have is that I’ll steal lines from myself all the time. I’ll finish a song and then later thing this is where that “cut down the cottonwoods” line should go, and then I’ll write something else for that other tune (laughs). I do it all the time. It’s a problem (laughs). I steal lines from myself all the time.

LJ: I think that’s the best case scenario.

GAI: (laughs) Yeah.

LJ: Another song that stays with me a lot is “If I Go, I’m Goin”.

GAI: Oh yeah, that’s another song I wrote with Johann. You should check out his music. It’s really cool. He goes under J. Wagner. He’s from Austin and he’s such a solid songwriter. He’s kind of like a Steinbeck with his songwriting. He just has that about him and we write together a lot. He’ll say “We can’t use the words ghost or moon!” (laughs). We’ll walk around town and spend like $9 on coffee or whatever, because we’re going after that one line and it could take all day (laughs). That’s really fun. “If I Go” we wrote on a long trip down to Kerrville, TX and Johann goes down there and we just kind of meet up and hang out for a few weeks and I had my truck and we just kinda sat in the back of the truck and then we’re working on the verses and chorus and we’re up to this part where it’s …(sings) “I will go, if you ask me to…” and then this guy John, our friend John Eliot, just walks by and he’s like ..”I’ll stay if you dare!” And we’re like “alright!” (laughs). He’s another great musician, and then he just disappears into the…and he’s just gone (laughs). That whole song was a co-write. All 3 of us. And then John came in at the end and sort of helped us a little bit more with it. That song happened pretty fast. We were trying to write a song, we after writing a story song about a woman, or about a guy who lost his wife and he was living in that house where she had died and he kinda goes crazy.

LJ: That’s amazing to me because I think about what it feels like listening to that song. It feels like such a lonely, personal, haunting, intimate song, and yet you wrote it collaboratively.

GAI: It’s amazing to me too. I know. I never would have thought working with other people, other writers, that you could actually access that place where I’ve only experienced by myself. It seems almost impossible, but it’s totally amazing when it happens.

LJ: It’s an amazing song. Would you mind singing something for me now, that you’ve already released or maybe something you haven’t released?

GAI: Yeah sure. Ah, let’s see, I can play you the morning…this morning’s song.

LJ: It’s called “This Morning”?

GAI: Oh, no…it’s this one I worked on this morning (laughs).

LJ: (laughs) maybe you should name it This Morning!

GAI: Alright, let’s do This Morning Song….

At this point GAI took out his headphones, picked up his guitar and began to sing and play what even he was now calling “This Morning Song,” i.e. the song which was so new, it was otherwise yet to be titled.

As I listened, I reflected on how effortless and enjoyable our time talking on the phone had been, and it occurred to me that, it just simply makes sense that Gregory is as genuine and engaging in conversation as he is when speaking through his music. When you are genuine, it can be no other way. And now, his newest song, which quite possibly no one else had ever heard him play, was dancing around the room I was in– as passionately delivered and as stunning as any of the performances I’d enjoyed in venues packed with full audiences. But this time it was just me, “on the phone with Greg,” having a private live concert of the song he had just created in the morning hours before our call. I don’t hesitate to gush. The experience was surreal, and I marveled at his ability to instantaneously transition from thoroughly engaging light-hearted conversation, to full-on, deeply-passionate immersion into his craft. I thought “pure genius, at the flick of a switch.” But it’s not that at all. The genius and genuineness are ever present. Always at the ready. Inherent. I’d heard it before, and I am even more certain of it now.

If you’ve heard his music, then you know what it’s like too. When you hear a GAI song, it only takes a moment to know that it’s a GAI song, and with every album, he gives us something new within the frame work of that familiar magic. There’s a strikingly unusual chord in the new song. One I’d not heard him use before. It resurfaced briefly within the progression of each verse, and each time it came back around I could hear the master working, assimilating it into the familiar magic of his sound, even transforming the chord itself into “a GAI chord” — hauntingly beautiful.

I don’t know if “This Morning Song” will ever officially be the title for the new song or when his next album might be released, but I do know that this artist continues to bring us great music at it’s genuine best.

Again, don’t forget to catch Greg’s performance at Third Man Records during AmericanaFest, Thursday (9/18) at 9 PM.