While we’re often told that success comes through a singular specialization, singer-songwriter-farmer Gregory Alan Isakov would tend to disagree. Learn more about Isakov’s passion of balancing agriculture and music, his new album Evening Machines (out 10/5 on Dualtone), the differences between playing club shows and symphonic concerts, and much more in our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One.
You can also take a dive through the poetic lyrics and masterful storytelling of Isakov’s past and present catalog with his exclusive NoiseTrade sampler, nine songs.
NoiseTrade: Before we get deep into your new album, I wanted to first ask you about farming because I am fascinated by your multi-pronged pursuits. Can you tell us how you first got into farming and how it affects your creativity and work ethic on the music side of things?
Gregory Alan Isakov: I actually went to school to get my degree in horticulture and I now run a small market farm. I’ve got about a quarter to half acre in production and I run 10 sheep on another acre. I do it all myself. I grow for a couple different markets and a couple different restaurants, mostly during the main growing season. I never thought I’d be able to play music for a living. It was always just something I did after work. Sometimes I’d get a gig up in the mountains or something and I’d always look forward to doing that right after a long day of work. I just never considered it as a livelihood.
I was just talking to my neighbor, who I was helping out with her irrigation and she sells some of my produce, and I told her “Dude, touring is harder than farming.” Some days my body just feels so bad from touring, maybe because I’m not outside as much. I constantly find that both music and farming require a lot, but in totally different ways. For me, I just love getting to play with my friends every day, but it comes with so many challenges. Finding the balance between the two is just a total dance, but it’s so important to me.
NT: Having recorded Evening Machines in your converted barn studio, what do you like most about being in total control of the recording and production processes and are there any drawbacks or obstacles to it?
Isakov: For me, I’ve always put out bedroom records, mainly because I couldn’t afford an hourly rate at a studio because of my process. I find that songs reveal themselves in the studio and I don’t like to rush it. It’s a delicate process. I am so envious of my friends in bands who can go into Bear Creek for a week and crank out a record that sounds incredible. I wish I worked that way but I don’t. So I’ve always had to be a little more self-sufficient.
The drawbacks really come in isolation. I’ve set up one room that I just love the way it sounds. It has a really great live room sound for a whole band. If we want to isolate an instrument, I have this little side room that we usually use for washing produce or for cold storage and we can sometimes setup a little amp or something in there. I’ve never had great luck with isolation when trying to track along with a live band though. I guess that would be the only drawback because there’s so many more benefits for me: like waking up at two in the morning and everything’s on and available and right down the hall. That’s invaluable to me.
NT: You’ve released three singles from Evening Machines so far: “Chemicals,” “Caves,” and “Dark, Dark, Dark.” What can you tell us about the inspirational threads behind each song and the themes that run through each one?
Isakov: I recorded a lot of songs for this record, about 35 of them, and eventually whittled it down to 12. A lot of the songs that actually made the record all kind of were written during a period of time at home and traveling in the sand dunes of southern Colorado about three or four hours south of here. “Dark, Dark, Dark” was purely inspired by that landscape. Songs rarely present themselves to me that directly. Sometimes it’s just pieces of writings that are made up from 10 different towns or 10 different people. But that one really happened fast just right in that environment.
“Caves” is a song that we’ve been playing for about a year and half now. It was a writing experiment for me as my longtime friend Ron Scott was visiting from Austin and I just followed him around on the farm and wrote down a bunch of weird shit he said. That song is about my relationship with Ron because he’s one of those friends that really loves silence. We’ll hang out and not talk at all and it’s not weird at all. We tried to create one of those weird singalongs from a ‘70s rock song where everybody’s singing but what they’re singing is a little bit bizarre.
I wrote “Chemicals” while driving back to Colorado from Austin. I realized that those long trips in my van are the only times were I’m truly alone. You feel like you’re just eating up words and experiences and then it finally just all comes out at once. I pulled over and the song just came out like I needed to write it right then. At first I felt it rode the line of “too personal” to me. I need things to feel personal but I was like “is this too much like a high school journal?” Eventually I just went with my heart and I was surprised that Dualtone wanted to release it as a single. I thought it’d just end up on a b-side somewhere.
NT: You mentioned that you recorded 35 songs in full for your new album. With only 12 songs making the final album cut, what did the whittling process look like for you and will the other unused songs surface at some point?
Isakov: Yeah, there’s a whole other batch of songs that felt like they wanted to live together somewhere else. So they’ll be released eventually. As far as the ones that did make it, I was kind of running out of time because the growing season was starting and we were in the mastering process. I was plowing and getting everything ready for about two weeks straight. That’s my busiest time of the year, getting the gardens prepped and ready. Things get a little more chill after that. So I had my headphones on the whole time listening through the tracks and picking them that way. I didn’t want it to feel like I was just sitting in front of the speakers and judging my entire life. I wanted it to be easy and I wanted to be alone. I wanted to not think about it too hard.
NT: For the mixing of the album, what was it that drew you to work with the roots-meets-punk combination of Tucker Martine (Neko Case, The Decemberists) and Andrew Berlin (Descendents, Rise Against)?
Isakov: My recording partner who has lived on the farm for a long time, Jamie Mefford, started touring with Nathaniel Rateliff. So he wanted to help but was gone for like 200 days that year. I learned about Andrew Berlin being in Fort Collins and he ended up coming down about three days a week to work with me. We worked for like six months together that way. That’s another thing about the barn is that a dedicated mixing space would be really expensive and a whole other set of ears. So we knew we needed to mix it outside of that space.
As far as Tucker, over the years I’ve just loved his records and have always wanted to work with him. I went out to his place and mixed on his old C37 tape machine and it sounded amazing. Everything sounded great except for a couple of the vocals were a little dark, so Andrew fixed those in post in the last final mix. For the most part, we just let things live as they were. Everyone was just helping out and we were just following our ears the whole time.
NT: Finally, your NT sampler also features two tracks from the 2016 album you recorded with the Colorado Symphony. What first interested you in symphonic collaboration and what are some of your favorite differences between playing a club show with your band and a concert with a symphony behind you?
Isakov: Every year around fall, my friend Sarah and I hang out on the farm and write down the craziest dreams we have. Years ago, one of them was to play with an orchestra. We had seen the Colorado Symphony play and somehow we got a chance to talk to the conductor. We asked if they thought it would work work or be a good idea. No one was really sure but it went over really well. Since we had all the arrangements written, we ended up touring with 12 or 13 different orchestras across the country. It was such an incredible experience. It was way different then club shows. If I miss a vocal entrance during a club show, the band and I can vamp on something or feel things out. We never play the song the exact same way on any given night. With a symphony, it’s more like “okay, exactly how many rounds of chords do I play before the vocal” or else it’s going to be a train wreck. You have to be on and it’s extremely intimidating. You’ve got these immaculately dressed, incredibly talented musicians and we’re hobbling up with our amps and apologizing that all of the songs are in the key of C. I think it was amazing for all of us though. Such an incredible experience.
GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV CONFIRMED TOUR DATES
September 21—Jackson, WY—Pink Garter Theatre* (SOLD OUT)
September 22—Bozeman, MT—Emerson Center for Arts & Culture* (SOLD OUT)
September 23—Missoula, MT—The Wilma*
September 24—Boise, ID—Egyptian Theatre†
September 25—Spokane, WA—Big Crosby Theater†
September 26—Billings, MT—Pub Station Ballroom*
September 30—Morrison, CO—Red Rocks Amphitheatre‡ (SOLD OUT)
October 1—Boulder, CO—The Fox Theatre††† (SOLD OUT)
October 4—Salt Lake City, UT—Eccles Theater*
October 5—San Francisco, CA—Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
October 6—San Francisco, CA—Great American Music Hall†† (SOLD OUT)
October 8—Portland, OR—Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (w/ Oregon Symphony) (SOLD OUT)
October 9—Seattle, WA—Moore Theatre**
October 10—Vancouver, BC—Commodore Ballroom**
October 12—Chico, CA—Senator Theater**
October 13—San Luis Obispo, CA—Fremont Theater**
October 14—San Diego, CA—Music Box** (SOLD OUT)
October 15—Santa Barbara, CA—Lobero Theatre***
October 16—Los Angeles, CA—Theatre at Ace Hotel**
October 18—Austin, TX—Emo’s††
October 19—Dallas, TX—Granada Theater ††
October 20—Kansas City, MO—The Truman KC††
November 2—Omaha, NE—Sokol Auditorium‡‡
November 3—Iowa City, IA—Englert Theatre§
November 4—Des Moines, IA—Wooly’s‡‡
November 5—Minneapolis, MN—First Avenue‡‡
November 7—Chicago, IL—The Vic Theatre‡‡
November 8—Toronto, ON—Danforth Music Hall‡‡
November 9—Montreal, QC—Corona Theatre‡‡
November 10—Hartford, CT—Infinity Hall§§
November 11—Washington, DC—9:30 Club§§ (SOLD OUT)
November 12—New York, NY—Irving Plaza§§
November 14—Philadelphia, PA—Union Transfer§§
November 15—Brooklyn, NY—Warsaw§§
November 16—Boston, MA—Royale§§
November 17—Boston, MA—Royale#
November 20—Brussels, Belgium—Orangerie Botanique##
November 21—Hamburg, Germany—Uebel & Gefaehrlich##
November 23—Oslo, Norway—John Dee##
November 24—Stockholm, Sweden—Nalen##
November 25—Copenhagen, Denmark—VEGA##
November 27—Amsterdam, Netherlands—Paradiso##
November 28—Groningen, Netherlands—De Oosterport##
November 29—Berlin, Germany—Passionkirche Kreuzberg##
November 30—Cologne, Germany—Gloria##
December 1—Zurich, Switzerland—Mascotte##
December 2—Paris, France—La Maroquinerie##
December 4—London, UK—O2 Shepherds Bush Empire##
December 5—Bristol, UK—SWX##
December 7—Dublin, Ireland—Academy##
December 8—Glasgow, Scotland—Saint Luke’s##
December 9—Manchester, UK—Academy 3##
*with Joshua James
†with Shook Twins (duo)
‡with special guest Patty Griffin
§with Pieta Brown
**with The Wild Reeds
††with Oh Pep!
‡‡with Haley Heynderickx
§§with Leif Vollebekk
#with Reed Foehl
##with Joe Purdy
***with Glen Phillips