BYU Radio’s LIVE music performance program, Highway 89, is reaching out and interviewing artists whose schedules don’t currently allow them to come and play a set in-studio. We’re calling this our “From the Road Series.”
Gregory Alan Isakov is a singer/songwriter, touring artist, and occasional farmer that released a new CD: The Weatherman. Highway 89’s host, Steven Kapp Perry, recently spoke with him.
SKP: I’m excited to be talking today with Gregory Alan Isakov who is on a break ‘from the road.’ And I think most of your life is currently touring, is it not? Except for a day or two stolen at home in Colorado?
GAI: Yeah, you know most of the winters that has been the schedule lately. Because I run a small farm just outside Boulder, Colorado. So I mostly work during the summers. We’ll do some festivals [in the summer] but not very many.
SKP: You have a brand new album, it’s called Weatherman and there’s not really a song on the playlist called Weatherman. Is it a line or is it just an idea that you chose that for?
GAI: It sort of happened kind of organically. I was writing a series of short stories called The Weatherman and at the same time that I was making the record. So a lot of lines made it into the record and a lot of the ideas and a lot of the subject matter was sort of just about these everyday things that maybe you skip in your perception or you don’t notice as much. These kind of very normal mundane things and bringing light to these and finding magic in them.
SKP: You know you have a very distinctive sense of art, not only in your music (what I hear reflected), but if I look on your website too there’s this look: something nostalgic from the past. I saw a fans response to a photo you had posted. It was you in an old—what we’d almost call an immigrant’s cap—and that person said “What century do you live in anyway?”
SKP: And I wonder do you ever feel out of sorts with the modern world?
GAI: I always do, yeah. I think I always have had that kind of feeling—especially where I live it’s the more rural setting. But I am pretty psyched to live right now [in this day and age]. (Laughing) I like getting avocados in the winter and there’s some pretty cool things about our modern day world.
SKP: I’d have to agree about that. Let me ask about songwriting for you. Is that something you set time aside for like: “Okay, it’s nine o’clock it’s time to write a song—I’m going to work on it every day.” Or are you looking for an idea or a feeling first and that’s how it comes?
GAI: Well, I have a writing practice and it’s not necessarily songwriting—it is sort of boundary-less. Sort of prose and short stories and poems which I usually do wake up in the morning and do that. And then when I am working on a piece of music sometimes a line from the [other] writing will make it in there. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I think the muscle, the craft of punching-in, that kind of going to work, is really important. I don’t know if [I] would be as efficient without it.
SKP: At some point these writings turned into songs and then you must have shared them with somebody because people wanted to hear them. And what made you decide, “Well, maybe I should record these? Maybe I need to go around and tour with these?”
GAI: I don’t know. Y’know that’s a funny question because I think I’ve always been attracted to making records. I never thought I’d get to tour or get to do this for a living at all. I was a horticulture major through college and worked on a bunch of farms. And had a landscaping company—like [actually] just me! A one man show (laughing)! And I think I’ve always treated music like it’s part of my day…it was a thing I did after work. And making records is something I’ve always just—I love records. I love the entire thing. The whole piece of music, song after song after song. And some records just speak as a whole piece of work like that. And so I’ve always wanted to make records like that and I’m always striving for that.
SKP: Well, you’ve assembled a band and as we were setting up [the recording equipment] I said “Is there a name for your band?” And what did you say?
GAI: (laughing) I said, “The guys I pay.”
SKP: (laughing) Okay, the guys I pay to play. But how did you assemble that crew?
GAI: Well, we’re all best friends. We all met in the music scene in Denver and Boulder and we’ve just always been playing together. Whether it’s just bar gigs, or touring, or in my kitchen—we all sort of grew up playing music together.
SKP: People always predict the demise of live music because music is so available, so downloadable, but as you tour around (and you really do tour around the whole country--Just looking recently you’re all over the west from Colorado to California and I see that your Salt Lake City show is sold out, although a few tickets left for Park City) but do you see that? Is it harder to get audiences or do people just really connect with live?
GAI: I think people really do love live music. I love connecting that way as well. You know I never thought I would because it never came naturally to me. It was something I always used to get extremely nervous about and pace back and forth before every show. And that never really went away, but I’m more cool with it now—with that kind of energy. But there’s something that I get out of [performing live] that’s almost ineffable. I don’t really know.
SKP: Well, I can tell from your website that you care about your lyrics because they’re all easily accessible there. But you don’t really seem determined to tie up every loose end. How would you describe your writing?
GAI: I think that’s sort of a goal of mine. When I switch over to the listener part of myself, I want to be able to create the story along with the piece of music as well. So it’s this subtle balance of trying to tell a story and also leave it open. Which I think that’s what I need out of music when I listen to it. We’re all just trying to make something useful to people. And music is one of those things that is so personal and so important.
SKP: I guess the technical term I could use was you have a very strong aesthetic sense, but that sounds sort of dry. I could also say it’s pretty cool but maybe what you said is best: that it’s personal, it’s distinctively you. I really hear that from what you do.
GAI: Thank you. Writing is sort of, it’s amazing, it is sort of a mysterious thing because I think I always feel like I’m co-creating this piece of music. Maybe I start out with a seed of some kind and then I’m sort of [thinking] I hope you finish this week or this year. But I’m sort of having this conversation with it until it’s finished. But I’ve always looked up to writers like Leonard Cohen, Springsteen, Dylan and some of these writers just tell amazing stories—their [songs are] like little short films in two or three minutes. That’s never really been my style, that never came naturally for me. For me I’ve noticed [with] my writing one line will be from a bird’s eye view and maybe the next will be from underneath the ground or in a different place or different time on that situation. But that just seems like the way that it naturally comes.
You can find out more about Gregory Alan Isakov on his Facebook Page
Highway 89 is a live music performance program distributed nationally on Sirius XM 143 BYU Radio with classical format shows airing in Utah on Classical 89.
Produced in BYU Broadcasting's state-of-the-art recording studios in Provo, just 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City, Highway 89 features professional musicians in all genres. You can follow the show on Twitter @byuradio and @byuh89.