Gregory Alan Isakov’s Way With Words

The acclaimed folk troubadour talks to SoundDiego about his new album, writing and more

Gregory Alan Isakov 1-Rebecca-Caridad
Rebecca Caridad

Gregory Alan Isakov's got a way with words. Not only evident in the hushed beauty of his eloquent folk music, the songwriter's love of the English language comes across in the thoughtful, measured way with which he speaks in conversation.

The Colorado-based musician, who barely hovered over a whisper while talking yet was quick to laugh during our recent phone interview, is also delightfully transparent: what you see is what you get. After finding widespread success after the release of his critically acclaimed 2013 album, "The Weatherman," Isakov is just as easy-going, compelling, and yes, quiet as he is on record.

With the release of his new, five-years-in-the-making album, "Evening Machines," right around the corner (it's out on Oct. 5), he admits to obsessing over lyrics in a way that'd make any literary professor proud. And his music -- with its pastoral, baroque leanings (even before the release of his 2016 collaboration album with the Colorado Symphony) -- is all the better for it.

Dwelling in a realm where storytellers are the rulers of the world and words exist with equal, if not more important, footing than that of accompanying music, Isakov is more a poet than a guitar-slingin' musician. In fact, he finds his own musical ability suspect...but more on that later.

During our talk, the self-professed logophile (who performs in San Diego on Oct. 14) discussed the making of "Evening Machines," how he found his authentic voice -- and the long-lost album sitting in his vault. 

Dustin Lothspeich: How are you, my friend?

Gregory Alan Isakov: I'm doing great! This time of year's always a little crazy for me, but I'm doing great.

DL: I read somewhere that you started touring basically when you were 16?

GAI: Yeah, I mean, I traveled around in bands -- I played drums in a punk band in high school and we played up and down the East Coast a little bit and then, the songs that I play, this stuff I play now, was sort of in my kitchen forever, and I started playing smaller coffeehouses and bars and stuff when I was in college.

DL: I think that's such a strange transition, going from punk to what you play now. How did that happen?

GAI: Yeah! I think, for me, I was a huge fan of Biohazard and death metal and all the Seattle grunge stuff that was coming out in middle school and high school, for me. Nirvana, that was everything to me. And I was like, that's what I wanna do! I wanna climb scaffolding one day and rock out and I learned every Stone Gossard solo in my room, you know, like everything. [laughs]

I would play that kind of music but later, I noticed, after I had borrowed my brother's guitar, the stuff that was coming out was nothing like the stuff I wanted to do. I was just starting to discover my writer's voice and the way I naturally make things. And that was really different than what I wished it would be. And I realized "There's something here for me, I should cultivate this because this is what I naturally do." And I think it took a while for me to not be like, "No, this is cheesy or this is too quiet," or whatever. But I needed it. It was more like medicine for me. And that's when I realized that it would be the most impactful -- and that's our only gauge, you know?

DL: It seems like it was kind of a struggle, like what's coming out of your heart and mind was not really what you envisioned yourself playing?

GAI: Yeah! I think growing up is such a cool time with any art because you're trying all these things on and you could be anything. I mean, the sky's the limit. And that doesn't go away completely but it definitely gets a little bit more focused as I grew up 'cause I realized I don't even consider myself a guitar player, you know?

DL: Really?

GAI: Yeah, I've been playing guitar for a long time but I do the bare minimum with the instrument to get the song across. I love writing and I really work on writing a lot, and that's what really does it for me.

DL: I read that you have a huge affinity for words. It sounds like that almost takes precedence over guitar then for you?

GAI: I think so. I've been swapping the guitar a lot for a Wurlitzer I have in my house and pianos and stuff, but I'm so lucky because my band is all such great musicians and I can kind of steer the ship aesthetically, but a lot of times during rehearsal, I'm like "Hey Steve, what chord am I playing here?" Because I'm kind of following my ears a lot of times, and that's sort of been my route.

DL: That's such an interesting thing. I think when people hear your music, they automatically assume you're a guitar player kinda guy, you know? So, you play guitar but it's not, like, an overtly technical thing for you?

GAI: Not at all. Like, I do poetry workships down in Texas on the Mexican border ... and there's no guitar. A bunch of songwriters go down there every year but it's just poems. It's my favorite thing. We'll just be cutting up books, and we'll find old romance books and sci-fi books and like, we'll be working and talking about Leonard Cohen in the desert and it's like my favorite thing to do. [laughs] I know it's super nerdy but I get so excited about a line of lyric or when something kind of comes together with words, I just get so into it.

DL: To be honest, I don't talk to a lot of musicians that get really into their lyrics.

GAI: Well, in school, I didn't like writing at all. There were all these rules and I wasn't good at it. I wasn't good at the rules and I didn't know, like, where the commas go, and I found out later that you can kind of make it up. [laughs] And then I was like, "Oh, this is really cool!" It's a good lens to look at the world through. I didn't really have that before.

DL: Do you think your lyrics could stand alone without the music and vice versa?

GAI: You know, I write a lot of poems, too. I think so many of them are worthy of being in a song and there's this kind of marriage between space and words and music. Even for this particular record ["Evening Machines"], I was really trying to be minimal with the amount of space that I took up with words. And really tried to have more music going on and be cool with that. 'Cause I think that, you know, it was more of a process of deleting than it was of adding.

DL: I love Josh Ritter, for example, but when I listen to some of his music, I feel like he crams so many words into every song and sometimes I just wanna hear the music.

GAI: I go through that sometimes, too. I love, oh my God, I love Josh Ritter. He's such an incredible writer. I went out on tour with him and read his book, it's called "Bright's Passage," it was his first novel and it's so good. And I was talking to him about it and he said, "It's really nice to just write." Because with songs, you're like, this has to rhyme and there's these unspoken kind of forms you have to follow for it to sing well. Like some words are never going to sing well...

DL: That's interesting because one of your new songs, "Chemicals," features that word as its chorus and to me, "chemicals" is one of those words that I just cannot ever imagine sounding good in a song but you make it work so beautifully.

GAI: Thank you. That's a curiosity of mine. Finding those almost obscure lines that are a little bit awkward at first. But I'm kind of embracing these awkward moments in my art. [laughs] That probably doesn't make much sense but there's a lot of beauty in awkwardness. I found that a lot with our song "Caves." That's a really bizarre song, and very little of it sings well and the storyline is bizarre and [in the studio] I thought "I want this to feel like a chant, like a thousand people are singing this." So we all kind of crowded in the studio and just sang everything together; it was like a sing-along but like a sing-along on heroin or something. Like, this should never be a sing-along. [laughs] There's some power in that.

DL: That's funny. I was going to bring up "Caves" because to my ears, it sounds like one of the most "rocking," for lack of a better word, songs you've ever done. Is that a direction you're going on in the new album?

GAI: Yeah, it's heavy. Some of the stuff came out a little dirtier and uglier than my previous records. but that's the way they were coming out, you know? I love making quiet records. it's one of my favorite things, just making a really quiet record in the winter and having a lot of space in it. And our shows tend to be a little bit heavier anyway. We tend to play with that noise a little bit more ... With this record, I wanted to marry the two a little bit more and still maintain a sense of spaciousness to see if I could do it.

It was sort of a challenge. Every song kind of has its way that I want it, and then it has the way that it wants to be. I started realizing that ... the songs have their own mind sometimes. There's a sweetspot of where they record, and there's a sweetspot of when I put my listener mind on, how it affects me. So I kind of follow that and have fun and really dive into the songs.

DL: That reminds me of something Lee Fields told me about his writing process recently. He mentioned that he doesn't sit down and write a song, it has to come to him, like in a existential way. He can't force anything.

GAI: I definitely resonate with that. I've shelved entire records before. Before I made "The Weatherman," I made a whole record before that, fully tracked, pretty much mixed, and I came back to it and I thought "Man, this sounds like I worked it too hard." Like I steered the ship too much. And I could tell. And I knew that it was going to bother me later ... I kind of consider that year of recording a part of the making of "The Weatherman." I needed to make that record first.

DL: Why do you think that?

GAI: To just kind of realize what didn't feel right. And then "The Weatherman" happened really fast. I recorded that in a couple months.

DL: To have that perspective on your own music seems almost impossible.

GAI: It takes a lot of time away from it to come back. I'll never hear these [songs] as anyone else will but for me, I can't know if people are going to connect or resonate with anything I'm making. All I can do is actually not fool myself and really bleed into it in the right way. And then I never look back. I'll never say, "Hey, you could've done better."

Gregory Alan Isakov headlines the Music Box on Oct. 14. The show is currently sold out.

Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, an associate editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2013, and talent buyer at The Merrow. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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