Interview with Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov talks about his creative process, his latest album, and more

Gregory Alan Isakov
Greogry Alan Isakov. © Todd Roeth

Gregory Alan Isakov self-released his fourth album this spring. That disc——has quickly become one of my favorite singer-songwriter albums of the year. With lush, warm arrangements that create images of star-strewn skies and wave-rocked boats adrift at sea, the album spotlights Isakov's incredible artistic restraint and intuition. On the heels of that release, he was kind enough to chat for a spell with me about his creative process, among other things. Following is part one of that interview:

Kim Ruehl: Let's start with the question I ask almost everyone. Do you identify with folk and traditional music?
Gregory Alan Isakov: Yeah, I think I do. I listen to a lot of it, although...when people ask me what kind of music I play, it's gotten to the point where I just say "songs" [laughs], because there's so much going on out there. But I do relate to [folk music].

I read a quote from you somewhere where you told a reporter you try to get out of the way and just let the songs do their thing. I'm wondering how exactly do you do that? Do you just give the songwriting process a really long time?
I actually don't give it that long. I think if a song doesn't make it in a couple of weeks, it's gone. I don't try to work anything too hard. The best ones just come out at once. I think that's the most exciting thing for me—I come to it not really knowing what something is about in that moment or what I'm doing in that moment. It could be about four different people or five different towns.

The longest I spent on anything [on This Empty Northern Hemisphere] was the song "Dandelion Wine". It's a really short song and it would stop at the same place every time I tried to play it. Nothing would come, so I'd just put down my guitar. I really enjoyed waiting for that song to happen. It wasn't one of those songs where I would be in my notebook for hours trying to work it out. It was just [a matter] of waiting for it to finish itself.

You were saying sometimes you'll write a song and you don't know what it's about. Are there songs where the meaning never comes to you and it is what it is? Or is [the meaning] always something that comes the more you perform it?
Are you asking if sometimes the meaning never comes? Sometimes I won't know for a long time what it's about and then I'll think about the song in a situation and realize that's what it's about. That's my favorite.

What makes a song a good song?
That changes for me a lot. I think right now it's not saying too much, being as reserved as I can be with words and trying to display as much as possible in as few words as possible. I was listening to Paul Simon and he does that a lot. There's a certain line he'll use and you'll take it out of context and it won't mean anything. But, put it in a song, and it means nine different things. I think that's what I like about listening to music. That's one of the things, at least.

I was introduced to your work when you played solo in Seattle last fall and was surprised on your records by the super-lush arrangements. Generally, when folks make lush recordings and then play the songs live solo, it changes the song in some way. That doesn't seem to happen with your stuff. Is that all part of getting yourself out of the way? Are you aware of that?
Yeah, very aware. I don't play that much by myself, although the last couple of months I have been. It's such a different realm that happens when you play solo. In the writing process, I'm always writing for arrangements. Our cello player lives upstairs from me and our violinist is really nearby as well, so we get together when something happens and we work it out that way. That's such a [large] part of the writing process for me—where the music sits and how it fits, how it complements everything.

When I used to play solo a lot, or when I saw a show of someone by themselves and I got their record...I'm never bummed out that it was a full band record. Or, if they play with a full band after their solo, stripped-down record. I think recording is such a different medium and a different audience as well. When I make records, I think of one person listening to it in their car, the way I listen to music a lot.

Do you come into the collaboration with other instrumentalists with a really clear image of where you want them to go in the song, or have you just gotten lucky by collaborating with freakishly intuitive players?
Sometimes I'm pretty specific. [laughs] I'm laughing because I play with incredible musicians. Jeb [Bows, Isakov's fiddle player] will have some ideas on something and it'll make it into the song so well. Then, when we sit down to record I'll have very specific ideas. The first time we sit down to play something, I won't say anything for a couple runs at all, to see what happens. And then if there's anything present, I'll bring it up. It's become pretty organic with us, which is nice. I'm definitely the arranger, though. I'm always picking out that stuff. I hope it doesn't get annoying [laughs].

There's a lot of moon and sea imagery in your lyrics and a lot of rocking boat motion in the music itself. What's your obsession with the moon and the sea? 
You know, it's funny. I get into these little curiosities with writing. I keep a little book with me all the time and I'm always writing in it. It changes so much, some subject matter or stuff I'll notice that keeps popping up in the writing. At home, I have these huge sticky notes that post-it makes. They came out a couple years ago. I love those. You can stick them up on the wall; they're huge. I have a page of four words I can never ever use again.

There are a lot of sea songs and ocean songs on  That Sea, the Gambler. This record has this whole circus idea, circus music I was listening to and images that go in with that. I don't understand that all the way either, you know. It used to bother me more than it does now. I really like this Gillian Welch record that happened a couple of years ago. There was this line she'd use in a couple of different songs. Maybe it was the Abraham Lincoln line. It would be different songs but a really similar line.

It's something that ties the record together and makes it more of a comprehensive unit of songs instead of just a bunch of individual tunes. 
Yeah, exactly.

Interesting. I hadn't thought about it like that, but that's cool. Anyhow, more specifically on this record, what about that particular song made you choose it for the title of the record? 
I think I had that title tumbling around my head for a long time before we started. It was just where the songs were coming from during the time of writing that record. It was such a long title, and my name is so long as well. Which hasn't been a problem but I feel like it could get annoying for people [laughs]. Someone asked me, "Why don't we just call it Empty Northern?" I don't was important to me that it was that line from the song. It just felt right to me. It was where the songs were coming from, where I was at with making it.

It raises interesting questions about emptiness because this northern hemisphere isn't exactly "empty."
Right. I guess...I lived on this farm for about seven and a half or eight years. It was a refinished barn and out my window was nothing. You couldn't see anything. There was a little cow pasture and that was it, and a little structure on this hill that no one had lived in a long time. Every time I looked up the hill it just felt completely vast and empty to me. I walked around and took pictures of this house that was on the hill, thinking I'd use it for the cover. The feeling in the photographs never came through, but I always think of that image for some reason, when I think of that record.

What record has been the most influential and formative for you and your direction as a songwriter?
There's definitely been a few.  The Ghost of Tom Joad was a big one for me. That Springsteen album. I think I've listened to that album more than I've listened to anything else. Then there's... Songs of Love and Hate [by Leonard Cohen]. Maybe because I had them on vinyl and I had to listen to the whole thing from start to end. Those records feel so complete to me. They don't feel like they came out when iTunes was around [laughs], when you could just buy songs from it. You'd hear it on a mix or something, but it has such a full feeling for me. I've introduced people to those records, especially that  Tom Joad one, and [they'll tell me] every song sounds the same. But I love that about it.

You've had a couple of records out but you're still starting your career in the iTunes era. Do you find it's a challenge to make a record that's really better in its entirety than it is in spurts and individual downloads? 
Yeah, especially when you don't have anything to hold onto, you have a download of the album but nothing tangible to hold onto while you listen to the album. It's important to me. I think records are important to people who like that. I hope the way people like to listen to music...I hope for the best. When I'm setting out to make a record, I make it for people who like to listen to records fully. That was something that I used to think about a lot.

I just love buying a new record or seeing a show with somebody and I can tell in the first couple of songs that it might take a few listens to get into it. I just love that so much.

What's your favorite sandwich? 
I like the veggie reuben. There are different ones that they make all over the country and I like all of them. There's a little grocery store in Boulder that makes a really good one.

Do they use tempeh? Or is it field roast or something else? 
They use that fake lunch meat stuff, which is the weirdest stuff in the world but I love it [laughs].

Interview conducted May 28, 2009.