I had been hearing about Gregory Alan Isakov for over a year from my girlfriend, a huge fan of his. The first time I heard his voice, was at a live show, when he was the opener for Amy Ray. I was mesmerized by his shy presence and clear dedication to lyrical story-telling. He took over the stage with his voice and unique band of instruments, and I was able to catch him just before he left Colorado for his tour.

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Sounds like you are leaving the country for a bit.

Yeah, we’re going to the Netherlands for about two weeks. I think nine shows, or something.

How did you choose that location?

Actually, there was this guy who has been writing me for a couple of years. He had a copy of my last record and he really liked it. He sort of just wrote me a couple of times and asked if I was ever coming out there. And I was like, yeah, I wish! So he said, what if I booked you some guarantees? He booked some really nice shows and a couple of radio things, actually. Then, I guess he was struggling with cancer this whole time and he passed away a few weeks ago. A really sweet man. Then his friends sort of got together and was like, this was really important to him, we want to see this through, we still want you to come. It’s kind of bittersweet–the whole scenario.

Definitely. So you’ve never been there before?

I’ve been there once, but I’ve never played any shows there.

Anything specific you’re looking forward to?

I think I’m looking forward to all of it. It’s a different set-up. We’ve been on–me and my fiddle player–the road for about a month anyway. Just the two of us. We’ve been doing the tour with Brandi Carlile and so we’ve been opening all the shows. Now we’re gonna have a drummer play in all the shows, which is really nice.

I noticed that you were on tour with Brandi. How did you get in touch with her? How did you decide you wanted to go on tour with her?

I met her about a year ago. We were both playing a show together at Chatauqua. Then she just came up during one of our sound checks and sort of grabbed me and was like, we’re doing a song tonight. I had never really heard her play live and I really liked her voice. We sort of hung out that night and played another show together in Seattle. Then, I invited her to sing on our new record. She was like, yeah. So, I went over and stayed with her for a week or so and we recorded together. Then, they went on a small theater tour and they asked us to come with and open the shows. So it’s been really, really fun.

I saw you a few months ago at The Fox in Boulder when you opened up for Amy Ray (of The Indigo Girls). You brought Brandi on stage and I was so amazed at how beautiful your voices were together.

Yeah, thanks. She’s amazing. I think she would sound beautiful with anybody.

Is there anything that you look for in particular when you decide to collaborate with another musicians?

I really like Brandi’s songs. I was drawn to her songs and her voice. Her voice isn’t too pretty. For me, it’s kind of got this alien side that I really like. I think that fits well. I’ve tried to sing with other people and its never really worked. She’s got great intuition and great feel. I find it really fun to sing with her. But, I usually do my own harmonies on records. Although, Julie Davis, she sang on my last album. She’s in Bela Karoli. I love her voice too.

You’re originally from Johannesburg, which I was surprised to learn. How old were you when you moved to the States?

Seven.

Do you remember much about your time there?

I do. I remember a lot of it. Little kid memories. Like I remember my Air Wolf sweatshirt.

Have you been back since?

Yeah, we went back about a year ago with the rest of my family, my two brothers and my mom and dad. It was really fun. It’s weird. I didn’t really feel like I was going home or anything like that. It sort of just felt like a cool place to be and we have family here. But it didn’t really feel like oh, I belong here.

Where do you consider home? And that doesn’t necessarily have to be where you have your mailbox.

Yeah, I have a P.O. Box right now, which is working out. I don’t know. I lived on a farm for almost eight years, toward Lyons outside of Boulder. That’s the closest thing that I’ve found so far. Now, I’m in a little apartment [where] Jeb, our fiddle player manages the building. We rehearse here and I live down in the basement. But I’m hardly ever here. So, I’m still trying to figure that out.

Speaking of being on a farm. You have your degree in environmental horticulture. Do you practice any of those skills currently?

Yeah, when I was on the farm, I’d come back from tour and work. I sort of managed the greenhouses and all of the gardens. Then, I did a few gardens for private, kind of landscaping sort of things in Boulder. I still take care of a few of those gardens when I’m home in the summer. I have my little experiments here in the basement going on. I have an avocado plant.

Really? My partner is a very prolific gardener. I like to say I have a black thumb. She tried to grow an avocado plant. Do you have any advice?

You mean she tried to get it sprouted.

Well, she put the seed in a small bowl with water and then toothpicks–

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, out of probably15 seeds, maybe like one will sprout. I cut off the ends and then I soak half of it in water and you’ll start to see it crackle go into a little sprout. But I feel like it’s one in fifteen that do it.

You have to have real dedication.

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s because of weird GMO [genetically modified] stuff. I don’t know. They’re aliens.

You’ve been quoted as proudly calling yourself a folk artist. Do you find that label limiting?

Well, actually I don’t really call myself a folk artist at all. We are always in the folk showcases. I have this friend in Austin and she plays songs–sings and plays guitar. You know, people who aren’t into music that much are like, oh, she’s like Ani DiFranco because she plays guitar and sings. And then they say, he plays guitar and sings, he’s like Bob Dylan. Especially, in the recording of this stuff, I feel like instrumentally, I like traditional instruments a lot, but I don’t only use them.

I think we are very obsessed with labels. We often need to have that classification of what we are listening to or what we are reading in order to dive into its sound or message.

Yeah, it’s funny. People are always like–when I’m traveling and meet some people–they ask, what kind of music do you play? Songs. I don’t know what else to say.

You can say good music.

Yeah, good music. There you go.

How did your band, The Freight, come together?

I was doing a horticulture class in Scotland and when I came home, I finished a bunch of songs and decided to put on a show just for fun in Boulder. That’s when I met my drummer, Jen Gilleran and then we started playing together and it instantly worked. Then, Jeb (Bows) our violin player, I’ve known just as long. He’s played in a bunch of bands around. Then Phil (Parker) our cello player, I brought in for That Sea, The Gambler and I really, really liked working with him. Then all four of us–I don’t think it was in the plan to just do music all the time–it sort of just chose us. I feel like we just keep saying yes to stuff. It just keeps going, you know?

Do you have a favorite venue that you’ve played?

Man, we’ve played some really beautiful theaters on this Brandi Carlile tour. There was one theater in Milwaukee that was really old and really beautiful. There was another one in Portsmouth, New Hampshire called the Portsmouth Music Hall and that had graffiti from the 1800s. I like those old haunted theaters.

It must be inspiring.

Yeah, it’s super cool.

As a poet, I find myself paying extra close attention to the lyrics in songs. I love when I can really decipher what the singer is saying. Oftentimes, you can’t always hear what is being sung, especially with the kind of music where you are being yelled at. You have such beautiful imagery in your lyrics. Do you read a lot of books or are there particular writers that inspire you?

I’m not a huge reader. I have a lot of reference material like gardening books and stuff. I really like Lawrence Ferlinghetti a lot. Do you know that guy? He wrote Coney Island of the Mind?

Oh, yeah. I have that book. I love him.

I really like that. And I like this guy Ted Kooser (2004-2006 poet laureate of Nebraska) a lot. When I was touring with Kelly Jo, he gave me this book–he’s like the poet laureate–it’s funny because writers made fun of him because he was like the Coldplay of poetry. What’s his name? Oh, Billy Collins. People are like, oh, he’s not a real poet.

What does that even mean?

I don’t even know! I like, don’t understand that stuff.

Do you remember the first concert you ever went to?

I went to a couple during the same period of time. It’s probably the Appel Farm folk festival. I used to go with my friend’s dad and it was in New Jersey. I remember because I heard Greg Brown and Dar Williams on a small stage. And there were Celtic bands and stuff. And then, my older brother was really into Phish and jam band stuff at the time. I would go with him to a couple of shows. What else? I used to be really into ska music.

Do you find that you listen to music that is similar to yours or do you like to listen to music that is completely outside the realm of what you are creating?

It’s funny, when I’m writing a lot, I won’t listen to music that much. I’ll listen to a lot of Leonard Cohen. When I come home from the studio, I’ll put his record on and I don’t even really listen to it. I just kind of hear it because it brings me back to feeling at home.
When I’m writing a lot, I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy.

Really?

Yeah, and I listen to a lot of radio shows.

Do you happen to ever listen to This American Life?

My little brother loves that show!

That and Radio Lab, which is very science based, but accessible to all audiences. If you’re looking to expand your listening pleasure.

Oh, that’s cool. Radio Lab. Yeah, but I feel like I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy.

Any particular favorites?

I like Steven Wright. I think he’s my favorite.

He’s dark.

Yeah, he’s brilliant to me. Then, I got into this guy Mitch Hedberg.

He’s so funny. Great one-liners.

Yeah, really weird stuff. It’s funny, I don’t even know if I’d listen to my music if I wasn’t me.

Yeah? What an odd comment. Why not?

Well, maybe I would appreciate it. It’s hard to say. I don’t think I’ve ever played my favorite music that I would listen to. This is what I do and it comes out naturally. I was like, really into Pearl Jam growing up and punk music and some folk artist too. Well, all of it, really. When I was really into Pearl Jam or Simon and Garfunkel, I’m like, I sound nothing like them. I think it’s sort of like, this is what I do!

Well, people are obviously listening and enjoying what you create.

It’s been an interesting thing to be brave and play what feels good at the time. Put out records and listen to them a year or two later and think, ooh.

Are you able to look back and think: wow, that was really good or–

It is kind of like a high school yearbook sort of thing. With this last record we just made, all the choices I made were really genuine. The best that I could do at that time. So, that’s what feels good. That’s all you can do.

Gregory, thanks so much for chatting with me today.

by Aimee Herman

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