Gregory Alan Isakov [Interview]


We are lucky enough to be able to corner Gregory Alan Isakov while he is at home between spells on the road touring on the back of his latest record The Weatherman. We have been huge fans of his for a while here at The Boatshed, and so we’re hugely excited to be asking his a few questions. Put this on to set the mood.

The Skype tone rings.

[Gregory] Hello, Alex?

Hi Gregory, how are you doing?

Good! I’ve been home for a few days now having being away for a couple of months playing some shows. It is nice to be back and just stare out of the window for a few days.

Sounds relaxing! I think I am right in saying that you’re in Colorado now, but before living there you were in Pennsylvania, and before that it was Johannesburg, South Africa. When did the move from Johannesburg happen? Do you have many memories of the place?

Yea, I went to high school on the East Coast where we travelled around a lot, but in terms of South Africa I don’t have much more than little-kid memories. I remember our driveway being a couple of miles long and then going back and realising it was 5 feet or something - things like that. It was a crazy place to be a kid because it is the most beautiful country, where you could run outside and pick mangos and avocadoes, but then there was the political climate, which provided a sense of real warning. There were always warnings over certain places.

Let’s talk about the new record The Weatherman. What is the theme, and how did it come together?

It came together pretty quickly. I wrote a lot of pro’s as part of a series of short stories and one of the stories was about a weatherman. The story involves a woman in New Mexico who’s crazy and talks to herself. She has conversations with a weatherman on TV, and he tells her what was going to happen. It got me thinking. It is am amazing thing that we know what is going to happen with the weather tomorrow, but nobody gives a shit! The record is about finding mundane miracles.

How do you feel it fits ion with the rest of your work?

It felt scary, like a drastic tangent. I’d been writing lo-fi rock and roll songs before that. Then all of a sudden this dreamy folk record came along. If I am really honest, I don’t know if my writing has gotten better, or whether it has been evolutionary, but we are always trying to find something new in our work. In that sense releasing work is always a risk.

If you’re writing what you’re feeling, and you’re happy with the songs you produce, then surely that’s good. And it sounds like this is the case.


What are your experiences of The UK? Have you had a good time here?

I was in The UK in October last year and we had a great time. I had a limited view on the place, though. Travelling as a musician can be tough when all you see is green rooms. Musically I feel like the bar is higher in the UK and people will give more time and attention to art. The songs that people ask to hear are so different to what I usually get and they are usually some of my favorites, that are a bit more subtle.

I used to ask people what music they were listening to at the moment, but after a few goes I realised that it is a crap question. People instantly think they have to say something cool, or that fits in with their image. Or, in the pressure of the moment they forget ALL music. So, I’ve modified and I will ask you - If I were to turn on your Ipod now, what would be playing?

I use a turntable and I get into playing a whole side for a week, then I’ll flip it over and listen to the other side for a week. When I’ve completely finished with it then I will change. Right now it is our buddy Sanders Bohlke. He opened in a run for us in the mid-west. He is a great human being and musician. The last one was Leonard Cohen ‘Songs’. It is one of my favourite records ever. I don’t think I could even name the songs on it, I’ve listened to it so many times that I don’t even know whether I’m listening to it anymore. It just makes me feel like I’m at home.

‘The Road’ is something that affects American music in a way that it can’t in other cultures. In The UK, for example, historically our music is not as romantically linked with movement and journeying, it is more introspective and personal. You’ve spent a great deal of life on the road. Is this a strain, or a pleasure?

That is a really interesting point. The songs have a mind of their own and they’re often a product of the taking in of your environment. I tend to travel around, eat a bunch of experiences, read some poems, see things and then throw it up in a song. That said, I can pick out the travelling songs really easily, and I almost shy away from it now because there is only so much of a travelling experience that a listener can identify with. Love songs are similar in the way that they are almost put in a box – categorised.

What do you think folk music is? Where is it at the moment?

When I think of folk music I think of Elizabeth Cotton, not Nick Drake, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. When I think about how people categorise folk, bearing in mind the heritage the music has, I am reminded of a time when I listened to a radio show about folk music and people got really up in arms about what the hosts were describing as folk, as they didn’t think it fitted their interpretation. I was like “Oh, this really matters!”

What does your house look like on the inside?

Messy! There are amps everywhere. Some tumbleweed I’ve been saving. A table with a lamp on, and a couple of books that I’m reading. One is Billy Collins’ new book, which I love. The other is ‘How to grow More Vegetables’.

So you’re a veg grower!

I went to school for horticulture, but I like reading reference material, more so than literature. I’ve got a few tools lying around, but that is about it. We just had a big flood in Colorado, which was crazy. We lost a lot of stuff. I can almost fit everything I own into the van, which feels amazing. I’ve been freed. People are weirdly sentimental about things. Do you really need this felt pinecone that your friend made in elementary school, or that camera that worked for a little while, but doesn’t now?

Your music is relaxing, and largely based around fairly tranquil themes. When was the last time you lost your temper?

Oh, like, um, I mean… today! It is funny, Jamie Mefford and I were working on a record for a year and a half, and there were a lot of heavy distorted songs and fast tempo rock and roll songs. Then we tried to track The Weatherman Stuff. When we compared the takes we did for The Weatherman to the ones that we had slaved over for months to try to get the perfect sound we were shocked by how well the rough takes came across in The Weatherman. We would go with something that felt good over a more perfect take. I feel like I may have fooled my listeners a little bit, because the chilled stuff is definitely not the full gambit of what I produce.

So you’re not the chilled guy everyone things you are! You’re sitting at home like Ryan Adams listening to Black Metal.

Maybe not that, but I think I have a mad scientist energy. I am pretty mellow person. I can’t remember the last angry blow up!

What are the plans going forward?

I’ve got some time off, and then I’m out on tour with Josh Ritter. We’re doing like 30 shows.


It doesn’t sound like that many to me now, but it is a lot! I suppose it is like 5 weeks.

Scenario: you’re on show number 24, sure, you’ve changed around your set list a little. You’ve brought out some funny jokes that you’ve learned along the way. So, 24th show in 28 days, is there a sense of “God I’ve got to go out and do it again” or is it “Hell yea, lets do it”.

It is both. I have probably played over a thousand shows, but I still feel completely scared shitless every time, just like it is the first time. I am way more comfortable with the feeling now, meaning I don’t resist it. Once it starts it is always great. I let go, and become consumed. It is funny, I make my records for one person. I imagine performing them to a single person on a train, or driving a car, and then on stage there I am playing them to a whole crowd, which is a whole different medium. I feel like some things are then lost in the songs, but that they also take on a lot from that atmosphere.

Is there a feeling of power?

I don’t know about that, but there are times when I turn into another listener and the songs I’m playing will feel like covers. It is an odd feeling. The coolest thing about writing music is the idea that you are going to help someone feel something. You will get into their lives - provide a mood or a soundtrack. I love the idea of my music becoming theirs. Once I write something then I feel like a very much give it away, for other people to make their own.

Finally, can you tell us a story about the road?

The first one I can think of is when I’m 19, just starting out. I got the chance to support one of my hero’s - his name is Kelly Joe Phelps. It was the most surreal experience. We travelled up the southeast and went al the way up. I didn’t say a word on stage, or open my eyes once. He is not a big talker either, but we got on like a house on fire. We’d hang out in the green room, share a bottle of wine, not speak and then he would say: “Alright kid, your turn”. I’d always watch him play from the back of the room. He is a master, one of those people whose music makes you want to either drink a lot or find a church.