:: Boulder Theater :: August 4 ::
:: Arise Music Festival :: August 16 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
The interior of Gregory Alan Isakov’s home is covered with posters. While the singer/songwriter could easily wallpaper a mansion with all of his own gig posters that he’s played over the years, it’s not his shows that he’s staring at on his walls. The posters are much more utilitarian than that. They don’t display pretty images, but instead showcase a giant open notebook of everything he’s working on, and some things that he walked away from long ago.
“They’re giant Post-It notes — poster size — that you stick on the wall. I’ve been using them for, like, five years. I carry notebooks, but I don’t like flipping pages. I like to see the whole thing at once. I write a lot, so I have to choose what makes it and what doesn’t and so I leave stuff up for years so I can go back and work on them, like, ‘Oh, that second-bathroom door song.’ So I have all these pieces of writing and it’s a way for them to find a home. It ends up being a cut and paste thing for me,” Isakov said during a recent interview with The Marquee. “They’re everywhere on my walls right now. It’s just another part of the writing process for me.”
And Isakov always seems to be writing.
The South African-born, Colorado songwriter just released his latest album The Weatherman in early July on his own label Suitcase Town Music, four years after his critically acclaimed This Empty Northern Hemisphere. But it’s wrong to think that Isakov penned only 13 songs in four years. “I’ve actually written two albums before this and was slaving over one for about two of those years. I wanted to make something really in the moment and follow the creative spur that I was on, and I was really glad I did. I didn’t want to make This Empty Northern Hemisphere again. I wanted something more raw. So it’s funny to me that people are promoting this record. I’ve been kind of thinking, ‘Maybe you should have promoted the one that was more mainstream,’” he said with a sort of bashful chuckle. “This one is kind of raw. I was shy about it at first, because to me, I sort of made a writer’s record. It’s pretty bare.”
While it may be sparse, Isakov somehow managed to also make The Weatherman incredibly rich as well. His spectacular storytelling, coupled with an impeccable knack for phrasing, is the obvious focus of the album. But Isakov’s band — which includes Jeb Bows on violin, Philip Parker on cello, Steve Varney on electric guitar and banjo, and Jen Gilleran on drums, along with a host of guest musicians — adds subtle accompaniment throughout. So even the most bare tunes never sound like just a singer and a guitarist, but rather like a deep, lush, brilliantly colored musical tapestry.
“That was the direction I was going on for This Empty Northern Hemisphere and I think we got there on a couple of songs, where we broke into this subtle ocean of sound,” he said.
Isakov recorded the album just outside of Nederland in The Mountain House Recording Studio, an analog studio owned by Colorado musician Todd Adleman. “We recorded it in the middle of winter and we were snowed in a few times, which was great. It was really organic. Friends would stop in and all of my friends made it on the record, which was amazing,” he said, pointing out that in addition to producer Jamie Mefford who added drums, “god noises” and background vocals, the list of Colorado musicians who accompanied him on the recording includes Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival, James Han, Nathaniel Rateliff, Julie Davis, Reed Foehl, Jon Grigsby, Will Schlatmann and Reyn Ouwehand.
Isakov also explained that the title of the record and many of the lyrics that are in the songs were inspired by a short story he was writing when he began work on the album. “I was writing a short story about a weatherman, this character in a trailer park television, and this woman that he would converse with. He was sort of this mythical kind of creature and a lot of the lines in that story made it into a lot of the songs I was writing. It made sense to me on a lot of levels with this macrocosm of landscape and also these just really small relationships we have with people and the world. The weatherman is a powerful figure to me, because everyone talks about the weather, and every day there’s this guy on TV standing there, telling the future and no one really gives a shit. Everyone is sort of like, ‘It’s just the weather,’ but it’s amazing to me. It’s this miracle that happens — even when they’re wrong.”
Already, The Weatherman has drawn massive critical praise. NPR Music is playing tracks from the disc and The New York Times even streamed the entire release on the “Press Play” section of the famed paper’s website.
Despite the praise, Isakov is more than level-headed about his successes and is humble almost to the point of embarrassment about the accolades. “Our vision wasn’t to be huge. It was never our vision and it still isn’t. So we’ve really been content playing smaller clubs, like 200 people, kind of the size of the hi-dive and those kinds of places. We love those shows, but we’re lucky enough to be playing some larger ones, too. Like tonight, we’re in D.C. It’s sold out and walking into the room I get nervous, like, ‘Is this really our show?’” Isakov said, laughing. “We’re seeing that a lot more and I’m really proud of our band and what we’ve been doing. We’ve been working really hard for a long time.”
The success has also granted Isakov the chance to do some important philanthropic work as well. Two winters ago, while on tour with Blind Pilot in Canada, Isakov was approached by some filmmakers who had been hired to do a Canada-only television commercial for McDonalds. “They called the day after the show and asked if they could use our song ‘Big Black Car.’ I’m a vegetarian and I’ve never eaten there, but I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m an organic farming major so I don’t think this is going to work out.’ They called back the next day and offered $45,000 for the song and we were still pretty uncomfortable with that. I’m the last person to be political or kind of play in those realms of culture and stuff like that, but then we started to think about all the amazing things we could do with that kind of money,” he said.
Isakov ended up accepting the deal and while the songwriter could have paid off a lot of his own personal bills, he instead gave the money to a half-dozen organizations ranging from local to global. “I got hate mail for a month afterward, with people calling me a ‘hipster sellout,’ with the hashtag #shameonyou. It was really tough, but then I’d run into the owner of the soup kitchen and she’d be like, ‘You just fed 3,000 people.’ So in the end it felt really good. I just saw an opportunity to do something good and from personal experience, knew these places could use it. And ultimately, the song went to number one in Canada, so a lot of people found our music through it,” Isakov said.
Isakov recently started a tour that will keep him on the road throughout the summer, save for a few weeks when he’ll be back in Colorado for some local shows, and he said that when he’s home he hopes to focus on another part of his writing process — not writing. “It’s an important part for me to not write at all, to not play guitar, to listen to standup comedy and NPR and do some gardening for weeks at a time.”
:: Gregory Alan Isakov ::
:: Boulder Theater :: August 4 ::
:: Arise Music Festival :: August 16 ::
(Festival runs August 14 – 18)
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