October 31, 2014. Copenhagen, Denmark.
‘John Steinbeck would have been the best damn songwriter.’ It’s Halloween night and it’s only just warm enough to sit outside at Copenhagen’s Nameless Bar. I’m trying to get American songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov to talk about his creative process; how it is that certain ideas grow into songs and then how those songs come together as a record. But asking songwriters to describe their craft is almost always elusive, and, in the case of Isakov, the process seems to be a kind of continually evolving mystery - even to the artist himself. Isakov is sincere, he seems to truly wonder at the whole process of songwriting. And this is probably why our conversation keeps drifting away from songwriting and toward more tangible subject matter: traveling, friends back home, the sheep and honeybees on Greg’s farm, and eventually, John Steinbeck.
I meet up with Isakov in the midst of his nineteen-date European tour, where he’s playing smaller venues than he’s used to back in the US. But these intimate shows are selling out. I ask Greg, who lives on a hippie-commune-turned-working-farm in rural Colorado when he’s not touring, if he’s ever surprised to see audiences in places as far away as Sweden or The Netherlands singing along to his songs. ‘Oh yeah, it surprises me every single night. Whenever you make a record, you create this thing and then you send it out into the world, but you have no idea how people will receive it. You just hope it will connect.’
Isakov’s most recent album, The Weatherman, was released independently in 2013 to widespread acclaim. And by all accounts, The Weatherman is Isakov’s most complete record to date: thirteen songs richly woven with impressionist lyrics, lush instrumentation, pastoral restraint, and an overall tone of hope. ‘To me, the idea of a weatherman is really powerful,’ Isakov explains, ‘there’s a guy on television or on the radio telling us the future, and nobody cares. It’s this daily mundane miracle, and I think the songs I chose are about noticing the beauty in normal, everyday life.’ Replete with both earthbound and cosmological imagery, The Weatherman is a transportive record. But, as with all of Isakov’s music, the latest record still leaves, ‘plenty of space for the listener to dream.’
When we finally settle into to talking about the craft of songwriting, here’s what Greg had to say about his process, recording The Weatherman, getting over his ‘lost album,’ the unending search for ‘home,’ and, of course, Taylor Swift.
AS: Where does a Gregory Alan Isakov song come from?
GAI: ‘Man, [smiles] where does any art come from...where does a painting come from? Somewhere along the way a seed gets planted, and then I just try to get out of the way and let the song come to life - to let the idea run it’s course. A lot of the process is about identifying and then channeling the right feeling into a song. If a new song is any good, then it won’t go away; but sometimes I have to back off for a while and then come back to it. The whole process is pretty organic, and you certainly can’t force it. For example, ‘Second Chances’ (from The Weatherman) was a song that never seemed to want to be finished. I recorded it, then re-recorded, had to leave it alone for a while, and then I’d start over. But, thirteen versions later, it finally came together - the arrangement, the players, and that specific feeling I was trying to channel. But it was a serious labor of love.’
AS: Creating a cohesive album seems important to you. Can you talk about that?the
GAI: ‘That’s true. Both as an artist and a listener, I love it when a record has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think it allows the music to tell a better story. I’ve always kind of seen albums as songwriters’ gifts to the world. That’s why whenever I start recording, I try to be completely present in the process. When I’m making a record, I bleed into it. In fact, before we recorded The Weatherman, I wrote and recorded an entirely different album of songs but when it was finished, I just wasn’t satisfied. So, I destroyed those tapes and started over again.’
AS: : Do you think anyone will ever hear those ‘lost songs?’
GAI: ‘I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Maybe. But, it was like I had to get that other batch of songs out of the way in order to make room for this other album - the songs that would eventually become The Weatherman.’
AS: : NPR Music called The Weatherman ‘a rambler’s folksy manifesto.’ How does travel inspire you?
GAI: ‘Usually my songs come about with a kind of life of their own. I don’t ever set out to write a song about California or Holland, per se. But yeah, places are in there a lot. I actually wrote most of the songs for The Weatherman while on a previous tour in Europe. So, at that time, I was encountering a lot of new people and places on the road while simultaneously thinking about people and places back home. And, in a way, most of my songs are about people longing for something or someone that feels like ‘home’ to them. They’re all songs about searching.’
AS: If you could relocate someplace for an extended period of time for the sole purpose of writing songs in a new environment, where would you go?
GAI: ‘England, I think, or Scotland maybe - I’d love to settled down in some stone village that’s surrounded by green hills. Some forgotten place. I’ve been to the UK several times and I’m always surprised by it. There’s such a long tradition of songwriting and storytelling there, a lot of great folk music from Britain that I listen to.’
AS: : Are there records that never get old for you, no matter how many times you listen to them?
GAI: ‘When we were kids we listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen, specifically The Songs of Leonard Cohen. And those records are still inspiring to me. More recently, Beck’s Sea Change and Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad have had a big influence (oh, and of course, every record that Taylor Swift puts out). You know, people will say that ‘every song on Tom Joad sounds the same - that it’s monotonous,’ but I like that about it - it has a continuity of feeling that draws you into it. In my opinion, that’s what makes it so timeless.’
AS: What’s a dream collaboration for you?
GAI: ‘It would be amazing to work with [producer] Glyn Johns. He’s done everything, produced everybody: Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Band of Horses. I’d also love to work with Jolie Holland (of The Be Good Tanyas) - her voice is just perfect.’
AS: Any new projects on the horizon?
GAI: ‘Yeah, actually, I’ve been quietly at work on some low-fi rock songs. Exclusively with the electric guitar, just playing around in my kitchen. But the electric guitar is such an amazing tool - it’s fairly new to me, but it’s addictive. I’ve also been working with Brandi Carlile on a straight-ahead country record. Who knows if either will ever see the light of day or not but they’re both a lot of fun so far. I think it’s important to always be open to what could be; you have to dream, experiment, try things out.’
This interview originally appeared in Cold North Magazine. All photos by Seth Nicolas. Special thanks to Gregory Alan Isakov, his new album Gregory Alan Isakov With The Colorado Symphony is available now.