Interview: Gregory Alan Isakov

Before arriving in Seattle for his tour stop at The Showbox, folk rock artist Gregory Alan Isakov took a few minutes of his tour bus time to chat with us about farming, friends, and comedy. We managed to maintain a cell connection long enough to hear about his love for good storytellers and anthropomorphic cartoons.

Gregory Alan Isakov: Dude. I hope we don’t get cut off. I’m in the bus right now and we’re driving through Wyoming. .

Seattle Music News: No worries. I imagine it’d be pretty spotty out there but I’ll try to keep this short for you. First of all, how’s the tour going so far?
GAI: Amazing. Yeah, it’s been really good.

SMN: Awesome, do you get a little bit of a break between dates right now?
GAI: Yeah, we, we did about 25 or 30 shows, and then we took about three weeks off and then now we’re headed out again.

SMN: Cool. Did you get a chance to like take in the sights in Wyoming? The countryside? Yellowstone, maybe?
GAI: Oh yeah, a little bit actually. I’m running a small farm outside of Boulder, so I’ve just been running around like a crazy person almost. But, yeah, I went down to the sand dune a couple of times, yeah.

SMN: What are you farming? What are you growing?
GAI: I’m growing beans for an organic seed company, an heirloom seed company. We do fruit, vegetables, and then we have some sheep and chickens and stuff.

SMN: Well it sounds like you’re living the life. I can’t imagine what life is like on the road, but what do you like to do to unwind on the road?
GAI: You know, I love touring. I get so much out of it, especially this tour with the orchestra. It’s amazing. It’s been really musical. We get to play so much music every day, I really look forward to it every time

SMN: I imagine there is a lot of collaboration on the bus now that you have so many other musicians with you.
GAI: (laughs) Yeah, it’s definitely… it’s like a circus.

SMN: Well circuses are always fun, so I’m glad to hear that everything’s going well there. I’m sure you get this question often but I have to know. Growing up in South Africa, moving to Philly, I’m sure you’ve been exposed to a lot of different musicians in your life. Who were your influences at the beginning up until now?
GAI: You know, when I was a kid, I had like one record. One of those Fisher Price records, and it was, “We Are the World.” It was like a single player. You know what I’m saying?
SMN: “We are the World” as in Live Aid?
GAI: Yeah, the Live Aid thing.  

SMN: How about right now? Who’s inspiring you right now in the musical world? Who are you listening to?
GAI: There’s so much. I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy, I listen to a lot of my friends. There’s a guy, Leif Vollebekk, and he’s a great singer/songwriter from Montreal. And we went out with Langhorne Slim. I’ve been loving what he’s doing.
SMN: Oh, I love his record.
GAI: Yeah, he’s doing a lot of this run with us. What else I’ve been listening to? Just friends of mine. I write a lot of people, back and forth, and I get a lot music in the mail sometimes (laughs). So that’s mainly what I’ve been doing. I have a lot of friends in Austin. Johann Wagner. I’ve been listening to him a lot. Ron Scott, Mandolin Orange. I love Blind Pilot‘s new record.

SMN: As far as stand up comedians go, who’s your favorite right now or all-time? Either one.
GAI: I really like Patton Oswalt‘s stand up. I think he’s… I mean, a good comedian is one of the most… I think that is the hardest thing because you just see the internal working. It’s hilarious. It’s just philosophy and you know, it’s like it’s deep shit (laughs). I love Louis C.K. I love Patton Oswalt. I love Demetri Martin. They’re just the masters of storytelling. I love that.

SMN: Now you’re playing with this huge symphony, so it’s a big departure from what your fans are used to hearing. What inspired you to collaborate with a symphony?
GAI: Yeah, it was a really mutual collaboration. It was a real leap of faith for me because, I think when I make records, space is just such an ally to me. I keep pulling space into records and try to get as stripped down as possible. And it was really a challenge to make this song. You know I was wondering if, if the songs would still have that within them and they totally did. And they came alive in a different way. But not all of them. We recorded 15 and I chose the ones that really had that about them. It was such a fun collaboration. There were so many people involved, with making that record.

SMN: So now that you live in Denver, how many times have you played Red Rocks?
GAI: You know we’ve played there a bunch. 3 or 4 or 5 times. Opening a lot, and there were basically a couple of festivals recently that we played there.
SMN: Can you look back to the first time you played there and describe that feeling in one sentence?
GAI: The first time we played there, we played this like band show. It was at a festival and it was to like 15 people drinking coffee at 10 in the morning (laughs).

SMN: It doesn’t have to be the big crowd. That’s an awesome memory in itself. You’ve been touring for quite some time now. Looking back at all of your records up until now, what song do you enjoy playing the most live? The first one that comes to mind.
GAI: It changes a lot, you know. Today, I think that this is probably true for a lot of musicians but I have a new record that’s almost done and so we’ve been playing a lot of the new songs at our shows and I think new stuff is always my favorite. Because you haven’t like, changed it all the way yet. There’s this one song called “Caves” that we’ve been playing every night that I really love playing.

SMN: Are you currently covering any songs on tour?
GAI: Yeah, I mean, it changes every day. In New York, I played a Leonard Cohen song, because he is the soundtrack to my life.

SMN: How many times have you been to Seattle?
GAI: The first show there was at the Jewelbox Theater.
SMN: The Jewelbox Theater at The Rendezvous bar?
GAI: It’s amazing. I loved it and my friend Brandi Carlile came and sat in with me. I think there was 20 people there and it was awesome. That was such a beautiful, cool show for us.

SMN: Is there anything that you’re looking forward to seeing or eating while you’re in Seattle?
GAI: I always… Is that place Brooklyn still there?
SMN: The Brooklyn as in the oyster shucking place?
GAI: Yeah. I love that place. And I also really like Caffe Vita.  

SMN: All right, we always ask the artists that we interview the desert island question. If you were stranded after a shipwreck and you had to only save one book, one album, and one movie, what would they be?
GAI: Okay, the movie would be Groundhog Day. The book. That’s a tricky one. You know, it would be The Far Side Gallery. The big Far Side. For the record, I would probably do the Songs of Leonard Cohen honestly.

SMN: That’s all I have. Drive safely and we’ll see you on Saturday. Thank you so much for taking the time
GAI: All right. Have a great one. Bye-bye.