Gregory Alan Isakov: Before and After

Music Intern Bryce Russell asks Isakov about his hometown and his current playlist

Jul 3, 2024 at 3:59 pm
Gregory Alan Isakov: Before and After

Gregory Alan Isakov graced the stage at the Louisville Palace on Sunday, June 16, touring in support of his new album Appaloosa Bones. After a magnificent opening set by Liberian artist Mon Rovîa, Isakov stepped onto the stage and opened his show with his stunning song “Amsterdam,” setting the mood for a night filled with heartfelt lyrics and beautiful, swelling instrumentation.

It was Isakov’s first Louisville concert since he performed at Headliners in 2019.  With new songs from Appaloosa Bones, as well as older classics, the Colorado-based songwriter had the audience at the Palace hypnotized, totally absorbed in the music.

Before the show, LEO had a chance to interview him to talk about Appaloosa Bones, Colorado, and what he’s been listening to.

LEO: Your new album, Appaloosa Bones, has a slightly different sound and theme from some of your past work. What impacted that sound, the sort of western feel and cowboy-esque imagery you can hear throughout?

Gregory: It’s funny that made it in. A lot of times the landscapes where I’m at make it into the songs, and I wrote a bunch of that record in West Texas, near Big Bend National Park. I put together all the songs at home in the studio where I live. I think I tracked [around] 35 songs of stuff that was cooking for me, and just slowly whittled it down and it turned out that a lot of the songs that made it were from that part of the world.

So, your home now is in Boulder, Colorado. What was it about Boulder that drew you in and made you want to live there?

It’s funny, I’m shocked I’m still there. I came out there to build a horticulture school, and then I met my band. I managed a few farms out there, and then finally got my own land about ten years ago, and so now I feel like I’m pretty rooted, pretty affixed to it now.

One part of your work that has always struck me has been the storytelling present in your lyrics. Do the stories in your music come along as you craft the song, or do you have an idea of them before you begin work on a new piece?

I never know what it’s going to be before I write it. In a lot of ways that’s the magic to it. I’m sure as a writer you can probably relate to that, as you’re just following along, holding onto the reigns. It feels like almost a co-creative process with this piece of writing and yourself, and you’re asking it what it wants to be. A lot of times I have no idea what they’re about when I’m writing them, and then afterwards I’m like “oh yeah, I think I get it now.”

Appaloosa Bones is your first album since Evening Machines in 2018. Has the idea for this album been marinating since the release of your last one, or did it come relatively recently?

I’ve been working on it probably since then. I’m already working on a new thing. It takes me not very much time to track a record, it’s more that I’m pretty serious about taking the time away from the music and then coming back to it, to make sure it’s going to live for me. I think when you finish a piece of writing or something you get really excited, you’re like “oh this is it! I struck gold!” and then a year later you’ll be like “oh it’s not that good, I don’t know if anyone is going to get it.” So, I like that period of time away from it, and I come back and just check in with it to see if it’s going to be useful to me and other people. I think a lot of the process for me is just trying to be quiet between sessions, and then going back. Records are not merch, it’s not like “I need a record for a tour,” I want to make things that are going to last hopefully after I’m gone. Maybe that’s an illusion of grandeur but I think in my own little world I want to make something that I feel can stay around. I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet, but that’s the goal.

You were just featured on a new single from Shovels & Rope earlier this month and one with Noah Kahan in February. How was it collaborating with other artists?

Yeah, this year I did a bunch of collaborations, one with Noah and one with Shovels. I did a song with Jeremiah Fraites from The Lumineers, he put out an instrumental record that he was really wanting to do one song with vocals, and he chose this Radiohead song. I loved it. It’s not something I do a ton, but I always have a really good time collaborating with people, it’s really good.

Just because it’s my favorite song of yours, I just wanted to know if you could give any background into “Saint Valentine” from The Weatherman in 2013?

Yeah, that’s funny, we haven’t played that in a while, maybe we will play it today. I think that a lot of songs for me come out of short writing, short prose, and I always had this picture of this story of this character, Saint Valentine. That holiday has always been this weird Hallmark holiday, there’s always been this weird pressure. I used to wait tables and I remember Valentine’s Day was awesome because the tips were really good, but it was like, “oh God, these poor people.” I feel like there was all this pressure around it, to go out to this nice restaurant and spend a lot of money, and if you don’t do anything it’s  whack. So, I had this idea of this character that was a bummer, [who had] this weird veil of this diluted idea. I started there and it went its own way. I remember I used to busk a lot and a few street musicians made it into the song.

What artists have you been listening to on repeat most recently? Anything you want people to listen to and find out about?

A lot of music. I’ve been listening to a ton of instrumental music, this guy Alabaster DePlume, he’s a jazz saxophonist. It’s funny, I woke up here in Milwaukee and went down to get a cup of coffee and ran into my friend Sam from Iron & Wine. I have been obsessed with his new album he just put out, so I was talking about the recording of that with him this morning. I love that record. I just think Sam is one of the greatest songwriters that I know right now, just the way he can tie all these elements together in a song. Gosh, I listen to a lot of Nick Drake, probably too much Leonard Cohen still. At the end of the year you get your Spotify wrap-up? Mine was hilarious this year, it was this playlist called “Japanese Fishing Village,” and it was this Japanese Koto music. I seem to have that on repeat a lot at the farm because we wash and pack for two days a week, basically just washing lettuce and bagging it. But yeah, we’d just have this playlist going all day long and it’s this Japanese fishing music. It’s hilarious when Spotify tells you what you’ve been listening to. But yeah, going back, Alabaster DePlume is pretty interesting. He’s got this one record you got to listen to called To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals, Vol. 1, it’s a beautiful record, amazing.