I had the pleasure to check in with Gregory Alan Isakov via phone interview to see how his summer tour was going and when we can expect a new album. After a long stretch of shows and a few dates playing with the Lumineers in Texas Isakov is working on finishing the newest album which is set to be out sometime this fall.
Check out the interview below to find out how his passion for music and gardening keep him going, why his music was featured in a Canadian McDonalds commercial and what he did with all of the proceeds.
Andrew Dunlap – Midcoast Station: You obviously have a passion for music, but it is also known that you have another passion, and thats for gardening and horticulture. Is there any sort of relationship or correlation between these two passions or is this something that is mostly kept separate?
Gregory Alan Isakov: Haha, I am actually staring at my garden right now. I have this relationship with both of those things where you can never master it. I fell like once you get into it, you feel like you don’t really know anything. The more I learn about it the more I realize I look up to these really old farmers that I meet who are in their 70’s and 80’s I realize they probably still feel the same way. This is, in the same way, the way I feel about Leonard Cohen with writing songs. I think that there are things that you can do by yourself that are really important, kind of like a relationship to yourself with what you are doing.
Midcoast: Does one inspire the other or do they go back in forth? Especially with writing music, do you find yourself working in your garden and then something makes you inspired musically?
Isakov: I’m sure it does, some lines that get in there. But I think the most important thing for me is that its not songwriting. It could be gardening or it could be fixing the van, or something else but I like to take a lot of space away from songwriting. I think it’s equally as important as sitting down and working things out. An important part of the music is the space and getting a good grasp on that, I think anything different is good. I used to be a gardener full time and I played some gigs here and there when I was in college, but then I did music full time for a few years and I really felt that I wasn’t satisfied and I missed it (gardening) a lot. Which is interesting to think about because when I was 15 or 16 I used to dream about traveling around and playing music all the time, you know, how cool that would be.And for me I’m like ‘wow I miss work some times’, so it’s a different kind of work.
Midcoast: Do you think you are at a point in your life where you have found balance with both and keeping everything in check?
Isakov: I think I am getting there for sure. I’ve managed this farm for about 9 years and I take the winters off and tour a lot and then I work a lot of the summers. Then I got really busy with festival stuff and I wasn’t able to do that any more and now I have gone back to taking the time off in the summers, which has been really cool.
Midcoast: Where do you find yourself most inspired to write?
Isakov: I have been thinking about that more and more and I’ve realized how that type of inspiration, that feeling of inspired writing … you can’t really count on that anymore. It’s such a craft and you really have to work at it. I used to think it would come to me all the time, oh if I wasn’t feeling inspired I would think that I’m just not gonna play or I’m not gonna write. Then I realized that waiting for inspiration is kind of foolhardy.
Now I just wake up and I write, weather I am feeling it or not. You have to give a lot, to get a lot out of it. You have to throw away a lot, and you have to not go after writing masterpieces all the time. I don’t even think that way anymore. I do feel inspired sometimes, but I don’t feel that way very often. Its more of just a relationship with writing I’ve been cultivating.
Midcoast: This past year you had a few songs featured on TV. One on Californiacation on Showtime and the other in a Canadian McDonalds commercial? Tell me more about this exposure for you how it came about and maybe what sort of a response you have gotten form it.
Isakov: I have always wanted to get involved in film or television some how because it’s the feeling of being a part of someone else’s art, and when it fits it’s really nice. The Californication thing happened really fast and we were really happy with it. I like to watch clips and see how the music really syncs up.
Now with the McDonalds thing, we were playing up in Toronto with Blind Pilot and a few people up there saw us play and I guess they had our records and knew some of our songs before that. They were hired to do this commercial for McDonalds and then gave us a call, or rather our management to do this commercial. At first I was like “NO WAY!” It felt funny for me to do a fast food commercial, I said no and then a few weeks went by and they sent me a clip, and it was actually nice. The footage was nice and artistic, and I was still like “No, I don’t think that’s really for me.”
And then I got to thinking about it, and talked to the band about it and everyone was in the same boat. Then we thought “What if we took the money and found some cool organization to donate it to?”
Usually we have to have fundraisers just to fill up our gas tank and have we never really get the chance to really support anything, specifically give money to anything. And i’s that way for a lot of musicians, always sort of just squeaking by. So we found 4 or 5 organizations and just donated it all. We did some things that were more local but then some that were also national as well like Seed Savers Exchange. We got to meet lots of people out in the farming community doing this.
Midcoast: Wait, you donated ALL of the proceeds?
Isakov: Yea, we did. We were tying to figure out how to make this opportunity “feel good” and I think it was a cool thing. We got a lot of hate mail after that but I don’t think anyone really knew the full back-story. I would just kind of smile at them and about it. People would be like “Boo, you hipster sell out!” or something like that. So it was a very cool experience.
Midcoast: You are known to have this staple group of friends in the music world, speaking to both those that play with you and in your band and then those artists that you so often play shows with and support and they intern support you?
Isakov: I think it does a lot. I have those guys in mind a lot when I write. I have played with Phil and Jeff going on eight years, our violin and cello player, and that’s kind of the core recording group right now.Then we have a drummer and an organ player and an electric player as well and they all have other projects too. Everyone kind of has other things that they are working on as well which keeps it creative, and keeps thing fun.
Midcoast: How have these connections and relationships affected you as an artist and how big of a role has it played in your writing?
Isakov: I think about them all a lot when I am writing. Arrangement wise, we write a lot of arrangements as well, and I will never have the same ideas that Phil or Jeff would have so it’s really cool to see how they would all come together. But a lot of times ill spend months in the studio by myself before anyone hears anything.
Midcoast: Is there anything new in the works?
Isakov: I’ve been working on a new record for about a year and a half, which in the time span of making a record that’s about as long as Empty Northern Hemisphere took. We’ve been recording up in a cabin, and the album should be ready in the fall. I’m too worried about the release stuff; I am more concerned with finishing it, haha.We’re really excited about it, it’s really a culmination of years and years of songs that have been sitting for a long time with some that are brand new. When you are making records for that long, some songs start to feel really old and this one has never felt that way.
Gregory Alan Isakov US Tour Dates
|07/14/12||Morrison, COwith Brandi Carlile & Ingrid Michaelson||Red Rocks Amphitheatre||Buy →|
|07/27/12 –07/28/12||Floyd, VA||FloydFest||Buy →|
|08/25/12 –08/26/12||Fayetteville, AR||Fayetteville Roots Festival||Buy →|
|08/31/12||Kerrville, TX||Kerrville Wine & Music Festival||Buy →|
|09/07/12 –09/09/12||Sisters, OR||Sisters Folk Festival||Buy →|
|09/10/12||Portland, OR||Doug Fir Lounge||Buy →|
|09/11/12||Seattle, WA||The Triple Door|
For more information visit gregoryalanisakov.com