In Conversation with Gregory Alan Isakov

Given the rustic tone of his music, it seems appropriate that Gregory Alan Isakov recorded his fourth full length record, Evening Machines, in his barn-turned-studio in Colorado. The album, released Oct. 5, blends a familiar palette of indie-folk tropes with elements of haunting electronic production.  

Isakov’s interest in music first emerged during his early teens, when he was inspired by Americana legends like Greg Brown and Richie Havens playing the folk festival circuit around Philadelphia. By age 16, he was touring with bands as a multi-instrumentalist.

“It was all in my parents’ basement,” Isakov said in an interview with The McGill Tribune, recalling his early projects. “All the bands that I was in were in people’s parents’ basements. We just hung out. We were bad and we loved it. We got a chance to be really terrible [….] I think that time in a musician’s life is so important because you can actually explore. Your taste changes every other day and everything changes all the time. It’s so fun.”

Isakov draws from a breadth of influences, praising Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as his ‘folk heroes,’ lauding Leonard Cohen’s lyricism, and professing his love for Michael Jackson and the pop music he grew up with.The USA for Africa 1985 single, “We Are the World” was the first record he ever obsessed over, and he remembers spinning it endlessly as a child.

Working in an industry obsessed with innovation, Isakov remains ever a fan of the classics. When it comes to songwriting, the artist is more interested in making albums feel like complete pieces from beginning to end than trying to force a unique sound.

“We’re not writing anything for the first time,” Isakov said. “There are only so many chords and so many ideas.”

When planning Evening Machines, Isakov focused on cultivating a dark atmosphere that unifies the whole album, cutting songs he loved but felt disrupted the cohesion of his work. The tracks vary from modest acoustic moments to lushly-layered experimentation; however a sense of completeness transcends these sonic differences. Isakov manages to say a lot while using words sparingly, penning sparse yet introspective lyrics brimming with haunting natural imagery. The conflicting feelings of warmth and eeriness expected of folk music permeate Evening Machines.

The five-year gap between Evening Machines and Isakov’s prior release, The Weatherman (2013), was not merely the result of a process of writing and recording. In 2016, Isakov released and toured a compilation album of 11 of his most popular songs, rearranged and performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. On top of his music, Isakov focused on expanding his farm outside of Boulder, Colorado.

The farm is more than a mere hobby or retreat from the hectic lifestyle of touring; it is Isakov’s first calling and complements his music career.

“I always farmed,” Isakov said. “I went to school for it. Next to my bed is a bunch of horticulture books–that’s mostly what I read. Music was something I did with my free time, and I got a chance to work on little bits of writing while I was working. It supplements my life in such an amazing way, not only monetarily […] but the work was good for me and good for the writing. I don’t know how they correlate exactly, but I feel like I need them both.”

As Isakov prepares for his 40th birthday, looming in the not-so-distant future, he feels nothing but grateful disbelief when he reflects on his career.

“I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m not 20 anymore,” Isakov said. “Just running around with my band and trying to make the farm work, I feel like I’m doing the exact same stuff, but I’m not as stressed about it.”

Nonetheless, the singer has no lingering fears about growing older.

“I think I’ve sort of let go of the outcome, I’m just in it for the moment. If that’s what growing up is about, then I’m into it.”

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