A local Boulder favorite, it’s hard to imagine how the incredibly talented Gregory Alan Isakov has managed to stay somewhat “under the radar.” The music he creates is haunting and folky with a magical modern twist.
With his band, The Freight, he’s made four albums including This Empty Northern Hemisphere, released earlier this year.
He’ll be playing a main stage set at the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks next Saturday (Sept. 12) before hitting the road with Ani Difranco but he was able to take a few minutes to talk with us about his music, inspirations and fishing with Brandi Carlile.
Q: You’re playing the Monolith Festival, what else is going on in your life musically?
That night, after Monolith, we’re going on tour for two weeks with Ani Difranco, we’re doing this tour with her. It starts in Illinois and it goes through Canada, up through Manitoba and back down through the Midwest, I think it’s like 10 shows.
We have another tour booked, it’s our own “small venues” tour, which we haven’t done for awhile because we’ve been doing openers. So, we’re really excited about that.
Q: Besides your instruments, what do you pack when you go out on the road?
They’re probably still packed right now, I could go look. I bring books, an extra guitar, probably not enough clothes… I have a big stack of postcards that I’ve been collecting on tour, I write a lot when I’m not driving so that’s a good way to keep in touch with people.
Oh! And I bring my fishing rod! It gets really small.
Q: Brandi Carlile told us that she takes a fishing rod on tour with her as well, have you ever had the chance to fish with her?
Yeah, we went fishing in New Orleans. I didn’t [catch anything] but we saw a bunch of crocodiles. Actually, I caught something, but it kinda flew off the hook. I didn’t have a fishing rod at the time and we were all hanging out on a dock after the show. I made a fishing line out of a laminate, like a backstage thing, and I put the hook on one of the ends of them. I caught this really ugly fish, it was like this really slimy, long fish that alligators like to eat or something but it flew off the hook. I was kind of glad I didn’t catch it.
Q: How did you decide to become a musician? Did you ever consider another career path?
I went to school for horticulture, and I feel like I’ll always do that. I have some gardens that I work on in town and I’ve always been playing music, too, since I was a little kid so I guess I sort of just kept saying ‘yes’ to things and I’m sort of still doing that. I don’t know if I ever really decided. I think I’m still deciding.
Q: How do you come up with ideas and new songs?
I kind of hang on to songs for awhile, in my head. I write more driving than anywhere else. I like to play in the mornings , I’ll work at stuff when I wake up and then walk around with it for the day. And if it’s not done in a couple of days, it’s usually gone.
Q: Do you have any favorites of the songs you’ve written?
They’re all my favorite when I first write them and then I don’t know what happens. Sometimes in the recording process something gets lost or something that I didn’t really like becomes my favorite. I think it changes a lot, especially playing out when we’re on the road, sometimes the band will be feeling a certain song that will work better than others. It’s a strange thing, actually.
But on the record, well, that record was really fun to make. I liked most of the songs. I think “Master and a Hound” was one of my favorites. “Evelyn” and “Dandelion Wine” were fun songs to write. It changes around a bunch.
Q: What’s the any songs you’ve wanted to cover but never have?
I was listening to Nebraska last night, really late at night. And I was thinking, ‘Man, there are so many songs on that record that I would love to do.’ But a lot of times, the songs that I’ll cover are friends’ songs. Like my friend, Johann Wagner, I write with him sometimes, he lives in Austin. And my other firend Ron Scott lives in Austin and I’ll cover their songs a lot. That’s my favorite thing to do, and then there’s old traditionals that I like a lot.
Q: What have you always wanted to learn how to do?
I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the pedal steel, and I’m learning how to play the clawhammer banjo. That’s been a couple year process, I’m starting to get it. I learned how to play the saw a couple years ago, when I was recording our first record. There was this saw part that I really wanted to put on it so I borrowed a saw from my friend in Boulder Acoustic Society and he let me hang onto it for a couple months.
Q: What’s on your mix tape?
Probably my friends Ron Scott, Reed Foehl – his new record’s really good. Elizabeth Cotten would be on it, Kelly Joe Phelps, Gillian [Welch], I heard the Wheel had a new record out, and some old Springsteen.
Q: Is there anything people listening to your music need to know about you?
It’s been cool to watch the record find people. I’ve never gotten that much press and we’ve never played out that much so it’s kind of been cool to see who’s found it on their own. I like to take myself out of the picture as much as I can because that’s the way I listen to records. I don’t want to know much about them and I don’t want to see their picture everywhere, I don’t want to hear them on the radio all the time. I hope that the music can speak for itself.
Photo: Todd Roeth