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Interview with Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov talks about his creative process, his latest album, and more

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Gregory Alan Isakov

Greogry Alan Isakov

© Todd Roeth
Gregory Alan Isakov self-released his fourth album this spring. That disc—This Empty Northern Hemisphere—has quickly become one of my favorite singer-songwriter albums of the year. With lush, warm arrangements that create images of star-strewn skies and wave-rocked boats adrift at sea, the album spotlights Isakov's incredible artistic restraint and intuition. On the heels of that release, he was kind enough to chat for a spell with me about his creative process, among other things. Following is part one of that interview (Read part 2):

Kim Ruehl: Let's start with the question I ask almost everyone. Do you identify with folk and traditional music?
Gregory Alan Isakov: Yeah, I think I do. I listen to a lot of it, although...when people ask me what kind of music I play, it's gotten to the point where I just say "songs" [laughs], because there's so much going on out there. But I do relate to [folk music].

I read a quote from you somewhere where you told a reporter you try to get out of the way and just let the songs do their thing. I'm wondering how exactly do you do that? Do you just give the songwriting process a really long time?
I actually don't give it that long. I think if a song doesn't make it in a couple of weeks, it's gone. I don't try to work anything too hard. The best ones just come out at once. I think that's the most exciting thing for me—I come to it not really knowing what something is about in that moment or what I'm doing in that moment. It could be about four different people or five different towns.

The longest I spent on anything [on This Empty Northern Hemisphere] was the song "Dandelion Wine" (purchase/download). It's a really short song and it would stop at the same place every time I tried to play it. Nothing would come, so I'd just put down my guitar. I really enjoyed waiting for that song to happen. It wasn't one of those songs where I would be in my notebook for hours trying to work it out. It was just [a matter] of waiting for it to finish itself.

You were saying sometimes you'll write a song and you don't know what it's about. Are there songs where the meaning never comes to you and it is what it is? Or is [the meaning] always something that comes the more you perform it?
Are you asking if sometimes the meaning never comes? Sometimes I won't know for a long time what it's about and then I'll think about the song in a situation and realize that's what it's about. That's my favorite.

What makes a song a good song?
That changes for me a lot. I think right now it's not saying too much, being as reserved as I can be with words and trying to display as much as possible in as few words as possible. I was listening to Paul Simon and he does that a lot. There's a certain line he'll use and you'll take it out of context and it won't mean anything. But, put it in a song, and it means nine different things. I think that's what I like about listening to music. That's one of the things, at least.

I was introduced to your work when you played solo in Seattle last fall and was surprised on your records by the super-lush arrangements. Generally when folks make lush recordings and then play the songs live solo, it changes the song in some way. That doesn't seem to happen with your stuff. Is that all part of getting your self out of the way? Are you aware of that?
Yeah, very aware. I don't play that much by myself, although the last couple of months I have been. It's such a different realm that happens when you play solo. In the writing process I'm always writing for arrangements. Our cello player lives upstairs from me and our violinist is really nearby as well, so we get together when something happens and we work it out that way. That's such a [large] part of the writing process for me—where the music sits and how it fits, how it complements everything.

When I used to play solo a lot, or when I saw a show of someone by themselves and I got their record...I'm never bummed out that it was a full band record. Or, if they play with a full band after their solo, stripped-down record. I think recording is such a different medium and a different audience as well. When I make records, I think of one person listening to it in their car, the way I listen to music a lot.

Do you come into the collaboration with other instrumentalists with a really clear image of where you want them to go in the song, or have you just gotten lucky by collaborating with freakishly intuitive players?
Sometimes I'm pretty specific. [laughs] I'm laughing because I play with incredible musicians. Jeb [Bows, Isakov's fiddle player] will have some ideas on something and it'll make it into the song so well. Then, when we sit down to record I'll have very specific ideas. The first time we sit down to play something, I won't say anything for a couple runs at all, to see what happens. And then if there's anything present, I'll bring it up. It's become pretty organic with us, which is nice. I'm definitely the arranger, though. I'm always picking out that stuff. I hope it doesn't get annoying [laughs].

Read part two of this interview

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