Analogue Music | Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov

By Matt Conner

"Let's put all these words away."

There's an impulse for me, as the writer, to instruct you, as the reader, to follow Gregory Alan Isakov's own words. If you've not yet heard his latest stunner, Evening Machines, or his other celebrated works for that matter—including That Sea, the Gambler or Songs for October or The Weatherman—the advice is solid. Put these words away and let the music speak for itself.

If you have, however, sunk your ears into the latest beautiful compositions from Isakov, then the following conversation will only enhance your appreciation for such a thoughtful artist. Isakov is meticulous yet not perfectionistic; he ignores industry pressures yet appreciates an artistic edge that keeps him uncomfortable. He's also a helluva songwriter.

Evening Machines is an album five years in the making. You might ask him about how long it takes, but it's a timeline that feels just right to this man who tills soil both internal and external with equal attentiveness. We recently asked Isakov about his process, his nerves before performing live and how he knows a song is finished enough to finally record it.

Analogue: I read some quotes from you about making this latest album, that the music-making came between the garden-tending and so on. I'm sure I'm reading quite a bit into it, but it sounded admirable—like you are an artist living by your own set of values and that the music will happen when it happens. Perhaps that's creating a story around a quote that's not true...

Gregory Alan Isakov: I do feel this obedience to the process. It took some bravery for me to step out of character and really claim that being my priority, especially in a lifestyle that says bigger is better. Everything is about making more stuff or pushing the wheel, but I've never found that as my beacon. I can't figure out that sense of direction for any business in the West—whether it's music or whatever—that bigger is really better.

But I do think that, for me, it took a lot of work that this wouldn't be sustainable for me unless I had time to work and rest. Those things go hand-in-hand. Touring for me in general or performing, is a bit out of my nature. It's been a challenge, but it's also had this edge. It's like, 'This scares the shit out of me so this could be cool.' [Laughs]

A lot of people will say, 'Man, it's been five years since your last album. Where have you been?' For me that feels the right amount of time. That's how long it should take. But I usually answer, 'I'm a slow mother fucker.' I don't know what to say.

I like that edge in my life, that feeling on the edge of comfort. But also after working really hard, it's nice to remember that for this to be sustainable, I need time to write. A lot of people will say, 'Man, it's been five years since your last album. Where have you been?' For me that feels the right amount of time. That's how long it should take. But I usually answer, 'I'm a slow mother fucker.' I don't know what to say. [Laughs]

I'm always jealous of my friends who go into the studio for two weeks and it's recorded and mixed. I have to record 50 songs and then drive around and take a month off and not listen to anything but NPR. Then I go back and ask if it still makes me feel something. Why doesn't it? What part doesn't work? However dark it sounds, you want to make something that really matters or to get as close as you can to something great. I don't think I've ever gotten there all the way, but I bleed into it trying, you know?

Analogue: When you say you have to write 50 songs, is that because you've tried it another way and you don't like it or is tha t the only way you've ever worked?

Gregory: I have, you know. I made a record before The Weatherman came out, which was our last studio record before the symphony record we did. I had a whole record done and I ended up shelving it to make The Weatherman. It was too worked. It felt like it was slaved over and I could hear that in it. It didn't work for me. I never mind working hard, but there's a balance that working too hard on something can tank the art.

I'm not a perfectionist by any means in my process of recording or gathering the songs together, but I do want to make sure that they're hitting the right way. I remember we had this song called "Second Chances" on The Weatherman and there are 10 versions of that song that are fully tracked.

Analogue: That's insane.

Gregory: [Laughs] Yeah, they're titled "Second Chances Waltz" or "Second Chances with a Banjo." I ended up just doing it live at the end, just playing the fucking song. I'd gone down all the roads. [Laughs] And my band... Steve [Varney] is always like, 'I don't get how you do this but it works for you and I'm glad it does.'

Analogue: You've shelved an entire project and you've put out enough albums around it that it makes me wonder, generally speaking, how you've learned when a song is done—not underworked or overworked? I know each song is different itself, but is there some common thread?

Gregory: I know when it's finished if it doesn't get better when I try it again. I guess that's the right brain of me talking. Theoretically I know it's not getting better as I work on it more. I might want to describe a certain feeling better but then the words don't sing as well. Or I say the words "holy hands" in two different songs, so which one deserves it? So you look to see which song needs that lyric. If it can change, you can, but if not, then you go with it. At least I investigated and tried.

Analogue: The songs on Evening Machines, like "Caves," feels much more fleshed out than maybe some other things you've done. Was that a part of the sonic vision you had coming in?

Gregory: I recorded that song live with Max [Barcelow], our drummer. I had a vision when I wrote it. You know when you hear a big crowd of people singing a song, like a soccer chant. I had a vision of a giant, weird alien sing-along. I brought it to Tucker Martine in Portland and a lot of the sound on that song came from him—the crushed drums, the organic crushed guitars. His aesthetic stamp is on my song more than any other because he's so good at that. I'd never had anyone else mix my records before. I typically do it with my engineer, Jamie [Mefford]. But I love Tucker's records and everything he's made, so I thought it would be fun to see what he'd do with these songs.

Analogue: You mentioned the performance side being a bit unnatural for you earlier, but is that part of this job getting easier for you over time?

Gregory: I recently played with Gillian Welch in Fayetteville. I felt super nervous and I was pacing. I remember telling myself, 'Dude, you've played like 3,000 shows. What the fuck? C'mon.' [Laughs] It's never gone away. I don't get it. But I've become more cool with it, with the way it feels. I also know once I start playing, it goes away. But I've never gotten over that feeling.

Analogue: You're booked all through the fall and winter at this point. That's a lot of tour dates for a guy not fully at home on the road.

Gregory: Yeah, it's a new thing we're trying. I grow now for about five restaurants. I grow some seed for a seed company. That part of my life always felt crazy with one-offs and festivals, so I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to really try to travel in the winter when I'm wanting to go insane anyway.' [Laughs] Then I try to be home to work in the summer. I love it so much and it helps me. It also feels really right.

This is the second summer that we're trying it out. I think it's really good for the band and for me. I love tour because the band gets so tight every night. We're just drinking it up. We get deeper and deeper into the song, so it's a good way to spend the winter.