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March 25, 2010
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Gregory Alan Isakov to take Steve's stage in Carbondale

CARBONDALE - In 2001, I got my hot hands on Leonard Cohen's "10 New Songs" and scrambled over to the CD player for a first listen. I put it on with about as much anticipation as I have ever brought to a new album: This was Cohen's first album in nearly a decade, and the first since I'd been turned onto the Canadian singer-songwriter. It was one of those too-rare experiences where the music met my hopes. Cohen's voice was like a dream you want to savor, remember, toss over and over in your mind for further meaning."It all sounds the same. Every song," came the uninvited, unimpressed critique from a bystander. I had to admit there was something to that. Cohen doesn't move around a whole lot from song to song. Nor does he need to. The more he sings, the deeper he gets, the more his words and moods work their way into your body. Cohen isn't for the restless listener who needs a change of scenery every track or two. He is about finding an emotional place and examining it thoroughly.Gregory Alan Isakov is on my side. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter doesn't have a huge number of early influences; growing up in South Africa, he listened repeatedly to the few albums his parents owned: a Simon & Garfunkel greatest hits collection, Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," the "We Are the World" single. When he was 16, "Songs From a Room," Cohen's 1969 album, came into his life, and though Isakov was born a decade after the release, it became a major touchstone. And the album, like Cohen's work in toto, continues to be: Isakov closes his album "This Empty Northern Hemisphere," released last May, with a cover of Cohen's "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.""Every time I hear it, I get something new out of it," Isakov said from his home in Boulder of "Songs From a Room." "It keeps unfolding to me."And the fact that Cohen doesn't tuck a rock number in between ballads, or add a funk beat to a song for the sake of keeping the listener's attention, doesn't bother Isakov. He's got the long attention span required for Cohen's way of making an album. When Isakov was making "This Empty Northern Hemisphere," he was listening a lot to "The Ghost of Tom Joad," one of Bruce Springsteen's starker and more monotone efforts, influenced by and titled after the protagonist of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath.""People would say, 'Every song sounds the same.' And I'd say, 'Yeah - I love that,'" Isakov said. "I wanted to make a record that was cohesive - that was important to me. I love that you put a record on and it's a whole story, a whole thing. It has that kind of flow to it."Isakov also doesn't shy away from an overall sense of melancholy in his music. "Everyone wants to have joy in their life, and not dwell on the sad bastard songs," he said. "But they attract me in a way. Maybe it's just part of me.""This Empty Northern Hemisphere" has those kinds of feels to it - gentle and haunted and observational. The album, Isakov's fourth, is built on a consistent bed of strings, soft drums, harmonica, accordion - and Isakov's voice, which seems to be aimed at one girl - sitting, perhaps, at the other end of the bed - rather than a crowd of people packed into an arena."We tried to keep it as subtle and sparse as we could," said Isakov, who recorded most of the album in his house. The album has several moments when the drums kick in, but always Isakov returns to the quiet. It's a sound and voice that seems ideally suited to Steve's Guitars in Carbondale, the small listening room where Isakov performs on Saturday at 8:30 p.m.Isakov was born in Johannesburg, and moved with his family to Philadelphia when he was 7. His earliest musical experience was playing saxophone in a school jazz band; he took up guitar thanks to his older brother, who had an electric guitar in the basement.But it wasn't the South African a cappella style known as isicathimaya style (think Ladysmith Black Mambazo) or Philly soul, jazz or electric guitar that seem to have influenced Isakov. And while he was, and continues to be, a fan of punk and Seattle grunge, those sounds have been left entirely outside of his music.In fact, it may not necessarily be musicians that have had the greatest impact on Isakov's sound. While he acknowledges Neil Young and the Oregon singer-guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps, as well as Messers Cohen, Simon and Springsteen as influences, Isakov seems to soak up all of the environment that surrounds him. His previous album, 2007's "That Sea, the Gambler," was inspired by thoughts of the sea; Isakov had been spending much of his time in San Francisco and Mexico. "I always had this kind of curiosity about the ocean, and old-time songs that come from there," he said.Isakov moved to Boulder a decade ago to attend the Buddhist-oriented Naropa Institute. Like Cohen, he was raised Jewish and adopted Buddhist practices as a central part of his life. His lyrics reflect this part of him; they are questioning rather than insistent, focused on the internal and the eternal. "There was nothing to hold, well we let it go/ We were empty, we were hollow/ Shined with everything we were living for," he sings in "Idaho." His process of making a record also seems steeped in the ideal of letting things go. Isakov originally envisioned "This Empty Northern Hemisphere" as heavier and more upbeat. "But the record had its own mind, and I just followed it," he said. Of songwriting, Isakov added, "It's such a mystery. You're driving, you have an image of how the song feels, and then you realize you're just on the ride, following where it goes. That's the amazing thing about songwriting - you never master it. It's just something you do and get closer and closer to it."Isakov says he reads a lot of poetry; a current favorite is "Nine Horses," a collection by the former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. He is also into comedy, and mentions Steven Wright and Patton Oswalt as two who get him laughing.Isakov has been appearing on some significant stages. He played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he won the Troubadour Competition for best songwriting in 2007. He's played South by Southwest in Austin, has become a regular at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, and toured last year as the opening act for Ani DiFranco. But Isakov seems ideally suited to a place like Steve's Guitars - he says his last appearance there was "an amazing experience" - as he often plays solo, or accompanied by a cellist. Smaller venues also fit his vision for a career: "I'm making choices to keep things steady, not grabbing for too much," said Isakov, whose public persona seems to always include an old hat that suggests Bob Dylan in his early '60s, faux-Okie stage.When he was still in the launching phase of his career, Isakov worked for seven years on a farm near Lyons. For much of the time, he lived on the farm. That experience was central in informing the songs and sounds on "This Empty Northern Hemisphere," and his description of the farm existence goes a long way toward the essence of Isakov's spare sound."I lived in one of the barns," he said. "You'd walk out into the field and think you were the only person in the world. And I was turning 28, and whatever that means - feeling like the whole world's been pulled out from under you, trying to figure out who you are.stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 25, 2010 07:57PM Published Mar 25, 2010 07:55PM Copyright 2010 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.