Folk singer and farmer Gregory Alan Isakov returns to Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Gregory Alan Isakov
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Dec. 6, 9 p.m.
How much: $41-$66
Tickets: Sold out
More info: bellyupaspen.com
Most musicians’ touring and recording schedules are dictated by music label demands and marketing plans. These days, Gregory Alan Isakov’s run is according to the needs of beets, fennel and other crops on his 3-acre farm outside Boulder.
The singer-songwriter, among the state’s most beloved working artists, has in recent years devoted himself to the farm, working the land from the spring planting season through the fall harvest. Come winter, he hits the road to play music, which brings him back to Belly Up Aspen on Friday night during a Colorado stretch that also includes shows in Breckenridge, Estes Park, Steamboat Springs and Boulder this month.
Isakov, 40, studied horticulture at Naropa in Boulder, but had all but given up farming as his stripped-down folk found a national audience.
“I think, ‘Gosh, three or four years ago the band and I were playing 200 shows a year or more,’” he said recently in a phone interview from the road in Indiana. “It was amazing, because I didn’t know that was possible. It was a dream realized, like, ‘Wow, we can do this, it’s happening.’ But I never investigated why.”
He fell prey to anxiety, he wasn’t writing on tour and, after losing his home in Boulder and most of his possessions to a flood in 2013, Isakov decided to return to the rhythms of the land.
“I found I wasn’t writing a lot, because we were traveling so much,” he recalled. “I missed work and I missed having the time to actually write about life that wasn’t related to being on tour.”
The first album he’s made in his barn studio on the farm, recorded mostly at night between producing vegetables for Front Range restaurants, is “Evening Machines,” which last month was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. It is filled with intelligent and economical lyrics to parse and pore over, lush melodies to hum and deceptively complex arrangements that include touches of pedal steel, electric guitar and strings.
“I wanted to make a lo-fi rock ’n’ roll record,” Isakov recalled. “For some reason, the record started and wanted to go in a different direction.”
Concurrently, the singer-songwriter took on other projects including his collaboration with the Colorado Symphony and 10 other national orchestras. The residue of that work is on the new record, which includes gorgeously integrated string arrangements on songs like “Southern Star.”
“I still trip out that that happened,” Isakov said of the orchestral project.
The record effectively employs nature metaphors — the colors of the sky, the angles of stars, tangles of brambles and the immensity of the sea — in diverse songs from the meditation on loss in “Wings in Black” to the timely immigrant story “Berth” (Isakov immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa as a child).
The bittersweet songs on “Evening Machines” were carved out from three dozen that he wrote and recorded for the project. And though it’s his first full-length studio release since 2013’s “The Weatherman,” Isakov has many album’s worth of unshared songs.
He’s been releasing music for nearly half his life, going back to his 2003 debut. But Isakov still finds every songwriting attempt a challenge and has learned to be patient with his creative process.
“I feel every time I try to write a song, it’s brand new — like I’ve never done it,” he said. “I wish it was more calculated.”
Most often they start as poems or bits of prose, and as they become songs he waits — unsurprisingly for a guy who composes surrounded by his tended beds of greens, vegetables and flowers — to see whether they blossom.
“I sit on songs for a long time and I like that feeling of a song when it’s just sitting in the background of your life for a while,” he said. “I’m cool with letting it hang out for quite a long time. I know that’s different than a lot of writers. I love that feeling of, ‘Let’s see where it can go. Is it going to stand the test of time if I come back to it in a few weeks or months? Will I still feel the same way about it?’”
Despite commercial and critical success, Isakov has operated in DIY fashion from the beginning. He’s always kept his music production in-house, recording at home and tracking all the instruments himself before bringing the band in, releasing albums through his own independent Suitcase Town Music label.
So “Evening Machines” would seem to be a step toward the pop music mainstream. It’s his first album licensed to a record label — Dualtone — and supported by marketing muscle he’s never before had behind him, leading to a wider national audience, milestones like a sold-out Red Rocks show last year and the Grammy nod.
The songs “San Luis” and “Chemicals,” from the new record, have racked up 21 million and 31 million Spotify streams, respectively, over the past year.
“To me it hasn’t changed all that much,” he said, adding that he and his manager, Sarah Levin, simply wanted to see what it’d be like working with a label. “We didn’t need to sign to a label, but thought it might be fun. It came out of this place of experimenting. I’m not sure if we’ll do the next one with a label or not, we’re still figuring that out, but it was nice to see what it was like.”
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