Gregory Alan Isakov is an unconventionally authentic and pure musician

 By Shirley Griffith 

January 10, 2019

Following a string of largely sold out tour dates last year, South African singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov embarks on the second leg of tour in support of his new critically praised album, Evening Machines which debuted at #1 on the Americana/Folk Albums chart. During this second run, Isakov will bring his sprawling, thoughtful indie folk to the ethereal McGlohon Theater on Sunday, January 13.

Even though Isakov was raised in Philadelphia and now lives in Colorado, he stays true to his roots and $1 from every ticket sold during his tour goes to SAEF, the Southern Africa Education Fund, which helps children in the remote village of Aussenkehr, Namibia receive the education necessary to lift themselves and their families out of poverty by building classrooms and playgrounds to uplift educational standards.

Gregory Alan Isakov Photo: Rebecca Caridad

Evening Machines is Isakov’s first album of new tracks in five years, barring a special release in 2016 where he collaborated with the Colorado Symphony in a beautiful reworking of some of his most renowned songs from past albums including 2013’s The Weatherman.

One of the many impressive attributes of Isakov is that not only is he a successful, respected songwriter that tours the world, but that he also runs and lives on a four-acre farm with his musician pals, complete with a recording studio and a barn that is also home to his DIY label, Suitcase Town Music. Speaking with us from his communal farm the day before heading off for the months-long adventure, Isakov remarked that although it’s not easy, most of the time he can look around, whether on tour in the winter or farming in the summer, and think to himself, “I’ve won.” It truly does seem like the reflective songwriter has tapped into a secret world away from ordinary stresses; he has somehow manifested his own calming introspective nature into the life he leads.

Isakov has found a steadied balance between his two intrinsic hobbies: music and farming. Both activities speak to him and pull him along in their own knowing and innocent way. Isakov went to school for horticulture, but just how did music come along into his life to such an extent for this titan multi-instrumentalist? “I’ve always written things, even as a kid playing with friends making music. It’s always been a thing I’ve done but I’d never thought to perform because I felt so shy about my music,” he said. “Slowly, I started playing open mics, little coffee shops, and those sorts of places. I still get nervous in front of people but I’ve just learned that the nerves are something that goes along with the music. I try to take myself out of the picture and make all of it more about the art and the music that comes out.”

Album cover for ‘Evening Machines’ by Gregory Alan Isakov

The sound he’d imagined for Evening Machines was actually a lo-fi rock album but within the first few turns of needle on vinyl any listener will quickly gather, that’s not quite how the finished product ended up: “Despite what I want to do, it’s the music that takes control and says, ‘Well, here’s what we’re going to do.’”

After a run of European shows which left him feeling apprehensive, Isakov turned to songwriting as a means of grounding, especially when dealing with the particular loom of anxiety.  Elaborating on his methods, Isakov touched on those anxieties and the fringed mania that accompanies his craft. “So, I hate to say it and I’m not proud of it but I go a little mad when I’m making an album. For months at a time, I seclude myself; it’s very hard to keep up any sort of social life or relationship because of how deep I am in the music and the process,” he said. “I listen to parts so much I can’t even recognize the songs anymore.” Spending marathon sessions in his home studio, sometimes for 14 hours at a time for months, it’s easy to see why the finalized songs are so enduring and why he’s proud of the art he releases. At the end of the process, having weathered the limits of his pursuit so tenaciously, he allows himself to come away from the record with a great relief of catharsis, again finding and respecting the balance of extremes.

Gregory Alan Isakov Photo: Rebecca Caridad

Working as a touring musician and a legitimate farmer gives Isakov a unique perspective into the world, which his songs effortlessly reflect. Farming has also taught Isakov a composed perseverance when it comes to making music. For instance, he wrote about 40 fully fleshed out songs for Evening Machines before whittling them down to a select 12. He chose them by stepping away, letting them breathe and grow on their own time and coming back to see which tracks still stirred up emotions for him. “Not every song will resonate after you finish it, and those are the ones to throw away. I’d like my albums to be around for a long time. Good work is what lasts.”

He is unconcerned about the typical album-then-tour cycle and opts more for a quality over quantity discography. This philosophy has treated the fiercely DIY artist well, with constant sold out venues and over a decade worth of remarkably touching albums under his belt. Even while on tour, Isakov requests index cards on his rider and tasks himself with filling up one index card per day to keep his writing and observational skills sharp. “It’s a practice I have so that I don’t get out of habit. There’s not a lot of down-time in touring so sometimes it’s hard but every day I know I have to fill that card.”   

Gregory Alan Isakov Photo: Rebecca Caridad

Although his previous albums have been released under his own barn-sheltered record label, for this new release Isakov opted to license the songs to bigger label, Dualtone, which represents artists like The Lumineers, Shovels & Rope, Amos Lee, and a slew of other Americana musicians. Isakov chose Dualtone for their willingness to give him agency and creative control over the album. “[Pairing with] Dualtone was mostly just out of curiosity – we’re still kinda waiting to see if it made a difference at all. I recorded all the songs, had them produced the way I wanted, and had final say on everything,” he said.

Isakov is no stranger to Charlotte, having played multiple times at Neighborhood Theatre and The Evening Muse throughout his tenure. When asked about any memories he holds of the city, he burst out excitedly, “Oh, I love Charlotte. I remember there was a little club on the street corner (The Evening Muse), that was my first show on my first ever tour with my hero, Kelly Joe Phelps. I was originally heading off to get my master’s in mycology before he had asked me to accompany him on tour. We split a bottle of wine before the show and the sound was so good, I had the time of my life. There was something so magical about that night, I’ll always remember that.”

Gregory Alan Isakov performs in Charlotte on Sunday, January, 13 at McGlohon Theater. Check out the remaining 2019 tour dates.

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