It comes as no surprise the birthplace of some of Gregory Alan Isakov’s most beloved ballads is a renovated barn: simple beginnings for a simple sound—recognizing that it really doesn’t take much in regard to production or elaborate instrumentation to impress and hypnotize listeners. What draws so many to Isakov’s music is the honesty and the sheer lack of pretention. While talking to him, as he rests in Boulder, Colo., between performances, the man on stage and the man writing in the barn is undoubtedly, unmistakably the same person.
When Isakov isn’t touring, he finds himself on Starling Farm, a four-acre homestead east of Boulder. There, a collective of artists, families and musicians—Isakov included—live and work alongside a herd of sheep and some chickens. Together they grow heirloom vegetables, seeds, wildflowers, herbs and a few cannabis plants.
It is a humble life off stage, far away from the spotlight—exactly what Isakov likes.
“I know it sounds really bucolic and romantic, really it’s very mundane,” Isakov says. “It’s a lot of work—I grow seeds for a seed company, I take care of some sheep and some bees.”
Despite being allergic to bees, Isakov is comfortable on the farm and doesn’t see himself giving it up, even though he probably could.
“It’s weird when people just say ‘I’m an artist,” he says. “I’m grateful I get to play music, but I don’t think I could let go of work.”
After returning from tour, performing in the biggest cities and grandiose music halls, he finds himself decompressing at Starling, tilling the earth, prepping the gardens for planting and tending to the animals. The farm is also where Isakov writes music and runs his independent record label, Suitcase Town Music.
For Isakov, working on a farm and making music are similar labors. Both require work—showing up, putting in the effort—to produce anything good. If the plants aren’t watered, they won’t grow. If the sheep aren’t shorn, there won’t be any wool. If Isakov hadn’t spent hours writing music, none of his albums would have ever become a reality; his musical career would have remained a dream.
“I think inspiration is a dangerous idea,” he says. “You have to show up and be devoted—there has to be a sense of work. If you’re just inspired, you’re not going to get s*** done. There are days when you’re not inspired and you just have to show up. It doesn’t get easier. Art isn’t evolutionary, you don’t get better, it just opens up in new ways.
“The mind that is noticing, not the one that is chattering—I try to tap into that as much as I can,” Isakov adds. “Sometimes it will just be a melody or the look of someone at the grocery store, and this whole work opens and I just follow.”
Isakov’s songs have been featured in commercials, on television shows and in movies. He’s performed across the country and the globe. He has performed thousands of times, has a robust following and has released six successful albums. Yet, he is still in awe when reflecting on his career: how a South African-born horticulturalist became one of the best-known current folk voices.
“I never thought I would be doing this,” he says. “I mean, just being in front of people and people knowing about my songs—it’s mind-blowing.”
Part of his humble approach to fame is giving back. When McDonald’s asked Isakov to use his song “Big Black Car” for a commercial, the lifelong vegetarian agreed, but donated all the proceeds to companies promoting sustainable farming.
He keeps notoriety at an arm’s length. He recognizes that it’s not about him, it’s about the space where his art emerges—somewhere entirely untouchable and unquantifiable.
“It’s not really me; I have anxiety around performance and being around people—I’m kind of a hermit,” he says. Before the show, he’ll find himself nervously pacing backstage. “But all of this goes away when I say, ‘This isn’t about you, dude, it’s about the music.’ … The rest is just sort of being as present as you can. In a way it can be exhausting, but it can also be really enriching.”
His most recent album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, released last year, established him as one of the most prolific American folk artists of our time and represents a turning point in his career. While most of the songs in the newest collection are reworked from previous albums—including the aforementioned “Big Black Car” (2009)—they take on new life. When listening to the album, there’s a sea of sound. The strings waver in volume, growing in strength, reaching a peak and falling back. At the center, grounding the listener, is Isakov’s familiar voice—holding it all together, directing the emotions of the room.
If the orchestra is the sea, with its tides and surges, then Isakov is the unchanging moon.
“There was this kind of indescribable feeling with 80 musicians on stage,” he says. “Time disappeared.”
Besides the newly added symphony members, Isakov’s long-term bandmates include Jeb Bows on fiddle, Philip Parker on cello, Steve Varney on electric guitar and banjo, John Grigsby on upright bass and Max Barcelow on drums.
“My goals are very simple—sometimes, once in a while everyone, me included, is transported somewhere else,” he says, regarding his performances. He’s well-traveled and his songs often reminisce on distant places. “Sometimes that doesn’t work, but even if that happens once that is a success.”
It’s Isakov’s dedication to his own moral compass, his devotion to the music and simple gratitude that keeps him on a straight path. The path might not lead to fame—he obviously has no desire to be idolized—but somewhere more personally gratifying.
While splitting his time between Starling Farm, writing music and touring, Isakov refuses to be anything except himself. Conversation with him holds many of the same qualities as his music—organic, approachable, friendly and authentic. He’s a private person— “There’s nothing I wish more people knew about me,” he comments—yet doesn’t really see a difference between his life as a performer and his life as a seed harvester, gardener, traveler or someone’s neighbor.
To understand Isakov, simply listen to the music. He’s all there.
Join Gregory Alan Isakov with opener Sera Cahoone on Sun, April 23 at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen. Doors for the all-ages show open at 7 p.m. and the music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $28 the day of the show, and can be purchased at www.redandblackproductionsaz.com or the Orpheum box office. For more info, call 556-1580 or visit www.gregoryalanisakov.com.