Growing one’s sound: Gregory Alan Isakov performs in Breckenridge Thursday
What: Gregory Alan Isakov with Patrick Park
When: 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5. Doors open at 7.
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: $45 in advance and $50 the day of the show. Visit breckmusic.org to purchase.
BRECKENRIDGE — According to Leonard Cohen, only some poems are worthy of a song.
“I always connected to that, because writing songs is such a different medium than anything,” said musician Gregory Alan Isakov ahead of his Breckenridge performance next week. The concert with his five-piece band is the first of Breckenridge Music’s new winter season, something that the organization hasn’t done before.
The singer-songwriter, who has been told by his manager to release a book of poems, began writing songs and poetry young even though he never connected with it in school. Years later, the process of writing — and finessing his work — occupies much of his time. He is frequently editing his pieces to get a set of phrases to fit one format or the other.
“A lot of times with songs, I’m deleting,” Isakov said. “I’m constantly taking words out of them and inserting more space musically, or just with nothing. I just feel like there’s a little bit different of a ratio that you can get away.
“Once in a while I’ll get lucky and an instant song happens, but for the most part it’s a lot of work to try to make something that feels concise and also that you’re traveling somewhere in a piece of music.”
Isakov grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after his family emigrated from South Africa in 1986 for his father to start an electronic-engineering business. “It’s trippy to think about, because he’s younger than I am now when he moved my whole family from country to country,” Isakov said. “It was a really intense time in South Africa with apartheid.”
No matter where he moved, music surrounded Isakov and his brothers from basement to basement, band to band. He’s been touring since he was 16 and originally performed in punk and metal groups. While in high school, he played drums and saxophone for the jazz band. For a while he’d only play the quieter songs he’s known for on guitar for himself before and after shows.
“I never really wanted a teacher in school or anything for guitar,” Isakov said. “It was just such private investigation into music in a different way for me.”
Isakov doesn’t know specifically why he switched genres or decided to make the private music public. Rather, he figured it was time to embrace the tunes that naturally came to him. He slowly became less shy and nervous about the work when he would play gigs in small-town bars and coffee shops to pay for campsites across the northwest.
Now based in Boulder, Isakov is in the midst of a tour highlighting 2018’s “Evening Machines,” which was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in November. The name of his fourth album partly refers to the duality of Isakov’s life — writing songs at night when he isn’t too busy with his other passion, the earth.
Balance in nature
When not performing, Isakov recharges his mind by tending to his farm outside Boulder. He’s been interested in plants for a long time and studied soil science horticulture at Naropa University in the city.
“I thought that would be my whole life,” Isakov said. “I guess a lot of people go to school for things they aren’t doing anymore, but I do both still and they’re just kind of in different ways.”
About a third of an acre of Isakov’s 6-acre farm is dedicated to growing for roughly 13 local restaurants in a French-intensive style. There are 50 60-foot beds for salad greens, root vegetables and flowers. His crops include fennel, beets, carrots, radishes, basil, kale, Swiss chard and lettuce. The growing season starts in March and wraps up in October, giving Isakov the winter to tour.
It took awhile for Isakov to return to his roots and have a healthy balance between the two industries. “For a long time I was just saying yes to everything and it didn’t matter if it was on the other side of the world or a summer festival or in a bowling alley or whatever it was,” Isakov said, laughing. “But now I think, it’s been amazing to actually go back to an ideal scenario for myself.”
Dec. 15: The Wood Brothers with Katie Pruitt
Dec. 19: The Lil Smokies
Dec. 29: Yonder Mountain String Band with Trout Steak Revival
Jan. 31: The Wailers
Feb. 7: Ani DiFranco
Feb. 20: North Mississippi Allstars
Feb. 22: Yacht Rock Revue
March 7: Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group
March 28: The Del McCoury Band
While that schedule means a lot of hustling to afford him touring time and vice versa, he wouldn’t have it any other way. Isakov is able to write more when he isn’t on the road, taking advantage of the more relaxed days and drawing from his real-world experiences.
“I feel like it’s been a good way to prove to myself that it’s possible to do more than one thing well, and really dig into it,” Isakov said. “I feel like we’re such a specialized society and it’s not the way I feel like, naturally, we are. We’re capable of so many things.”
The farm is mainly run by Isakov. Friends and his girlfriend will help with washing the crops and delivering on harvest days. Seeing his bounty out in the world gives him just as much joy as releasing records.
“I’m proud to grow food and it’s a way for me to really connect with my soil and with the community in my small town,” Isakov said. “I feel stoked when I can bring my folks to a restaurant that I grow for. It feels really great.”
Both his land and the Colorado outdoors serve as a major inspiration for Isakov. The track “San Luis” from his album “Evening Machines” relates to the state’s San Luis Valley, home of Great San Dunes National Park and Preserve. The rural region is a common mental retreat for Isakov to catch up with his thoughts.
“It’s like my one quiet spot because even my farm is a busy place and I live on the middle of nowhere,” Isakov said. “It’s such a special place for me and that landscape makes it into so much of my poems and songs.”
He shot the music video for the song on a whim with National Geographic photographers Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann shortly after completing the tune.
“It had ended up coming together really organically,” Isakov said. “There’s a clip of me in the van with a notebook and the ukulele, that’s like when I wrote the song.”
Mesmerized by the harsh desert and other Colorado climes, they become characters in Isakov’s work that’s as integrated in him as the farming. He often wonders if he could survive on his own in the enthralling wildness as a vegetarian.
“It’s a very extreme climate and there’s so much beauty that comes from that,” Isakov said. “How giant and open it is, how cold it gets and how hot it gets and how high it is, how dry it can or flood. It’s a very dramatic place to live and it’s a marvel that we can all survive here.”
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