There is quiet humility in the songs of Boulder, Colo.'s Gregory Alan Isakov. With his sweet, hushed vocal delivery and evocative lyricism, he's struck on an intimate formula that has endeared him to fans and critics around the globe. On his recently released album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, the South African-born songwriter gives his songs a broader majesty. They were recorded with the CSO at the Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver and at Starling Farm, the small farm he owns and runs in Boulder. The material is from Isakov's four previous albums, reworked for orchestra by DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman and Jump Little Children's Jay Clifford. It is a beautiful, sweeping work, as poignant as it is dynamic.
Isakov is presently on a national symphonic tour, during which he'll play with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. The last performance comes on Monday, June 20, at the Flynn MainStage in Burlington. Ahead of that show, Seven Days spoke with Isakov by phone.
SEVEN DAYS: So it turns out you and I have a mutual friend, Rachel Ries.
GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV: Oh, I love Rachel!
SD: She's great. My sister used to play bass with her, which is how I know her.
GAI: Yeah, I've totally met her, too. She's a badass. So you're in Burlington, right? I love that town.
SD: It's a great place. A lot like Boulder, or so I'm often told. I guess the guy who designed our Church Street designed your Pearl Street.
GAI: Yeah. The towns do feel pretty similar. Except we don't have that badass giant church at the top of ours.
SD: A giant pearl, maybe?
GAI: We have a giant mountain, I guess.
SD: Yeah, your mountains are a little bigger than ours. So, you're touring and playing with different symphonies around the country. How did you go about reworking your songs for orchestra?
GAI: It was just sort of an experiment. We did a few shows with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. When we played the first one, it was just mind-blowingly fun. It was overwhelming and beautiful. So we did three shows with the CSO, then made some changes to the arrangements and did a show with the Seattle Symphony and the Oregon Symphony. We were working on an album, and we recorded all the shows and all the rehearsals. And we found that we really loved the sound of the empty room at Boettcher Hall. So we recorded with the CSO for two days. Then we came back to the farm and did some overdubs, Rhodes, backup vocals and, well, we call them "God noises."
SD: God noises? Are those ambient sounds, like birds chirping or floorboards creaking?
GAI: Yeah. We work a lot finding sounds. And the sole purpose is for them to be just slightly undiscernible and make you feel something. We use those a lot in our records.
SD: What's the biggest challenge working with an orchestra?
GAI: We usually don't play with a drum kit, so there is this really loose sense of time that happens, where the symphony is like half a second behind you, then you're ahead, then you're behind. And it turns into this cool-sounding thing. I got used to it, but it was really challenging at first. And now it's my favorite thing about playing with an orchestra: how the songs breathe so differently.
SD: So the first time you heard your music through this massive wall of sound, what was your reaction? I'm guessing something along the lines of "Holy shit."
GAI: Yup. A gigantic, all-capitals "HOLY SHIT." I don't even really know how to describe it. Especially getting to play in these rooms that are built, acoustically, for an orchestra. And it's mind-blowing to be around musicians that are so dedicated to their craft like that. We come from different schools or different spaces in music. So all of us collaborating was really great.
SD: It must have been intimidating. I mean, to get to the level of a professional orchestra, those players have probably been training their entire lives.
GAI: Dude, yeah. Like, the first time, we all hobble out onstage, and there are these really well-dressed musicians with perfect posture, you know? [Laughs] And we're like, "Uh, sorry, our songs are all in G!" But then you hang out with them on breaks and you're talking to the horn players or something and they're like, "This is so cool. We never get to do this kind of thing." And that's really humbling.
SD: Where did your interest in farming come from?
GAI: I dropped out of high school and hiked the Appalachian Trail or, like, half of it. And I think that's kind of when it happened for me. It was an eye-opening experience, falling in love with plants.
I was talking with a friend about this the other day. We're growing medical cannabis out here in Colorado now for a few patients. I don't really smoke weed that much anymore. But when I was in high school, all I wanted to do was grow weed in my closet. And I was like, "It was totally a gateway drug to gardening!"
I had, like, the little pots and grow lights, trying to hide it from my parents. Then I was like, "I'm gonna try corn." So I think that's how I initially got into it. Then it just developed more and more, and now I just really love working with plants.
SD: I read that you keep a list of words you have banned yourself from using in songs. Can you share a couple of them?
GAI: My brother calls me all the time, and he's like, "How's your new song? Is it called 'Red Dust Moon Suitcase' or something?" And I'm like [bratty voice], "No. I'm not using those words anymore."
I just really like sad songs about space. And there are just some words that sing so well.
SD: I can identify with falling into word ruts. Like, "Dude, you can't refer to every song you write about as angular or cinematic or lush."
GAI: In school, I remember writing papers, and it would get so redundant, because you're writing about soil and "in the garden" was everywhere on every paper.
I write a lot. Every day. And some words really do just sing. I put postcards on our rider for every show. And I fill them out, which is my little practice every day. It's nice because it's not a lot of space, and I'll remember the town I wrote it in. Some lines end up being worthy of a song. But a lot of it is just kind of clocking in and keeping that part of myself alive.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Use Your Words"