Gregory Alan Isakov is stressed about the weeds.
On a break from touring in support of his latest record, Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony, he sits on his porch and cradles a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. From here, he can see very little of his farm on the outskirts of Boulder — not the chicken coop or the beehives or the several pastel cottages that are home to a transient tribe of bandmates and friends of friends. In this tucked-away corner, there is only what is essential: his recording studio, his airy one-room apartment and his garden.
“I used to dream about twenty acres,” he says, taking a sip. “This is four, and it’s a full-time job. I probably have 25 hours of weeding to do.”
Tilling the soil isn’t a new passion. Isakov, who was born in South Africa and raised in Philadelphia, originally moved to Colorado to go to horticulture school. He’s planned and managed a handful of local gardens and did a five-year stint running a vegetable farm in Lyons. Nearly three years ago, he took over this farmstead, which he and the rest of the residents share with a herd of long-haired Katahdin sheep, affectionately called the “T-Swift Pack.” These days, he’s working his own land, on his own terms.
“I’m learning so much,” he admits. “We’re growing a lot of our own food — that used to be my main thing. Now I’ve become really passionate about heirloom seeds. Some of these seeds [were] sewn into the coats of our grandparents coming from other countries, varieties that have stayed with cultures for a really long time. They’re also really high in disease resistance because they’ve been acclimated to so many different kinds of places. The more we save seed, the better that next generation is at growing in our conditions.
“The greatest thing about growing seeds,” he continues, “is that you can just let things go.” He gestures to the flower stalks on a spire of butter lettuce. “When this dries out on the plant, I’ll go collect it all.”
Though he dodges partisan labels (“I’m the least political person in the world. I mean, I read The Onion — that’s how I find out about current events”), he does confess to a kind of quiet radicalism. Growing heirloom seed, he says, “takes a lot of the power out of these big seed companies that sell hybridized seed. You have to keep coming back. The seeds won’t come true. They won’t have their same genetics as their parent; they won’t have the same variety. It’ll be a whole new plant. You have to go back to the seed company, buy them again.”
This low-key resistance to structures of power carries over into Isakov’s music, too. A few years back, he was asked by a pair of Canadian filmmakers for permission to use his song “Big Black Car” in a commercial they were making for McDonald’s. He and his band initially declined, then reconsidered. Says Isakov, “We thought, ‘Man, we could do a lot of cool things with that money if we just don’t care about being hated on the Internet for a little while.’” The musicians then donated the majority of the proceeds to organic-seed companies and farming organizations.
Likewise Isakov has never signed a recording contract. He has written and released six records in a little over ten years under his own label, Suitcase Town. The latest album, a series of lush, sweeping arrangements produced in collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, sprang out of a chance run-in with the orchestra’s artistic director, Tony Pierce, at a show the band played at Chautauqua in Boulder. The scores, written by Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa and Jay Clifford of Jump Little Children, were refined over the course of six to eight months. The three of them — Isakov, Hagerman and Clifford — would e-mail tracks back and forth and make adjustments. “[Things like] ‘This part’s a little too flutey; this is a little River Runs Through It moment that we should not have,’” recalls Isakov, laughing. “The whole thing was just a giant experiment.”
They recorded the album over two days at Denver’s Boettcher Hall and produced it on the farm. “It was over 130 inputs. You know, the whole symphony, the group mics, the close mics, the hall. We mixed it here, in the studio. Me and Jamie [producer/engineer Mefford] did that. It took a long time.” They originally recorded a series of shows, too, with the intention of making it a live record, but ultimately decided against it. “I went back to the rehearsal tapes, and I was like, ‘I love these better.’ There wasn’t this big cheering crowd. There’s all this space. You can hear the room.”
Since the CSO can’t pick up and go on tour with the band, for this summer’s tour, Isakov gave the arrangements to local orchestras — the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. — a day or two in advance of the show, sometimes on the same day. They would rehearse once, then perform. “I’m getting better at it,” Isakov says. “The first ones I was just trying to keep my shit together. The whole thing just feels like a dream. The conductor is just following my guitar. He and I have to be on lock, so I’m learning how a symphony moves. The trumpets will come in just a slight second below his wand, just slightly behind the beat, and you’ll have this weird, huge ocean. Rhythm becomes elusive.”
The last stop on this tour is a show on September 4 with Ani DiFranco at Red Rocks, a venue he and the band have played before but never headlined. “It’s such an amazing place to see music,” he says. “We’ve only played festivals there — or, like, [were the] first of three openers — until a few years ago. Everyone’s finding beer, and then that place gets dark and it turns into this really intimate theater. It’s crazy what the night will do to that place.”
This new project has been a massive shift in scale for Isakov. His day-to-day life is simpler, less dramatic. He composes primarily on the ukulele (“Guitars have too many strings”) and spends a lot of time reading short fiction and poetry (“I love Billy Collins, even though my writer friends say he’s like the Coldplay of poetry. I love this shit. Give me the hooks, man”). He writes the lyrics to songs-in-progress on giant Post-it notes stuck to the walls of his apartment. “That’s why there’s no artwork on my walls,” he says. “I used to use a lot of notebooks. I used to get really annoyed at turning pages with the guitar in my hand. I love the Post-its, because you can write alternate verses next to them. You can see the whole song.”
And although he’s spent his twenties and the better part of his thirties traveling from city to city playing shows, Isakov seems happy to put down roots in Colorado. He walks the rows of his garden in the early-afternoon light, stopping now and then to examine a leaf, a bud. “This is the closest thing I’ve had to a home zone,” he says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I’ll move to California and grow avocados.’ But I like this spot a lot. I know the soil really well; I know the water really well.” He smiles. “I’m starting to get it.”
Gregory Alan Isakov with Ani DiFranco
7 p.m. Sunday, September 4, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison,
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