Writing songs for his new album, Evening Machines, singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov covered the inside of his barn in rural Boulder with poster-sized Post-it notes.
He was drafting lyrics to around forty songs, recording at night and into the early morning. When friends stopped by the farm, he had the songs and chord progressions written out for quick reference so he could play the new material without scrambling for notebooks.
Isakov also used the Post-its as a way to organize emerging lyrics that he had been scribbling on the backs of chocolate wrappers, receipts and other scraps. While he really loves spiral-bound notebooks, he kept losing lyrics amid unrelated notes: a plumber’s phone number, a new garden plan or whatever else he needed to write down.
Back when he was writing his 2007 album, The Sea, The Gambler, Isakov knew he needed a better organizational system. “I felt like an insane person,” he says. “Just pages all over my room. There were notebooks everywhere. I had eight different notebooks going on and the back of a receipt too that I’d taped onto the notebook. I was just like, ‘This is crazy.’ And I just never liked computers too much. It feels too sterile for me. I need to write it out. That would be amazing if I loved to just keep everything organized on a computer. I just have never done that.”
Isakov’s Post-its also acted as a way to see if he was repeating phrases or lines. He was baffled when he realized he sang the words “holy hymns” in five songs.
“So, then I’ll just run around the room and be like, ‘Which one of you guys deserves ‘holy hymns’?” he says. “And you’re kind of living with them. You have all these roommates kind of talking at once. And there are sections of the wall — there’s this one section next to my desk that I call ‘suicide watch,’ and it’s the songs, like, ‘If don’t finish them this week, they’re not going to live.’ Then I have the other ones behind the drums that are done. I kind of had a system. Because you can get up on ladders and move them around.”
Sometimes, next to the Post-its, Isakov says he will hang an image, like a photo from a magazine or something that inspired the song, and he’ll keep it there in case the song isn’t working, using the image to provoke something else that’s going to come.
While the walls of Isakov’s barn helped him keep new material organized and alive, the inspiration for some of the songs on Evening Machines — which drops October 5 on the Nashville-based Dualtone label, home of the Lumineers, Shakey Graves, Shovels & Rope and others — came to him in multiple forms.
Take the waltz-steeped “Southern Star,” which he started writing at a poetry retreat in Texas last fall where participants took books and cut them up. Isakov took a page from a trashy sci-fi paperback and another from a romance novel and put them in his pocket; then he ripped out words and glued them together in his notebook.
“So it started out as a poem with a completely different vocabulary than I was used to,” Isakov says. “It’s great, because you’re still arranging all these words. And by the fourth rewrite, I think that song had presented itself.”
Once the words emerged, he started getting a little hint of a melody, combined it with the words, and realized the words could serve as percussion.
The song “Chemicals,” a gorgeous, stripped-down ballad, came to Isakov while he was driving. He had to pull over because he felt the need to get it down right then.
“It almost felt too personal for me to share,” Isakov says. “And I kind of struggled with that a little bit. It happened so fast.”
For Isakov, the songs need to feel personal, and they need to transport him inside.
“I don’t know how anyone else is going to gauge that,” he says. “I can only know if it works on me once, because after you change the oil on it, record it and mix it, you don’t know anymore. You’re not a good candidate to listen anymore. But if it works once, then I know it’s possible. But for me, there’s this line — is this personal, like universally personal? Or is this personal like this is from a journal in high school or something?’
“I’m sure a ton of writers go through this, because there’s this magic right in the middle. A certain magic when you have a little bit of both and not too much. My meter of cheese is high, so I’m sensitive. Like, ‘Oh, God, is this riding the line? Maybe it’s tipping it a little.' That’s okay if you go there for a second. I’m always sensitive about that.”
For anyone who’s seen Isakov live, it’s fairly evident that he is also sensitive in his approach to music. His vocals, particularly when he sings a few steps above a whisper, demand attention, and he can hush a crowd with his soft-spoken magnetism. While Isakov’s last album, The Weatherman, sold 100,000 copies and his entire catalogue has sold over 370,000, his career in music almost didn’t happen. He’d moved to Boulder in 2000 to study horticulture at Naropa University. He’d planned to get a master’s degree in mycology, but ended up deferring that plan when he got his first big tour opening for Delta blues singer Kelly Joe Phelps, who was a huge inspiration.
At that point, Isakov decided to give being a singer-songwriter a shot. He saw it as a really big experiment, but he figured playing music for people wouldn’t actually work out. He thought, “I'd better do this now, because this isn’t going to last.
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“I was like, ‘This is just one of those opportunities that happens once, and it will be a cool story later or something,” he says.
Over the past decade, Isakov has slowly and steadily built up a large fan base, along the way starting his own label with his longtime manager, Sarah Levin, releasing an album with the Colorado Symphony, collaborating with Brandi Carlile, licensing songs for movies, TV shows and commercials, and touring around the world while still dedicating a good part of the year to farming. During the growing season, he’ll work eight- to ten-hour days with one day off, but he says touring is the hardest thing he’s ever done.
“Growing vegetables is hard,” he says. “It’s a full-time thing, because they’re needy, especially in Colorado. You have to be on top of it. I’ve kind of gotten a system around that. I thought that was hard work. And then you go on tour, and you’re like, ‘Whoa, wait, this is actually way harder.' Or strenuous in a different way. It’s so trippy how different they are.”
Gregory Alan Isakov, with Patty Griffin, 6 p.m. Sunday, September 30, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, $38.95-$75; with Covenhoven, 7:30 p.m., Monday, October 1, Fox Theatre, Boulder, sold out.