To Grammy nominee Gregory Alan Isakov
, the most exciting aspect of the recording process is how romantic and deeply personal it is. The Boulder-based musician has been touring the West Coast ahead of his appearance with The Lumineers
at Coors Field on Friday, July 22, and hopes he can capture that same intimacy on the stage.
“With recording, you're playing for one person," he says. "I imagine myself being in [a listener's] ’87 Toyota pickup, or whatever car or headphones they have. [On records], you can get away with a whisper here and there and do things with space that doesn't translate as well live.”
The Boulder-based musician's albums showcase the breadth of his songs, a feat achieved through a meticulous recording process that appreciates and harnesses imperfections to augment a classic sound. Isakov says he places particular sounds — often instrumentation that would not be found in folk songs, such as a synth replicating an organ, an e-drum layered over a traditional one — within his tracks to add texture, guided by their individual emotive qualities.
Isakov's characteristic sound also comes from his recording studio's organic environment; it's located in his barn in east Boulder. If you listen closely, you can sometimes hear the shuttering of a screen door or the rustle of seeds and produce being washed and packed in the distance. “I've tried a lot of different spaces that are in no way correct," Isakov says. "But I like that sound — like a bright square room that has incorrect reflections."
Such intricate sounds are picked up because of the type of microphones he uses, as well as the way he plays. The mics are two RCA A440s — those big, classic, tank-looking microphones that you'd imagine a young Ella Fitzgerald singing into. The mics are panned hard right and hard left, positioned a little out of phase, creating minor imperfections.
Isakov has a tendency to play quietly, which requires the mics to be cranked at all times, picking up everything within its reach. “We recently upgraded the studio and got a switch that turns off the walk-in cooler for all of our crops, because that was always coming into the room mics,” says Isakov. Despite rendering the entire sonic field of their environment, the mics only have a little bit of noise built into them, allowing for lush, spacial tracks that envelop the listener in a sonic field that seems as ephemeral as it is physical.
“When I first started getting into recording, I would just crank reverb. I thought reverb was amazing; it made everything sound awesome. Then over the years, I realized that dimensionality is actually what I wanted, but I didn't know that yet,” remembers Isakov. “I’ve realized the room mics really do that for me, and there's hardly any reverb on my records anymore, because there's so much depth on everything.”
While he sees the recording process as playing to one individual, Isakov says live performances are an experiment in trying to tap into a group consciousness. This means certain songs that work live may not work in the studio, and there are songs that only exist for fleeting moments while on tour, rather than permanently on a recording. “It's funny — some songs that we've had for this upcoming record, we were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that'll be on it, for sure.’ And for some reason, it just doesn't [work out], but live it's just great," he says. "It's bizarre; I will never understand it.”
Live, Isakov’s songs translate in unpredictable ways depending on the venue and the crowd. While playing theaters, he often finds that audiences remain hushed through the entirety of his set, allowing for the ambient experience that the band seeks to deliver every night. But he says these experiences are more difficult to conjure when on an arena tour in support of larger acts, and with the chaos that can come with a greater crowd. But, he says, if the setting is right, even in an arena, these atmospheric moments can happen.
“We did a run with the Lumineers in Europe at 20,000-capacity places, and it was clear to us on stage that we shouldn’t play that really quiet song — that's not going to work,” Isakov recalls. “But then in Boise last night [with the Lumineers], we could have gotten away with [softer songs], because everyone's just quiet. In those moments, you're just like, ‘Wow, this feels like a theater all of a sudden.’ But you can't expect that, of course, and you never know where you're gonna get that kind of thing.”
Gregory Alan Isakov, Friday, July 22, Coors Field, 2001 Blake Street. Tickets are $30-$199.