While singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov is known for his indie-folk hits such as “The Stable Song” and “Big Black Car,” what some listeners may not know is that he’s a full-time farmer, he gets distracted by stage lights and he loves listening to albums in their entirety.
Isakov will perform a sold-out show at the 40 Watt Club with Luke Sital-Singh, a British singer-songwriter, on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m.
The Red & Black spoke to Isakov about his upcoming performance in Athens, how he balances farming and touring, how he chooses songs for his albums and what he loves about writing and playing his songs.
The Red & Black: How is playing in a smaller venue like the 40 Watt Club different or comparable to playing at a larger venue such as Red Rocks?
Gregory Alan Isakov: Yeah, you know, I never once said to myself, ‘I wish this venue was bigger,’ you know? I love, I love small venues and I always have. I really do love playing bigger shows but I think there's a certain amount of intimacy that you can get, which I love, in a small venue.
R&B: How did you choose the 40 Watt Club out of a lot of different venues in Georgia?
GAI: Yeah, we played a few places around Athens and Atlanta, and love, is it Eddie's Attic?
Yeah, we played there a few times [and] love that place. But the 40 Watt is just one of those legendary clubs that we've never gotten to play, and I've always wanted to.
R&B: What does being a musician mean to you? And I guess how has that changed or not changed over your career?
GAI: You know, sometimes I don't feel like a musician. I think it's funny; I feel like a musician when I'm when I'm playing music, I definitely do that. I think that in a lot of art forms when you identify as an artist or 'I'm an artist or I'm a musician,' I think it's sort of a it's a dangerous way to think about yourself, because art comes from your life. You know, I write about life. And so … I don't I never think of myself as an artist. I went to … horticulture school, and I've been farming my whole life. I feel more of a farmer than I do a musician.
R&B: How do you balance farming and being a musician and touring?
GAI: It took a while to figure it out, you know? I've always taken summers [off]. We’ve never really played a lot of festivals and now we do like two weeks in the summer which is really manageable in my season. I tend to record and tour mostly in the winter, and it's taken a while for me to just get that sweet spot of scheduling ‘cause it's really hard to say no to opportunities that come on. But I'm getting good at that.
R&B: What was that [performing with the Colorado Symphony] experience like and do you think you'll try to do another collaboration like that again?
GAI: Yeah, we're trying to get another collaboration together for next year. It was amazing. I never thought in a million years I'd get to play songs that I wrote in my kitchen with a symphony. It was a totally bizarre experience. I still think about it, how crazy that felt. When you walk in to like a very beautiful venue and all these musicians are very well dressed and you feel like you're hobbling out playing songs, you know? It's a peculiar sense of awe that I've never experienced before.
R&B: How do you feel when you perform? And what are your thoughts kind of running through your head as you're up on stage?
GAI: I usually have a sense of place that I kind of go to where, usually [it's] where I wrote the song. I tend to close my eyes a lot when I play and people are like, ‘How come you never open your eyes?’ And I think it's because I'm so trying to be present with the song. And I'm so easily distracted … especially by lights, so I tend to wear a hat to keep the lights out of my eyes so I can focus because there's so many words. Sometimes there'll be a song that we want to play and I haven't played it in a while and I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh, there's so many words.' So I really have to go back to where I wrote it.
R&B: And so when choosing songs for different albums, kind of what goes into that thought process?
GAI: Yeah, that's such a big deal to me. So many [of the] songs I wrote for "Evening Machines" I love. I love the arrangements, I love the melodies, I'm really proud of the songs and the recordings, but they just didn't have a place on the record. I love listening to records in entirety; I love putting on a record listening from the beginning to the end … Music is so personal, it's such a personal thing.
For me, I just love making records that feel complete. So a lot of that just comes with an underlying story about the record. Even if it's ineffable or unable to kind of put into words, I sort of feel like [the album] has a certain vibe I want to maintain.
[For “Evening Machines”] I made like 40 songs for this record and I chose 12 or 13. [It was] the spring and I was getting stuff ready for our market farm ad so I just had headphones on while I was working, and I was like, ‘OK, let's start there, yeah. Alright, I'm not mad about that song. Next. That feels right. And then, you know, after the 44 minutes for vinyl was done. I was like, 'OK it's done.'”
R&B: Have you ever tried to use the songs for another album?
GAI: So I'm trying to actually revise some songs now for another record I'm making, but I have so much new material that I'm trying out as well. So we'll see if those ones live. I have a lot of songs that I have in my mind in this ... like a junkyard or a parts yard and I'm always pulling from it.
R&B: You just said that with each album, you hope that they convey a single story. What was the story you wanted to convey with “Evening Machines?”
GAI: You know, for me, that record always felt like it was a nighttime record. A lot of songs I wrote for [the album] were at night. It sort of has a traveling sense about it … [like you’re] thinking about your life at night when it's really quiet. And I really wanted the songs to kind of tell that story. It's sort of a traveling story; all the traveling is still happening even though you're still.
R&B: Is there a song that you usually play a lot or or is there a song that people don't request that you would like to play more?
GAI: I have so much reverence for our audience and I always have … I'm always blown away that people found parking and went on the internet and got tickets, and it's like this huge hassle to get to a show and be around a ton of people ... and it's expensive. And you have to get out of work or whatever, you know, there's so many things and people have to do to show up, and I'm constantly blown away.
And so I really want to honor what people want to hear. There's certain songs that we play as much as we can, that we've played so many times, but they always kind of feel new and that's just the great thing about my band. All of my friends that I play with are just so musical and it never feels the same. I like the really weird, quiet ones at the end of a record.
R&B: What do you love about playing and performing and writing and just, doing what you do?
GAI: I just really love the way a song can take us somewhere ... I love words, and I love music. ... It's just such medicine for me to get to do it. And to get to do it for a living, it's totally fucking mind blowing. I can't believe that I get to do it ... I love creating a space where people can feel kind of quiet and ... I love playing shows because it scares the shit out of me being in front of people and it's good for me, and I get through it and all that stuff. But I love making records, too, because it's this one-on-one conversation that you're having with a person in the car [and] at work. I think it's such a beautiful exchange.