Gregory Alan Isakov finds harmony in his double life
Before his Tuesday show at the Newport, the Colorado musician and farmer opens up about growing food, saying no to festivals and whittling down 35 songs for a forthcoming record
In his teenage years, singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov dreamed of one day supporting himself as a full-time artist. The goal was to work “normal” jobs until touring income and record sales allowed him to focus solely on music.
“Then you get to that point, and you're like, ‘Whoa, I don't know where I am,’” Isakov said recently by phone from his farm in Boulder County, Colorado, where the musician and trained horticulturist grows food for a couple of local chefs and about 70 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members. “I realized how important it was for me to continue keeping my other job because it was good for my mind, and it also gave me a little bit of perspective not seeing the world out of a window on the bus all the time.”
Isakov’s bus will stop at the Newport Music Hall on Tuesday, March 22, but last week, before leaving for the current tour, Isakov was busy every day in the nursery. “Our greenhouse is just filled with trays. … We're focusing on germination right now. We have a few field plantings, but there's snow on the ground, so we have carrots in the field and that's it. But we'll be transplanting when I get home,” he said. “My partner and our friend that works here are watering the nursery while I'm gone for two weeks, and then it's mostly me doing the crop production, so you can't really leave.”
For years, Isakov has taken summers off from touring to work on the farm, which means you won’t see his name on many summer festival lineups, and that’s perfectly fine with Isakov. “As a musician growing up, you think you have to say yes to everything, like the weird bowling alley gig. ... And one of those things for me was festivals, like Bonnaroo. We do them very rarely. I realized I hated festivals. I’d be in some porta-potty somewhere in the middle of summer and think, why am I not growing food right now?” said Isakov, who, over time, made peace with declining certain opportunities because “saying no means saying yes to a lot of other cool shit.”
In the winter, Isakov spends more time in the studio, which is also located on the farm. In 2018, Isakov released Evening Machines, a folk-rock record that’s both gorgeously lush and hauntingly intimate, and he’s been working on the follow-up ever since.
“There's all this pressure on bands to put out a record every year, and I've never done that. It's always been four or five years between records. And I'm not hanging out. I'm working pretty hard on them in those four or five years,” he said. “The record that I'm making now, I think I recorded about 35 songs. And that’s normal for me and my process. … The most time-consuming part of making records for me is taking these month-long breaks away from the music and then coming back with fresh ears and saying, ‘Do I still feel things from this?’ I'm out of the writer's mind and become more of a listener. Then it's a slow process of whittling down. I'm still in that process now.”
For Isakov, taking a song from germination to full bloom is nothing like the work he does with his hands in the fields. “Farming is so beautiful because I got nine hours [a day] and I can see what I did in those nine hours. I know I can flip this many beds, start this many trays,” he said. “But in the studio, days or months will go by and I don't know what I have to show for it that will last. It's a very elusive process.”
Because Isakov never left farming behind, he was well suited to continue working through the pandemic, even as the music industry grinded to a halt in March of 2020. While COVID ravaged the country, Isakov grappled with the heartbreaking losses of the pandemic while also acknowledging the good things that came from the forced pause.
“I had never seen four seasons through my window in my adult life. It was magical. You couldn't hear the highway anymore; it was just birds and animals. It was so quiet, and I was drinking it up,” he said. “I took a long break from the internet and the phone, and it was really a beautiful time.”
Finally, in the fall, Isakov returned to the road, followed by a winter European tour and his current string of stateside spring dates. Performing material from Evening Machines and road-testing a bunch of new songs, Isakov said he reveled in the return of live music, noting a palpable sense of gratitude emanating from both the audience and the stage. “It felt like a holy experience,” he said.