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Gregory Alan Isakov on gas money, God noises and, yes, that McDonald's commercial 

click to enlarge REBECCA CARIDAD
  • Rebecca Caridad

Gregory Alan Isakov has set aside a number of fears over the course of his career in music, not least of which has been headlining Red Rocks and recording an album backed by the Colorado Symphony. But in some ways, the South African immigrant — who these days splits his time between touring the country and tending his organic farm in Boulder, Colorado — has found these musical milestones less daunting than performing at bars and coffee shops back when he was just beginning to play out in public.

"I was already playing music forever, but I wouldn't perform it for people because I was way too nervous," says Isakov. "I tried a couple times and it was just really hard. You start getting these kinds of thoughts," he says, "like 'Why do I even want to do that? Why do I think that people should listen to me? I'm just going to put out records.' It just felt to me like this weird, egotistical thing that made me uncomfortable. It's just not who I am."

Still, it doesn't take much time at all to realize that Isakov, whether onstage or in conversation, isn't all that weird, and definitely not egotistical. So what's the key to getting over stage fright? Isakov can't speak for the rest of us, but in his case, those fears became a kind of motivating factor in themselves.

"I think I found that — because it was so scary — I became really drawn to doing it, just to get over that kind of fear. And then I started noticing that the music started changing, because I really developed this respect for it and how it was going to be presented. And so I just really dove into the craft of it, and I think that performing really helped with that."

Once that hurdle was overcome, the self-made DIY artist began making a name for himself with a neo-folk sound that evokes the subdued introspection of Elliott Smith and hushed Americana of Nebraska-era Springsteen. In addition to signature songs like "Big Black Car" and "If I Go, I'm Goin'," Isakov went on to release six albums before making the leap to an established label for his latest collection, Evening Machines, which was released by Dualtone back in October.

Isakov has had his bouts with writer's block in years past, but not these days. He figures he tracked close to 40 songs during recording sessions for Evening Machines. The more challenging task was choosing which of those tracks would make the final cut. After careful consideration, he chose the final 12, a decision process that was less based on which were the best, and more on figuring out which worked together to make a musically and lyrically coherent album.

"It was more like finding which ones live together the best," he says. "There were some songs that I actually was really in love with, that I will put out at some point, but they didn't really fit the vibe of the record. They were like maybe just a little too country or more string-band kind of stuff. I just had a certain feeling about the record and certain songs just didn't fit."

As one might expect from Isakov's track record, that "certain feeling" he was going for wasn't exactly happy-go-lucky.

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"No, definitely not," he admits. "I wouldn't call it a sad record, but it's very introspective. There's a lot of solitude."

What has changed, albeit in a characteristically understated way, are the sonic textures that emerged in the recording process and found their way into the final mix. "It feels very natural, but it's also kind of electronic-based," says Isakov. "I was just using a lot of weird shit, even some electronic drums and a few samples. And then there was some distortion that I was building off of, like patching a few preamps together, and also, a lot of delays. I would kind of make all these noises. I call them God noises."

God noises? "Yeah, just these kind of otherworldly sounds. I put a lot of them in there, but they're kind of far back in the mix."

To do the new songs justice onstage, Isakov is taking a full complement of backing musicians out on the road with him: "Steve, my roommate, he plays electric guitar and banjo, and then Jeb and Phil, violin and cello. And then we have an upright bass player and a drummer." [Editor's note: For those keeping score, the aforementioned musicians are Steve Varney, Jeb Bows and Philip Parker.] Our band tends to be a little bit more on the indie-rock side when we play live, and then I tend to make more kind of quiet acoustic records. I do that mainly because I think, with the medium of records, you can connect to a single person, like maybe in their car or just alone, like you're just kind of singing to one person."

Isakov, who turns 40 this year, spent the first seven years of his childhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a decade when worldwide awareness and condemnation of that country's racial caste system was still in its early stages. In 1986, his father took the family to Philadelphia and started an electronic engineering business. That same year, the U.S. Senate voted 84 to 14 for sanctions against South Africa. The anti-apartheid hit single "Sun City," recorded by Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and dozens of other celebrity musicians, was airing on radio stations around the globe.

click to enlarge REBECCA CARIDAD
  • Rebecca Caridad

Meanwhile, the political violence in Isakov's native country increased throughout the '80s. By comparison, racial and political divisions in the U.S. had largely subsided, although that would eventually change. "I never thought of myself as a political person," says Isakov. "I mean, honestly, I never used to read the paper, I never used to check in with the news. It wasn't something I was proud of; I would really look up to friends that were socially aware and knew everything that's going on. But for me, it was like my inner world took up so much of my attention."

While Isakov hasn't abandoned that inner world, he did notice a sense of déjà vu coming on when he realized America is moving in the direction that his home country had abandoned. He had just concluded a European tour and was flying home from Scotland when he got word that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States.

"I think that really turned things around for me," he recalls. "I was actually scared for friends of mine who were immigrants. I'd been in Europe, and this weird shit was going on everywhere — sorry I'm cursing so much — with the Brexit stuff and the election in France, with people essentially separating themselves from other people. And that's what I really noticed, what feels so sad and heartbreaking about the whole thing, it's really represented this other ugly side of humanity. And it's hard to feel like you have any control over your life or what's going on out there, except for voting, and then you're like, well, what does that even mean?"

Of course, there's always songwriting. "Berth," the opening track on Evening Machines, isn't exactly Phil Ochs, but its subtle references to broken English and the Statue of Liberty do suggest an emerging political consciousness. "Casting glances backwards, but it's not your fault, turned to salt, for wondering," he sings in a hushed voice over a hauntingly gorgeous arrangement of piano, strings and pedal steel, before segueing into the chorus "quit all that looking back, quit all that."

"'Berth' is sort of an immigration song," says Isakov, "but I never set out for it to be. I don't write from a place of knowing, my process is really ineffable. My buddy Joe Purdy, he was out with us in Europe, and he writes political folk songs. He's like that classic kind of folk singer you would probably think of in the '60s or something, and my process has never really been like that. It's very hard to describe my process. I feel like I just go around and I really notice things, and I kind of tune myself into them, and then songs come out. And a lot of times, I don't even understand why or how."

In any case, it's a safe bet that "Berth" won't find its way into a fast-food commercial, as his overtly romantic "Big Black Car" did earlier in his career, accompanying romantic images of a beautiful young couple who prepare a candle-lit dinner that turns out to consist of Big Macs and fries.

Ironically, Isakov is a longtime vegetarian who's never eaten at a McDonald's.

"I mean, I've eaten at fast-food places like Taco Bell," he says. "I remember being on our first tour and thinking, 'How are there hungry people in this world, like Taco Bell is so cheap!' And then I realized they had like the most awful food."

Still, Isakov can take comfort in the fact that he's the only organic farmer who's ever done a McDonald's commercial and donated the money to nonprofits that support sustainable farming and nurture community. Even so, the placement didn't go down well with his more purist fans.

"At the time, I felt like we were having bake sales just to pay for gas for a tour. We didn't have any money, and being able to donate money to something that we cared about, that was years away, that was for rich people. And so this was our chance to do that. But even friends of mine were like, 'Dude, you're doing the wrong thing.' And on the internet, there'd be a lot of like 'hash-tag hipster sellout' stuff. But whatever, I felt like I was actually able to make a difference in my own little way, and who cares what people end up thinking about it?"

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