Some people may have a hard time wrapping their heads around the dual careers of Gregory Alan Isakov. But being a cultivator of soil and song makes perfect sense to him and, most importantly, he’s got the patience both require.
You can tell by the way the Colorado-based musician ruminates a bit before responding to interview questions not to mention the way the indie folk songs and ginger, languid performances on his new album, The Weatherman, seem to sort of hang back, waiting on the listener to enter in.
Good thing for us Isakov couldn’t have been more willing to reflect on what seed-planting and songwriting have to do with each other and what went into his latest project.
CMT Edge: For years you had a schedule where you would tour in the winter and do gardening or farming in the summertime. But this year you’re on the road for most of July and August. What changed?
Isakov: This year that’s the way it kind of happened because I spent the whole winter recording a new record up in the mountains. I do have kind of a small garden this year, and a friend’s taking care of it for me while I’m gone.
You don’t usually co-write songs, and I imagine you do a lot of gardening on your own, too. Is the solitude part of what draws you to both of those things?
It probably is. … I never thought I’d be a musician, I guess, all the time. Playing music was just part of the day. So it’s really neat for me to get to do it all the time, but I do miss working outside, having a relationship with plants.
Horticulture was what you studied in college — your fallback plan.
It was actually my main thing. It was sort of questionable: “Can I really do this for a living? That seems ridiculous.” And then it kinda worked.
Actually, touring isn’t such a solitary thing unless you’re traveling by yourself.
Yeah. You know, I farmed for about seven years out here and had my own company, did some small edible landscaping stuff in Colorado. It was the loneliest job I’ve ever had, I think, whereas touring, you’re with all your friends all the time.
You’ve said that you don’t always know what a song’s about as you’re writing it. Does that feel at all similar to planting a seed and waiting to see what sprouts?
Oh, yeah. It’s very similar in that way. I think there’s an initial spark and a vision of some kind. I can’t be too attached to it. Then you’re kind of just responding to it over the course of the process. You’re sort of just working with it instead of trying to make something.
I think once a song happens, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore. I really like songs that you can own yourself as a listener. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ambiguous at all, but it has a certain sense of being interpreted in different ways. I think that’s a really cool thing about music. Growing up your collection of music was, like, yours. You had this kind of pride about it. And people will take totally different things from the same piece of music, which I think is pretty awesome.
Lots of musicians raise money for causes they believe in. But as far as I know, you’re the rare performer who’s licensed a song to a McDonald’s commercial, then donated the proceeds to environmental and agricultural organizations. Did you ever expect things you care about to converge in that strange a way?
No way. … It’s a crazy predicament because I don’t even think I’ve ever eaten at McDonald’s. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a kid. … I’m not a political person. I don’t really consider myself like that. I just see things around me that kind of make sense.
I remember we were in Canada. We played with our friends Blind Pilot, and there were a few filmmakers that were hired to make a commercial for it. They were at the show, and they really liked that song. My first thought was, “Yeah, that’s probably not for me.” Then they wrote us back and they were like, “Well, we can give you $40,000.” …
Then I thought, “Man, we could do a lot of cool stuff with that money. We’ve only ever had fundraisers so we could pay for gas on the road. We’ve never been in a situation where we can actually do something bigger than ourselves with that kind of capital.” I thought that was a cool opportunity.
I’m guessing it wasn’t how the song would be interpreted that gave you pause, so much as what it would be associated with, you being a longtime vegetarian and all.
It’s funny. I got just months of angry emails. I had to kind of let go of the Internet for a long time after that. … It’s been so cool running into the people that we’ve been able to help out. We did international [organizations] all the way down to a little local organic soup kitchen in Denver. They were like, “Man, you fed a couple thousand people.” That feels good.
You started life in South Africa and have lived a lot of places since then. What makes Colorado a good home base for you?
I’ve been here a long time, for me. It’s the longest place I think I’ve ever lived. I know the land really well. I’ve learned about the land here, and I’ve worked on it for a long time and I just feel connected to it. I travel all over the place, and I always think, “It’d be really fun to grow tomatoes in the winter. Let’s move somewhere else.” And I still think about it. There are so many places I’d love to get to hang out at for a longer period of time. But whenever we come home, there’s just this sense of place that I haven’t really experienced anywhere else.