Hailing from South Africa, singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov settled in Colorado as a boy, with his parents. Folkish at heart, yet mixed with all the grandeur of indie rock, his voice has a country style vigour, and his music is both captivating and magnificent. Lilting melodies act as the cradle for his intensely personal and emotional lyrics. Since first picking up a pen and a guitar, Gregory has become a consummate craftsman, a wordsmith whose lyrics never fail to grab the heart.
2016 was the year when Gregory engaged in a collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. This melding of Gregory’s style with that of the classical bore a majestic and otherworldly experience. The single ‘Liars’ possesses a most intense brevity, like an eclipse, it slowly builds, emerging as a blast of golden symphonic, indie beauty.
With his tour underway, I spoke with Gregory, on a spartan November day, between shows in the city of Brighton. He was the most gentle of men, kind and eager to share his thoughts. “The tour is amazing so far” he enthused “I’d been doing some headline shows with The Colorado Symphony in the States all summer, showcasing our symphony record, and then I came out here to support Passenger, just solo which is a great contrast, and it’s been really fun, as I’ve not played solo in a long time.”
His collaboration with The Colorado Symphony had given Gregory the opportunity to experience an entirely different creative relationship. “It was almost ineffable, I don’t have words for the actual feelings I felt. I think the closest thing I could describe is that you’re in this great ocean of sound, where time is a little bit elusive. The songs just have this amazing quality to them, in all of my recordings I think a big ally of mine is space, I continually add space in recordings, and I was a little bit nervous before I took on this project, wondering whether this space is still going to be available, especially with 75 musicians playing. We recorded about 16 songs and some of them didn’t work, the recordings just didn’t allow that type of space, so I naturally and instinctively chose the recordings that had the most, which I thought just worked so well. That was the main challenge and goal of mine.”
What so often strikes me about performers, is whether they have a natural confidence on stage, or it’s a matter of mustering the confidence in a unique form, say performing as a character. Gregory replied “I try to stay as transparent as possible, so I think I definitely have a natural confidence. I’m laughing because I’ve played over a thousand shows, and I’ve always found myself pacing a little bit before I go out there, but I think when I start playing, I just try and get out of the way as much as I can. All of those feelings that are really natural kind of subside, because I make it about the music, you know like it’s not really about me right now, it’s all about the music, I think that’s always where I land in all that stuff.”
Gregory is a man passionate about his music, any artist is of course, but when you have a passion for something, and especially when that passion becomes your job, I’ve seen sometimes that it can consume a person – heart, soul and mind – which can stifle the natural creativity a person has. For Gregory he has always strived for a balance – “I’ve always just worked” he says “I run a small 5-acre farm now, so when I’m home I have that to focus on, I think it’s such an important process artistically. Essentially, getting away from writing is really good for writing in the end. I do notice it a lot in the music realm, these musicians whose whole life is touring, every experience they have is through the window of a tour bus, it’s not a normal outlook on the world, moreover, it’s a very dangerous thing for art.”
Aesthetically, both as a man and a musician, from my perspective as a fan, I’ve found Gregory to be truly independent, forever flourishing in different directions. About his style, he explained – “I think taste, is such a huge part of making art, making music, I was never a music student, I just always kept the art for myself when I was in school etc. I didn’t want a teacher in my head, pointing me which way to go, you know it was so private, because it was so important, almost medicinally for me, and I never once thought that I’d be taking this so private of things and playing for others. I think we can’t get away from our aesthetic in whatever art we’re doing, we’re developing all the time, so always sort of flipping structures around it, but I think my aesthetic is always there. With you and your photography and me and my music, we’re creating something, let’s call it a beautiful lie, a good song or a good photograph can take hours or it can take five minutes, nobody really cares, but as long as the person feels something, it’s important. A beautiful lie can be more truthful than the literal truth, it’s evocative of all of our emotional qualities, the way we see the world.”
At his very core, Gregory has an implacable creativity, but on the question of self-doubt, laughing, he says – “I think there’s maybe just little breaks of self-doubt in my life, like a little bit of releaf, but I know that feeling so well and constantly looking at it. It’s impossible to be secure, the whole idea of security is a fallacy, everything in nature is insecure, it’s moving, it’s always changing, so it’s impossible to always be that way, life, the world etc is completely unknown, completely changing.”
Gregory is a man married to land, by which I mean, his art would not be the same if it were not for nature. “Nature is a reference point for sanity, I draw a lot from it, just like every other living thing. I can be in New York, London or wherever and see the beauty within that as well. We’re always in this arena of nature, whether we’re in a crowded city or not, it always affects us, and I think when it’s really quiet, I notice it most. I notice there are these giant buildings and underneath there’s soil, microbiology and the sky is holding this whole thing together and we’re part of that, we’re part of both. Yeah, it’s a huge part of my writing, I don’t know why that is.”