Gregory Alan Isakov tours symphony-inspired songs

BIG IDEA: Of his new album, recorded with the Colorado Symphony, Gregory Alan Isakov says, "This is a scrapbook of songs [my band and I had] been playing for years and years." The orchestral arrangements shed new light on those beloved tunes. Photo by Blue Caleel

“Well, Grace she’s gone, she’s a half-written poem,” begins the song “Saint Valentine” by Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s a nimble track, skipping over strummed guitar and plucked banjo on Isakov’s last album, The Weatherman. The sweet simplicity of the melody belies the weighty writing — lyrics that knock the listener breathless later, when they finally compute. But on his new record, Gregory Alan Isakov with The Colorado Symphony, emotions are further colored by swells of string and the peal of brass. It’s a revelation.

Isakov will perform at The Orange Peel on Saturday, June 18, with The Ghost Orchestra, his eight-piece band including members of the Colorado Symphony and the Fort Collins Orchestra.

Because Isakov’s friends, Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa and Jay Clifford of Jump Little Children, scored the songs for the album, the singer-songwriter can take those scores to other symphonies. Stops on the tour include performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. In other locations, “because this is a strange and amazing collaboration, we thought, ‘Let’s just do a tour of these arrangements and at our rock club shows.’ … We have slightly altered versions of everything,” Isakov says. “We’ll get to do both of our normal kinds of shows.”

Not that performing with a symphony has always been the norm for the Johannesburg-born, Colorado-based musician. Going to an orchestra concert was “a cool feeling, but it wasn’t in my atmosphere,” says Isakov. “I’d change my pants to go see the symphony.” Gregory Alan Isakov with The Colorado Symphony evolved out of a 2013 performance with his local orchestra; friends of his play in that ensemble. And the making of the record — its songs culled from Isakov’s previous three releases (including This Empty Northern Hemisphere and The Sea, The Gambler) — took longer than planned. He usually manages a farm during the warm months and tours in the winter, but the delayed release has altered his agricultural schedule this year.

“It takes me so long to put out music,” says Isakov. “Usually no less than three years between records.”

He continues, “I come back to this: I’m going to die. And I have a chance to make something that will affect somebody after I’m gone, [so] it’s important to me that it has integrity.” But the musician does have new songs in the works. He made several EPs last summer and winter, he says, and started work on a full-length album.

Still, it’ll be a little while longer before fans hear that new work. Part of Isakov’s process, he says, is to step away from the songs for three to six months. “A lot of it is letting things settle and then coming back to the recording to see, ‘Does this make me feel something still? Is this still working?’” he says.

Isakov adds, “When you write something new, it’s your favorite thing. But as time goes by, you kind of get a clearer vision of if songs will live and last.” The whole process is a bit torturous, he jokes. “I love it, but I feel like a mad scientist or one of those people in a bathrobe and bunny slippers.”

But the strange alchemy brings results. The singer-songwriter has crafted lines like, “The night fell with bicycle bells, the dark had wooden teeth” from “Living Proof” and “Fall swooned / left me drunk in a field,” from “Dandelion Wine.” His vocal, with its rounded vowels and burnished ache, is both an intimate whisper and a kind of universal yowl. It makes sense in the campfire closeness of acoustic guitar; it’s equally well-paired with the shimmery resonance of French horns.

“I’m always collecting,” Isakov says of the songwriting process. “I feel like my job is first and last lines, so I’m always hunting for those.”

And then, because he’s a farmer, too, he ends the metaphor like this: “Once I can plant the seeds, the songs are like, ‘Cool. We’ll help you finish.’”

WHO: Gregory Alan Isakov and The Ghost Orchestra with Andrea Gibson
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net
WHEN: Saturday, June 18, 8 p.m. $25 standing/$32 seated

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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