“I love performing, but it scared the sh*t out of me forever,” says singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov. “Even now, when I’ve probably played more than a thousand shows … every single time. And that feels really good.”
Isakov thinks about that when he’s home (when he isn’t touring, the musician runs a small farm in Colorado) and those potent moments in shows where “everybody kind of goes somewhere and comes back, and we’re all doing the same thing. That’s the coolest thing about playing music live,” he says. “There are those nights when the feeling is extended. I’m always after that feeling.” And, although Isakov says that before leaving his farm he goes through the five stages of grief, once on the road he’s reminded that playing music is the best job in the world. That’s a good thing, since he’s about to spend seven weeks on tour, including a stop at The Grey Eagle on Thursday, Jan. 22.
Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, emigrated to the U.S. as a kid and, according to his bio, “has been traveling all his life.” But the sense of place captured in his songs, like those on most recent album, The Weatherman, are less literal and more evocative. “Won’t you come to my house tonight, we could sleep on the floor. I got this window that looks out to Orion I paid extra for,” he sings on “Astronaut.” And, on “Amsterdam”: “Churches and trains, they all look the same to me now. They shoot you some place while we ache to come home somehow.”
“I look up to writers a lot who can really tell a story in a chronological way,” Isakov says, naming Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. “I tried it out, but it’s not my natural thing. I’m always after the shortest amount of words I need. I’m always whittling down ideas.” The musician does write prose, too, when he has free time. Once in a while, he says, a line works its way into a song.
“That’s how I made that record,” he says. “I was working on a story about the Weatherman.” Isakov spent the fall writing material for a a new album (tentatively slated for release in early 2016), though he says he moves slowly with recordings. He likes to take time away from his songs to see if he still feels something for them when he returns — they have to prove their staying power.
On the other hand, Isakov hasn’t listened to The Weatherman since he completed the album (“It usually takes me a while to go back and visit it … [a musician] is the one person who doesn’t have a perspective on [his] record”), but never tires of performing his older songs onstage. “I feel like they’re growing with me,” he says. “Every time I play them, they’re different.” He and his band — mainly violinist Jeb Bows, cellist Philip Parker and guitarist Steve Varney — change songs up a lot, too. And, to road test new material, Isakov says that he plays a number of secret shows in small bars. Hearing a song live helps him know how that piece of music should be performed.
Regardless of how much planning goes into albums, tour and shows, the artistic process still retains “a humongous element of mystery,” according to Isakov. “I’m always surprised. You kind of have a road map in mind and you watch where it goes. It’s funny how I can really try, but then I have to let it go and do its thing.”