Gregory Alan Isakov: The horticultural hypnotist

Singer-songwriter's new album is spellbinding

Gregory Alan Isakov
Photo by Erin Preston

A vein of nature runs through troubadour Gregory Alan Isakov’s music, fitting imagery for the singer-songwriter, who lived on a farm for several years. On his new album, The Weatherman, which dropped July 9, Isakov sings of “casting hooks off the California coast,” “plucking strings in the pouring rain” and “waiting in the wings while the trees undress.” The natural world is everpresent in his songs, and his music — softly strummed folk with simple, melancholic vocals accompanied by sparse, calm backing instruments, including cello, banjo and violin — always feels whispered, like a hummed melody you can just make out over the sound of the wind.

The video for “Living Proof,” a song in which Isakov reminisces on the magical moments of past relationships, is set in an abandoned amusement park that has long since been reclaimed by the ground upon which it was built. A mime in skinny white jeans, a red-and-white horizontally striped shirt and a white jacket wanders through the skeletons of the roller coasters and old carnival booths, trying in vain to restart the rides and restore the park to its former glory. It’s poignant symbolism for a man recalling the euphoric moments of an old relationship, and just like one can topple backwards into nostalgia-fueled doldrums if not careful, the natural world looks like it is on the brink of devouring the man-made attractions at the park.

Isakov’s music, like the amusement park in the video, seems to have succumbed a bit to the simpler pleasures of the natural world. Isakov says that on his last album, the 2009 release This Empty Northern Hemisphere, while the songs might not have sounded like it, there were as many as 95 tracks on a single cut. For The Weatherman, he ditched digital and recorded the tracks directly to tape, capping the amount of tinkering he could do with the songs.

“This record was done on tape, and there were mostly 16 channels on a song,” Isakov says. “In my writing this year, I’ve been a little more melody-based, a little more music in the songs, and a little more sparse in lyrical content.”

Note the timeframe: “this year.” The Weatherman, Isakov’s third studio album, arrived just about four years after his previous album, though it’s not for lack of trying. Isakov says before he started working on The Weatherman, he was “slaving away” on an entirely different album, one that he eventually shelved. The new album has more organic roots than just recording an album for an album’s sake.

“We were in Europe and stopped in this studio in Holland and started tracking just a few songs that I wrote,” Isakov says. “Then I came back and [engineer Jamie Mefford] and I, we rented this studio up in Nederland, Colo., and just holed up there for six months and sort of recorded it as live as we could.”

Soon, he had completely ditched the old album and was working on what became The Weatherman, and all of the songs were fairly new. He recorded multiple takes of many songs, culled many of them and was left with a batch of fresh, raw songs.

“A lot of the songs were recently written,” he says. “It just felt better to work on that. Everything was kind of pointing in that direction.”

He invited his friends and fellow musicians up to the studio with him, so the resulting album is very much a product of Colorado musicians. Prominent are longtime collaborators Jeb Bows (violin, viola) and Phil Parker (cello), as well as James Han (piano). Elephant Revival’s Bonnie May Paine and singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff contributed background vocals, as did Julia Davis, Natalie Tate and Reed Foehl. Jon Grigsby played bass, Will Schlatmann contributed accordion, and Reyn Ouwehand played the odd mellotron part.

The musicians tracked the songs in the studio, but Isakov was picky. He wanted to make a cohesive album, a complete one, and if he felt that a track didn’t fit the aesthetic he wanted, he chucked it.

“Some songs didn’t really fit that record. Even some stuff that we really were excited about,” he says. “We probably threw away five or six songs. … You always throw away stuff when you’re writing. I write a lot, and only just a little bit makes it into a song. Then again, when there’s a good seed for something, it’s hard to tell if it’s going to live very long. I sat on a lot of these songs before we tracked them. Played them live, toured with the songs for awhile, felt really good about this batch of songs.”

He at least will have something cellared away for later. He completed an EP that he will release next year.

The go-with-what-feels-right attitude has served him well. The album debuted at No. 102 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 5 on the Folk chart, Isakov’s first time making sales numbers that significant.

“I wouldn’t have even thought to check,” he says, sounding somewhat bewildered.

Isakov was born in South Africa, and his family moved to the United States when he was young. He moved to Boulder in 2001 to attend horticulture school and has been here ever since. After bouncing between Boulder and Lyons for a few years, he’s now settled in the county seat.

Isakov has been a local favorite tagged with the “up-and-comer” label as early as 2008. He and his band toured with Brandi Carlile for a spell, and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls called him “a great writer.” This past year saw him as part of official showcases at SXSW, and on his current tour, he sold out many of his East Coast dates — a significant milestone for an artist, to be that popular so far from one’s hometown. It seems he has crossed the threshold from rising star to established veteran.

It’s never easy to pin down the reason for an artist’s success, but part of Isakov’s appeal lies in his entrancing live shows. Isakov’s quiet demeanor and dusty voice create a force that demands attention during his performances. During the frenetic, raucous party that is SXSW, Isakov commanded the undivided attention of a room of seated music fans. At a recent sold-out show at The Bowery in New York City, one reviewer noted that the audience was “in the palm of his hand” and that “time slowed down as he played.”

When asked about how he manages to captivate audiences like he does, Isakov doesn’t have an exact answer.

“I think about it a lot. I think about the crowd a lot. I think about, I don’t know, what I would want to hear, maybe,” he says. “Music is such a personal thing. I think I make it for one person. When I think about writing and I think about recording, I think about one person in their car, or listening to the stereo in their kitchen. That’s how I think about it; that’s how I relate to it.

“It’s a big honor to have someone take time out of their day and spend money on going to see a show. I really like to respect that. This is valuable time; I really take it seriously. … But I’m humbled by the fact that they’re there. I don’t like to squander that type of energy.”

Gregory Alan Isakov plays the Boulder Theater on Sunday, Aug. 4. Sera Cahoone opens. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.