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May 14-20, 2009
buzz@boulderweekly.com

• The Poet sings
Local singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov drops his new album
by Adam Perry


• Mae day
Rockers find their voice while working for charity
by Alan Sculley


The poet sings
Local singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov drops his new album
by Adam Perry
Photo: Todd Roeth

Fresh off a heat-seeking national tour opening for alt-folk star Brandi Carlile, Boulder’s own Gregory Alan Isakov and his band The Freight return to the Fox Theatre on Friday night to celebrate the release of their dusty, literate and consistently dazzling new studio album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere. It’s a clear path from the darker side of Bruce Springsteen and the lighter side of Leonard Cohen to Isakov’s beautiful, accessible, motion-picture-esque ballads, but the local sensation is definitely finding a voice of his own, too. We caught up with him last week to talk about the album and a lot more.

Boulder Weekly: Compared to previous sessions, what was recording the new album like, and getting such a huge collection of great players on it? I almost feel left out — let me know if you need a drummer next time.

Gregory Alan Isakov: You are definitely invited to play on the next one, though you’ll have to hash it out with Jen. She’s the only drummer I could ask for!

Recording this record went through so many phases. We started just with some sketches I had done in my kitchen, and then I got together with [engineer] Jamie Mefford, who opened up his studio to us.

During last winter the landlord raised the rent, so we had to get a little creative. We started working in a closed-down bookshop, my house and finally in Globalsound in Broomfield. Aside from the different landscapes that made it onto this record, I guess I just wanted my friends to play on it. A lot of them had the time, and I think they all made it happen. The last record took just as long to make — about a year. I wish I was one of those guys who can crank out a record in a couple-week session, but I guess that’s just not the way I work; I like to take a lot of space and time between sessions.

BW: Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls called you “a great writer.” How has reading and writing poetry and other literature informed your lyrics?

GAI: It’s funny; I’m not a huge reader of literature. I have walls of books at home, most of them reference material, mostly gardening books. I do love short stories and poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ted Kooser and many others have made a huge impact on me. I probably listen to too much Leonard Cohen and Dylan, but I think writing for me is such a personal conversation that I have with the world. A lot of it is scribbles on napkins and receipts, stuff like that.

BW: How did you end up in Boulder?

GAI:
I moved out here in 2001 to study horticulture and never left. I think traveling a lot is one reason I’m still living in Boulder in a lot of ways. It’s funny — a friend of mine just moved back, and he has never appreciated it more. He says he loves it so much he’ll drive to Longmont just to come home again. In a lot of ways, I can’t believe I’m still here, but every time I come home to Boulder it feels good.

BW: How did the Brandi Carlile connection happen?

GAI:
We opened up for her about a year ago at Chautauqua. We were doing sound-check, and she was sitting on the stage… afterwards she grabbed me and said we should learn a song together. We ended up on “You Belong to Me,” a Patsy Cline song we play a lot together on this tour; and I taught her “Virginia May,” one of the new songs [from This Empty Northern Hemisphere]. After that show, Brandi [and her band] told us how much they like [our band], and I jokingly said, “Well, you could always take us along, ya know. We might clear our schedule.” And Brandi just said “OK” quite matter-of-factly.

BW: What influence has being born in South Africa had on your music? Are you sick of Africa-to-America-to-folk-rock comparisons to Dave Matthews?

GAI:
Actually, I lived in South Africa until I was almost 7, so I don’t think I had my finger quite on the pulse over there. It was way different growing up there — the landscapes, the people and the animals… but mostly I was just a typical kid. My hero was Mr. T of The A-Team. My mom even made me a birthday cake once of Mr. T. She’s awesome.

BW: The Springsteen/Dylan comparisons are obvious, but what music that you listened to as a kid (and lately) has influenced yours the most?

GAI:
I think recording has quieted my hunger to listen to a lot of records. Every night I came home from the studio, I put on Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room. I’ve heard it now over a hundred times, and every time I still get something new out of it.

BW: Any thoughts on playing at The Fox?

GAI:
I love The Fox; I’ve seen great shows there. I think it’s one of the best sounding rooms in the country. We did our last CD-release there. I felt brave for booking it [and] didn’t think anybody would come… but we had five or six hundred [people], and I was completely blown away. So far I only have great memories playing there.

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On the Bill
Gregory Alan Isakov performs with Bela Karoli, the Widow’s Bane and the Blue Maddies at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 15, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.


Mae day
Rockers find their voice while working for charity
by Alan Sculley

Four years ago, it would have been fair to say the five guys in the pop/rock band Mae were motivated by a realistic shot at stardom.

Coming off of a pair of well-received CDs on the indy label Tooth & Nail (2003’s Destination Beautiful and 2005’s The Everglow) the band had landed a deal with major label Capitol Records. Singer/guitarist Dave Elkins admits this development had adjusted the band’s approach to creating the catchy guitar-pop/rock music that would emerge on the 2007 CD, Singularity.

“We knew we were getting the quote-unquote major label push,” Elkins said in a phone interview. “We were always curious as to what Mae would do if given a chance to be on radio. I think we thought about it just a little too much.

“When it came time to craft a record, the label would say these are potentially the singles,” he said. “[We thought] since they are potentially the singles, how can we get to the chorus quicker? And how can we accentuate this chorus now that we’re here? It really became a thing where I think we tried to put ourselves through single-worthy radio songwriting class… I think it was a healthy lesson for us, but I do feel like the desire to hear our songs on radio kind of took too much of a priority over the need to just be true to what’s best for the song as it goes through the creative process.”

Unfortunately for Mae, life on Capitol Records got much worse before it was all over. Attempts to gain radio play for Singularity failed, and a year of touring, which included support slots with the Fray and Relient K, sunk the band further into debt.

By the time the Singularity tour was over, two long-time band members, bassist Mark Padgett and keyboardist Rob Sweitzer, had quit the group, leaving Elkins and his remaining bandmates, drummer Jacob Marshall and guitarist Zach Gehring, disillusioned and frustrated, to the point that they didn’t know if they should continue as a band.

“We really needed to look in the mirror and figure out why we were writing music,” Elkins said.
What turned things around was an opportunity on tour in fall 2007 to raise money for the Habitat For Humanity organization.

“We started playing these acoustic shows after the electric show, and that’s when we started raising money for Habitat For Humanity,” Elkins said.

That experience planted a seed that has reinvigorated Mae. The band discovered a sense of purpose in helping Habitat For Humanity, and the group started thinking about how it could use its music to do more to benefit charities.

In the end, Mae hatched a multi-faceted approach to releasing music and touring. Elkins hopes this new model will allow Mae to be a viable do-it-yourself venture, while also raising considerable money for a variety of charities.

One facet is a campaign called  “12 Songs, 12 Months: Make A Difference.” Since January, Mae has posted on its website (whatismae.com) a new song each month that fans can download for a minimum donation of $1. The proceeds for the songs are going to Habitat For Humanity to pay for the building of a home in the band’s home town of Newport News, Va., for a single mother of three. So far this project has raised more than $36,000.

On tour, Mae is continuing to do acoustic sets that fans can attend for a $5 donation toward the Habitat For Humanity home. And of course, the band (which has a touring bassist and keyboardist to supplement its three-man lineup) will be playing a full plugged-in set, complete with some visual pizzazz.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Elkins said of the band’s full-on show. “For the last couple of years we’ve been doing video projection as a part of our show. We’re now diving into three-dimensional video projection, so we’ve got Mae 3-D glasses that you can get at the show.”

To help generate band income, Mae is selling the first of what will be three EPs exclusively at shows. The current EP is called Morning, and it contains some material not included in the “12 Songs, 12 Months” download program. Two more EPs will be sold at shows later this year, one called Afternoon and the other called Evening. Together the first letters of three EP titles spell, what else, MAE.

The EPs are being released on the band’s newly formed label, Cell Records, and Elkins said the band is in the process of arranging retail distribution for its future record releases.

More importantly, forming its own record company, Elkins said, has also given Mae a new lease on its creative life.

“When we were in that situation with Capitol, we were sort of motivated by not the wrong things, but not the best things,” he said.

“Now that we are functioning on our own label, and we are creating music again strictly for ourselves first and for our listeners secondly, we’re finally at a place where we’re writing, recording and releasing music exactly the way we’ve wanted to.”

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On the Bill
Mae performs at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 17, at the Marquis Theatre, 2009 Larimer, Denver, 303-443-2227.


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