For every season there’s an Isakov

Boulder’s folk hero on touring and farming

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Gregory Alan Isakov
Rebecca Caridad

There are two seasons for Gregory Alan Isakov — touring and farming.

That’s why you only find the singer/songwriter on the road primarily in the fall and winter. For much of the summer, he’s got work to do on his small farm near Boulder starting in the springtime.

“My season’s about 18 weeks of production,” Isakov says. “I do salad vegetables for restaurants, mainly. I’m working pretty hard at it from May through the end of September, which is why I tour in the winter.”

Isakov’s work on his tiny farm starts in March and really gets rolling in May. He has about an acre of speciality greens that he hand-tends, from planting to harvesting to delivery to the restaurants and farmers’ markets where they’re sold.

“The last two years, I’ve got it dialed,” Isakov says in a a recent phone interview from the farm. “It’s pretty intense. I’m not farming with a tractor or anything. I use a plow once a year. It’s mostly by hand. I’ve got a walk-behind tractor I use. Those are pretty cool.”

So is there any overlap between farming and music, any way one influences the other?

“I’m sure there is, but I don’t know. I’ve been doing both for so long,” Isakov says. “I just feel too much of one isn’t good for me.”

When he’s touring — or, this spring and summer, playing one-off dates — Isakov is supporting Evening Machines, the album he released late last year. 

“I’ve never put out a record in the fall before,” Isakov says. “I always love new albums in the fall. But from a label perspective, your record’s only new for a month or two, then it’s last year’s record.”

Isakov is often tagged as a folk musician. But Evening Machines is pretty far from a folk record, adding organ, piano and electronics to the strings and acoustic sounds usually associated with the genre. And the songs aren’t straight-ahead folk either.

“I like to play with those old time cliches, I guess you could call them,” he says. “I was never a ‘folk musician’ like you think of. I have friends, we’ll be sitting around a fire and I’ll have the guitar and they’ll say ‘Gregory, play us a song with a chorus.’ I don’t have any.”

Isakov, who lists Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, Paul Simon, jazz saxophone and old folk records among his influences, can’t explain how he writes his songs, particularly how he comes up with his insightful, personal, yet universal lyrics.

“I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of understanding of the process at all. I feel it’s all kind of ineffable. As writers, I’m sure you can relate to this, you kind of take in your experiences and something comes out, I don’t really know from where. I don’t even know what songs are about when I’m writing them.”

Isakov primarily writes for his band with Wurlitzer and electronic sounds, then he brings the musicians into the portion of his barn that he’s converted into a recording studio.

“I used to arrange more than I do now,” he says. “We just know each other so well now, it happens really organically and seamlessly.”

Recording a song can happen fairly quickly, Isakov says. But that doesn’t mean it’s immediate.

“I have a lot of material and the process … takes so much time,” Isakov says. “We’ll record them and then step away for a few months and then come back to them.”

For Evening Machines, that process ended in mid-2018, just in time for farmer Isakov to turn into recording artist and touring musician Isakov and hit the road. It’s old hat by now, but Isakov still can’t quite believe it.

“I was always playing [music], but I never thought I’d get to do it as a job,” Isakov admits. “I’d do it after work. I’d be writing a song at work. Now I’ve got two things I’m super stoked about… It’s funny, I’ve been farming for a long time and it’s great to feel like you’re really good at something. I’ll never master either of them, for sure. But I’m getting pretty close in both.”    

ON THE BILL: Gregory Alan Isakov — with Mountain Man. 7 p.m. Aug. 4, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Parkway. Tickets are $45-$75, axs.com.