Sometimes you can hear the sound of the freeway from inside Gregory Alan Isakov's house. The noise of the Boulder, Colorado, traffic seeps through the walls - not a lot, but just enough - and that can be a problem when the singer songwriter is at work laying down the tracks for his next album.
Isakov has never been one for recording studios, opting rather to record and produce his albums mostly on his own, with some help from friends, typically right in his own his home, even if that means forgoing the luxury of soundproof walls. But in the mornings, the buzz of vehicles is low enough when he rolls out of bed and makes his way to the nest of wires and cables that inhabit his home during recording time to allow him to lay down some of his delicate, heartfelt folk numbers, which we heard on 2009's excellent Empty Northern
Hemisphere. Now, he's working on the follow up to that record, which he'll soon wrap up in between national and European tours this spring and summer.
He takes a break from his work for a call from the Source - or perhaps we interrupted him in the middle of an artistic breakthrough, we're not sure - and says that his wake-up-and-write music practice is well ingrained. It actually stems from his days as a landscaper, which as those in the business know, can require some early mornings.
"I used to have to wake up pretty early for work and I'd always wake up a little earlier and work on songs. My relationship to music is that it's like eating dinner or breakfast - it's just part of my day," says Isakov, who originally moved to Boulder from Philadelphia to study horticulture.
Isakov's birthplace is much farther east than Philly, however. He was born in South Africa and lived in Johannesburg until he was about seven and his family moved to the United States. His memories of South Africa, which was still under Apartheid rule at the time, are fond and he doesn't remember much of the social and political unrest that eventually caused his parents to take the family to another continent.
"I remember like down the street from me it wasn't safe to walk down there, and I didn't know why. Being a kid there, I just remember mango trees and running around, but my parents were having a way different experience during that time. I've been back as an adult and it's such a beautiful place, but it makes me realize how good we have it here," says Isakov.
He says he's never thought of his songs being shaped by his experiences in South Africa, but supposes it may happen without his knowing. Regardless, Isakov's music is hardly lacking in depth. His mostly hushed songs heard on Empty Northern Hempisphere are built around strong storytelling elements that couple nicely with Isakov's slightly raspy voice and deeply poetic lyrical style. A track that features the songwriter at his best is "If Go, I'm Goin," a silky and slightly haunting number that was recently featured on HBO's Californication, a show Isakov was actually a big fan of, even before his song was chosen for its soundtrack.
When Isakov last played Bend, he appeared at a sold-out Tower Theatre, opening for Brandi Carlile and performed to a largely uninitiated crowd, accompanied only by Jeb Bows on fiddle. His performance immediately hushed the audience, who listened intently to his soft voice and delicate guitar picking. The easiest comparison, and perhaps one of the most apt, for Isakov's sound is to measure him against Iron and Wine... or at least older Iron and Wine. Isakov knows how folky and often quiet his songs tend to be, but when he was penning Empty Northern Hemisphere, he actually thought he was writing rock songs.
"It's funny, I always thought we were making a rock and roll album when we were making Empty Northern. The songs just didn't want to record that way. I fought it, but obviously I didn't win," says Isakov with a laugh.
When he comes to town this time, it will be at a smaller room in the PoetHouse, but he'll have a bigger sound. This time, Isakov arrives with a full Americana band, including Bows again on the fiddle. It won't be a raging rock party, but the sound should be full, just the way Isakov has always intended, even if his recording process tends to be slightly hermetical - at least when the traffic's not too loud.
"It is just me and my mad scientist lair or whatever, but I actually play solo way less than I tour with the band," says Isakov, but says he's well aware of his propensity for going at it alone.
"I guess when I write I kind of hear everything that I want to hear. I don't assume that someone else will get it," he says.