Gregory Alan Isakov Visits Montana
Montana, says Gregory Alan Isakov, is the best kept secret in America. While most Montanans in the Gallatin Valley are well acquainted with the notion, it was something Isakov had to figure out on his own. When he first began touring in 2002, the indie folk musician found himself in the Treasure State performing in small venues around Bozeman and Whitefish. He wound up in the area simply because he wanted to be able to camp for free, he said. Over 14 years later, Isakov will return to Bozeman on August 4th accompanied by The Ghost Orchestra.
Born in South Africa and raised on the East Coast, Isakov’s musical career started modestly. After moving to the US at age 6 and hopping from place to place throughout adolescence, music was one of the only consistent things in his life. He and his two brothers dabbled with various instruments from a young age.
“We moved around a lot, and we just played music together because that’s what you do when you don’t know anyone,” Isakov said, laughing.
For a time, the 5-person family and their grandmother lived in a two bedroom apartment. His grandmother loved to garden and Isakov became entranced. “I always had this weird love affair with plants and I don’t know why,” he giggled.
Today, the singer has over 500,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and also co-owns a farm.
I caught up with Gregory on a Wednesday afternoon phone call. He was incredibly charismatic and down-to-earth, not what one would expect from a musician who provides the vocals and music for entire symphonies. His usual style is soft folk, the kind that goes well with stargazing in a field, or sipping tea on a rainy day. This year, however, he has endeavored to blend his vocals with the powerful theatrics of the Colorado Symphony, even releasing an entire album with them. He also tours with The Ghost Orchestra, a symphonic ensemble from Colorado, and will be accompanied by them in Bozeman on August 4.
In his typical modest style, Isakov says playing with the orchestra is an incredible experience. “It’s crazy, I’m just trying to keep it together most of the time,” he said, chuckling.
To this day, he still gets the willies before stepping onstage. “I’ve played over 1,000 shows and I’ve never not been nervous,” he said, laughing again. “But I’m clear about why I’m there so it feels good… My job and my music is to make somebody feel something. It could be one word that does it.”
In 2012, Isakov’s song “Big Black Car” was featured in a McDonald’s commercial. He donated the proceeds to sustainable farming practices, but still received some negative feedback online. He says it became funny to him and his bandmates though, and that they would read the comments online in the morning. I pictured him shrugging over the phone. “We can say no to shit or we can say yes and do something cool. I’d rather say yes.”
For most of his life, Isakov has followed his heart, not caring a wink what other people think. He didn’t like school so he dropped out as a junior and hiked some of the Appalachian Trail. He then moved to Philadelphia with a drummer friend and played gigs around the city, effectively jump-starting his musical career. Eventually, he got his high school diploma and went on to Naropa University, a Bhuddist-inspired college in Boulder, CO to study horticulture.
“It’s amazing that our parents raise us at the shittiest version of ourselves and then when we get cool, we leave,” Isakov joked. In high school, he grew marijuana plants in his closet. He doesn’t consider himself much of a smoker and he insists he did it mainly because he liked the feeling and process of growing something. “Cannabis is a gateway to gardening,” he cautioned. Watch out, teens.
This second passion evolved into the farm he co-owns today with about 9 others in Colorado. They grow all kinds of seeds to sell to other companies, as well as raising sheep and bees. Summertime is a busy time for Isakov between farming and shows, but he couldn’t be happier. He recalls having to have fundraisers to pay for gas just so he could go on tour.
This fall, he will jet off with his friend Passenger to tour around Europe. He’s done shows there in the past, and says he enjoys the intimacy of the old venues he typically performs in.
In really old theatres, he sometimes feels a ghostly presence, he said. Isakov is open to the supernatural, and thinks he once saw a gnome-like creature on the Appalachian trail. Additionally, claims to have definitely seen a few UFO’s of unknown origin. “There’s a lot of crazy shit out there… there’s a lot of magic in the world,” he said.
Gregory’s voice is one of those mystical, beautiful things. His songs are light on the lyrics and heavy on the emotion. Isakov possesses a magical ability to infuse each word with immense feeling. Some of his songs are mellow to the brink of sorrowful, but Gregory crafts the melodies into beautiful, flowing ballads. Other songs, like “The Stable Song”, are pleasantly folk, with just the right rhythm to pat a hand on your thigh and nod your head.
His newest album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, was released for purchase online on July 10. The music video for the new song, “Liars” is viewable on YouTube. To see Gregory at the Ellen Theatre accompanied by the Ghost Orchestra on August 4, visit gregoryalenisakov.com. He will also be playing at The Wilma in Missoula with Lake Street Drive on August 16.