Gregory Alan Isakov. Photo by Rebecca Caridad.

The Songwriting Farmer

About a decade ago, Grammy-nominated indie-folk artist Gregory Alan Isakov was performing hundreds of shows a year, and, otherwise, living most of his life on the road. Never expecting he’d play music for a living, the South-African born, American-raised musician — whose 2018 album Evening Machines was nominated for a Grammy — studied horticulture in college. 

At the time, Isakov tells Eugene Weekly, he remembers thinking, “This is insanity. My writing was suffering. I didn’t feel connected.”

When Isakov wasn’t writing or playing music, he farmed or worked in landscaping near his home in Boulder, Colorado. Isakov’s cool-blue update on darkly ambient folk rock was white hot at the time — similar to artists like Fleet Foxes and The Lumineers — and he was swept up in the success, bringing his music career with him. 

Isakov’s 2009 self-released record The Empty Northern Hemisphere features vocals from Brandi Carlile, and in 2016, Isakov recorded his songs with the Colorado Symphony. He returns to Eugene Dec. 1 at the McDonald Theatre.

Since his early success, Isakov’s found a better balance, tending a small vegetable farm in Colorado in the spring and summer and playing music in the off-season. Maintaining that lifestyle is a juggle, and he has to turn down lots of warm-weather music festival opportunities, but it’s worth it, he says.

It’s also been a while since Isakov has released a new studio full-length. His latest single, “Salt and the Sea,” is a Lumineers cover for Amerikinda: 20 Years of Dualtone, a tribute to the record label, available now on major streaming platforms and wherever music is sold. (In return, Lumineers covered Isakov’s song “Caves.”)  

Otherwise, Isakov says he works slowly, but his latest, currently untitled release is complete, and expected sometime next year, he says, with Isakov’s butterscotch tenor against classical guitar, keyboards and drums added where needed.

The primarily self-taught multi-instrumentalist grew up listening to alternative rock and heavy metal, he says. When he picks up a guitar, though, his songwriting style — lush and moody, with a good balance of space and orchestration — just comes out. Adjusting to this has meant tempering his more hard-rocking tendencies, he adds, joking, “even though it’s not Eddie Vedder.”

For Isakov, songwriting is about the human experience, taking inspiration from nature and with a strong sense of place. “Sometimes that is sad,” he says of his melancholy music, “and sometimes, there is a lot of hope in it.” And sometimes, “it’s just about noticing and observing the world,” he says.

Isakov’s current run of concert dates is third major tour since pandemic restrictions have lessened across the country, including tours with both Patti Smith and Patty Griffin — all the best Patti’s, he jokes. When he performs, Isakov says he hopes that audiences feel like they’ve travelled somewhere new and different.

“Some nights are magic and we get there the whole time,” he says, but sometimes only four or five times. “A good song,” he says, “takes me someplace, and I come back and I’m different, and I’m better.”

Gregory Alan Isakov performs with Leif Vollebekk 8 pm Wednesday Dec. 1 at McDonald Theatre; $31 advance, $36 door, all ages. 

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