Prove your humanity

Having just finished up a show in San Francisco and settled back down onto his organic farm outside Boulder, Colorado, American folk musician Gregory Alan Isakov spoke with Grok on the nuances of running a farm alongside being a full-time musician, touring extensively and how it all influenced the making of his latest record Evening Machines.

How are you finding being back on the farm?

It’s great, winter is a really good time here. The cold is quiet and it’s just great.

You have a very well-travelled background; you were born in South Africa, ended up in Philadelphia and eventually winding up with a farm in Colorado. What drew you to the state, to such an interesting location?

I came out to Colorado for horticulture school. I was going to go to a school in New York, more where my family lived but I found this program in Colorado. I started working in farms in college and then after college. I always have been dreaming about having my own land and farming. Because I was doing production for a lot of farmers, mostly like management, greenhouse management and stuff like that. Not so much animals, but more just produce, and then I finally found a place. I’ve been on this farm for a while now.

I met the band here. Once we had a home base we were like ‘well, now that we’re all here, everyone’s here’ *laughs*.

Becoming a musician is quite a difficult task. How does that compare with setting up a farm, is it just as challenging trying to make produce and turning it into a viable business?

That’s a great question. I never thought I would get to play music for a living. I never dreamed that I would be able to do that. Nobody gets into music to make money or make a living. You do it out of a different place. A real passion and a need to do it. For me it was like that, I would play for work, or I would be working on a song in my head whilst I was at work and I’d be eager to get home to record it.

Finally, when I got to a place where I could play music full-time—I think in 2009 or 2010 I played 230 shows that year—I did what bands do, they play constantly, and I found there was something major missing in my life. Also, just out of my writing as well, I wasn’t writing as much because I was always in an airport or train or tour bus. I felt this was not a way to experience the world as a writer and so after that, I thought ‘I kind of need to go to work’ *laughs*. Just for my sanity, but to be able to do both is important to me personally.

I see artists with other jobs, and as a writer especially when someone asks what you do for a living, and you answer that you’re a writer or artist. I always find it dangerous for my art to just say ‘I’m an artist’, because I have no idea what I’m making art about at that moment. It’s really helpful to have a job, have another life to really draw from.

So many musicians with a day job dream of doing it full-time whilst you’ve essentially done the reverse. Can it reach a stage where you do the music to a point you end up dreaming of having a day job?

It’s a funny realisation. To come back full circle, to go back to your job that you had before and realise that you wouldn’t have had music if it wasn’t for this job that kept you grounded and keeps you creative. I do most of my writing when I’m working in the summers. I grow for a few restaurants and farmers markets, I have mainly a 24-week season. Mainly 20-24 weeks when I’m selling crops, I’m always recording during that time and writing. Having the time in one place to really experience some things, as opposed to being in Melbourne for one day. You’re not going to be connected to that place when you’re just passing through.

Playing 230 shows in one year, can vigorous touring give you burnout?

It can, and we play A LOT. We played already over 100 shows since Fall on this tour, and sometimes we’ll do five, six or seven shows in a row without a day off. It really comes from a place out of just routine and being able to do it in the timeframe we want to do it, also out of a place where we like doing it that way. I know a lot of bands like to do two or three shows, take a day off and maybe do one or two and take another day off. But we love how the music translates, every day we’ll learn something from the night before, a little bit more connected on that one piece of music.

We’ll talk about the show, we love playing. It’s one of those balances, where do you don’t want to burn yourself out, but you want to get better every day. That’s the cool part of being on tour, as opposed to the festival shows where you fly out for a weekend and then you come home, off for a week. That part really screws me up, because I have no consistency.

There is a cycle that rotates between touring and music production, is it often best to keep the two separated?

It’s nice to do that, because you can have a little bit of space around it and you can make creative decisions that aren’t based around anyone’s thoughts—you can just be alone with it.

Your latest album, Evening Machines, sounds very reflective, having come from that period of touring so much, the experience of travelling around a lot. Was that the intent when you were making it?

It was—it was born out of a time, a really tough time where I had no other choice but to create art. To get through a dark time in my life. It was just this new sound, experience and anxiety that I had never experienced before. It’s so easy with work, with your passion, your art to never take a breath and never find the ground again and you’re constantly moving and not finding a sense of steadiness within yourself. It’s a very human problem and I think we all have it, but when your job was to notice, I think it is as a writer it was really intense. It was a reflective period of time.

Was making Evening Machines a catharsis for you?

It’s like a medicine. But then I would say it’s really easy and cathartic, it feels like that, like medicine. When you start something; when you start a piece of writing, a project, to actually finish it, that is like labour, that’s really like waking up and punching in. That’s when the work element comes into play, the work ethic comes because I think I recorded about 40 songs.

I am in the studio now and there are songs all over the walls *laughs*. It’s determining which ones live together as a family on the record, which ones don’t fit. It’s really changing the oil and refining all of this work. It’s really the work ethic part. There is this catharsis that happens in the beginning. It feels great.

You recorded the record in your barn, how does that differ from a brick and mortar studio?

I’ve always kind of hated studios. I don’t know why that is. It might be the glass when you’re in the separate room. Or maybe it’s being on the clock with that clock shadow and you’re thinking ‘this is costing me money’. I wanted to get out of that, and I’ve always made bedroom records, I’ll mix it somewhere else. But this one, the recession of the barn is for washing produce and the rest is double walled for a studio. So, it’s always on, always geared up and it’s a great way to be. It’s a double-edged sword, I was talking to some musician friends of mine, saying that it’s the dream to have a studio where you live. But sometimes you’re like, it’s been a long day, ready to go home but then realise ‘fuck, I am home’ *laughs*. There is no separation, you just need a really-good boundary around when you’re working and when you’re not. Just to keep some sanity in your life.

Does the geography of the location of where the record is made have an effect on how it sounds in the final recording?

It did for me, and I didn’t do it intentionally. I do notice that because writing can be this ineffable experience. Like it’s hard to describe how it works. I always read an interview here and there about how the musician wrote the song about something specific. I’m always questioning that, for me, I have no idea where my music is coming from. A few different landscapes and a town, so many different places in the human experience, that turn into this one town or one place. It’s an interesting way that it comes together. In this particular record, I noticed in the songs there is a lot of Colorado in it. A lot of references to landscapes. There is a line in one song called ‘blood of Christ mountain’, that’s a mountain range near us. It’s just a lot of the landscapes did make it in quite a few of the songs.

Have you ever toured to Australia before? Are you excited?

No, I got invited with my friend Mike from this band Passenger to come and play some shows over there a few years ago but I couldn’t do it at the time. I was doing some symphony shows in the US. I’ve always wanted to go and I’m so excited.

For American musicians particularly, is Australia a little difficult to go on tour?

I think it is a challenge, especially from an economic standpoint, to make it worth it. But we’ve just been saying yes to things as much as we can and not really worry so much about the short term. We really tried to build Europe and play as much as we can and connect. Australia, we never thought we would ever get to come here and play. It’s such a dream for us, there are so many bands that I love that are from there. It’s exciting.

Gregory Alan Isakov plays at Badlands bar on Thursday, March 14.