Gregory Alan Isakov Says Horticulture is a Lot Like Songwriting
"I probably listen to too much Leonard Cohen," Isakov says over the phone from Colorado while trying to sort out his influences. "I like jazz a lot, John Coltrane and a lot of Dylan. But I also like a lot of contemporary music. So my influences are all over the place." (Much later, he admits that he, too, is a Coldplay fan, and that they have great songs.)
Isakov writes songs the way the river runs, which is to say, he never knows what's going to happen to a song he's writing. "I write a lot and work my way down to refining them, and sometimes they come out different from what they start out being."
That's exactly what happened to Isakov the last time he made an album--This Empty Northern Hemisphere, the one he's showcasing on Sunday at the Coach House. He says, "We started out trying to make a rock & roll album ala Bruce Springsteen and it came out really different. The album follows where it wants to be," he adds earnestly.
OC Weekly: You've toured with a lot of great singer-songwriters. I mean, you've shared the stage with some of my favorite people who sing and play guitar.
Gregory Alan Isakov: We've been really lucky to get to play with a lot of people we admire; a lot of it I think is we have a different kind of show, and it's not similar to anything we're supporting.
Who were your favorite people to tour with?
I love touring with a band called Devotchka. We've done a lot of shows with them. And the Indigo Girls are so amazing, still killer after all this time. Brandi Carlisle is so supportive as well. I didn't grow up with Ani DiFranco's catalog in my life but I'm definitely a fan now. She's unbelievable.
Do they ever influence your songwriting?
They definitely make it in there somehow. But writing songs, I've only been doing for about 10 or 12 years--and not even full time, because I was going to school for horticulture. I managed a farm here in Colorado while I was in school. It was great because in the winters I could pick up the band and try out touring without losing too much money and build from that kind of space. I still garden at home when I can.
Was tending to plants a big influence on you as a songwriter?
There's a lot of similar processes. It's more of a certain state of working; with horticulture you're mostly alone and working with plants and looking at everything as a whole. Writing is a similar process for me. I rarely crank out songs. It's usually a week-long process; once in a while I'll write a song in five minutes but it's more of a rare thing.
There's also a lot of nature in your songs, does that come from working with the earth a lot?
Well, I'm also a huge John Steinbeck fan, and a lot of his imagery makes it into my songs as well. Prose has a lot more influence on the way I write. My first record, after I read Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, it was interesting that I lived in Colorado but there were all these ocean songs happening.
How did you become a musician?
I always played guitar and loved writing songs, and in high school I produced an EP with four songs, but I never thought anyone would want to hear them. As it ended up, I loved camping, so I'd go to, say, Montana to go camping, and then I'd also book a show so I could pay for gas. And it was really rewarding to play shows, and now that's all we do. (Laughs.)
Gregory Alan Isakov performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930; www.thecoachhouse.com. Sunday. 7 p.m. $12 in advance.
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