Gregory Alan Isakov was pacing and chain smoking nervously as he prepared to play with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Friday night. He told me as much when I caught him on the phone to talk about his Saturday show at The Orange Peel on Saturday (June 18.)
“I’m just trying to keep my shit together,” he chuckled.
Playing with orchestras nearly an everyday occurrence for Isakov these days, coming off the the release last week of his latest record, Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony. (Born in South Africa and bred in Philadelphia, Isakov is based in Colorado.) Most listeners of Isakov know his sound as more spare, but his latest work opens up 11 songs – some old, some new – with classical fullness. In Asheville, Isakov will play with the Ghost Orchestra, a group of Colorado musicians.
“We’re really excited about Asheville,” Isakov says. “We’ve been working out some new songs and we’re excited to share them. I’m really grateful, and I love Asheville.”
With a loyal and growing fan base, Isakov’s Orange Peel show on Saturday is already sold out. Here’s more from our conversation:
Q: Are you a classically trained musician?
Isakov: No. Not at all. I’m pretty much self-taught, but surround myself with really good musicians who know all the things.
Q: Your new album includes some old songs and some new tunes arranged with the symphony. How do you know which songs work best with symphonic arrangements?
Isakov: You can tell that some songs are worthy, I think, for an arrangement like this. They have the space. I think the decisions were pretty easy. We’ll do a lot more symphony arrangements at the Asheville show that what is on the record we put out. I want it to feel like a record and take people somewhere.
Q: Speaking of arrangements, your songs on your previous record (The Weatherman), while spare, really offered a lot of texture. How do you get that texture, that feel?
Isakov: Danny our engineer and I are constantly searching for sounds. We’re constantly looking for sounds that make you feel something. We call them God noises. Every song has them. They’re an underlying emotion that just sort of there, and you have to bring it out. That’s a really an important part of making records for me.
Q: Do you have a writing discipline? Do you feel pressure to write new songs and produce new records? I remember reading somewhere that you scrapped an entire album because you weren’t satisfied with it.
Isakov: I’m probably a few records ahead of myself. I write a lot more than I put out. My park yard is pretty big. I like to have the songs sit for awhile. It’s not like I’m punching out. I’m really working things out, but it’s letting the songs sit sometimes. And sometimes, songs just don’t want to be recorded. Liars, one of the songs on this new album, just didn’t want to be recorded for a long time. We tried two or three times and it just didn’t want to be recorded. But we got it with the symphony record. At the end of the day, it just matters if its making me feel something.
Q: What did you do before making music paid the bills?
Isakov: I’m a gardener, and still am, a former landscaper. I run a small farm, manage greenhouses and food production. Soil is my thing.
Q: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the shootings in Orlando. This has been a week of processing, of reflecting, and I’m wondering where you are on that, and how or if that affects your shows, your performances.
Isakov: Yes, we’ve really been feeling it. I think that most people are good in this world. I think most people really want to connect, and I want to connect with that, and remind us all that the world isn’t fucked up. There are so many things we can be doing for each other. I’m really heartbroken, but I want people to come to from a good place.
Gregory Alan Isakov and The Ghost Orchestra play The Orange Peel in Asheville on Saturday, June 18. The show starts at 8 p.m. and is listed as sold out on the Peel’s website.