In a recent preview piece, we told you about a new album from Gregory Alan Isakov, on which the singer-songwriter enlisted the help of the Colorado Symphony to rework a collection of his songs (plus one or two new ones). Along with the help of Tom Haggerman and Jay Clifford, Isakov and the orchestra “transform his humble folk songs into large, sweeping things”. The result, unsurprisingly, is quite stunning, the new arrangements not replacing the delicate nature of the originals but amplifying it, adding not just flesh to the lyrical bones but also sweat and soil and sky, each track becoming a small world of its own. As our friend Adam (AKA songsfortheday) put it, “this Gregory Alan Isakov album with the Colorado Symphony might be the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard”.
We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Isakov a few questions to learn a bit more about what it’s like working with an orchestra and just how you take familiar songs and make them something new.
Hi Gregory, thanks for speaking to us. How’s life on tour treating you?
Hey! I am constantly staring up at the sky, thinking I am the luckiest person on earth to be touring with such an amazing group of people. The band and myself have brought along the Ghost Orchestra, an eight-person ensemble that we have been working out some arrangements to compliment our symphony release.
You’ve just made an album with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, featuring reworked takes on some of your catalogue’s best tracks. How did the experience differ from your regular recording process?
It was completely a new experience for me altogether. We played a few shows with the Colorado Symphony and then took the arrangements to the Seattle Symphony and the Oregon Symphony. We recorded those shows, but fell in love with the sound of the rehearsal tapes. You could really hear the space in the music. So we went back to Boettcher Hall in Denver last summer and recorded with the Colorado Symphony in front of nobody. Took those recordings back to the farm where our studio is, and mixed there.
And as a follow-on, how did you choose which songs to record? Was it your decision, or did the collaboration extend to designing the track list?
We recorded fifteen songs and eleven ended up making it on. The songs we had arranged are from my past three studio records, and a new song “Liars” that we have been playing out for a few years at shows. We chose the ones that sounded the best, while maintaining a sense of a good flow on a record, which is important to us.
I’d imagine recording and sharing songs is always a strange experience, in essence handing these personal things over to strangers, but was it even weirder to see them altered by other musicians? Did you feel protective of the original demos? Did the new versions still feel inherently yours?
I collaborated with the arrangers of the symphony scores (Tom Haggerman of DeVotchKa & Jay Clifford of Jump, Little Children). It was great working with them. So many hands made it into these songs. The weird thing about songs is that none of them really feel “mine.” I think when a song is finally recorded I sorta feel like I’m covering it. Always asking “Where did that song come from?” I love that about music.
Your current tour sees you play a number of dates with Colorado’s The Ghost Orchestra, as well as performances with local orchestra’s in several cities around the country (such as The National Orchestra in DC, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra). Is it exciting to play these grand music halls with full orchestral backing? And is the experience different depending on the orchestra?
It’s hard to put it to words—how full of awe I feel playing these shows.Has the experience changed the way you’ll write in the future? Can we expect more strings and lush instrumentation in future Gregory Alan Isakov releases?
You know, I’m not sure. I don’t think I could have this experience with it not affecting other work that I do. I am currently almost finished writing another record. It’s sparse like most records I put out, but who knows.
On your music more generally, what do you consider your biggest influences? Is it other musicians? Do things like art and literature play a part too?
I do love spending time with other musicians. I love going to shows. Gardening and working on the farm is in there. I like to read, yeah, Steinbeck has been a big one lately. I also like to watch cheesy sci-fi movies about sorcerers. Vampires. Wizards. They all probably make it in.
Finally, we always ask this: Could you name 4-5 artists you think we should hear? They can be old, new, popular or obscure, whatever you think is important and good.
Sure. SO MANY. Just to name a few: Johann Wagner, Ron Scott, Esme Patterson, Leif Vollebekk, Ramaya Soskin, Rachel Reis, Samantha Craine, Jeffrey Foucault, Andrea Gibson, Mandolin Orange, John Craigie, Shook Twins, Natalie Tate, Nathaniel Rateliff, Jeffrey Martin. Our guitar/banjo player, Steve Varney, has a new band called Kid Reverie. They are killer.Gregory Alan Isakov and the Colorado Symphony is available now from iTunes (or here if you’re Stateside). He has also just set off on a rather extensive tour, teaming up with different symphonies along the way, and you can find all the dates at the bottom of our preview post.
Photos by Blue Caleel