For Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album he chose to record an album with the Colorado Symphony, a brave move which paid off incredibly well (read our review here). I managed to catch up with him to talk in more detail about the making of the album.
When I think of orchestrated folk music I always recall the arrangements of Robert Kirby and his arrangements for the likes of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and Steve Ashley. With the new album, where did the idea to record with a symphony come from, was it influenced by recordings such as these?
I love those Nick Drake recordings with the orchestra. Some of our arrangements have that feel, and it was something we were after. We played a few shows with the Colorado Symphony and we instantly fell in love with the arrangements. Then we did shows with the Seattle and Oregon Symphonies. Doing these collaborations and hearing them live inspired us to go back to Boettcher Hall and record the arrangements in an empty room. And we just love how they turned out.
To go from arrangements for a band to a symphony sounds like a huge technical leap both in terms of experience and communicating what you want to an orchestra. Was it as big a challenge as you expected?
The band and I have been playing together so long that we have a forgiving and illusive sense of time, in a musical sense. We never play the same song the same way. Playing with the symphony, you have to stick to a lot more form because there are 75 people playing charts to the music. One slip-up and it’s a train wreck. That took some time to get used to.
How did you end up working with Tom Hagerman (DeVotchKa) and Jay Clifford (Jump, Little Children) who did the arrangements?
We’re huge fans of both of those guys. I did a tour with DeVotchKa in Europe a few years back—and DeVotchKa and Tom have been great anchors in the Denver music scene for years. They are great artists. We approached both Jay and Tom to see if they had time to take on an immense project like this and were humbled that they were able to do it.
What was it like hearing your music being played by an orchestra for the first time?
I don’t really have words to describe it really. I think there are moments in all of our lives that it feels like time sort of stops and you have an indescribable feeling of awe about the world. It felt a lot like that.
Looking back at the process you went through, what would you say was your biggest triumph and challenge? And did you experience doubts about the project?
Oh yeah, for sure there were doubts. There were all the normal feelings like “WE’RE NOT WORTHY,”— kinda us fumbling out on a stage with the greatest and most well-dressed musicians with perfect posture seated behind us. Most of my songs are in C [laughs]. I definitely had to get over that. But definitely what has been the coolest thing is that I can feel every instrument and every person up there pouring themselves into the music. So yeah, that’s pretty triumphant.
To take a dream and make it a reality is quite an experience to go through, what have you learned through it all?
I have come to believe that we can manifest anything we want in the world. Daydreaming is an important practice. Window-staring. But then again, I am aware of my privilege. I am a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia with the amazing support of friends and family, and a deep reverence of the natural world. I personally know how hard it can be out there as well, but I think the journey to manifesting and getting through all that hard stuff, burning through it all, is never giving up. I think, all in all, the real key is for me to be in a place of gratitude for whatever is going on in my life.
When I last spoke to you in 2012 we spoke about horticulture, your other love of your life. Talking about how you’d moved away from that side due to touring you said “I felt empty without it in my life. And so I have reclaimed it again the past few years and am still finding a balance.” How is that coming along and what are you doing now?
It’s going great! This is our third season at a small farm in Boulder county. A few of my friends and I are growing vegetable seeds for a local seed company. We have eleven sheep, two beehives, chickens, and a bunch of people. I am always still trying to find the balance between the touring life and farm life, but that’s how it goes.
Have you any plans to come to the UK & Europe?
Yeah, I’m really excited about supporting my friend Passenger this Fall. I’ll be doing solo sets opening for a whole slew of shows across Europe and the UK, which will be such a difference from the tour we are currently on.
Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony is out now via Suitcase Town Music
2016 UK & Ireland Tour Dates Supporting Passenger
NOV 20 – DOME, BRIGHTON
NOV 22 – PAVILIONS, PLYMOUTH
NOV 23 – COLSTON HALL, BRISTOL
NOV 26 – EVENTIM APOLLO, LONDON
NOV 29 – O2 ACADEMY, BIRMINGHAM,
NOV 30 – O2 APOLLO MANCHESTER
DEC 03 – VICAR STREET, DUBLIN, IRELAND
DEC 04 – WATERFRONT, BELFAST
DEC 07 – USHER HALL, EDINBURGH
DEC 08 – BARROWLANDS, GLASGOW