Gregory Alan Isakov
Gregory Alan Isakov
Gregory Alan Isakov is an indie folk artist whose music captures America’s scenic ruralism and working class ethos. His style can be gritty and reminiscent of the tortured desolateness heard from Woody Guthrie, but it can also be reflective and calming like the music of his contemporary Iron and Wine.
Though Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he moved to the United States at a very young age and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He got an early start in the music industry and started touring with a band when he was only 16. Later in his career Isakov moved to Colorado and started producing solo material. He drew inspirations from a diverse range of artists including acclaimed folk artist Leonard Cohen, and heartland rock sensation Bruce Springsteen.
He has been described as “strong, subtle, a lyrical genius.” Isakov has just completed an album of his songs played in collaboration with The Colorado Symphony, scheduled to be released June 10, 2016.
“A friend told me it was Saturn returns and that may be true. I was about to turn thirty and I knew that if I didn’t change direction I was going to end up exactly where I was headed.”
At the end of Leif Vollebekk’s twenties, his own songs didn’t sound right. He had spent an entire year on the road, playing almost 100 shows, but every night his favourite moment came only right at the end, covering a song by Ray Charles or Townes Van Zandt. Every time he got home from tour he took a hot shower and lay still under a window, listening to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, feeling saved, wondering why his own music didn’t give him that. Why the songs he had written himself always felt like so much work.
He booked himself a secret show. One night only at a Montreal dive bar — not to play his own songs but other people’s. Leif found a rhythm section and they rehearsed once. Then midnight unspooled. Leif called it the most fun he had ever had playing music: Ray Charles and Tom Waits over a locked groove; Bob Dylan and Kendrick Lamar over a slow pulse. The light was dark blue and purple.
It was time, Leif understood, to make a dark blue and purple record. An album of locked groove and slow pulse, heavy as a fever. And the lesson he learned from singing all those other people’s songs was that none of those other artists seemed worried about anything except laying down their own souls, flat out. “I used to think, ‘This will be kinda like a Neil Young song,’ ‘This will be kinda like a Bob Dylan song,'” he recalled. “I kinda ran out of people to imitate. And then there was just me.”
His first new song came to him on his bicycle. He wasn’t thinking, wasn’t trying, but the rhythm, the chords, the melody — it all just fluttered up. He tried at first to let it go: the song wasn’t meticulous enough, it wasn’t studied or conceived. The next morning it still came back to him, incontestable. “I told myself, ‘You’re never saying no to a song ever again,'” Leif said. “I realized I had been saying ‘no’ to a lot of songs, over the years.” Twin Solitude is what happened when Leif stopped saying no. The songs started coming so fast: fully formed, impossible. “Vancouver Time” took 15 minutes; “Telluride” took less. It was as if the songs were waiting for him. Instead of obsessing about the details of recording, “I just showed up to the studio and went, ‘Let’s see what happens.'”
What happened was, they got it: “Big Sky Country” and its patient, coasting tranquility, “Into the Ether,” which rides to reverie with the Brooklyn string duo Chargaux. There’s “East of Eden,” an interpolation of Gillian Welch, which doesn’t seem like it ever ought to end. For a beautiful album, Twin Solitude is deceptively brave, filled with unexpected refrains. “When the cards get stuck together / so hard to pull them apart,” Leif sings, “I think your face is showing.” Then: “Ain’t the first time that it’s snowing.”
Yet in its heart, above all, Twin Solitude is a gesture back to Leif’s long nights under a pink moon, when a record was the only thing that could keep him company. Besides a wink to Hugh MacLennan’s novel “Two Solitudes,” this is the unlonely loneliness of the album’s title. “It isn’t a record I made for other people — it’s the one I made for myself,” Leif said. “It’s the album I wish I could have put on.”
Listen to it in a rental car in cold weather, with the windows all rolled up. Listen to it laying by an open window. Listen to it all the way through, alone. “By the time the last notes die away, all that’s left should be you,” Leif told me. “And I’ll be somewhere else. And that’s Twin Solitude.”