One minute, thirty-two seconds. That’s how long Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Fire Escape” is. Found on his second album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere, it contains about 60 words and some strummed banjo chords. You probably won’t hear it played in concert. But it’s the song he chose to talk about with me for my “One Track Mind” column one rainy day in Charlotte before his show.
“It’s a weird song,” he acknowledges. “And we hardly ever play it. I hardly ever do.”
So the first question I ask is why he chose it.
“I have a song on every record I put out that’s sort of an ‘instant song.’ I just hit record and I keep it in the moment. Because I feel like for a songwriter there’s sort of a muscle in us that has that instant song ability and you’ve got to strengthen it. And so that was the instant song on Empty Northern Hemisphere that we kept.
“We did it really late at night. It was really cool. We set up in a back garage in the studio and I had an out of tune banjo. You know, knowing that process, what normally happens is I’ll sketch that, and that line’s kind of interesting, or maybe I’ll build off that, and let’s make that sound good, but in some scenarios just capturing that moment is the most important thing, especially if it’s a short piece of music.
“I set up a couple mics. I think there were two room mics in the garage and it was like five o’clock in the morning, super early in the morning, and kind of the end of a session and we had to walk around to the front of the studio to hit stop on the tape. So you can hear the door close. And it sounds like a screen door to me, like in a cabin or something, but it was this big door to a garage. I think we just had it so thinned out. I think we just used the bullet mic I was using, an old harmonica microphone I sang through on the song.”
Curious about how an “instant song” works, I ask Gregory if he’d written the lyrics before recording the song.
“No I hadn’t. I’m very specific on lyrics. I work very hard on them. Just a line will take me a couple weeks. A couple months. So I’ve been getting in this practice where in the morning I’ll wake up and try to work on an instant song in a moment and see what happens. Then if anything comes out of that I’ll start to develop it. So on our newer record called The Weatherman there’s a song called ‘California Open Back’ and that was an instrumental song, and that was the instant song on that record. I think Jamie, our engineer, was asleep on the couch and I just started to set levels. And on our first record, That Sea, The Gambler, the instant song is called ‘The Moon was Red and Dangerous’ and it was the last tune on the record. It’s just something that I just started doing a couple times and I kept that tradition in the records.”
The lyrics of the song stem from time he had spent in New York, right before returning to Colorado to record the album.
“It was about traveling in New York,” Gregory says. “I had a friend that lived out in Brooklyn so I think I had just come home from New York. I was there the weekend before and I was scribbling in my notebook about something on the train. I don’t think any of the lines that I was writing down made it into the song but I think the general feeling did–maybe a few words here and there.”
new york now was nothing but an ice-capade
a cigarette, a fire-escape
walked this line,
with dust in our pockets for the bedford station line to take us
the drunkard playing the casio
everytime we start starin’ up
all the loneliest crickets play their violins
aw what a shame
a subway ride was never meant to last.
The lyrics can’t be interpreted directly, but they set a mood. You can imagine being in a city, maybe on a train ride, experiencing some solitude, observing the scene going by.
“It was really cold in New York,” Gregory remembers. “And just that feeling of sitting out smoking on the fire escape and stuff like that.”
Places figure prominently in his songs, setting scenes and providing imagery. Given the amount of time he travels it’s not surprising that landscapes fill his songs, but the places are rarely simply rendered; they’re poetically reimagined, they’re woven together. If his songs were paintings, stylistically they’d be more Vincent Van Gogh than Andrew Wyeth.
“I think we’re always drawing from our surroundings. I travel a lot. For me, I always look up to these writers like Springsteen or John Prine who can just tell a great story, and it’s chronological, and it started here and maybe it ended here, and there’s this crazy epic journey that this character is on. For me that was never my natural way of writing. And so for me what happens is, say, today there’s a song in Charlotte. It’s raining today. I woke up and it was raining and I hadn’t had that kind of feeling in a long time because it’s been snowing in Colorado. We don’t get rain very much, and it brought me back to Scotland, and brought me back to when we were in the U.K. and it brought me back to the northwest, and all of these places are kind of here at the same time. And I feel like songs are like that for me. Especially about certain places. It’ll be like nine different places, a bunch of different people into one person. Just a feeling that comes out in the writing.”
Sometimes even he is not sure where an image came from, especially in an instant song, where he let the song write itself. An important part of the process for him is trusting the song.
“New York now is nothing but an ice capade, a cigarette, a fire escape,” he sings. Recalling his reaction to writing those lyrics, he says, “What is an ice capade? Is that like with Mickey Mouse? Where did that come from? I can’t say that. That makes no sense. And I’m like, well, it’s part of the instant song!”
We talk about imagery in other writers’ songs that bring forth an emotion, even when we don’t quite understand the image, and the song that comes to mind for him is Leonard Cohen’s “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.”
“I love songs like that that keep unfolding. Leonard Cohen is the perfect example for me. He’s my hero. He’s so good at that. It’s that story song that’s about a woman who commits suicide. ‘Looking at the late night show through a semi-precious stone.’ That’s one of the lines. You picture this girl in her bed with an open telephone next to the bed and watching a late night show through a semi-precious stone. And that could mean so many different things, but just literally, if you took those words really literally, it’s just so cool.”
Many of Gregory’s songs operate outside of the typical song structure, and “Fire Escape” is one of them.
“There’s all these ‘rules’ in songwriting,” he says. “You hear a song on the radio and you’re like ‘All right, waiting for the hook, there it is, back to the verse, maybe there’ll be a bridge, who knows, and…’ I’ve never written that way and I try. I wish I could.
“Especially when I’m working on something for television or film or something like that. Those are really tough for me because I feel like songs are kind of like a ride. I think a good song, to me, takes you somewhere, and when it’s over you’re somewhere else. You’re somewhere different. ‘I’m a little bit different now. And I don’t know where I was.’ It’s sort of a ride and you can’t really see the next corner of the ride. Like a carnival ride or something. I think that’s the goal. And sometimes it doesn’t call for a chorus. Sometimes it doesn’t need one.
“I would be wary of any artist anywhere, painter, sculptor, writer, anyone that’s like ‘Yeah, I got a finger on the whole thing the whole time, I know exactly where it’s going.’ I would not believe it. Because, to me, that’s never been my experience. And I think the more I try to own every single moment the worse it gets.”
His songwriting relies not on trying to control the process, but on being present.
“It’s a constant practice of being present. It’s just sort of reminding ourselves to notice things.”
To take Gregory’s analogy of a carnival ride a little further, he’s not the architect of the roller coaster. He’s riding the roller coaster. Maybe that’s what makes his songs so compelling, the sense that he’s on the ride with us and isn’t sure where it will go. It makes the ride more immediate, more real.
On “Fire Escape,” the ride seems to end too soon. The first time I heard it, I felt a little cheated when it was over. I wanted more. But as the last line says, “Aw, what a shame. A subway ride was never meant to last.” So I’m thinking this: be present, notice the scene, enjoy the ride while it lasts, and listen to the door close. And then, if the ride is a Gregory Alan Isakov song, hit repeat.
Top photo by Erin Preston