Every year indie folk singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov does what he calls “this hippie thing” with his manager. They write down a list of things that would be really cool if they happened. He always loved orchestral music, so one of those “pipe dreams” was to perform with a symphony.
Turns out it wasn’t that much of a pipe dream after all. The Colorado Symphony has performed with several pop and rock artists, including Amos Lee and DeVotchKa, as part of its “Live with the Colorado Symphony” series. After some symphony staff came to Isakov’s show at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder (Isakov lives and works on a farm near Boulder) the wheels were set in motion.
Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa and Jay Clifford, from Jump Little Children, arranged fifteen of Isakov’s songs for the orchestra.
Isakov says, “We worked the next six months back and forth. In my limited language of arranging, I’d be like ‘that’s a little flutey right here.’ And then we’d kind of go back and forth. And we’re still making changes all the time.”
When Isakov and his band did perform with the Colorado Symphony it was a little intimidating to say the least.
“We’d kind of hobble out on the stage in front of these beautiful musicians, with perfect posture, really well dressed, and I’d sort of whisper ‘Should I turn my amp down?’ It was so humbling and cool just to be with musicians of that caliber. Such a craft. For them it was another session. They probably had two more shows later that day. They’re really busy. But for us it was mind-blowing and epic.”
As he toured around the country, playing with various symphony orchestras, the settings were a significant component of the shows, and an opportunity for him to experience performing in a very different kind of room. He performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta Symphony Hall, with the Colorado Symphony at Boettcher Concert Hall and the National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Center.
“We get to play these symphony halls. We did seven or eight across the country so far and you’re in these rooms that were made for stringed instruments, for acoustic music at the most basic level. It’s just so amazing to play in these spaces and hear a symphony in these spaces because there’s so much integrity put into that.”
After playing some of these shows, and before moving forward with his next album of new material, which now is almost finished, he wanted to put out an album that was a recording of a live show with the Colorado Symphony.
“I just wanted to stop and just kind of honor all the hands that have been involved in these shows we’ve been doing with the symphonies,” Isakov says. “Our original idea was to record the show, a live show. So we recorded the rehearsals and we recorded the shows and I went back to reference the rehearsals and I loved them. You could hear the room. It was just this empty symphony hall and you lost a little of that crowd energy but I just loved the way it sounded, so last summer we called them and said ‘Hey, would you be into just spending a few days and tracking these in Boettcher Hall in front of nobody?’ and they were like ‘Yeah.’ So we met up last July and recorded all the tracks and then Jamie (Mefford) and I brought them back to our studio here at the farm and we just kind of mixed it. It took us almost a year to mix just because it was 130 channels of audio.”
The resulting album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, contains the new arrangements of ten songs from his catalogue, as well as one new song, “Liars,” written by Ron Scott. As a longtime listener of Isakov’s music, I was unsure if the new arrangements would offer a significantly different experience from the originals, but they do. The orchestral instruments pick up where the listener’s imagination leaves off. Emotions suggested by the original arrangements are expressed by the strings and horns. If the original songs feel like you’re taking a walk on a country road with Isakov and his band, the symphonic arrangements are like being on a boat, being lifted and lowered by the waves swelling beneath you.
The new arrangements changed Isakov’s relationship with the songs as well.
“The ones that really came alive for me were surprising. I didn’t expect (that from) this one song that we hardly ever play, ‘Unwritable Girl.’ I love how that came out. It was so surprising. I did learn so much about the music and I still am. I think songs are alive so they kind of change all the time.”
Isakov and his band have been playing the symphonic arrangements while on tour with the “Ghost Orchestra,” which includes one or two members of the Colorado Symphony and a few members of the Fort Collins Symphony, as well as some other string players. “Just kind of our buddies, and our neighbor from across the street who plays the viola. They’re all bad-ass.” There are just a few more shows scheduled on the Ghost Orchestra tour, west coast stops in early August.
Given the Ghost Orchestra’s classical background, it’s no surprise that they play the material flawlessly, but they have also proven themselves to be surprisingly nimble in the concert environment, where changes are sometimes made on the fly.
“A lot of that stuff was brand new. I’ll just turn around at rehearsals and say ‘Hey guys can you do something (different) in this part?’ And I asked one of them, who plays with all these symphonies…we were having breakfast one day in Ann Arbor and I said ‘So is this music like second grade for you?’ And she said ‘Oh, like third.’ But they’re all really, really musical. We got lucky. A lot of them have never toured, you know? And some of them, they’ve played with bands. So there’s this mix of people who are starting to know the band’s music sensibilities and my lack of timing and they can totally hang with it.”
Even after playing several shows with full symphony orchestras, and many more shows with the Ghost Orchestra, he’s still not completely used to the environment of those shows, and the attentiveness of the audience. “Sometimes that’s extremely intimidating. I love a rock club, with the bar in the back. Sometimes it’s a little noisy but it’s cool with me. I love that kind of feeling. With the symphony halls it can be so precious and quiet that I’m, like, whispering into the microphone.”
But the goal is the same, whether the show is in a rock club or a symphony hall, and that’s to affect the audience, to give them something to take home.
“I think about the crowd a lot. I think, in playing music, the most important thing for me is to make people feel something, to go home with something inspiring for them to go do what they do. And I think about that a lot. Especially in these cities, where people have to park, after work, find a friend to watch their kid while they go to the show. Or it could be like they worked all day and that’s their only time to spend with their lover or spouse or friends and come to see a show. It’s a real honor, you know? Tickets can be expensive. And it’s really important to me that that experience is good. I feel like that’s my number one intention every day.”