Gregory Alan Isakov Takes Lifelong Songwriting Skills To The Farm On New Album ‘Evening Machines’

Gregory Alan Isakov’s fourth full-length studio album might be a very different album if he wasn’t also a full-time farmer.

On his Colorado farm he grows salad greens for chefs, including arugula and mizuna lettuce, as well as cucumbers, carrots, beets and turnips. On a back field he grows heirloom corn seed and a bean seed for a local seed company.

He wrote and recorded the songs on Evening Machines (out 10/5) between his farm duties, in a DIY recording studio in a barn, usually at night, thus the name of the album. The songs are saturated with imagery from the outdoors—wild geese, brambles, the half-moon, the mountains, bright crooked stars, the clouds and the snow.

The sound is open and expansive, with lush layers of instrumentation creating a sense of space. The landscape of each song is different, but maybe, to start, there’s the strumming of an acoustic guitar or a simple chord progression on a piano. Then, in the distance, there’s a single sustained note on an electric guitar or a melody on a cello. More distant still, the echo of a chorus of voices. Even farther away is ambient twinkling or pulsing. Isakov’s voice itself is understated–quiet but close. “Evening Machines” is both spacious and intimate, like a walk with a friend at dusk. As your friend talks to you, the sounds of twilight surround you both.

His last studio album of new material was “The Weatherman,” in 2013, so the songs on “Evening Machines” had time to grow and breathe. One reason for the patient development of the material is that, by necessity, he fits his music work around the growing season.

When he talks about music he uses many of the same words he uses when he talks about farming—cultivate, sustainable, grow.

In “Too Far Away,” he sings, “Me, I’ve been fine / I work most of the time / digging for secrets deep in the ground,” and those words are equally apt whether they’re describing farming or music.

Leading up to the October 5th release of Evening Machines we talked about the making of the album—the different ways the songs developed, his inspiration, and how the two parts of his life fit together.

The first song, “Berth,” presents a powerful vision of the journey of immigrants. Could you talk about what led you to write this song?

Silver-wing-ed, broken English, boys, they smoke
talk and joke
above the water

New York lady, holding in her heavy hand
sacred lantern, guiding dawn

I do this thing with my brother (Ilan Isakov) when he comes to visit. We call it the “All Night Co-write.” We just have dinner, set up mics, and then we’ll work throughout the night, and then we’ll kind of review over coffee the next day. We try to do it quickly. Which is not really in our style, to do things quickly. On that particular song, I had that kind of crooked musical pattern on the piano, a Wurlitzer.

You know, after years and years of living with words and songs, I would rarely believe anyone who would say “I’m going to write a song about this.” At least in my experience, that’s never how it works. So, in the beginning, it’s this wild open road, and you’re just trying to hold on, and trying to get out of the way as much as possible.

That one, we didn’t know it was an immigration song until a week or two later, when we realized that some of these verses were (about immigration.) We wanted this character, this angel character, kind of flying over the ocean, and it kind of took you to a different time. Then this character was in the city, in New York, maybe Ellis Island, and trying to just keep moving forward, which is what my whole family did. We all moved from South Africa when I was six.

But we didn’t really know (that the song was about immigration) until way later. That mantra of “Quit all that looking back, I’ve quit all that” — I think that can be applied to so many things in life. But, focusing on that immigrant story, it became really powerful, I think, because, growing up here, my parents were probably the most patriotic people that I knew of my American friends’ parents. Everyone is so excited to be here, to be able to work. My parents moved during the height of Apartheid.

My heart has really been breaking this past year and a half about all the immigrant stuff. And that really coincided with the making of this song, which was sort of a magical happenstance. Our environment makes it into these songs so much. It’s hard to know how or where. You sort of just follow this piece of writing and see where it goes, see what happens. But I didn’t set out to make a song about immigration.

Toward the end of the song, there are these vocals in the background that say “her color, it’s coming back.” It sounds like an optimistic, or hopeful, note, which is a little bit hard to find right now.

We were kind of picturing this statue, this liberty statue, being a character in the song. We were just tripping out at how one time, there was a metal statue, a shining bronze statue, and now it’s green. And how that color changes over time. I really wanted to bring that character back into the story. It was important for me to do that. It’s one of those nerdy things that I didn’t think anyone would ever pick up on.

You’re a farmer. How separate, or not separate, are the work you do on the farm and the work you do in your music? When you’re working outside, do songs start to bounce around in your head?

Yeah, completely. It’s one of the only times I get to be alone. There’s a lot that goes on, a lot of magic that happens when we’re alone, when we let ourselves be alone.

Does farming affect your music in other ways?

I really had to become a little bit brave with structuring my year. I’m very lucky to have such a cool manager, friend, and agent, and I can be like, “I really need this time to work, because this isn’t going to be sustainable for me if I don’t have this chunk of the year to grow, to have my other work.”

So, I think it was sort of a brave move, because in the growing season there’s a lot of festivals, a lot of fancy festivals. You just show up. There’s a lot of flying. You do a lot of one-offs. And it’s actually pretty inefficient if you have a one-off show. I think about this with farming too, not only writing. I’m constantly retracing my steps on the farm, thinking, how can I make this more efficient? Where can I move my washing station? Where can I move my cold storage so that my flow is easy and I can save more time?

So, some of the same principles apply to music and farming.

I think there’s a sweet spot in the size of shows, where I feel like our music really connects. I’m constantly thinking about that, and that usually means bigger isn’t really better. Cultivating that has been a big thing, because I think in the music business we’re always like, “You play the small place, then you sell that out, then you play the bigger place.” I’m always asking myself, is there someone that I know that followed that path, that’s happy? Or who feels that what they’re making is really quality? Because I can’t find an example. I think we’ve kind of discovered this sweet spot for our music and it’s usually not at a festival, and it’s usually not at a big giant place. My farming practices are very compact too. I only cultivate about three-quarters of an acre in production. So, I’m constantly thinking of that stuff.

The first time we talked, three or four years ago, it was about a song called “Fire Escape.” You said that on every album you have what you call an “Instant Song” where you just hit record and stay in the moment, and you haven’t necessarily really written it before you start recording. Was there a song like that on this album?

There is, yeah. It’s a song called “Where You Gonna Go.” I recorded that live, just real late at night, and then I had the band track on it. It almost didn’t make it on the record. It really grew on me. I didn’t know if anyone would really connect to it, but I loved it.

Another thing we talked about back then, and this is kind of the opposite, is that you have some songs that live for a long time before they’re finished, and then, something comes into your head and you’re like, “The song wants to finish itself now.” Are there any like that on this album?

A lot of songs like that. I recorded 30, 35 songs for this record, and they were all kind of being written together, and a lot of them were like that. There was a lot that was unfinished for a long time. Even lines that were kind of trading around each other.

Were there any songs where you said “ok this one is never going to be finished,” and then it surprised you?

Yes, there were a couple of those. “Berth” was one of those. And then a couple songs happened really quickly. I wrote a couple songs just driving, through a voice memo, and that was it. “Chemicals” was like that. “Dark, Dark, Dark” was like that. And more that didn’t make it on the record that were really worked over quite a lot.

Does that mean you’ll never include them on a record or might they show up on a future record?

No, there were a collection of songs that kind of lived together, that I thought worked well together, and that was “Evening Machines.” So, yeah, I do have another collection of some songs. There’s a few holes in them, but they’ll probably come out over the next year or two.

On the album notes, among his other contributions, Andrew Berlin is credited with “god noises.” What does that mean?

I kind of coined that term in the studio because we have a bunch of these old vintage keyboards from the 80s, and sometimes I’ll put some through a delay pedal, or I’ll use the high notes of a Rhodes to kind of create that bell, and I’ll throw it way far back in the mix, so you more feel it than hear it. But I call that stuff “god noises.”

“Bullet Holes” sounds like it’s about how we don’t make it through life unscathed. Life is short, you can’t hold onto material things, and what matters is the love you share along the way. Toward the end, there’s an otherworldly-sounding saw, in back of an electric guitar that has sort of a rough sound. You have this physical world but behind it there’s a spirit rising. It’s such a beautiful way to express that idea.

drifting, passing through
until we all fall, we all do
in the meantime, come and cover me up
I’m all patched up and headed home

Yeah, that’s my friend Bonnie (Bonnie May Paine) playing it. It’s funny, I was working on that part for so long, and it was a banjo solo in the beginning, and it felt too happy. It was like, of course you’d put a banjo solo in that song. It has an old-timey kind of feel to it. That’s the obvious choice. But I was like, no, I want a noisy amp. The band thought I was kind of crazy when I was going for this. I’m so glad you picked up on that, because, I remember, there was a long time that I spent on that one section, where I was like, I really need this to feel different.

It’s one of those cases where what you do instrumentally goes along with what you seem to be saying in the words, and strengthens the message.

I feel like this record felt a little bit different, just with the writing style. There are some wordy songs for sure. I like words. I love them. But I was really trying to simplify lyrically, and really even almost have mantras, and let music do most of the talking. It was a totally different kind of style for me. I don’t know how different it is to anyone else who’s heard anything I’ve made before, but for me it felt really different. Some of it was uncomfortable to write. I was like “No, I can’t just repeat that.” It went against the grain a little bit and that part was fun.

You co-wrote “Caves” with Ron Scott, who’s written several other songs that you’ve recorded over the years. (“Liars” and “The Universe.”) I think the only time that I’ve heard Ron Scott’s writing is in your recordings of it. Does it show up other places too?

I used to love caves
stumble out into that pink sky
remember that bright hollow moon
it showed our insides on our outsides

Ron is a great writer. He’s one of my friends. I’ve known him for 20 years. He works the night shift in Austin. He used to work the graveyard shift at an art museum. But now he issues warrants or something. He has these really bizarre jobs and he’s constantly writing. He calls and he’s like, “I heard this cool podcast at work, this interview with Paul Simon.” He just loves words, and I love the way we really connect on how we write and how we see the world. I love being around him. He’s a pretty bizarre character. He made it ok to write stuff that we say. Just conversational stuff. I love putting in conversational stuff. He showed me that that was ok to do in your writing. His versions of songs are really lo-fi. He’s got a record called “Future Mainstream.” I think he put “The Universe” on it. Or maybe “Liars” is on there. He called that “Turn the Page.” And it’s incredible.

When you talk about conversational writing that brings to mind “Too Far Away,” which sounds like a phone call.

hey, how have you been
since you let in
the clouds through your window as it rained

the last time we spoke
you were glued to that telescope
I heard you say it was too far away

I finished that song when Leonard Cohen died. I don’t really follow what’s going on with famous people, but when Leonard Cohen died, that affected me. For the first time someone passed away that I didn’t know and it affected me really deeply. It just blew my mind. For days I was staring out the window after that happened. His records have been in my life for most of my adult life, most of my life with music. I love “Famous Blue Raincoat.” It’s sort of a letter between him and his brother, and I love that you can write a song as if you’re writing someone a letter. That (“Too Far Away”) was really inspired by that song.

At the end of the song you say “I’ll leave you with this poem about the galvanized moon and her rings in the rain.” Is that an actual poem?

I love the idea of writing a letter and then you’d have a poem at the bottom of the letter after you signed off. And you’re just telling the person, “this is kind of what it’s about,” but you never actually say the poem. I love that. I love the poet Billy Collins. He’s the only person I read on tour, because I love reading just a poem or two, and putting the book down. I thought, this is such a way Billy Collins would end a song. I thought of him when that line happened. What he does to me is he slows me down. Even if I’m reading, not out loud, but in my head, the words happen slowly. A lot of times when I read a book they happen kind of fast. You’re kind of plowing though–I want to get through it, to see what happens at the end. But with him, the exact opposite happens and I love that. That is such a valuable gift that he’s giving.

There’s a quality of songwriting, and for some reason I don’t hear this discussed a lot, where a phrase lands so perfectly in the melody. It just sounds so right, and makes you feel something, and makes you look forward to that part of the song again. When you’re writing, do you know when that happens?

Absolutely. That’s the goal for me. As a writer you’re always after that. You don’t get it much. You feel like you struck gold when that happens. It has nothing to do with you. Gold just happened to be there and you’re digging in the right place. Most of the day you’re not finding anything. I love that.

It’s a great feeling. I walk to the coffee shop from the farm. It’s about a half hour walk, and I’m running home when that happens. It’s the most exciting thing.

Are there any places on this album where you really had this feeling?

There were a couple moments for me. I wrote this song, “Southern Star.” I used some books. Sometimes I cut up books to write. There’s a dollar bin at this bookstore and I usually get a romance novel and a sci-fi book. And I’ll just take one page of each. I’ll take them somewhere and I’ll cut up random words. Kind of like refrigerator magnets. Usually the poems are way cooler than the songs end up being because you have to make them sing well. But the original poem for “Southern Star” was a “cut-up.” I pictured it like this ocean song and I wanted to feel like there were big drums and that the chorus of the song–I don’t tend to write a lot of choruses. Maybe on this record I’m writing a few more than I ever have. But I wanted the chorus to be like drums (he sings, “and the storm clouds are thirsty, I can see them bursting, watch them gathering light”) Just those kind of rhythmic moments where the words are the rhythm. And I remember that day was one of those where I ran home from the coffee shop, I was so lit. That was awesome, that feeling.

So, some of the words in “Southern Star” were from that exercise of cutting up the books?

Yeah, it’s a really good way for me to change my vocabulary. We all have a vocabulary. So, it just gets me out of this vocabulary. I think there was a page about a war in this sci-fi book. A galactic war or something. That’s where I got “saluting the battlefield.” That’s a very old saying. And I think “battlefield” came from one sentence and “salute” came from another. I remember putting those words together, and I thought, I would never say that on my own, you know? It’s good for me to get out of my kind of vocabulary.

You talked about how your songs don’t often have a traditional chorus. I think as listeners, we probably sometimes interpret songs through the structures we are used to. In “Chemicals,” I hear one verse, then one chorus, and then a bridge. But then that’s the last thing that happens. The way I hear that song is that it’s about the beginning of a relationship, or when you’re infatuated with someone, and you feel like you’re flying.

Tell me why all these pages are flying round in the yard
how my hands can’t seem to find your hands in the dark
tell me, tell me how the hell did we get all the way up here
how gravity’s gone

Absolutely. It’s got that feeling of flying, when fall happens. I remember the smells. There was the school bus, and there was the girl you liked on the bus. But, also, there’s that grown-up question of “What’s actually real?” It’s kind of questioning, what are we doing up here? Someone made a comment to me, “That song ends too quickly. The chords don’t change around a lot and then you end it too short.”

But I think of songs sometimes as a ride, like a flying ride, and then they land you somewhere, and hopefully, you feel like you’ve gone through a journey. I love how it lands with that line “gravity’s gone.” Landing a song like that…there’s nothing to land on.

Photos by Rebecca Caridad and Israel Nebeker

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