A native of Montana, Izaak Opatz is a captivating songwriter with a golden voice. He charismatically cuts through alt-country instrumentals with an impressive knack for lyrical design, coupled with unpretending and flawless phrasing.
Opatz was poised for a breakout year in 2020, with a new album ready to go — the follow up to his critically acclaimed debut, ‘Mariachi Static’ — released via Mama Bird Recording Co. When COVID hit Opatz’s sophomore album had to be postponed (primarily because he couldn’t tour, which plays a critical role in selling records, especially for the modern songwriter). So… we caught up with Izaak Opatz and talked about life, liberty, and the pursuit of no cell service. When Izaak isn’t on tour rocking dive bars and intimate venues across the country, he’s working at Glacier National Park. Cutting trails through the woods, living off the grid, cooking his own squirrel… I mean food… star gazing, and simply slowing this whole crazy trip down. In a world wired to overstimulation, compounding stress, and steadily declining dopamine reserves, Izaak Opatz seemingly has it all figured out — or at least compared to the heap of us.
While most of us will have to wait until 2021 to catch Optaz live, we were lucky enough to get him on the phone and dig into his life and songwriting process.
Also check out “Goin Through the Big D,” (below) courtesy of Izaak Opatz and his very hot alt-country band. “Goin’ Through the Big D” is a song written by Mark Wright, John Wright and Ronnie Rogers and is the first single from Izaak’s forthcoming record Hot & Heavy-Handed which features nine covers and two original tunes due to release December 11th via Mama Bird Recording co.
Like many touring artists – you had a lot on the calendar this year that had to be cancelled. With all this free time — what have you been up to?
Yeah, summer was a funny time for me. After ‘Mariachi Static’ came out I took three years off (from working the trails at Glacier National Park) and made myself fully available to tour and take advantage of any musical opportunities that came in. Up until then I was working in the park during the summers and going to school or traveling in the winters. I did three summers of giving touring a go full time – making it my priority. While building some momentum, though sometimes it’s hard to tell if there’s momentum or not. The last ten months I’m back to the trails job. This was my tenth year doing it and in some ways I feel that I have a lot to show for the last three years touring and in other ways it’s hard to tell. It’s funny … though I am really grateful to get to slip back into working at the park. It’s definitely a strange time to re-evaluate. Did those last three years do anything? I think they did. If I could see what I have now three years ago when I first started to sort of dream of having the support of a label. I didn’t quite know what a manager did or a booking agent. I’m really grateful for all of the support I’ve had and at the same time my life hasn’t changed much. I was able to go back to what I was doing before and have it feel pretty normal.
It can be hard to know if something is moving forward, especially when you are building a musical career or any small business for that matter. It feels like its baby steps some would say — which can be very hard to notice. Does that resonate?
Yes. The benchmarks are vague and I’m not somebody who has always dreamed of being on a big arena tour or making it onto a tour bus. I do want more and more people to hear the songs but some of these bigger bench marks are almost less for personal advancement and maybe more for my own “sense of accomplishment”.
Your songs have a very natural and authentic feel to them. Is the inspiration something you let come in or are you actively ‘going after songs’?
I would say that I’m going after songs but it is kind of a push and pull. Often I start writing a song with what feels like a cool idea. If I stay open it will usually turn into something else. So… the trick for me is to keep allowing myself to foster new ideas. In order to sit down and start with a guitar I have to be pretty excited about a verse or a concept to get me going. Then I think the trick is to take your foot off the gas a bit and be open to the inspiration taking you somewhere else. Whatever the actual sentiment of the song is. Whether something is bothering you or there is something you need to say. Letting that come in and transform or dictate the actual heart of the song.
When you were living in Los Angeles was writing harder than when you were living the national parks life in Montana?
Yeah, it was harder. I couldn’t exactly figure it out. I think a lot of it was that my living situations weren’t super conducive to writing in LA. I couldn’t afford a nice house in a quiet neighborhood without roommates. I was sort of bouncing around a lot. Whether I’m writing about the place or not a lot of my metaphors and imagery have been inspired by my life in Montana. Then again, a couple of the songs on the next record are definitely taken as figurative writing from my time in LA. I think it was my comfort level too. I was always a little on edge in LA. I also had a hard time dating (both laugh) so there wasn’t alot to write about. The bulk of my next record is ideas that started in LA and I finished back in Missoula. As soon as I got back to Montana I had more room to myself to finish things up. I don’t know exactly why but it does make a difference. Often I need isolation to take the chances and to be sloppy and stumble onto something new.
You seem to have the dream scenario for a lot of working songwriters. Tour part of the year and work in a national park when you’re not on the road. What’s the reality of your experience with that set up?
Well yeah, I guess the trick is balance – which I was trying to figure out by going to LA. Working in a national park is awesome and it always has been a nice counterbalance to touring or living in a city. I needed to go to LA and make connections so that I would feel like I wasn’t just hiding away. I don’t think I would have felt great about working in the park this year if i didn’t have creative things brewing ahead of me. It’s been important to make it a balance. When I quit the park a few years ago it was because I was feeling like the park was looping me in and I wasn’t able to make the creative connections that I wanted to. So … that’s when I moved to LA. I got lucky and met Malachi (DeLorezo). This summer we’ve finished a record of originals and we recorded the country covers record. I’ve been sending vocals and guitar back to LA and Milachi and Dylan (Rodrigue) have been tracking over them and finishing up the songs. That connection has made it feel really good. When you’re working at the park you’re pretty isolated. When we’re on ‘hitch’, which means working in the backcountry and living out of a camp, we have no phone or internet service. That’s the good part and the bad part. You’re disappearing from public visibility. It re-balances me in a nice way. I missed the physical work, being outside, missed being away from my phone and social media. For me it’s just a matter of trying to find the balance. If I didn’t have something else going on that felt like I was creatively progressing I’d feel like I was hiding more than I already do.
It would be great if music could be my priority all the time. But the truth of it – especially now – but even when I could tour, I can only live that way so much and then I need to go and recharge. I think a lot of musicians are not like Motley Crew, where we get a lot of energy from partying and playing shows. At least Mama Bird ( Mama Bird Recording Co. ) artists. We’re all pretty contemplative, loner songwriters. That’s how we got into it. There is a lot of stuff I love about touring but after weeks of it I need a break. I think finding some other balance is hugely important. Trail crew has always been part work and part retreat for me.
What’s in your tape deck?
I’ve had a Clint Black tape in my van for the last month that I’ve been just killing, called ‘The Hard Way’. As far as new stuff my friend Kendall just got me the new Charlie Witten. He’s a Nashville guy that plays guitar with Andrew Combs, Erin Rae, and Caroline Spence. And actually Caroline Spence, I’ve been listening to her record a lot. She’s a Nashville songwriter with a southern, new kind of country vibe. A few songs on there have a sweet, really hooky, upbeat country vibe. Kind of 90’s sounding production. Lucinda-esq, Waxahatchee also, in that same category but a little more indie. Really great.
Photo by Kendall Lawren Rock