by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
At Gregory Alan Isakov’s house in Boulder, Colo., the songwriter is entirely insulated in his own words.
Post-it notes the size of small windows are de facto wallpaper. The lines, the rhymes and the ideas scrawled on the yellow/white slabs are free to jump off into his songs and stories. Or to be ordered back home to the wall if they don’t wear well.
Lost somewhere in the home, as well, are scraps of paper to which Isakov devoted spur-of-the-moment lines written on the previous month’s tour. He remembers they existed only after he’s unpacked his bags.
On one hand, Isakov’s interior decorating makes for a pretty thoughtful image of the singer/songwriter who released his fifth studio album, The Weatherman, to widespread acclaim on July 9. On the other, Isakov’s writing process — which he’s long maintained is a mystery to him — survives on the buffet of material adhered to his walls, as he describes his folk songwriting more like recalling a series lost dreams than mapping out stories.
“It’s really tough. It’s really elusive,” Isakov says of cherry-picking definitive meanings from his songs. “It’s funny because people ask me all the time, ‘What’s that song about?’ And I’m always like, ‘I don’t… you should listen to it. Maybe you should tell me.’”
Isakov will tour The Weatherman — which he chose to write and record relatively on the fly after walking away from an in-progress, planned album — through Omaha on Wednesday. Isakov and his folk band will play at The Waiting Room and tickets are available here.
But first, Isakov spoke on the phone to Hear Nebraska from a gas station (and then a meadow) on the road to Chicago to discuss why he identifies more as a writer than a musician and what words he’s never allowed to use in songs again.
Listen to the full interview here:
Hear Nebraska: The story of The Weatherman as I’ve read it is that you kind of had a record in the making, in progress and then you shifted gears pretty significantly and went and recorded basically a different album up in a Colorado cabin. Do you remember what it was that marked the turning point for you, like, “No, I’m going to make a different record,” that eventually became The Weatherman.
Gregory Alan Isakov: Yeah, I’d been working, kind of slaving away on a record for about a year. Recording it a lot and writing it. I think there’s 22 versions of a song. Yeah, like really after it.
And the energy around it was … I sort of just lost sight of it. I was writing on the road a lot at the time. We were in Amsterdam and a good friend of mine has a studio there. We stopped there for a few days and I tracked a couple of the songs. That was in November.
That’s kind of where it started and I was like, “Man, this feels really good.” A lot of it was live and then I got back with my engineer — Jamie Medford — after I got back from Europe. We just found this analog studio up in the mountains and kind of camped up there for a few months. We just went with takes that felt good and made us feel something. We didn’t over-arrange or over-produce anything. We kind of wanted to keep it as simple as possible.
HN: Is that what you mean when you say you were “slaving” on the first edition? That there was too much going on? What was difficult about working on that record that never made it to life?
GAI: I think the songs themselves had been around for a long time. We’d been playing them on the road and had been playing them for years. And it felt kind of old to me already even though maybe nobody had heard it.
HN: Which is not good, I guess, if you’re going to be touring a record after you make it.
GAI: Yeah, and some of the songs I love and I’m still going to put them out for sure. And others, I don’t know, they don’t stand the test of time for me. Which is I guess a luxury of taking as long as I take. You can see if things want to be alive or not. And it was a risky thing to do with this new record not having that kind of perspective on the songs. But it was important to me that I follow through on the newer songs.
HN: Maybe in terms of sound, how different a record are we talking? Live in an alternate universe for a second. Maybe you see that first record all the way through. How different is it from The Weatherman?
GAI: You know, it’s probably not as different as I even think.
HN: Sure, well you’re really close to it.
GAI: Yeah, I’m always like, “This is the weirdest record I’ve ever made.” I felt that way about The Weatherman, like this is a really weird record! And people are like, “Actually it sounds like you, Greg.” (Laughs). And I’m like, “Oh.” But for me, it sounded like the biggest side-step I’ve ever taken.
HN: That’s interesting. I guess, from where I stand, it sounds a lot like you.
HN: So then take me up to the cabin where you did the bulk of the work on The Weatherman. That image of the songwriter in the cabin is now sort of ingrained in the lexicon a little bit. But I always think practically that kind of isolation and the four walls must do something for the recording musician. Was that true for you at all in the experience?
GAI: Yeah, I mean the one before that I was doing a lot of tracking at home and then we’d go to a big studio and track the band and spend time writing arrangements and do that separately. So I like to record a lot of my parts by myself kind of late-night at my house and then kind of track around that in the studio.
This one we recorded on tape. It was all analog for the most part. And so the options were way less, less to choose from. The decision-making process was based more on feeling and was more in the moment. Whereas I worked before like, “Oh, we’ll get this right. This will sound great in a couple weeks.“ You don’t really have that luxury when you’re doing it in a simpler way. I think that was actually really helpful.
But the studio is amazing. This guy Todd Adelman owns it. It’s called The Mountain House and it’s outside of Nederland, Colorado.
HN: How far is that from where you live in Boulder?
GAI: Half hour, forty minutes.
HN: Did you stay up there? Did you go home in between?
GAI: We stayed up there. We did throughout the winter, so it was pretty snowy for the most part.
HN: Well, it’s called “The Mountain House,” so I think you’re probably supposed to stay there if you’re recording.
GAI: (Laughs). Yeah, there’s like a bed there. Jamie was sleeping in the control room.
HN: I’ve heard you say multiple times before in interviews, dealing with this record and songs before it, that songwriting is — I think you use the word “mystery” or “curiosity.” That you don’t typically go into writing a song with a defined goal or story most of the time. So then I’m curious what hooks you then in the early stages of a song? Is it an image, soundplay, or stream of consciousness?
GAI: You know, it comes from all over the place. But, yeah, that’s a great question. A lot of times, it’s just a feeling or an image like you said. Like a picture, like a postcard I got in the mail from Michigan. It was this picture of a lake. It was nothing special, it was from a gas station or something. And it just gave me a feeling and I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I was more after that feeling and then the story comes.
A lot of times it will be a line I hear. Or I’ll wake up with something. I write a lot every day, but a lot of that doesn’t even make it into the music. So I think the practice of writing and this confident relationship to this other world. For a lot of these songs, when I had them written down, I realized these are really plain songs. They go out in space and come back just like a relationship to somebody or a town, but they’re really about noticing simple things around me. Yeah, I don’t go about it like writing a bunch of lyrics and then finding a melody. It sort of happens at the same time.
But Post-it came out with these Post-it notes that are like the size of window…
HN: I’ve read about this.
GAI: Yeah and I use those a lot. Those are all over the house. So I have a line or verse of a song that will make it into other songs, kind of trading them out.
HN: I’ve read you have one where you have a list of words that can’t be in songs, is that right?
GAI: (Laughs.) Yeah, I have a list of words that I can never use again for sure.
HN: Can I have like two or three of them?
GAI: Yeah! Like, let’s see, “moon” and “suitcase.” My brother makes fun of them, like, “Have you heard the new Gregory song about my dusty suitcase and the moon?” (Laughs.)
HN: That must be for writing post-The Weatherman, right? Because we’ve got “moon” and “suitcase” on that album.
GAI: Yes, yeah. A lot of these songs have snippets of wall poems — I call them — that made it in.
HN: I’m curious since you talked just now about how you’ll write in your head when you’re driving or phrase will stick with you. Do you rush home to write those down or do those have to pass a test in your mind before they make it onto paper?
GAI: I write them down. In my car at home, I have one of those little tape recorders. I think my dad used it for work in the ‘80s. I’ve just always had it. I use one of those in the car. I always keep a pen on me. I have a lot of those little scraps of paper all the time. It’s actually not the best system, but I’ll be unpacking my bags and find a few of them and I’ll be like, “Oh yeah!”
And a lot of times on the road it’s hard to find the time to write. so I pick up postcards and stuff. That’s my little nerdy practice. I just kind of fill out a postcard every day.
HN: This is maybe a quick tangent. I was talking to Dessa — who’s this awesome rapper from Minneapolis — and she was talking about how she always really wants to write on the road, but she finds that every song she does is inevitably a road song. For someone who’s on the road as much as you, do you have to put “lost highways” and “open sunsets” on the lists?
GAI: I know what she’s talking about, the traveling songs.
HN: What’s the temptation there? Just because it’s what you’re doing so much, you’re embedded in it?
GAI: I don’t know. It’s not as literal for me. I’ve always really looked up to writers who can do that though. Like Springsteen is so good at that. He’ll have this amazing story. It’s like you write a book, but you listen to it for three minutes. It’s like a whole novel. I love writers like that.
My writing doesn’t really happen that way. It shifts from place to place more, or sort of like if we could watch a dream or something. That’s how I would kind of describe it. But I do draw from a lot of experiences like traveling. When I’m at home I’m sort of just hanging out in my garden a lot and working a lot.
HN: I like the way that you talk about it like a dream. So you said the songs are a little mysterious to you. But you are very good at talking about them. Like somebody asks you to unpack an image and you can do that. So is there then, kind of like the way someone would remember a dream, is there a reflection process that happens? Like you do post-analysis? That sounds kind of cold, but do you know what I mean?
GAI: Sure, sure. I try all sorts of things. It’s crazy because it’s one of those things that I’m really challenged by: the writing process in music. I think it’s so amazing and when you get it , you know you get it.
I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan. I love his writing. My friends and I will all talk about him all the time. One day, I remember talking to someone like, “That guy’s a genius.” And I thought, “You know, we don’t even see his trash can.” I’m sure he throws away like way more than he’s ever kept. And I think that we kinda thought, “Our trash cans are pretty big, too.”
It’s just one of those things that I don’t think you can ever really master because of that. You’re always trying to rediscover yourself at the same time as you’re writing something because you don’t want to repeat yourself or use the list of words you’ve been using. You always have to have a beginner’s mind.
HN: OK, so ducking back the original question. After you’ve written songs that are curious to you or a mystery or are dream-like in some way, in thinking about how to talk about them or how to conceive of them, what’s the process like for you looking back and thinking about what you’ve penned?
GAI: It’s really tough. It’s really elusive. It’s funny because people ask me all the time, ”What’s that song about?” And I’m always like, “I don’t… you should listen to it. Maybe you should tell me.”
Some of them are really plain. And even the ones that are like obviously a traveling song or a character struggling with being alone, and it’s really simple and its not clouded by a lot of writer stuff, even those I don’t know what those are about sometimes. Because a town will make it in and it’s like nine different places. In my mind, they always kind of meld together.
HN: Well, it’s an interesting contrast that you don’t often know what the songs are about, but you are the kind of artist who likes albums front to back. You kind of have these little mysteries, but then you put them together to make an album that you want to be cohesive. How do you solve that puzzle?
GAI: That’s what takes the longest time. I’ve never made a record in less than a year and a half. And that includes the ones I’ve thrown away. I think that’s probably the part of it that takes the longest for me: to really sit with the songs for a while and really figure out how they work together. And actually some of my favorite songs just didn’t fit the vibe of the record, so we saved a bunch of those off to the side for something else that we’re doing.
And however people listen to music is so personal and important whether they’re buying a single or something or they listen to Spotify. However they love to interact with that is totally awesome. But for me, I just love listening to records and I really appreciate when there’s a record that feels really good the whole way. It’s kind of tough to do. And maybe not as important nowadays, but its still important to me.
HN: Let me then move to The Weatherman a little bit. You’ve talked about how one of the overarching themes of this record might be noticing the beauty or the extraordinary in everyday life. In some ways, could that be a metaphor for how songwriting happens? You see the same things you see every day and then find something unfamiliar with it?
GAI: Totally. Yeah, exactly that. You know the poet Billy Collins?
HN: I don’t think so.
GAI: I really like his poems. They’re really short and when you read them you have to read them kind of slowly. He just kind of slows you down. You can tell he’s one of those guys who just stares into a cup of tea for an hour and writes one line. You feel like you just did that after you read one of his pieces of writing.
Last year, I was reading a lot of Billy Collins. There’s this one line, like “a mouse dressed up in his brown suit.” Or he’ll talk about love except it didn’t have the silence on the telephone or something. It’s just one of those things: the silence on the telephone in a relationship. We’ve all experienced that. Like everybody knows about that. So it’s finding those kind of gems that we all in the human experience can relate to, but we don’t see it every day, we overlook it. When you can pick up on one of them, it really works.
HN: I like that you brought up poetry, too. I was an English student in college. There’s something about the way that you talk about songwriting that almost reminds me more of the way poets talk about poetry than the way I usually hear songwriters talk about songwriting. Not that there’s not overlap, but what do you get out of reading poetry or hearing poets talk about it?
GAI: You know, I consider myself more of a writer than I do a musician. I love playing and I’m really lucky because I have amazing musicians that I play with that have amazing space in their playing. And it lends well to the kind of writing that I do. And we’ve all been playing together for so long that we kind of get it. We have a good understanding of each other musically.
But all the time, I’m turning over to Phil (Parker, cello) and I’m like, “What chord is this, man?” Like I’ll do the simplest thing musically to get the feeling of the song out. It doesn’t need to be this crazy mystery on guitar. I’m not interested in that. Yeah, I do relate with (writing) more.
HN: Let’s zone in for a second on the image of the weatherman. Because when I think about pop culture stereotypes of the weatherman, I think of him as somebody who people pick on, like, “Ah, weatherman was wrong today.”
But you’ve talked about seeing him as this miracle of a person who’s predicting what the skies are going to do. It is kind of strange way to think about it. How did that idea of the weatherman come to you?
GAI: Well, I was writing a short story about it last year called The Weatherman. It was about this woman who lived in a trailer. And the TV was always on in the background and so another character was the weatherman. And he was this mystical kind of character that she would talk to, talk to herself, and talk to this guy out loud. And those kind of ideas came into the songs because I’d just been writing about it every day. It kind of sparked form that. That he was this mundane trailer park TV guy, but was also a mystical character in the story.
HN: How often do you write fiction?
GAI: I try to write every day. I mean, I don’t everyday, but I try. I take a few weeks off. I’ll take a month off, too. But I think not writing for me is just as good as writing sometimes ‘cause I think especially when I’m traveling by myself that I write a lot. Because you have a buddy with you, kind of. And you sit down to write and you’re like, “Oh, my experience feels way more important now because I’m writing about it.” So there’s that kind of element to your life that makes it really special. And you always have someone to hang out with in the bar. So that’s been a useful thing in my life just because I like to spend a lot of time by myself.
HN: Do you find yourself writing a lot more then when you’re touring solo instead of with the full band?
GAI: I do write more, yeah, when I’m by myself. But I’m alone a lot when I’m home. But I get lost a lot on tour too, like “Where did he go?” They’re probably wondering about that right now. Now, I’m in this other field by the gas station.
HN: My last question for you then, Gregory: For someone who doesn’t think about writing as something you can master and you don’t think of it like an evolution or trajectory, how do you know then when it’s time to start the next project? You’re writing all the time, but do strands start to appear on your walls when you look around?
GAI: I’ve noticed it — because we’re playing every night — that the energy changes in the band. Like we start getting curious about a certain kind of sound that will come out of nowhere. I think from doing it a lot. And trying to keep it new for us. I think there’s a certain feeling or energy that start to shift and it’s really exciting when that happens. And sometimes it doesn’t happen for a long time. You can kind of just tell — it’s an energetic thing — where it’s like you’re writing a lot of these kinds of songs right now. Or we’re soundchecking this weird noisy guitar stuff and I get really curious about it for awhile and I notice, “Oh, here’s something that would be cool.”
HN: So you kind of wait for connection to appear?
GAI: Exactly, but I think forcing it is not … I only tried it once and it didn’t work out. I had to start over the whole process.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. After the interview, he found a pretty fitting Billy Collins poem he likes called “A History of Weather.” Reach Chance at firstname.lastname@example.org.