Intellectual harvester: Farmer-musician Gregory Alan Isakov finds his own creative vocabulary in songs and seeds

When he’s not on tour, musician Gregory Alan Isakov divides his time between songwriting and growing produce on his Colorado farm.
Image: Rebecca Caridad When he’s not on tour, musician Gregory Alan Isakov divides his time between songwriting and growing produce on his Colorado farm. Image: Rebecca Caridad

One of the first things to know about Gregory Alan Isakov is that he finds inspiration everywhere, from seeds to refrigerator magnets. For the singer-songwriter, who pulls double duty as a full-time farmer in Colorado, it’s all about creating with the tools you have. In the years following his 2003 self-titled debut, Isakov has become known for ruminative songs woven with narrative detail.

“I think as writers, we have a vocabulary that we love,” says Isakov. “There’s certain words that are sexy, you know, words that sing well, or they just work. I love refrigerator magnet poems, where you’re given a bunch of words and you just kind of have to make something. And I do that a lot with old sci-fi book books from the dollar bin or trashy romance novels. I’ll just rip out a page and cut up some words and put it together as a new vocabulary that I’m working with.”

Isakov was collecting material for his latest adapted vocabulary when he came across the word “berth” on a page of a discarded book. He thought the word (a place to sleep on a vessel, like a ship or a train) would lend itself nicely to the song he had been working on with his brother, Ilan, about immigration.

“My whole family’s immigrants and I grew up with a lot of immigrants,” he explains, recalling the Pennsylvania apartment building where he was raised. Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his family emigrated to the United States in the mid-’80s.

“What was happening in the news even just right after the [presidential] election was really heartbreaking and that really affected me,” he says. “I’ve never gone out to write a political song; that’s just the way the song presented itself. I pictured these characters that were immigrant angels kind of flying over this harbor, and that’s where the song opens up and then it takes this journey into New York, you know, essentially throughout time.”

“Berth” is the opening track on Evening Machines, which marks Isakov’s first album of original material in five years. He wrote a majority of the record at his home studio, in a barn on his Colorado farm.

While touring for his 2009 release, This Empty Northern Hemisphere, Isakov ran a small seed business on the side that inspired him to dig in and get involved with the entire growing season.

“I would say that touring’s a little bit more demanding than farming six days a week, but I think it helps to take some time off and to do something different, and I find that [farm] work has been really good for my [song]writing,” he explains

For the past five years, he’s been running his farm outside of Boulder, producing salad greens, turnips, radishes, and beets for local restaurants, along with heirloom corn and beans—while often crafting songs in the barn at night.

“Farming has been really good for me in connecting with my community and really just meeting people, whether it’s chefs or at markets or whoever I’m growing for,” Isakov says. “I feel like, [with] music you think of [it] as being a really extroverted experience, but you’re alone a lot of the time. And there might be all these people there one time…but it just feels hard to connect with one person. And so farming’s been a really healing thing in my life.”

Gregory Alan Isakov plays The Jefferson Theater Tuesday, January 22.

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