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Gregory Alan Isakov: What can a folk singer do with an army of strings?

Friday 28th, April 2017 / 10:00
By Zachary Moon

“I’m still scratching my head making sure that actually happened.”
Photo by Blue Caleel

CALGARY – Except for his 15 minutes of McDonald’s commercial fame (it was the one where the couple makes their Christmas tree from moving boxes before chowing down), Gregory Alan Isakov doesn’t have any ‘radio hits.’ It’s probably because it’s difficult to find anything resembling a chorus in his songs. Despite this, the Colorado resident has managed to achieve a respectable degree of success. He’s had a strong series of sold-out shows across Europe and North America, and has been touring and performing for well over a decade.

Isakov, who has never signed to a major label, releases his albums on his own label, dubbed Suitcase Town Records. He now has four full-length releases; he is grateful that his songwriting has allowed him the opportunity to perform in front of consistently gracious audiences. A master of using space and sound to evoke vivid feelings, his latest release Gregory Alan Isakov with The Colorado Symphony brought him to number one on the iTunes Singer Songwriter chart. It also helped him realize a lifelong dream of performing with a full orchestra. As symphony orchestras struggle across the United States due to a lack of funding, he believes the album has been beneficial for both him and the symphonies he performed with, having drawn attention to their existence to folk music listeners.

“They don’t often get to play to a packed house,” Isakov laments, noting the loss of interest and funding for music available in his country.

The album started out as an idea for a live performance, and ended up evolving into an 11-track album featuring new arrangements of his songs from his previous three releases. This resulted in Isakov and his band mates performing with symphonies in Atlanta, Vermont, and Philadelphia in the spring of 2016, as well as a performance with The National Symphony Orchestra in D.C. in June of that year.

Of the experience, he admits, “I’m still scratching my head making sure that actually happened.”

The fresh arrangements helped the songs take on new life.

“Any sense of time that we were attached to had to be gone,” Isakov describes of the “ocean of sound” created during the recording. Although the album features a full orchestra, the welcoming nature of Isakovs guitar-centred folk songwriting is not lost. The orchestra never becomes the focal point of the songs, only adding texture and warmth, blending in seamlessly.  This is particularly apparent on Liars,” a song written by Ron Scott.  Sprinkled with imagery of baseball cards and swing sets, it starts off small like a flame from a slow burning tea-light. With the support of the orchestra, it eventually morphs into a metaphorical roman candle firing shots wildly into the sky. Many of the songs slowly build to a climax in this fashion, leaving listeners lost amidst Isakov’s spare and meaningful lyrics. The effect is formidable, resulting in force of sound that serves to dig Isakov’s already affecting songs deeper into the tresses of listener’s minds.

“The crowd we have accrued is the most wonderful part of it,” Isakov tells us.

“People that really love music… love listening.”

Although he is no longer performing with a symphony behind him, Isakov’s linear style of songwriting, combined with sparse and tasteful instrumentation, serves to create a space inside of the songs that a listener can comfortably nestle into. The effect of his band is different, but equally entrancing.

The laid-back songwriter suggests this is no accident.

“With all of my records I use space as such an ally.”

He concludes, “I am always constantly taking stuff out and creating an atmosphere.”

Gregory Alan Isakov will be performing May 4 at the Imperial (Vancouver) and May 5 at Commonwealth Bar & Stage (Calgary) with Sera Cahoone. Both shows are sold out. 



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