'The Weatherman': A Rambler's Folky Manifesto
To be a folk musician these days, there's no requirement that you be some sort of rambling wanderer. But it can't hurt, right?
Gregory Alan Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He didn't stay there long: He moved to Philadelphia, then around the East Coast, switching schools every couple years. As an adult, he's found a more stable home: a remote part of Colorado. And in his music, he writes from the perspective quite happy to be away from any big cities.
Isakov and a few bandmates stopped by NPR's Washington, D.C. studios to perform a few songs from his new album, The Weatherman, and chat with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. Click the audio link to hear their conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To be a folk musician these days, there's no requirement that you be some sort of rambling man, a wanderer. But it can't hurt, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)
MARTIN: Gregory Alan Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He didn't stay there long. He moved to Philadelphia, then moved around the East Coast switching schools every couple years. As an adult, he has moved west and laid down some roots in a remote part of Colorado. But his music is still about wandering.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL SHADES OF BLUE")
GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV: (Singing) His son's left the stable and they never came home. And there ain't no forgetting that you're out on your own...
MARTIN: Gregory Alan Isakov is traveling again on tour. But he's not on his own, he's got accompaniment.
JEB BOWS: Jeb Bows and I am playing the violin today.
PHIL PARKER: Phil Parker and I am playing cello.
STEVE VARNEY: Steve and I'm playing the guitar.
MARTIN: Steve, what's your last name?
MARTIN: He and his band mates stopped by her Washington studios to play for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL SHADES OF BLUE")
ISAKOV: (Singing) Horseflies are biting but the fish never do. And your heart's a thousand colors and they're all shades of blue. Broken bottles shine just like stars, and make a wish anyway. Just your smile lit a 60-watt bulb in my house that was darkened for days. Now I'm thinking you probably should stay, see those shades turning golden hills.
MARTIN: That was beautiful.
ISAKOV: Thank you.
MARTIN: It's such a rich arrangement and there's so much texture. When you write a song or when you started doing this, did you always want that fuller feeling with all these strings? I'm looking at a lot of strings right now.
ISAKOV: Yeah, you know, Jeb and Phil and myself have been playing together for like 10 years. And I think I sort of hear them in my mind whenever I'm even making songs.
MARTIN: One of our producers described your music as the feeling of sitting in the bed of a pickup, looking at the stars. I thought that was a nice image.
MARTIN: And made me wonder if there were any pickups or star-filled skies in your childhood.
ISAKOV: Well, there are now for sure. I have '86 Toyota pickup.
MARTIN: Oh, there you go.
ISAKOV: And there are a lot of stars in Colorado. So...
MARTIN: Well, let's get into another song off the album. This is called "Saint Valentine?"
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Coming in with you or when we get something going?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAINT VALENTINE")
ISAKOV: (Singing) Well, Grace she's gone, she's a half-written poem. She went out for cigarettes and never came home. I swallowed the sun and screamed and wailed, straight down to the dirt so I could find her trail spread out across the Great Divide. Well, I just came to talk, Saint Valentine. And I never pictured you living here with the rats and the vines. Ain't that my old heart hanging out on your line? And you're all messed up, Saint Valentine.
(Singing) I circle the bars on the promenade while the girls in the glass, they're just throwing me shade. And I'm saving my coins up for Jingling Jane. She's out plucking strings in the pouring, pouring, she's out plucking strings in the pouring rain.
(Singing) See, I'm all crooked feet, Saint Valentine. And I've circled this map till it caught on fire. See, Grace, she's left you just skin and bone. Well, you hang up your hat but you can't call it home. You've tried and you've tried, but you can't call it home. You're the loneliest one, Saint Valentine. You're the loneliest one, Saint Valentine. You're all messed up, Saint Valentine.
MARTIN: That was lovely. What is the story of that song?
ISAKOV: Well, that's a hard question, you know, 'cause I think in songs, you know, it's always about, you know, a lot of different places, a lot of different people kind of forming into a kind of one storyline. It's how it happens for me.
MARTIN: Can you tell me the story of a song that came really easily to you?
ISAKOV: You know, a lot of them do. If they don't, I don't trust them as much and a lot of times they don't live as long. You know, like that when we just played happened really fast, as well. And I didn't really know what it was about at first.
MARTIN: Did anything make it onto the album that you were surprised by?
ISAKOV: Well, every record I do, kind of an instance song in the studio.
MARTIN: What does that mean?
ISAKOV: Of a kind of, you know, just a spur of the moment, hit record, and keep it kind of thing.
MARTIN: You write the song in the moment or did you...
ISAKOV: In the moment, yeah.
MARTIN: Wow. You can write a song just on the fly?
MARTIN: 'Cause if I say to you - if you realize this is coming, right?
ISAKOV: They're not very good...
MARTIN: Like, if I say, Greg...
ISAKOV: ...sometimes, you know?
MARTIN: ...can you do that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Very well, he can do that.
ISAKOV: Well, let's see.
MARTIN: So if I say - so I have to give you like a couple of keywords?
ISAKOV: It helps if it's in the - well, help if it's like in the middle of the night, which is one thing.
MARTIN: It's dark in here.
ISAKOV: That's true...
ISAKOV: ...and way less people around.
MARTIN: Oh, come on.
ISAKOV: I mean like a lot less people.
ISAKOV: There's a lot of people in here.
MARTIN: OK, not a full-fledged song. Can you write me just - can you just - what's the hook that's in your head right now? What's the lyric that's coming to mind right now, as I torture you through this interview?
ISAKOV: (Singing) Oh, now I'm out of tune.
ISAKOV: (Singing) Well, I quit bowing down into the next, all those woes and the words, I guess. I'm on NPR...
MARTIN: I'll take it. That was beautiful and under pressure.
ISAKOV: Yeah, I mean, you know, you get like a little spark and then it kind of just - and a lot of times I'll stop right here, right? Like when I get to the NPR part and then I'll put it away, and then maybe I'll try it again like tomorrow and it'll finish itself. And that's the idea. So sort of just like a muscle.
MARTIN: OK. Well, with that how about you guys plays out on something?
MARTIN: The album is called "The Weatherman." Gregory Alan Isakov and his band mates joined us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.
Greg, thank you so much. And thanks to you, guys.
ISAKOV: Oh, thanks for having us.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thank you. It's been great.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah, thanks.
MARTIN: This is "Living Proof."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from and NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING PROOF")
ISAKOV: (Singing) The night fell with bicycle bells, the dark had wooden teeth. Oh, we broke on up to hill country... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.