My blood and stars and everything: Gregory Alan Isakov on writing

I recently interviewed singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov for Mountain Xpress. He’s on tour for his new record, Gregory Alan Isakov with The Colorado Symphony. Read the full feature here. Greg is one of my favorite musicians because his songs tell stories of encapsulated worlds and moods. The poetry is fleet is graceful and surprising, the melodies are bittersweet and strangely reminiscent, like remembering a snippet of a dream that fades even as it’s called to mind.

The poignancy of his lyrics, and his process as a writer, seem applicable to all genres of writing, so I wanted to share some expanded quotes fro our talk that didn’t make into the article.


Photo by Blue Caleel

Can you talk about the new project you’re working on?

Gregory Alan Isakov: I’m just sketching a record now. I made a few EPs over this winter and last summer. They were kind of a collection — there were three or four different EPs. They were kind of complete works, and then I began working on a full-length.

Time has always been my biggest ally with writing and recording, which is why it takes me so long to put out [new work]. It’s usually no less than three years between records. I think a lot of that is letting things settle. Coming back to the recording and [asking myself], “Does this make me feel something still?” and “Is this still working?”

Because I think when writing something new, and I think a lot of artists go through this, that’s your favorite thing for that moment. Then time kind of goes by and you’re like, “I don’t know about that.” You get this clear vision, seeing if songs will live and last. I make things and then I put them to bed for six months or three months, and then I come back to them and see if they’re still working.

Is that not really difficult? Don’t you have a desire to get it out there to the world?

The whole thing is a little bit torturous. I love it, but I feel like a mad scientist or one of those crazy people in their bathrobe and bunny slippers. I definitely go though that feeling. But to be completely honest, I feel like I come back to the same sense — and I don’t know if I’m alone in this or not — but my final thought on it is, “I’m gonna die.” I have an opportunity to make something that can affect someone when I’m not alive anymore. It sounds so grandiose, and even if no one ever listened to it or whatever, I think as an artists you have to just treat your art like that. It’s really important to me. Even if it gets buried and no one ever hears it again, that’s not the point. The point is having integrity and making sure that, when the vinyl comes back from press … I know [I put] my blood and stars and everything into [it] and I can sleep well.

I have a fear with writing fiction that if I ever take a break from it and step away from it, I’ll lose the thread. I’ll lose energy that keeps it going.

Totally. I can relate. It’s funny though, I feel like songs are alive. Sometimes I’m waiting for them — I’ve read stories about Leonard Cohen, how he’d slave over lines for a year, daily, reworking songs forever. I tried that on and it never really worked for me. I’m never afraid to punch in or work hard, but I believe that songs or pieces of writing, when you’re just starting, are this living thing. They need a minute and you come back to them and they’ll tell you a little more. You can’t beat it out of them.

Do you have a sense of where the little piece of stories come from?

I’m always kind of collecting. I feel like my job is first and last lines. I’m always hunting for those. Then I feel like, once I can kind of plant the seed, [the songs] are like, “Cool. Were gonna help you finish this.”

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