Gregory Alan Isakov performs in Beaver Creek Sunday
VAIL CO, Colorado
For some musicians, sharing their craft is like a drug. Despite the transient lifestyle, the burden it puts on relationships, the lonely hours spent driving from one city to another, playing music becomes something that’s nearly impossible to give up.
That’s how Gregory Alan Isakov feels about it. He also feels like he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. The songs, his music, have to come out, one way or another, he said, otherwise he’s bound to implode.
At points, Isakov has taken breaks from music, like some of his musician friends have also done, but he felt “empty without that creative spark that drives you crazy, but you feel so satisfied with,” he said.
“I have great friends who play music all the time and I don’t think any of them would do it unless they felt like they had to do it,” he said. “Being a musician is so much travel, it’s kind of inconvenient. A lot of personal stuff becomes hard to figure out. None of us got into it for money or stability. When you hear someone play, you can hear if they need it.”
Isakov, who performs in Beaver Creek on Sunday, is one of the musicians who needs it. Because if he didn’t, his stage fright would have probably driven him away a long time ago.
Isakov was born in South Africa, but moved to the United States when he was 8 years old. He lived on the East Coast for awhile and moved to Colorado to study horticulture in Boulder. For seven years, he managed a farm near Lyons, but music kept calling. So during the winters, he’d travel and book small shows along the way, he said.
Before those gigs, without fail, Isakov’s pulse would race. Waves of terror washed over him.
“I’d get so nervous I didn’t even know what was what,” he said. “It just scared the shit out of me. The whole thing. It was really hard on me, I had a really hard time with it. But it was curiousity in a way, I guess, to explore that feeling more. I was like ‘man, I shouldn’t be this scared of anything.'”
But along with the fear, there was another overwhelming feeling, one that drowned out everything else.
“I’d go through experiences on stage where I would really feel connected to everybody; it was a really cool thing,” Isakov said. “Once I just felt that, it was amazing, I said I need to explore this more, and try out things that scared me.”
And to get past the fear, Isakov would tell himself one thing.
“I’d just tell myself people are here to experience the songs. They’re here for the same reason I was,” he said. “That always helps.”
‘Ahead of the curve’
So what does Isakov’s music sound like? When his van broke down in New Mexico, he got a chance to try to answer that very question, posed by the tow truck driver, a man who’d never heard of him, let alone music from the folk acoustic singer/songwriter genre he falls into.
“I told him I play ‘noticing’ songs. He was like ‘what do you mean?’ I said I sort of just take the places I’ve been and the things I feel and they all come out in a song at once. It was really interesting trying to explain it.”
Even when Isakov’s writing many of his songs, he doesn’t really know what they’re about, or where they come from.
But “they always seem to make sense later, afterwards,” he said. “That’s what I really love about it.”
Kris Sabel, the executive director of the Vilar Center where Isakov will perform Sunday, said it’s Isakov’s lyrics, as well as his instrumentation and vocals, that really stand out.
“His delivery is incredibly pure and honest – I can get hypnotized listening to him,” Sabel said. “In addition, his diverse background and upbringing come through and he captivates his audience in the same way that a Bon Iver or Avett Brothers might. If you’re a fan of The Lumineers, I would say that Isakov’s music is for you.”
Sabel first heard Isakov’s voice on the 2009 album “This Empty Northern Hemisphere.”
“I took it home and played it during dinner that night, and I found myself listening intently to the voice and the lyrics,” Sabel said. “This was not background music, and I was hooked. This is the kind of music that gets better every time you listen because you hear something different and the lyrics become more and more meaningful.”
For the next month, Sabel kept listening and Isakov landed on the “artist to try to book” list.
“Since that time, the album has really taken off and he has been getting great press and reviews for his live concerts, including his opening act for Brandi Carlile with Ingrid Michaelson at Red Rocks this past summer,” Sabel said. “It’s amazing how many people saw that show and have asked me about him. So this is one of those times when we were ahead of the curve.”
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