Gregory Alan Isakov is becoming known as the newest Colorado musician to find big success. He’s headed to Red Rocks Amphitheatre with Ani DiFranco September 4, and, this summer, he released a unique album recorded with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. But, really, he’s a gardener first. Isakov studied horticulture in college, runs a farm outside of Boulder and harvests seeds to grow into veggies and plants. Even as he tours the country, he says he’s a musician by accident. “When people ask ‘What kind of music do you play?’ I always say, ‘songs,’” Isakov says, although others have likened his style to Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. We chatted with the artist to learn more about his dual life as a gardener and performer.
How did you get started as a musician? When I was a kid we moved around a lot. I hung out with my two brothers, and we always had bands in the basement. Music was part of our day. That’s where it started: just hanging out with my brothers. My parents weren’t musical. My dad was an electronic engineer and Mom was a teacher.
Did you take music lessons? I played music in school: the drums, sax and guitar. But I mostly played just for myself. No music school, no teacher, there was nothing to practice. I don’t even consider myself a musician, like a guitarist. I mostly write a lot and do the minimal I can to support the song and surround myself with amazing musicians, like my band.
You have been called a lyrical genius. How do you write your music? I don’t know. I’m always wondering about that, too. I think as a writer or any artist, you’re always trying to find some new ground—a different way to say things, a way to put a listener in a certain place. I think we’re always after evoking some feeling. My trash can is really big, and I write a lot. I get into these curiosities. I write a million songs about something, following what I’m curious about in the world.
What do you like about music? I need it. I never thought I would get to do it how I get to do it now. Like people would find parking after work and come to a show and get a babysitter. I never thought that would happen. I was mostly a gardener for 10 years of my life, and I booked occasional shows in the mountains. When I was off in the winter, I’d travel and play at coffee shops. I sort of inched my way out of the kitchen and started playing here and there. And it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, so I figured, “I should probably do this.” Playing music and touring was very accidental. I was OK if it didn’t work out, so I kept my gardening job.
How did you get into gardening? I have always been really interested in soil and plants. In high school, I hated sitting down and going to school, so I ended up dropping out and hiking some of the Appalachian Trail. I was gone three months. I had a feeling I would learn more that way, and I did. It was life changing. I fell in love with the natural world again. I’m still apologizing for putting my parents through hell. But I learned about myself and the natural world, and I got to relate to it for the first time.
Did this influence your career? I’m sure it did. I think about the trail a lot. I think it became a reference point for my sanity.
When did you begin germinating seeds? My first interaction with growing a plant was when I started growing weed in my closet under a desk lamp. Then I thought, “Let me try corn.” I remember germinating corn in my closet. I always blame it on cannabis. It’s such a gateway drug to gardening. I don’t smoke anymore, but I love growing food.
What’s your farm like today? We grow vegetable seeds, heirloom varieties, for a few different people. We joke and call it Batman Farm. It used to be a sheep farm, and someone gave us a Batman mask and we put it over a sheep. We sell some seeds and save others. We grow for a small seed company. It’s like music in a way, because you never master it. You’re always learning a lot. The more I do it, the more I feel like I know very little. We are farming on an acre of hand-dug gardens. No machines. We have a plow in the fall, but it’s pretty epically big for us and has been a lot of work. This is its third season. I want to get one of those garden cams, a stop-motion video, so I can watch my garden when I’m on tour.
Do the two passions ever intersect? I think if I were on tour all the time, I’d feel disconnected. I couldn’t imagine not doing work outside. I just wouldn’t feel right.
Purchase “Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony” online.