If folk singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov isn’t a household name just yet, it isn’t from a lack of fervor on his fanbase’s part.
Upon the release of his 2013 album “The Weatherman,” the South-African born Isakov found himself being mentioned among the upper echelon of Americana male talent. With a sound that evoked the classic sound of the ‘70s singer-songwriter music scene, he was in strange company when placed alongside the rougher hewed likes of Jason Isbell (“Something More Than Free”) and Tyler Childers (“White House Road”). It was viewed as a welcome change of pace by many listeners of the genre, a group that included those who were looking for music that was a bit more universal than the Southern-fried lyrics that had long held the top spots of the format.
The release of his latest record, 2018’s “Evening Machines,” brought that change. “Machines” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart, and with that debut came a buzz that has continued to propel Isakov’s career to new heights.
A 2018 tour saw such a massive success of sellouts that new dates were added well into 2019, including the Jan. 11 set at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
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It’s a change in the audience that the songwriter admits he failed to notice from the stage.
“I just played a show with the symphony in Portland, Ore., in this big opera hall, and my friends there thought it was so cool that I could play this big room and sell it out,” Isakov said in an interview with The News & Observer. “But to me, it’s always just felt like only about five more people show up to see me play at these cities I’ve performed in 14 or 15 times before. It’s hard to describe, but [audience growth] is something I’ve never really been able to notice; it’s always just been like a slow burn.”
We spoke to Isakov just before the tour began, while he was still able to enjoy working the 3 1/2-acre farm that he lives and works on in Colorado, about the struggles and joys in juggling careers, as well as working with a record label for the first time in a career that spans over 20 years in the young musician’s life.
Q: You famously juggle careers in both music and farming. Was your dream always to work in two of the hardest occupations known to mankind?
A: I’m laughing, because I feel like they are the only options [for work] where I’d actually feel happy to do them. They require all of my being, pretty much.
My grandparents farmed a little, and I fell in love with soil and plants when I was a little kid, so I’ve always been on the botanical track. I got into organic production, and went through a phase with sustainable agriculture and all that stuff, and now I’ve settled into concentrating on “market” vegetables. I grow on a half-acre, with 50-foot beds that I rotate throughout the seasons.
Q: If you’re dealing with market vegetables, I’m guess your farm is all organic as well, just to add to the challenge?
A: It is. I don’t even use a tractor; I just have a little walk-behind tractor, and usually just hand transplant everything. It’s an intimate process, because I keep everything pretty small and compact.
Q: Does the farming help you as a writer, as some writers’ best work comes only once their mind is off of writing?
A: All the time. It’s funny, because writing is the observation of life, and I think it has to happen somewhere around your life. I think of myself, with songwriting, I’m constantly observing my life and just picking up on things that are going on. When I pick up my guitar or notebook, it all seems to come together at once. I’ve never been able to just sit down first thing in the morning with a piece of paper and just tell myself, “Okay, time to write a song,” and be able to do that.
My first record [2003’s “Rust Colored Stones”] took five years to write, and it came from just working, where I’d get home [from a job] and just scribble down the sketch of an idea that came to me while I was working on someone’s landscaping bed. Lines would come to me that would make me so excited for those final three hours of a workday, and that work would give me time to digest the next line.
Q: You began touring with a band at the age of 16. Many view the life of the young musician romantically, but having moved to the United States from South Africa at the age of six, I wondered if trouble acclimating to new schools and classmates made it an easier decision?
A: A little bit. I think, just culturally and with the teen years being a tumultuous time for everyone, I was just trying to figure out who I was as both a person and an artist. That was my time to experiment with different stuff, as I was drumming in a metal band, and then writing my own songs on the side of that.
For me, and I think a lot of immigrants deal with this, where the culture [in the United States] is so different. It’s very singular, and there isn’t a lot of community around stuff, it’s more that every family is doing its own thing. I was lucky, as I grew up in an apartment building that had a lot of immigrants always around, so we were always just playing within this music community that I lived with at such a young age.
Q: Did you have a feeling that “Evening Machines” would be the album to finally break through to a mass audience?
A: I was petrified to put the album out, because it felt so weird and personal. I’d never really done much with a record label before, and with this one we co-released the album with Dualtone, while the recording process remained all me. When I came back to the recordings [before the album release], I felt that the songs were really me and genuine, and that’s all I can really go by as an artist.
Now, when you’re about to release a record and begin to get copies sent to you in the mail, all you can think is, “So many resources went into this, and so much time, that I really hope the end result was worth everyone’s effort.”
Q: It’s been stated in your bio that working with a label was more an experience you just wanted to try and not really a necessity to get the album released. At the end of the day, was there that much of a noticeable difference between working with someone and just doing it yourself?
A: It’s not a huge difference. For me it had more to do with my farming season becoming so busy that I couldn’t help but think that I could really use [some help], because putting out a record really is a lot of work. I have friends in bands who aren’t on labels, and sometimes one will say that they are considering the positives and negatives of working with one, and I want to be the friend that can tell them that it is possible to do with no problems. If I can do it, anyone can do it, and I’ve found that it’s pretty great to have a large team of people behind the success your project. I don’t regret it at all, and it’s been a really amazing experience.
Who: Gregory Alan Isakov with Shook Twins
When: 8 p.m., Jan. 11
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 West Morgan St., Durham
Cost: Sold out
Info: CarolinaTheatre.org or 919-560-3030