Alone on the stage, accompanied only by his guitar, Gregory Alan Isakov can quiet the crowd in the largest venues. He has worked with a variety of musicians, but in the last year he has formed a band, sometimes called “The Freight,” that have been playing together consistently since Isakov released his last album, “That Sea, the Gambler” in 2007, which features all of the band's current members - Jen Gilleran on drums, Jeb Bows on fiddle, and Phil Parker on cello.
Gregory Alan Isakov and The Freight are released their new album titled "This Empty Northern Hemisphere" May 15 with a show at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. This collection of songs has taken place in Greg's living room and kitchen, Phil's apartment, at Jeb's fireside, in a recording studio, and an old bookstore.
In the past few months, Gregory and the band have opened up for acts including Brandi Carlile, The Cowboy Junkies, Ani Difranco, Fiona Apple, and Calexico. They've been playing at venues including Chautauqua Auditorium, the Boulder Theater, the Fox, the Bluebird, the Ogden, and countless others on the road, but sometimes the band's favorite shows are the ones at bars where no one knows them and they can spend an evening simply playing music together.
Julie - I know you guys are recording, and last time I talked to you on the phone you were with Jeb at your apartment recording some parts. Does this mean you all are recording the new album yourselves?
Gregory - Yes. We are recording it ourselves, and we're doing most of the tracking in my apartment, but we have to stop whenever someone's doing laundry because I live next a laundry facility. We're getting great sounds in my kitchen, and we're getting most of the string parts in my bedroom.
Gregory Alan Isakov - This Empty Northern Hemisphere
“We've been playing so much this year. I think we've played 200 shows since we started working on this record, and the way we're approaching the recording process is really different. ”
Julie - What parts are you recording in the kitchen?
Gregory - I recorded some lap steel today in the kitchen. In the beginning it was hard because we had to turn the fridge off, and I would lose my groceries every single time. Now I put my phone and my keys and Jeb's tobacco in the fridge so we don't forget to turn it back on.
Julie - Smart.
Gregory -Yeah. And then some of the drum stuff Jen and I have been doing live, and some we've been recording with Jamie Medford, our engineer, who's brilliant.
Julie - Where else are you recording?
Gregory -We did some in Phil's apartment. We did some at this bookstore that closed down. We did some at Global Sound, which is where Jamie works. We like my house, and we like Phil's house best. We're going to record at Jeb's house, too. Jeb likes to do his fiddle tracks at his house.
Jeb -Yeah, there's something about my fire and my cat. It feels right for recording.
Gregory - No laundry happening.
Julie - Why would you rather record in a house than a studio?
Gregory - In studio there's glass, and it's fancy, and you have to walk from one room to the other to hear it.
Julie -As opposed to your house where there's no glass?
Gregory - There's no glass.
Jen - It's only one room.
Julie -Aside from recording in so many different places, how has working on this album been different than working on your last album?
Gregory -We've been playing so much this year. I think we've played 200 shows since we started working on this record, and the way we're approaching the recording process is really different.
Julie - How has the process been different?
Gregory - We've been arranging things really differently than how we've been playing live. Versions of songs are very different on this recording from the way we play them live; like I do a slow finger-picked version on a classical guitar on "Big Black Car" that I don't play live, and then we've been working around that. There's also a lot of live stuff on this recording, which we didn't do on the last record.
Jeb and Phil are geniuses at writing string parts, and I've been working with them on the songs, and they come up with stuff that's beyond my ear. I'm really proud of the writing. If a song sounds amazing but the writing is mediocre, then I'm not into it.
Phil -Another important difference is that the core group has changed from that album to this album. I'm only on one track, and Jeb's only on one track too. Since then this group has been so consistent. Now it's the four of us, and I feel like the recording will inherently be different. Because of our role as a rhythm section, I remember Jen saying that she had a lot of changes to make because playing with a cello is so different from playing with a bass. It brought out a lot of new challenges, but I feel it pushed us in a new direction for this album.
They're Greg's words and songs, and he makes the message that's in them, but the things that are going on around them are very different. There are a lot of melody instruments and more strings and the sound is very different now.
Julie - Do you think that because you had been playing with these guys consistently since you started working on the new recording, it changed the way you were writing songs
Jeb -Although we're not done with the album, and we don't really know what it sounds like yet, a big difference is in the consistency of the sounds we're getting on this new record. We are a lot tighter as a group now, and we're all very much more intimate with each other.
Gregory - And relaxed.
Jeb - Now we're tight, and we're a crew, and we're all working on this record together, and it's coming through that way.
Julie -Do you feel like the songs have changed even since you started working on recording them.
Jeb -Very much.
Jen - It's different in the studio. We're much more focused on what the parts are, and listening to Greg about what those parts are and what his ultimate vision is. There are risks that we take in the studio that we can't take live, and stuff comes out in the studio that we didn't expect to come out, and things don't work in the studio that worked in a live performance.
And the other part of what makes this recording different is that since the four of us have been working together over the past year, we are best friends, and that's a huge part of how we actually play together at this point. There's a true respect of how we all play. Whereas before when it was disjointed a little bit because there were different players here and there, it was still a great vibe because they're great songs, and they're amazing lyrics and we all were drawn to it, but now it really feels like there's a community.
Greg - Because we've become such great friends and live together and work together every day and travel together, we've attracted a lot of other friends that just want to help us out. Like Sally Van Meter came over to today and recorded some parts for the album, even though I'm always shy about asking heroes like that to play on my songs.
Julie -How have you solidified some of the parts on the songs you play through your experiences in the studio?
Greg - We have a lot of fun playing them live, and we pretty much play them differently every time, so the studio gives a chance to experiment in a different way.
Jen - The differences are subtle, though. They're not huge structural changes. I think what recording does is help us become more focused on our parts and the quality of the sounds that we're making and how those parts fit into the larger structure of the songs. That's what really ends up being cultivated in the studio - just what we're all paying attention to.
Greg - And that's the great thing about playing theater shows and then playing in bars once a week. We're just flies on the wall, and we're just playing these songs while people are drinking, and we can play them so differently - different keys and change them up.
Julie - Do you feel like playing in a bar setting where people aren't necessarily there to see you or maybe aren't listening closely has helped you?
Greg - It's so much fun.
Jeb - It's so good for the band. I always say that playing in bars where no one's listening really brings the band to root of why we play anyway. We're not playing to have people watch us, ultimately. We're playing because we all love to play, and we love to play together. So it's beautiful to play in a place where nobody gives a shit because you get to the root of why you're there anyway.
Phil - Jeb's preaching it.
Julie - Greg, once you write a new song, how long do you wait to play it for the band?
Greg - I wait a little bit.
Jeb - Sometimes you play it for us the day of, though. There've been songs Greg will write that morning and then play for us that afternoon, and then we'll start working parts out right away—finding out what works and what doesn't.
Greg - It really works out because Phil lives upstairs from me, and Jeb is the maintenance man on the building.
I write in the morning, and sometimes Phil will come down in the morning and we'll just start playing in my kitchen, and Jeb will come by later. Songs will happen that way sometimes.
Phil - It's very communal. It's like a commune.
Julie - But you don't live there, Jen?
Jen - Eventually I will live in that building, I have a feeling.
Jeb - We're going to change the name from "Three Oaks" to "The Freight Apartments".
Julie - I think it's really interesting that you're recording this album in so many different places. Is that indicative of something? Is it a metaphor?
Jeb - I think it is. We record a little bit in the woods, a little bit in the big city.
Jen - I think it's also indicative of how we play in so many different venues, so many different scenarios. We're adaptable.
People who love this artist
People you'll see at the show
Gigbot Downlow’ds bring you better-than-backstage access to touring musicians that you can get behind. Knowledgeable interviews, exclusive photos, free tickets, and musical tracks are brought to your browser by Gigbot’s team of music-loving mechanics to help you catch some the great talent that comes to your neighborhood.
Know the shows - and who is gonna go, with Gigbot. It’s about the best thing that has happened to live music since the whammy bar. See More Downlowd’s →