Music is a really broad art form. There are so many different elements that come into play when we traditionally think of what makes up music: Lyrics, melodies, chord progressions, arrangement — the list could be endless. The greatest challenge for artists is not only finding a way to perfect each of these elements, but also finding a way to skillfully mix these elements into their works. I think when an artist is able to do this, they’re able to transcend genres in a way that allows their work to be viewed purely as art.
When I was introduced to Gregory Alan Isakov the summer before college, I was very much not in a “folk phase” of my life. I was listening to a lot of emo and pop-punk (as an angsty freshman does) and couldn’t be bothered with genres like folk that my parents had brought me up with. However, one summer night, right before I was about to leave the home I’d grown up in, I put on Isakov’s album This Empty Northern Hemisphere and found myself more immersed in the music than I had been in a while. Isakov’s voice struck me in a way that not many voices have been able to.
This week, Isakov will be heading to Ann Arbor as a headliner for the Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Fri., Jan. 25th. Mostly known for folk music, the South Africa-born singer-songwriter also spends half of the year tending to his farm in Colorado, something that not every musician can claim. Although it’s Isakov’s first time at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it’s not his first time playing in Ann Arbor.
“I’ve always really loved Ann Arbor,” Isakov stated in an interview with The Daily. “I had a good friend that worked in the farmer’s market, and I loved it. The first time we were there we played (at) the Michigan Theater, and we’ve also played (at) The Ark a few times.”
Isakov is no stranger when it comes to folk festivals, or festivals in general. His group has also played at the Bonnaroo and Newport Folk Festivals, both unique in their own right.
“We’ve played a lot of festivals throughout our time touring, and I’ve always found them a little bit challenging … Our music is so intimate, and our subtleties are sort of our strong suit, and it’s kind of hard to do that when you’re playing next to a porta potty at 1:00 PM.” Isakov said.“When I was a kid, going to a festival seemed so sweet because I got to see all my favorite bands in one day. But then you start playing them and you realize, especially at the giant ones, that you’re not seeing every band, you’re seeing every band kinda stressed out with no sound check.”
But the singer-songwriter doesn’t feel this way about every festival. “I’ve always wanted to play the Ann Arbor Folk Fest,” Isakov stated. “I love playing theaters and venues inside. It’s much more intimate.”
This event is also special for Isakov because he doesn’t get a chance to play as many festivals anymore. During the summers, he works full time on his farm in Colorado, leaving little time to tour and attend festivals, making this opportunity that much more of a treat for him.
“When I record something, I kind of think about one person listening to it, like you’re having a conversation with one person, like you’re there in their ‘89 Toyota pickup truck,” Isakov explained. “And when you’re in front of a crowd … That’s a different medium so you can get away with different things.” But although recording and performing are two totally separate activities for Isakov, he appreciates the spontaneity that comes with live shows, saying that he loves how live shows can be “different every night.”
Folk is a genre that can be inherently intimate, and Isakov recognizes this, both when recording and when performing.
“When I was in high school I was in a metal band … and when I was playing in bands like that, I would always come home and write songs that were really quiet, and I don’t know why that is. And I would go, ‘OK, what kind of music is this? This isn’t metal, this isn’t rock … it’s not what I want to play but it’s just … happening,” Isakov said.
Gregory Alan Isakov is one of the strongest voices in modern folk today, and continues to grow with each album. Isakov will be performing at the first night of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival this Friday night, Jan. 25th, along with Brandi Carlile and a whole slew of other talented artists.