Album release: Gregory Alan Isakov with The Colorado Symphony
Release date: June 10 2016
Label: Suitcase Town
More info: Artist website
The beauty of Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album is realising how much it surprises and rewards the listener. It burns slowly, not unlike a campfire that blazes one moment and then crackles the next. A song might begin with the barest of bones, with Isakov’s resonant voice closely synched to his acoustic guitar. But then the orchestral layers begin to pile up, transporting the songs to cinematic heights.
Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony marks a milestone for the singer-songwriter, who’s beloved for the spectral intimacy of his recordings and live shows. Set for release on June 10 on Isakov’s own Suitcase Town Music label, the album finds Isakov cracking his catalogue wide open to see what else he—and we—can learn about them.
The album features songs from Isakov’s previous three studios releases, along with the debut studio recording of 'Liars', a fan favourite that’s been a staple of his concerts for the past few years. The album will be released on limited-edition LP, CD, and digitally.
With orchestral arrangements by Tom Hagerman (DeVotchKa) and Jay Clifford (Jump Little Children) and with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s Scott O’Neil conducting nearly 70 classical musicians, these are older songs cast in new and revelatory hues.
“I’ve always had this hunch that you can manifest whatever you really want if you dream hard,” Isakov says. “I think I wrote down this idea a bunch of times, thinking it would be so incredible. And when it finally happened, I was just over the moon.”
“It’s not that I thought these were better versions than the ones we put out before,” he adds, “but I think these versions are so different, and this collaboration with the symphony gave the songs a whole new angle.”
The kernel for the album was a 2013 collaboration between Isakov and his band and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Boettcher Hall in Denver. Since then, Isakov has performed again with the CSO at Red Rocks, as well as with the Seattle Symphony and the Oregon Symphony orchestras. This summer, he’ll collaborate with even more: the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra—all part of a tour that kicks off in early June.
“I was a little bit nervous about transitioning over to a symphony arrangement,” Isakov admits. “It was a daunting process in the beginning, and then I realized the opposite of what I expected actually happened. It opened up the songs way more than I thought it would.”
Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that the album’s expansiveness never compromises the intimacy that has been so crucial to Isakov’s work. You still feel like he’s in the room with you—just with an additional 80 musicians.
“That’s exactly what we were going for,” Isakov says. “We recorded about 16 songs, and then we chose the ones that conveyed that element the most, the ones that drew the ear in. I really do work hard on creating intimacy in my records.”
“I was looking for the pieces that really lent themselves to these kinds of arrangements,” he continues. “My goal was to find some of the more intimate songs and see if they could work.”
It turns out, they did. Take “Amsterdam,” from The Weatherman. In its reconfigured form, it’s suddenly an anthem in search of a movie that hasn’t yet been made. “The Stable Song,” one of a handful of songs to feature Julie Davis’s haunting harmonies, is chamber folk at its most sophisticated. On several songs, in fact, Gregory Alan Isakov With the Colorado Symphony conjures echoes of the lush magic of Harry Nilsson’s 1970s recordings.
“Liars,” written by Isakov’s friend Ron Scott, opens the album with thunderous elegance, led initially by the starkness of Isakov’s voice and fingerpicking. Three minutes in, though, the song quakes with sweeping strings.
Originally from South Africa and now planted in Boulder, Colo., where he splits his time between his home studio (Starling Farm) and his four-acre farm (his horticulture degree has come in handy), Isakov co-produced the album with Jamie Mefford, who also plays and sings on it.
“In a normal recording session, the other musicians are there in a supportive nature and generally find their place around Gregory,” says Mefford, who previously worked with Isakov on This Empty Northern Hemisphere and The Weatherman.
“Having the entirety of a symphony in the same room carries a weight and gravity that shapes and constrains the songs before a note is played,” Mefford says. “It's a different experience for Gregory and the band, and one that transforms the songs into a different shape and feeling.”
Isakov and his band—including Jeb Bows (fiddle), Philip Parker (cello), Steve Varney (electric guitar/banjo), John Grigsby (upright bass), and Max Barcelow (drums)—will take the record on the road this summer with a symphonic ensemble dubbed The Ghost Orchestra, a collective of Colorado musicians (some whom are also members of the Colorado Symphony) assembled specifically for this new tour.
“Even as I was finishing up the symphony record, I found it curious that I was delving into songs from my past. There were moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing? Shouldn’t I be working the new songs?’ he admits, adding that he has already sketching out his next album… “But I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of our symphony shows, that I thought these arrangements needed to be heard in these new contexts. They deserved that.”