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Sowing a life of songs

It's Showtime — and the CW Network — for Boulder's Gregory Alan Isakov



Pay attention during this coming Sunday's fourth season episode of Showtime's original series Californication. Alongside sometimes smart-ass, sometimes touching lines from David Duchovny's Hank Moody, you'll hear a little bit of Colorado — more specifically, "If I Go, I'm Going," by Boulder's Gregory Alan Isakov.

The 31-year-old indie folk rock artist can't wait.

"I get excited about everything, you know, when it comes to placement — like overly excited. I think for a long time I never even saw myself touring, but I always wanted to write songs for movies or whatever. I always had this picture in my head: I'm gonna go see this movie and this song will come on and I would just freak out and ruin everyone's movie and throw popcorn around and stuff," he says with a laugh. "That really hasn't happened to me yet, but I have gotten into a lot of TV shows, and I throw popcorn around the room by myself."

Montage sequence

Of course, most of those television shows have been on the CW Network, home of such young-adult programming as The Vampire Diaries, America's Next Top Model and One Tree Hill, a fact that doesn't faze him.

"One of them was kind of funny. It was the new 90210. I didn't even know there was a new one. I was like, 'They made a new one?' I felt old all of a sudden.

"But you know — I was saying I get so excited — it doesn't matter to me, the quality or maturity level of the writing of the show. ... And the 90210 thing was just great. It was like this montage, like this smoochy montage at the end of one of the episodes and there was a little drug deal in it. I was like, 'This is awesome.'"

Californication's selection, "If I Go," from 2009's lush and lovely The Empty Northern Hemisphere, is a ballad of sorts, and its lyrics are solid Isakov: "This house she's quite the talker / she creaks and moans / she keeps me up / And the photographs / know I'm a liar / they just laugh as I burn her down / And I will go if you ask me to / I will stay if you dare / and if I go I'm goin' on fire / Let my anger take me there."

Isakov has always considered himself more of a writer than a guitar player. In fact, he says he spills out pages of prose most mornings and then picks up the guitar to work out a song.

"I think the [songs] all come from my life, what's happening in my life. But I don't know that they're really all the time based in reality. Someone will ask me, 'Who's that song about?' Or someone will be like, 'Well that sounds like San Francisco. Is that about San Francisco?' and I'm like, yeah, but it's also about five other towns. Or four people that I've known. And sometimes I don't even realize that until the song's finished."

Life unexpected

Isakov — who grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, moved to Philadelphia with his family at the age of 7 and came to Colorado about 10 years ago — never studied or pursued a future in music, mainly because he never saw it as financially viable. Instead, he focused on horticulture while earning his bachelor's at Naropa University in Boulder. After graduation, he worked on a farm near Lyons for about seven years, taking care of their food production. His next step was running his own landscaping business ("Trying to get rid of lawns across the world"), which lasted around three years.

At that point, Isakov had to make a decision. He says he'd always written a lot and had been playing small gigs around town more and more, and realized if he was going to change careers, he needed to give it his full attention.

Now, four albums later, with a fifth on the way, Isakov has played South by Southwest, Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Rocky Mountain Folks Fest (as well as the local MeadowGrass Music Festival last summer). He won Denver Westword's 2007 Best Singer/Songwriter Critics Award and 2008 Best Acoustic/Folk Artist Audience Award, and Paste Magazine selected him as a "Best of What's Next" musician for 2009. More recently, he's toured with such acts as Brandi Carlile and Ani DeFranco. Carlile, in particular, lends vocals to five of the songs (including "If I Go") on The Empty Northern Hemisphere.

His not having schooling in music certainly isn't keeping fans away, or others from knocking on his door, though it may provide him with a little extra challenge now and then.

"I've been playing guitar for a long time and I've never pushed myself very, very hard with musical theory or anything like that," he says. "I just do it exactly and minimally enough with the song, and sometimes I'll be like, 'Fuck. This is in C. I can't write another song in C.'"

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