Every year, I seem to discover at least one great album that I had somehow overlooked the previous. In 2010, that album was Gregory Alan Isakov’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere, an engaging collection of impeccably arranged tunes. On the album, the nomadic singer-songwriter – born in South Africa, raised around Philadelphia and now finally settled in Colorado – gets a vocal assist from Brandi Carlisle on several tracks, including a set-closing cover of Leonard Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”
Isakov kicks off a full-band East Coast tour at Johnny D’s on Thursday night. In this Q&A, we talk about his name, his garden and the soundtrack to his afternoons on the road.
This Empty Northern Hemisphere has been out for nearly two years. Catch us up on what’s next for you. Any new recordings on the horizon?
I’ve been working on a new record for the past year, mostly in between tours, recording at my house with the band. We are really excited about it so far. We thought it would be out by now, but I’m finding you have to follow where the record wants to go and let it take its time.
Tell us a bit about your name. Have you always gone by Gregory Alan Isakov in full? Does it have any special significance to you?
It’s my name. When I put my first record out in 2003, I never thought it would be spoken much. I thought it would be read, kind of like a poet or an author. I never meant for it to take all the letters on the marquee, but I think it’s an interesting name. Thanks, Mom.
Before you embarked on a music career, you moved to Colorado to study horticulture. How do you manage to engage that side of your personality while you’re on the road?
I manage to have a garden most summers, and it really is a big part of my life. When the band and I got really busy with festivals in the summers, I missed the garden a lot. I’m finally finding a good balance, though – it is a big love of mine.
Though your music feels a bit better suited to films, you’ve been scoring more spots on the small screen. Is it weird hearing your music in the background of a scene for a show like 90210, or is it invigorating to hear it on TV regardless of the placement?
I always get excited about placements. We recently had a song on Californication, and I loved watching it. I have been doing some commercials as well, and it’s another creative side I’ve been discovering. It’s less demanding than songwriting in a way. I have always dreamed of hearing a song of mine in a big crowded movie theater, with the song coming on and me throwing popcorn around and screaming and ruining the movie. But so far, I’ve only been placed on television and a few short films, so I throw popcorn around my bedroom by myself.
Your parents evidently only had two records when you were growing up, so you may have heard “We are the World” more than 95% of the people on the planet during your lifetime. If you were to choose two albums to serve as the soundtrack to your adult life, what would they be?
I love Miles Davis’s Blue Note lately. Those recording have such a warmth to them. and i have been finding myself reaching for more stand-up comedy. I am a huge Steven Wright fan; not so sure if he’s the soundtrack to my life, but I do love him. I guess the soundtrack to my afternoons lately is NPR.
Gregory Alan Isakov plays Johnny D’s in Somerville on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for show info.