Gregory Alan Isakov wanted to pare it all back on Appaloosa Bones, the Colorado-based singer’s new album. Arrangement-wise, the impulse to keep things simple was a pendulum swing away from his Grammy-nominated 2018 album, Evening Machines.

“I set out to make a record that was really bare bones,” Isakov says. “I wanted to go backward a little bit, because Evening Machines was such a deep dive into arrangements. I wanted to have more of a raw experience with this one.”

Isakov played many of the instruments on Appaloosa Bones himself. He recorded in a studio tucked away in a barn on his property outside of Boulder, Colorado, where he helps grow produce for CSA members, local restaurants, and an area food bank. The resulting album is intimate and hushed, but maybe not as spare as what Isakov initially had in mind. The eleven songs on the album are full of lush vocal harmonies and layers of instrumental textures that blend guitar, banjo, piano, and various other keyboards. There are even some songs with a classic repeating chorus, which isn’t always a standard feature in Isakov’s music.

“I’m always the campfire song ruiner,” he says, laughing. “I love a chorus, I’m a huge pop music fan, but I don’t usually think of songs like verse-chorus-bridge. They’re sort of just a ride, you know? I hope they take the listener some place different than where they started.”

That’s surely part of what has endeared him to both fans and critics, who have gravitated toward what NPR Music calls his “emotionally evocative songwriting style” ever since his first studio album, 2007’s That Sea, the Gambler. Born in South Africa, Isakov immigrated with his family to Philadelphia in 1986. After horticulture school in Boulder, he settled down in Colorado and began making music, including This Empty Northern Hemisphere (2009), The Weatherman (2013), and a 2016 album he recorded with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

Appaloosa Bones is your first album in almost five years.

Yeah, I’m noticing that seems to be the amount of time that it takes me to make something feel complete. I was working on it the entire time, both during the growing seasons and while we were on tour, writing it and producing it, recording it. I think I recorded thirty-five songs with my engineer, Andrew Berlin, which is a pretty normal amount for me, and then whittled it down, trying to find the storyline, asking myself, what does this want to be?

Is that storyline lyrical, or musical? Or both?

I think of myself as a writer more than anything else. If there’s something that doesn’t land lyrically, the song is not going to work, because it’s not a full story yet. A lot of my writing process is deleting: adding space, or maybe this chorus doesn't need lyrics because you already get the vibe. I’m constantly taking words out, but when there is a chance to say something, I want those lyrics to have bite.

Do you know what story a song is telling while you’re writing it?

I never know what it’s about. It’s completely revealing. I’m not sure if I’ve ever known, and when I hear other people say, “I wrote this about that,” I’m never sure if it’s the whole story. I’m a huge Springsteen fan; he’s got these beautiful stories that really take you in. It’s almost like watching a three-hour movie in three minutes. I’ve always loved that style of writing, but I’ve never been able to write like that. What seems to happen naturally for me is little snippets of images and feelings that kind of tie together.

What kind of album did you think you were making when you started?

I set out to make a folky, small lo-fi rock ’n’ roll record. And then the songs kind of told me, “No, fuck you, this is what it’s going to be.” [Laughs] And so I said, “OK,” and after a while, I was just holding onto the reins, waiting to see where it was going and how the material worked. What I found was a collection of songs that brought me back to when I was starting out playing with the band—traveling a lot in the van, playing throughout the Southwest and West. These wide open landscapes had this quietness and expansive deepness that grounded me and evoked a lot of the curiosities I was drawn to when I started writing songs. Some of the songs on the record were co-written with my friends Ron Scott and Johann Wagner, while I was visiting them in West Texas, so there’s a lot of influence from that area on the record as well.

What was it about “The Fall” that made it your choice to open the album?

“Before the Sun” was going to be the first song. “The Fall” was an outlier. I wrote it sort of about a trapeze artist in the 1800s, and it’s set in an old theater. It originally just didn't fit with the other songs. It had a different vibe. I found a brother and sister song for it later in the record, but I didn’t know for a while where that one should go. But it always delighted me when I heard it. Putting it at the beginning seems like the only place that it makes sense.

What are the brother and sister songs?

“Mistakes” and “Watchman” have a very similar vibe and are also in another world. “Watchman” is a pretty recent song. Usually when I’m finished with a record, it feels like I’m starting fresh with a blank piece of paper, so songs tend to come really fast. That was one of the first ones that came when I was finished with the Evening Machines tour. I scribbled down “Watchman” on the plane to L.A. when we went to the Grammys for that album. I have this herd of sheep on the farm that I inherited from the last owner. We don’t raise them for wool production or anything, so they are basically just vibey lawnmowers. [Laughs] But we are all very fond of them. They kept getting attacked by coyote, so I would sit up late at night and watch for them with a flashlight. A lot of that made it into the song.

How far back do some of these songs date?

I think I wrote parts of “Before the Sun” when I was twenty-two, just as something for me. I’ve always played the banjo, but I’m not a trained banjo player or anything, and it’s something I felt a little bit shy about for a long time. But the song reminds me of working outside, and being outside, and I would play it on breaks from working. I felt like I needed to honor that song and find a home for it.

You don’t tend to say what your songs are about. Why is that?

Every song has a lot of meaning to me, but I want to take up as little space as possible, because I really didn’t make these for me — I made them for other listeners. It’s such an individual, intimate experience for me, at least the way that I’ve always digested music, which has been in my ’86 Toyota pickup, by myself, driving. And whatever I’m listening to, that record is mine. Whoever made it, they made it for me. That’s what I hope my listeners feel, too.

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