Gregory Alan Isakov: His Unique Immigrant Status And The Concept of Home

Up on stage, Gregory Alan Isakov captures his audience with his voice.
The Color Purple 2023

Singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov is famous for his earthy tones and wistful lyrics that seem to slow down time. The concept of “home” constantly frequents his songs, the melodies and words exuding a folksy, almost ethereal feel, which earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Folk album. 

The recurrence of home is most likely a derivative of Isakov’s lack of a solid one growing up. Born in South Africa, and then immigrating to the United States when he was only seven years old, Isakov is an immigrant. 

Beginnings and Beyond

The Isakov family  (which included Isakov, his parents and his brothers) lived in South Africa until the last years of Apartheid, in the mid 1980s. Isakov’s father, Nissen Isakov, in addition to wanting to provide a better life for his family, wanted to launch an electronic-engineering business idea, according to “Westworld” magazine. The move to the United States proved to be successful, as he now runs a profitable electromagnetic interference and radio frequency interference noise suppression company based in Philadelphia. 

Isakov eventually ended up in Boulder, Colo., where he spends most of his time with his band mates recording music, tending to his lush gardens, and writing the cosmic lyrics he’s so famous for. But it took a bit of time to find a place that felt like home. He moved around the U.S. quite a bit when he was younger. Isakov said in an interview in the Bing Lounge that his constant travels (both as a child and as a touring artist) has a big influence in his writing. “A sense of places kind of creeps into the writing a lot.” His melancholy tunes are, in his own words, “sad songs about space.” 

The official music video for “San Luis” by Gregory Alan Isakov

In an interview with Slant magazine, Isakov was asked about the impact his experience growing up in South Africa had on his songwriting and music career. He said, 

“It must have made it in there somehow. I can’t really remember it all that well, but I do notice that home is a constant theme in my songwriting. And after we moved to the States, we moved around every year; I changed schools all the time, so I got really close to my family, to my brothers.”

Inspiration From the Soil and the Concept of Home

Isakov finds a sense of home as an immigrant in cultivating the earth, the soil, the garden. He also is a Domestic Third Culture Kid due to his geographic mobility during his formative years. In addition to his musical pursuits, he has prioritized his love of farming in his life. Similar to songwriting, there’s a consistency throughout the process. Isakov says it’s like magic. 

“I mean there’s definitely this sense of this mystery, this germination that happens with writing. I don’t even think people really even know how germination, like botanically, works completely. But it is a certain sense of magic. And then and I think there is something to that like with music because it’s like you get this little spark and it’s sort of let’s just kind of see where this wants to go and help it as much as I possibly can.”

To showcase the inspiration from the soil in Isakov's music
Isakov regards the hard work on his farm as equally important as his musical pursuits. Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

The concept of home is often a difficult and complicated thing to understand for those who have moved so much; they’re often not quite sure where or what home really is.

For immigrants, Third Culture Kids, Cross Culture Kids, and others who have interacted with multiple cultures in meaningful ways, home is a fluid thing. It’s often a mere idea rather than a real place. Sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to simply be in one place, to exist without being able to trace back to some place of belonging. 

It was this sort of mindset that influenced the song “Berth;” a song co-written by Isakov and his brother Ilan about wandering, belonging, and constant movement. According to The Bluegrass Situation, the two brothers hadn’t seen the song coming, and only noticed the presence of an immigrant song once they had completed it. One poignant lyric reads: 

“Casting glances backwards, but it’s not your fault. Turned to salt for the wandering. In your braids and heavy pages, we were folded. Kiss the cold and dirty ground. Quit all that, quit all that, quit all that looking back.” 

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