Gregory Alan Isakov has always had a green thumb, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the now 43-year-old singer-songwriter fully grasped the role farming plays in his creative process. Growing up in Philadelphia, the South African–born musician performed in local bands, but he moved to Boulder in 2000 to study horticulture at Naropa University, because a career as a touring musician felt unobtainable. “It was like playing Metroid and trying to beat the boss at the end,” he says. Even so, Isakov saw a chance to make a living off his music alone after his songs caught the ears of some veteran acts, earning him invitations on three separate tours supporting Brandi Carlile, Ani DiFranco, and the Indigo Girls. Saying yes to all three meant turning his attention away from the farm he helped manage in Lyons, and Isakov was surprised by how quickly he felt out of balance and stifled creatively.

“I think in 2009, I played 200 shows, and I sort of lost my mind,” he says. He also lost any energy to write new material. “I was depressed,” he says, “and I was like, that’s bizarre.”

Appaloosa Bones, Isakov’s sixth full-length album, was released on August 18. Courtesy of Gregory Alan Isakov.

Isakov realized that getting his hands dirty was integral to both his artistic process and his well-being. In 2014, he bought Starling Farm, a bucolic, six-acre parcel in Boulder Country (complete with a sheep pasture and studio space) that provides vegetables to roughly a hundred customers and a handful of local restaurants. Not only does the pastoral environment give the troubadour plenty of earthy metaphors for his lyrics, but the exactness of cultivating heirloom vegetables is also a salve against music’s mercurial nature. “With songs, you can get really excited about them, but then when you come back to them later, you’re like, Why the fuck aren’t they working now?” he says. “With farming, I know exactly how many beets to put in a 50-foot bed and to germinate them at exactly 78 degrees. It’s so calculable, and that’s refreshing.”

Working at Starling Farm helped keep Isakov grounded—literally and metaphorically—while writing and recording Appaloosa Bones, his sixth album and a follow-up to 2018’s Grammy-nominated Evening Machines. The record, unveiled on August 18, recaptures the nomadic, unsure days of his early career, which included playing gigs at Appaloosa Grill on Denver’s 16th Street Mall to earn rent money. The project took five years to complete, partly because Isakov was content to take his time and partly because he wrote so much: He composed 35 songs for the album before weeding out 24 songs to get to the final 11. Now Isakov faces another busy tour across North America and Europe to promote the release, including shows this month at Mission Ballroom (September 2) and at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (September 4). But as soon as that’s over? The soil beckons.