Mr. Isaac Allen was born Isaac Benjamin Allen, in a small town in the northern hills of Pennsylvania. Soon after his birth, his father, a doctor, moved the family north to Dryden, NY. There, in a region once known as the “burned-over district” for its fiery religious revivals, Mr. Isaac Allen played out the first five years of his life.
These early years, in the old yellow farmhouse on Route 13, included lessons in dance, voice, piano, and violin; Isaac excelled at all. His childhood instructors recall a young boy gifted not only in tune, but also in performance: a child enthralled with the social power of music, with the creation and manipulation of presence.
When he was six, however, Isaac’s family picked up camp again—this time, to follow his doctor father into the wilds of Borneo.
Balikpapan, Indonesia: a bustling city crowding the Makassar Straits of the Pacific and backed by the lush jungles of Borneo’s interior. This study in contrasts, red clay and hunger set against oil and mineral wealth, became Isaac’s home and life. Though further instruction in the fine arts was curtailed, his soul bloomed nonetheless. “It was in Indonesian public school, with no running water and no electricity,” Mr. Isaac Allen explains, “that I first understood the disjunct between those with nothing, willing to offer everything, and those with everything, willing to offer nothing.” Spurning the company of other expatriate children, Isaac turned for friendship to the people of the kampungs, and found it. Oppressive heat and suffocating poverty, yes, but, above all, the spiritual warmth of the Indonesian people; all play their roles in the development of Mr. Isaac Allen’s at times big-hearted, at times cruelly incisive lyrical style.
Though his family would later move to Malaysia, and then on to Singapore, Indonesia stayed with Isaac like a mother. Still today, living in New Haven, Connecticut, Mr. Isaac Allen dreams in Bahasa Indonesia, the language of his youth.
That youth, alas, was not to last long. Familial strife and acrimony became the order of the day, and Isaac took at an early age to drink. At twelve years old, he stole his own passport and a wallet full of money, smuggled himself out of Singapore and was halfway across Malaysia—heading back to Indonesia, back to an imagined home whose wistfulness haunts his songs still—before authorities caught up with him.
Reformatories and institutions shaped Isaac’s teens, a patchwork of light and much darkness extending well into his twenties. Though no doubt keeping him alive, the reformatories drew off a portion of that flame that had been kindled in Balikpapan at the trash-fires of the dispossessed. And yet, it was in these same institutions that Mr. Isaac Allen found his way back to music. He remembers, “They’d take us out to the churches for 12-step meetings, and I’d sneak away and find a piano in the basement or something, you know? We weren’t allowed any music, so I’d just try to play what I remembered my father’s old blues albums sounding like.”
Like most bluesmen, Isaac has had good reason to play. Alcohol, a cruel and powerful steersman, stayed at the helm for years to come. Music dropped in and out of focus, and even Indonesia disappeared in the blurry, violent nights of New Haven’s Whalley Avenue and the Whalley Avenues of other cities around the country: all the same in Michigan, New York, California, Illinois. Thankfully, Mr. Isaac Allen composed without cease during this period. His raw, gritty sound today owes much to the extensive notes he kept on that windy path of life and on the equally windy characters along the way.
Mr. Isaac Allen’s first release, the 2010 Don’t Smoke, issued on Horizon Records, offers a window into a life of the blues. This is music for those who are fortunate enough not to be there, and for those still in the thick of it.