Izaak Opatz Wants to Tell Other People’s Stories

The singer-songwriter on going back to school for journalism.

I don’t care if I never hear the word “pivot” again, but that’s probably what you’d call this, my recent swerve from dirtwave dirtbag to laptop-squinting, retina-sizzled student newshound. 

Less than a week after wrapping up a fun, sloppy, atypically successful tour with my band in August, I walked into my first class in the University of Montana’s graduate journalism program, re-interring myself in a kind of accountability I’d avoided for almost 10 years. 

Every day I bike to the same campus where as an undergrad I studied creative writing and forestry, an evocative combination of words I hoped might summon piney comparisons (in the febrile co-ed’s mind) to Ed Abbey, John Muir, Mary Oliver, etc. On a resumé, they’re less evocative. I lock my bike to the same bike racks I did 12 years ago. 

I’m not a fiction writer or a forester. After graduating, I went back to my old summer job building trails in Glacier National Park, hiding out in the woods and scribbling lyrics in a journal. It was more like climbing into a painting titled Creative Writing And Forestry than using my degrees, but fun. Then I saw a documentary called Stray Dawg about Jonny Fritz (née Corndawg) that prompted a move to Nashville, then Los Angeles. I’ve told this story before and it’s a little embarrassing to both of us, but sweet (guy meets dude on Gmail), and the friendship that came from it undoubtedly wrenched the trajectory of my life a few degrees in a weirder, better direction. It’s what hip-checked me into pursuing music seriously, leading me to meet my friend and producer Malachi over a green room ping-pong table, and record my first album, Mariachi Static, in his apartment.

And it’s what got me into tooling leather; Jonny taught me, and we worked together in LA hammering out custom orders during the busy couple of months leading up to Christmas we took to calling the leather season. Those were halcyon days, the two of us tap-tapping away on opposite sides of the workbench while Jonny talked Mickey Newbury and the virtues of Instagram, and one of many Ken Burns docuseries violin-ed away in the background. 

But when leather work dropped off after the holidays I would inevitably eddy into a depression, at a loss to explain what I was doing in Los Angeles. I was in my late 20s, then early 30s, hemorrhaging money. But to be seen to be pursuing a music career seriously, it seemed important to stick it out. I played a lot of tennis, transcribed interviews for a P.I., and did some landscaping in between. I played shows and kept writing songs, but spent about five otherwise-gorgeous L.A. springs in a row feeling shaky and sleeping badly, worried I was wasting away intellectually, financially, and socially. 

That’s when I first considered going back to school, mostly as a quick fix-it for the daily and existential boredom, sometimes motivated by a valorous or guilt-prodded impulse to “do something” about the big issues of the day. I half-assedly applied to an environmental policy program in Arizona and didn’t get in. I got a new job catering photo shoots, and eventually recorded another album. 

When the pandemic hit, I canceled a West Coast tour and took my former trails job back in Montana. That summer, I grabbed my notebook, dug out my Carhartts and assumed my spot in the old tableau, scribbling, hiding in the woods. Then I spent the winter hiding in my house, pissy, paranoid, restless, and scared.   

Like most of us, I was ready for a change last spring. It had been a year since I’d played a show in person, and a forthcoming album release kept dribbling out of reach, delayed by the virus, delayed by vinyl production holdups, and, I suspect, delayed by the sticky film of foot-dragging nihilism this pandemic has misted over everything. I started to think seriously about going back to school for journalism, because there’s a good program in Missoula, and I desperately needed to break the inertia. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good fit.  

I’ve always loved writing but floundered at building and populating believable worlds from whole cloth. That’s why I started writing confessional country songs in the first place — they were close to memoir, the logical conclusion of a fiction teacher’s advice to write what you know.  I like telling stories with the rough ore of my own life — characters, settings, and action that I know personally — because it limits and simplifies things. It’s easier for me to chip out the vein of a narrative, knowing it’s in there somewhere, than to weave one into existence through a confident worldliness I’m not sure I have. 

Using my own experiences for fodder also requires a critical revisiting of my memories and past behavior, shortcomings, etc. Like John Cusack’s character retracing his old relationships in High Fidelity, sometimes I find out that I was the asshole. Clearing out the cobwebs of nostalgia and ego-shielding misremembrance can be bracing, toe-curling work, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the job. It’s also where songwriting starts to feel like journalism: Its first obligation is to getting it right. Where I’ll need to get things factually right as a journalist, I need to get them emotionally right as a songwriter. A lyric that doesn’t ring true on its way out of my mouth can turn every performance into a punishment. Getting it right is also the only way to give the song a fighting chance of resonating with someone else — any song that lies to cover a writer’s sense of himself won’t mean shit to anyone. 

But I’m a little weary of writing only what I know. Last May I turned 34 and couldn’t help but feel a little bashful about the steely persistence of my teenage navel-gazing. Journalism offers another option: I can tell other people’s stories. I can dig into someone else’s life to make sense, create connection, and entertain. It’ll require that I plug into the world and widen my gaze, and (I hope) force me into awkward conversations with interesting people. 

I’ve always loved talking to strangers, but can’t break the ice for shit. One of the things I love about bike touring is that the bike itself, loaded with bags and trinkets and blasted with dirt, elicits conversations with strangers. Now, reporting offers a tidy pretext for making introductions and asking questions. 

I’m nervous. I’m the old guy on campus now, and worry I’ve waited too long to start a new thing. I worry that pivot is just another word for flinch, and that I’m sacrificing what little momentum I had, music-wise, by going back to school. Also — school’s not cheap, and it’s looking like the return on a journalist’s efforts may be even flimsier than on a musician’s. But I’m glad to be doing something new, to be challenged, busy, and writing. 

Only a place like Montana could have fostered the splintered artistic visions of someone as wonderfully askew as Izaak Opatz. With his time split between Big Sky wilderness and the bohemian oasis of Missoula, Izaak’s muses are varied. Sojourns to the more bustling music cities of Nashville and Los Angeles notwithstanding, Izaak’s songs can be attributed to no real regional wellspring—they’re from the State of Izaak.