Little Big Gestures
Little Big Gestures
A Q&A with Adam Ezra
By Geoff Gehman
Adam Ezra and his band mates treat their fans fantastically. Other truly communal groups may let followers choose an album of songs; Adam Ezra Group members let followers pick 11 tracks from 23 demos for the Boston-based ensemble’s latest record, “Hurricane Wind” (TatteredString Music). Other intrepid front people may perform two handfuls of house concerts a year; next month Ezra will begin playing 40 gigs in people’s houses in 45 days, the busiest of his three Get Folked tours. Other bands run charitable festivals; the AEG launched its annual Ramble by sending free school buses to pick up 20 or more fans anywhere in New England.
Ezra and his colleagues are unusually active activists, offstage and on. On Dec. 23 they’ll engage and infect the Mauch Chunk Opera House with barnburners, robust ballads and true-blue singalongs. Ezra will lead the charge with percussive banjo, slashing guitar and vocals both bracing and embracing. He’ll become a stomping civic leader in “I Believe,” the AEG’s musical manifesto, and a romping yarner in “The Devil Came Up to Boston,” a profanity-lacerated, ass-kicking, South Boston Irish-American detonation of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Below, in a far-ranging conversation during a drive from Long Island to New England, Ezra discusses the colorful challenges of working with 400 fan producers; writing seamless songs with John Oates, one half of Hall & Oates, and admiring the mix tape that comforted his mother while she was giving birth to him, the first of his many communal projects
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, that really floated your boat?
A: Joan Baez partnered with a guy named Bill Wood, singing a traditional song called “So Soon in the Morning.” It’s all about Jesus, which was strange for a small Jewish guy to be singing. It was part of a mix tape that my mom made to listen to while she was giving birth to me. She took this thing called Lamaze [class] and she was instructed to create a warm environment, so they suggested she make this mix tape. I should remember all the songs on that tape; I do remember we played it on family trips and there were songs featuring Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger and a lot of old folk musicians.
I still love listening to, and performing, “So Soon in the Morning.” In fact, whenever my mother comes to one of my shows I make her come onstage and sing it with me. I try to embarrass her, at least a little bit. It’s something that our band community really loves because a lot of what it feels like around our music these days is fans getting to know each other and becoming friends and extended family members. It’s nice to have my mom in the fold.
Q: Your mother, Joanne Hammil, is a songwriter, choir director, peace promoter and role model for you as a musician and a human. What’s the best lesson, or saying, she gave you about the importance of community and charity?
A: I would say it’s less of a phrase or a line and more that she’s lived life with the belief that everybody can sing and the most powerful thing in the world is people singing together. I have to admit, growing up, especially in my teenage years, I thought that singing with her folksy friends was the corniest thing imaginable. Now I understand it, and feel it, as I see firsthand the power of the grass-roots community and the power of music to remind us that we belong together. Singing with the audience is my favorite thing to do; we make it a part of every show
One of my favorite songwriters is Greg Brown and my favorite album of his is called “The Live One.” At one point he’s introducing a song that he wrote for his dad and he says—I’m paraphrasing here—that he didn’t think of himself as his father growing up but one day he came home and noticed that he and his father were wearing the same brown pants and he realized the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You may stray from the path bur sooner or later you return.
Q: I don’t know of a more community-oriented, fan-engaged recording than “Hurricane Wind.” You kept upping the invitation ante, letting around 400 of your listeners not only choose the 11 tracks but also review 23 demos. Any communal things you plan to repeat with the next recording, or not repeat?
A: The process itself was a lesson to me. With a lot of band-funding projects it’s very easy to make fans feel like they’re shaping the project when they’re not really shaping the project. I could have always stopped listening to fan suggestions and ideas and comments but part of my journey as an artist who believes in the community is learning to trust the community. I had to walk my talk by releasing unfinished material, getting feedback, really listening to that feedback, and trying my best to honor it. Of course, with 400 different voices there’s some amount of filtering. And there were also opinions from my band, my manager, and myself. For the most part sharing the process with the fans was very cool.
There is one song the fans chose that had the least likely chance of ending up on the album, one I couldn’t imagine choosing: “Goin’ Out Tonight.” We had been playing it out for a while and we had put it on our live albums. We made studio versions of all 23 demos—I think of them as rough drafts–and I didn’t think we captured the live essence of the track, but the fan producers forced me to dig back in and say, okay, they really like this song; what is it about this recording that I’m not connecting with? What can we do to make this feel right to me and us?
Look, I don’t know where our journey will take us but I feel super proud of the way we’re walking the path right now. It just feels right.
Q: What other titles were in the running besides “Hurricane Wind”?
A: Oh my god, the title was really tough. Our fan producers gave us a hundred or so suggestions and none of them felt good to me, right? I felt very stuck; I didn’t want to pick a title for an album that I wasn’t excited about. I remember I was excited by one of the band suggestions:”Troubadourius.” It was a word we had used; I love it because it feels like us as a band in many ways. Almost universally our fan producers were not fucking psyched about it and they were very loud about their displeasure, which we appreciate and encourage.
So we’re on the road and literally recording the final tracks and listening to them in green rooms and hotel rooms and Airbnbs. It’s getting down to the wire and we don’t have a title. One morning I went on a six-mile run and I’m thinking about titles I liked and didn’t like. “Hurricane Wind” was in the mix and it finally connected with me; I said, oh, that’s the fucking name. I very timidly floated the name to our fan producers and they loved it.
Q: Somehow I can’t imagine you being timid.
A: If I get beat up I can be a little timid, especially when it comes to the IRS [laughs]
Q: You’re driving from Long Island, where you opened for Train and Melissa Etheridge’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” show. How do you keep listeners in your palms while they’re itching to hear the acts that made them buy tickets?
A: It’s a big challenge to get in front of people not there to see you, who are ready for a high-energy, bad-ass rock show, in Melissa’s case, or a powerful pop show, in Train’s case, and all you’ve got is a little acoustic guitar. Melissa has such grit and edge to her writing, so I decided to break out a new, angry song, “Something to Break.” I’ve been doing tributes to other artists, so I did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I also performed a parody song I wrote about a sad, lonely Jew.
Q: You’re the first of two Mauch Chunk-booked drummers turned guitarists I’m interviewing in a row, the other one being Samantha Fish. How does your drumming background affect your musicianship–rhythmic attack, dynamics, sense of ensemble, attitudes and latitudes?
A: I’ve always been rhythmically oriented; I’ve always known that the rhythm of a song is the heartbeat and the engine. A lot of our sets have two drummers, a kit player and a hand percussionist. When I bring a song to the team to start working on there will be so much flapping and scratching and banging on the guitar, it’s like the drums are already in the mix. I’m also a big fan of Ani DiFranco’s guitar playing, partly because she’s so percussive.
To tell you the truth, I was a terrible, terrible drummer. But there are very few things more fun than just banging on a drum set. It’s just so physically concrete.
Q: Next month you launch your third “Get Folked Tour,” with 40 house concerts planned in 45 days in 18 states. That’s a hell of a lot of traveling, even for a musician without band. Why are you so anxious to reach out so much and so far?
A: It’s a great means of connecting, very personally and powerfully, with this inspiring community of people surrounding the music, to offer something special to fans around the country who have funded our music, who have connected to the music and enjoyed the music, to be able to say, you know, I will come to your living room and we’ll hang out for a night. It’s an amazing way for me to be the artist I want to be, to get to know folks, to walk the talk.
Q: Another bonus is that you earn enough money to give your band mates a month and a half off with pay.
A: We are an indie band; at this stage of the game we’re all scraping to make ends meet and to be on the road as much as we can. It is not an easy lifestyle. It gives me a lot of joy to give them a well-paid rest.
Q: Can you give me an example of a repeat “Get Folked” host, someone with an especially deep investment in you and your colleagues?
A: We actually try to choose different hosts for every tour because we feel it’s an opportunity to connect to other aspects of this community. Often times we will get past hosts to mentor new hosts to further that connection. Because, ultimately, we want people to be comfortable in each other’s homes, to know each other better. A lot of the magic that happens at any concert is the stuff that happens in the room, not the stuff that happens on the stage. This is the way it works in the grass-roots world. People find out about us in pockets around the country. While we have a great fan base in Rochester, there are really very few people who know who we are in Syracuse. We can be empty in Cleveland, but filled in Columbus. It’s just a joy to play outside our core crowd in Boston, to be well known, and well regarded, in so many pockets.
Q: “Hurricane Wind” has three songs you wrote with John Oates, Daryl Hall’s longtime musical partner as well as a veteran solo act. How did you hook up with Oates and why did you hook up with him? I’m guessing you’re a fan of Hall & Oates’ craft and versatility, their ability to ride the tidal waves of success and roll with the rip tides of disappointment.
A: I think those guys are incredible musicians and songwriters who have played such an important role in the history of rock and pop. I hooked up with John because the guy who manages me managed Hall & Oates for 30-something years. I’m writing songs constantly in the tiny windows of time I have in my day-to-day life and then I send the demos to my manager. At some point my manager was talking to John about the demos and John asked if he could listen to them and he liked them enough to invite me to come down to Nashville to write with him. One of the great testaments to John is that he’s always trying to change and create great art. He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal; he not only wanted to meet this no-name from Boston, he wanted to sit down with him and make music. I’m grateful for his musical partnership and for his friendship.
Q: Who wrote that nifty couplet in the chorus of “All I Am”: “All I am is the ground below the stars/All I am is a story written in scars”?
A: We worked on that chorus very closely. We were bouncing off ideas, coming up with those little pictures together, taking a step back and trying to describe what we wanted to say. It was a really true collaboration, with words coming from each of us. I can’t remember which is which, what is what. It’s all jumbled in the fog of creation.
“All I Am” is the first song we co-wrote together. It’s also probably our favorite of the songs we’ve worked on. The light bulbs were really popping while we were writing.
Q: Did you learn anything from John’s new memoir “Change of Seasons”? He’s painfully honest about financial mistakes and the misfortunes of fame.
A: My life has unfolded very differently than John’s. I’ve been scraping as an indie artist for 17 years now; I’ve never had the skyrocketing journey to the top of the charts, that kind of success on that scale. I know that John and Daryl [Hall] were struggling for a while. They were kids when their big success first happened. They had a manager who was going out of his way to not inform them or advise them financially. They were in the fog of ’80s stardom and excess, running around with famous people all the time. I know that John has regrets from that time and not being aware of his finances is certainly at the top of that list. As my story goes, it just wouldn’t happen. I’ve spent so much of my life living in poverty and engaged in the kind of activism that strives to service communities in need. I don’t think I could be cavalier with success.
Q: Your RallySound foundation launched the Ramble with the pretty outrageous mission of sending free school buses to transport 20 or more fans from all over New England to the festival in Salisbury Beach, Mass. What on earth were you guys thinking?
A: I wanted to do something a little outrageous. I wanted to offer a little big gesture, not unlike the gesture of showing up in people’s living rooms. We attracted people by telling them that all the money we raised from ticket sales would go to a good cause. We paid for the buses for two or three years and, god damn it, it was so fun. Maybe at some time we will have the infrastructure to do it again, although, I have to tell you, a school bus ain’t the most comfortable form of travel. I think a lot of our fans are just as happy to carpool from all over the country, stay in a hotel or at a campground, and make it a weekend. We like to help out the economy in Salisbury Beach; it can use that kind of attention
The sense of community engagement that happens at the Ramble is so rare; the experiment has been so much fun. This year we had over 3,000 people and 10 stages; something like 10 bands donated their time. We were able to get 19 homeless veterans off the street and into housing in New England.
Q: So, Adam, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I would love to play a role in making veteran homelessness in New England a thing of the past. I can’t think of a better mission. And I really think it’s a tangible goal.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: The thing that I want to get over personally is to not let popularity determine the course of my career and life. That might seem ironic for a guy who spent the first half of our conversation saying how he likes fans shaping his music. I think that as struggling artists, and maybe even as popular artists, we find ourselves trapped into trying to make people like us. It’s a trap we find ourselves in, inside and outside music, in life. The most important journey is the one in which I’m learning to be as honest as I can with myself and what I create as an artist and a human. And that’s a hard thing when you’ve got a music industry telling you: You know, you should be sounding a little more like this; this will help get you more fans. I’m trying to remind myself that the way to get real fans is by not listening to those voices, but by listening to the voices of people who will stick with you for life.
Adam Ezra: The Scoop
His real last name is Olshansky.
He grew up in Wayland, Mass.
His song “Life of a Thief” was inspired by binging on the second season of the TV series “Sons of Anarchy.”
His RallySound foundation has raised money for the Boothbay Sea and Science Center.
He wrote some of the songs on “Songs for a Movie,” the Adam Ezra Group’s 2016 album, for the indie film “Folk Hero & Funny Guy,” which director Jeff Grace wrote based partly on Ezra’s adventures as a musician and his adventures as a stand-up comic.
He wrote the song “The Portentous Beginnings of Daniel the Brave” after dreaming of wandering into a Pentecostal church in Las Vegas and hearing a preacher introduce a band that played one of his songs.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs Adam Ezra’s soulful solo rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.