Ezra Axelrod independently released his debut album last year to rave reviews. Written entirely by Ezra himself (with the exception of one song) between high school in his rural hometown of La Grande, and later in London, American Motel tells the emotional story of Ezra’s life, the highs and the lows. It is a stunning debut.
I caught up with Ezra recently to chat about how his album came to be, and his strong opinions on openly gay artists. There may have been a slight dig at Rihanna too, albeit subtly…
Vada – Hi Ezra!
Ezra Axelrod – Hi there. Nice to meet you.
The basics first: who are you and where do you come from?
I am a musician, a songwriter, a singer, a pianist, an arranger. I’m from a town called La Grande, Oregon which is on the West Coast, a small town in the middle of nowhere. I moved to London in 2008 after university. My boyfriend got a job here so we decided to move over here together. There’s more to me than that but that’s the basics.
How did you get into music?
I started taking piano lessons really young, maybe I think 5 or 7 years-old so it’s kind of like the first activity that I did as a child. Then I studied piano all through high school and a bit in university; I focused on composition and voice and I was actually studying opera. And I would say around the age of like 12 or 13 I really got into songwriting, so more like pop and piano writing, that kind of thing. I did that very actively all through high school, not so much in college, and when I moved to London I got back into it very seriously. Music has kind of been the constant of my life: I was in the choir, I played all kinds of instruments as a child.
When I started university I thought maybe I should go into something sensible like political science. I did have a semester where I was thinking I would maybe be a political science major, and then I was like no, music.
Who are your influences?
Around the time I was 13 I listened to a lot of Tori Amos; it was a very weird and angsty tortured type of music, and as a closeted gay boy I really identified with it, so it kind of inspired me. Both of my parents are writers so there was that kind of creative writing environment in my house. From my parents interests there’s a lot of music from the 60s and 70s, tons of song writers that we would listen to in the house from like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, like every classic influence that you can imagine; the Beatles were just like playing in the house all the time.
A lot of kind of classic country music as well was a really big influence and then at university I was studying classical composition so there are a lot of string-quartets by people like Ravel. Bartók was a composer that I really liked. I listened to a lot of pop music too, a lot of RnB. I listened to a lot of Alicia Keyes, a lot of classic soul, a lot of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. So yeah there are a lot of really weird sounds. The most diverse range of influences imaginable, so actually it’s been a big challenge figuring out exactly what style of music I wanted to do, and I think I’m still trying to figure that out.
How would you describe your sound?
Right now I’d say folk-rock. A lot of people really think it’s musical theatre and I actually kind of resent that classification a little bit because I don’t think it’s musical theatre. I think musical theatre takes elements from other styles to like contribute to the storytelling, but for me my influences predate musical theatre.
Your debut album American Motel was released last year. Are you pleased with the reception it received?
Yeah. When I recorded it I had maybe 500 Facebook fans and now I have almost 16, 000 so it’s been really great for building an international following. I mean, numbers are relative; there are artists who have millions and millions of fans but for me that’s really significant to have these people that are really engaged. I also sold out the physical copies of the album so it’s really exciting to see it reaching a really sizeable audience.
I’m not signed to a record label or anything, so it’s all independent, so I’m pretty excited to have achieved what I have achieved.
Do you have a favourite song from the album? I personally love ‘American Motel’ and ‘Father’.
I would say ‘Father’ and ‘Take Me Home’ are my two favourites from the album. ‘Take Me Home’ is for me really representative of my relationship with my husband from the time we met. The song is kind of like a flashback of the time that we met. It’s an emotional one.
‘Father’ is a stunning, heartfelt song and my personal highlight of the album. Can you talk me through it?
I’m singing it from the perspective of my mom and it’s the story of her losing her dad. He was of Spanish descent but had never been to Spain so he really wanted in his life to return and my mom had this plan that she would take him to see Spain before he died and then he died so it never happened. After that she started doing all this genealogical research in Spain and she took us along and those were just transformative trips for me definitely, and that’s how I learned to speak Spanish. So in that song I’m imagining her journey and how she’s searching for her father’s ghost. There’s a lot of references to places we went during those trips.
You reference your sexuality in ‘Hurricane Season’ and ‘American Motel’ (amongst others). Did you set out to create “gay music” or were you just telling your own story?
Definitely just wanting to tell my own story. When I was in university I actually stopped writing songs for a couple of years. [At the time] there were no “gay songs” and I didn’t know of any artists who wrote songs about same-sex love and it didn’t seem like a forum where that kind of thing was appropriate. There were just no examples and I was kind of like ‘this isn’t for me and I don’t feel comfortable’. I didn’t feel comfortable, after I came out, singing songs about girls. I was like ‘that’s definitely not me’, that’s so disingenuous to be a song writer and to be putting forward these pieces of music where supposedly you’re expressing something about your identity and it’s all just this façade.
I get pretty uncomfortable about artists that are gay singing about women because it’s assumed by the audience that they’re singing something that’s sincere, but it’s not. And then I realised that was really silly of me and that it was probably part of some internalised homophobia that you have when you’re 18 and coming out of the closet. So by the time I was 22 I decided that absolutely I have to tell my story though this medium that I love, which is music, and so then it became so natural for me to be writing these songs. If I’m going to be talking about love and lust then obviously I’m going to be talking about a guy because that’s what I know. So it was kind of a natural process.
Do you think it’s important for gay artists to talk about their sexuality in their songs?
I think it’s just insanely important because if you look around at the freedom that other people feel to just reference what they’re attracted to or what they’re into… If you look at pop music in general… If you think about Rihanna songs, I mean they’re so explicit and I would probably feel hesitant to be that explicit in my songwriting. Straight songwriters, well Rihanna’s not a songwriter, but they don’t think twice about how explicit their songs are but if you were a gay artist who was that explicit…
Think about it this way: we don’t look at a Rihanna song or a Robin Thicke and say “that’s straight music” you’re just like “oh that’s pop music.” Whereas if I wrote a song that was as explicit as some of them songs it would be seen as some big gay activist statement or just obscene. It would be labelled as the gayest song ever! [laughs] I think there’s a double-standard; if gays do it it’s such a statement and if straight people do it then it’s just normal. But I also don’t think being that explicit in music in general is sexy, like I don’t find Rihanna songs particularly sexy. Maybe I’m getting conservative with age… [laughs]
Did you make a conscious decision to talk about your sexuality in terms of helping others and spreading the message so to speak?
It’s just the philosophy I have on life. I’ve had to interact with a lot of different people and I know how people really respect you a lot more when you are confident and if you have experiences in your life, if you don’t beat-around-the-bush and in every aspect of my life it’s not like I go up to people and be like “Hi, I’m gay” but I talk about my husband or I talk about if a guy’s hot… I’m not embarrassed around straight guys to be like “oh my god that guy’s so hot” whereas I think a lot of gay people feel a lot of fear to be that candid in most situations and so by being very candid in my music, when a gay teenager from Columbia hears it, it sends a pretty strong message to them.
As an openly gay artist have you faced any challenges or prejudice in terms of getting to where you are right now?
I used to think that the answer would have been no but actually I think that it’s complicated because everyone thinks that if you’re a gay artist there’s this amazing gay community that’s going to put you on their shoulders and parade you through the streets and make you a hero, but I think it’s hard. Some of the prejudice you might get is from the gay community itself because it’s a very critical… I wouldn’t say community, but the gay scene I don’t think is really an outlet for gay artists. A lot of people who are heroes in the gay scene aren’t gay. But I don’t think I’ve experienced prejudice that way.
Recently a straight promoter said “oh my wife’s really into your music” and he was really surprised and I just felt really offended by that. Some of my biggest fans are middle-aged moms, and so this idea that he’s surprised that somebody besides a gay person liked my music… I was like “you’re insane!” [laughs] It’s so stupid. Like if you’re not singing about something that is one-hundred-per-cent the same as that persons identify then they’re not going to be able to relate to it. I think it’s offensive not only to me but to the people that listen to my music.
That’s the power of music; it just makes you forget all of your hang-ups. I think a really good example is people who are really conservative and really religious and yet they’re rocking out to a godless, sexual song and they’re not even thinking about what the song is saying.
How was coming out for you?
It was fun. I think it’s a really long process. I think a lot of people come out when they’re teenagers or in their early twenties and they think that that’s a definitive moment and then they can start the rest of their lives and they’re out and everything. I think it’s actually a pretty long process before you are living every moment of your life in a really comfortable, confident way. A lot of people are carrying on insecurities that they’ve developed when they were in the closet and they’re carrying that onto their adult lives, so I think without really realising it there’s a lot of issues you continue to carry into your twenties. I came out at 18 and I think there was probably a point much later, maybe recently where the process started to become complete.
What’s next for you and when can fans expect new music?
Well I’m working on new music right now. I’ve written about an album’s worth of new material, but I’m in no rush. I’m just trying to figure out what sound I want to create and what story I want to tell. Right now I’m just experimenting and testing things. I’m just making music for myself and that’s kind of my priority right now: to make music that I want to fall in love listening to.
To find out more about Ezra and to hear his music you can visit his official site at: www.ezraaxelrod.com