Interview: Ezra Axelrod and his Queer Americana

Every now and then you bump into something that sounds like home. I’m definitely a city slicker but somewhere under my Midwest charm there lies a longing for a little bit of Southwestern hospitality. I know I’m an indie hound, and not everybody cringes at the thought of the horrible pop songs and queer-geared artifices that litter the gay bars in Boystown, but some portion of me always longs to be part of the crowd. I watch the happy dancing people at Spin and wish I could suspend my snobbery and just enjoy the contrived coyness of pop anthems. Well finally, I’ve found a handsome gentleman to satisfy all my needs. Sweeping ballads, a cowboy sensibility, and the sensitivity of a James Dean romancing Bob Dylan.

Ezra Axelrod leaves a taste of Lona Del Rey meets Elliot Goldentall on your lower lip. He blows in your ear like the Brokeback Mountain version of Rufus Wainwright. It’s a pleasure to find music and artists that represent strange semblances of Americana in all its collected and recollective queerness. Without further delay, here’s some words direct from my new favorite, Ezra Axelrod, just in time for Pride weekend. This Oregan born London transplant evokes so many references, from those good old, ancient Macintosh-block Oregon Trail-90’s, you’ll be melting along to his classical compositions in no time. Over our exchange we had some intimate reservations about working with publicists and some definite bonding over Power Rangers and Batman. I mean, aren’t you falling for him already?

Make sure you snag a copy of Ezra Axelrod’s debut album, American Motel, available now.

It’s an honor and a pleasure corresponding with you. Can you please share with our audience, who you are, how you define yourself and where you’re from?

Likewise! I’m a singer-songwriter originally from La Grande, Oregon, now residing in London. How do I define myself? You mean musically, professionally or in general as a person? When people ask me, “What do you do?” I usually say that I’m an independent recording artist, but I like to think of myself as an “entertainment professional.” In addition to writing and performing songs I run my production company, Menagerie Entertainment, and work in social media PR. From a musical perspective, I would say that I’m obsessed with story-telling through songwriting. I see my music as a physical journey through time and space, a conversation with the characters I’ve encountered along the way, and a reflection of my generation’s universal experience. More specifically, I approach the stories I tell from the perspective of a 20-something gay man, and that has played a huge role is the trajectory of my career and the international exposure I’ve had to date. In addition to that, I identify strongly with my Spanish heritage (my mom’s surname is Varón), and some of the most formative moments of my life were spent in Spain and Colombia (a really important element to the story is that from the age of 18, I’ve shared this journey with a guy from Colombia–we went to college together–who is now my husband). Finally, my musical upbringing was a crossroads of classical, country/folk, 90s pop, 60s singer-songwriter and Motown, and I think that all of those influences can be heard at various points in my music. My debut album, American Motel, is a sometimes sordid journey from my hometown, through a picaresque adolescence in Spain and Latin American, to my new life here in London’s Soho.

What can you share with us about your music and your process?

I come up with musical ideas at a pretty fast rate, but I think my overall process is a bit slow, because it’s less about churning out material and more about figuring out what overarching story I want to tell with a set of songs. So, for example, my first album American Motel contains a careful selection of 12 songs out of all those I wrote from the age of 15 to 24 (“Father” and “Southern Way” being the oldest, “Take Me Home” being the newest). I wanted to tell a compelling story about growing up in the American West and stumbling through the world as an adolescent in search of love and lust and a place to call my own. Thematically, that album only briefly touches upon the experiences I’ve had living in London (“10 Million Lights”), so now I’m just trying to digest these new stories and figure out how I want to communicate them through music. London, especially Soho, seems to be a place where people from all over the world reinvent themselves, and there’s this very manic, sometimes self-destructive energy buzzing around you. Also, many of the world’s gays end up here, oftentimes running away from their past, looking for a place where they can be themselves. Furthermore, living in Soho (which is the epicentre of London) means living side by side with prostitutes, pornstars, drug addicts/dealers and wealthy young professionals who want to live central. It’s so full of contrasts it’s at times overwhelming, especially for a smalltown boy like me! The point of this story is that it makes for amazing songwriting material, and I’m looking forward to tackling it in my next set of songs.

How did you come to this production, what’s the backstory? Dirty details, please…

In the summer of 2010, I had been working for a film company for a year, saving up to do a four-month trip and tour in the US and South America. Then I got cast in a new musical here in London, and through that experience I came to understand how creative teams work with investors to fund theatre productions, and I realized that the same model could be used for independent music (obviously, that not new, but I hadn’t made the connection at the time!) I got the idea to record the album with a producer in Bogotá, since I was planning to spend the winter there. Some friends there put me in touch with a guy named Toño Castillo who works with pretty much all the Colombian artists, and I knew it would be a unique experience recording with Colombian musicians. In any event, I pitched the project to the investor of the musical I was in, and he decided to fund it. The whole project in Bogotá was insane. It was such a busy two months and the project got tons of radio, TV and print coverage, which was quite fun! In any event, we only recorded six tracks in Bogotá, so when I got back to London in April, I decided to produce the remaining six tracks on the album myself, with UK musicians. I planned to finish the project in December and then launch the album with a month-long theatre piece, Songs from the American Motel. It was a quirky way of presenting the music live: a mix of rock concert, theatre, stand-up comedy and cabaret. I put together an ensemble of four vocalists, guitars, violin, bass, drums and myself on lead vox and keys, and we took up residency at London’s Leicester Square Theatre for the month of February, turning their cabaret space into a seedy motel room where my album American Motel would come to life in an interactive show. It was like Nick Cave/early Elton meets Chelsea Handler meets Gus Van Sant. It was seriously the most fun I’ve ever had! And now the albums out and people all over the world are listening to it and downloading it and watching the music videos, so I really couldn’t be happier!

Certain songs spark my interest, especially the hotel room ex-confessional… What was that ditty about? Aside from the obvious…

Well, I was remembering this time when my best friend and I went to the drive-in theatre in my hometown and got totally wasted on one of those massive bottles of Yellow Tail wine (so classy) and I called up this guy and and tracked him down, and while I remember the rest vividly, I’m going to pretend I was too drunk and don’t. To make a long story short, as the first line of the song says, the next morning “I woke up in a stranger’s bed,” and was like, oh shit, what went down here? And I walked into the living room area and saw my best friend passed out on the couch, and I shook her awake and was like, “Where are we!?” and she pulled back the curtains and goes, “Oh my god, we’re at the American Motel!” Then I had an epic walk of shame back to my house. Anyway, from that experience I came up with the chorus to the song, and then I imagined this wild adventure from motel room to motel room that for me really represents what it’s like to be one hot mess of an adolescent. “American Motel” for me is my 20-somethings’ anthem. Haha!

How do you write your lyrics? Any favorite poets, songwriters, authors?

Funny enough, both my parents are writers. My dad is a poet, and I would describe his work as extremely narrative, with very concrete stories and visuals, as opposed to abstract metaphors. My mother writes prose, she’s mainly an essayist. Both she and I are hugely influenced by Joan Didion.  I remember so clearly reading Didion’s essay “L.A. Notebook” in my high school English class and saying to myself, “This is exactly what storytelling should be like.” She uses intense, concrete images to poignantly communicate the emotional content of her narrative. A big drawback I see in a lot of writing is the writer telling us what we should think and feel, as opposed to using carefully selected details to elicit those emotions. So that’s how I approach songwriting: I imagine the environment the story takes place in, how the characters interact, the things they say, their physicality, all these elements communicate the emotions without having explicitly draw them out for the audience. That’s something I’ve really aimed for in songs like “Strangers,” “Hurricane Season” and “Take Me Home,” songs about basic themes of love, conflict and reconciliation. But instead of focusing on the emotions, I focus on what the lovers are doing and saying against a very vivid backdrop. I think it’s a very cinematic approach to songwriting, actually.

Thanks you for your candor. I can’t say I ever get the privilege of such vivid and thorough responses. You’re definitely a writer, I can tell. I honestly can’t stop smiling after watching the video for “American Motel” again. Can you share a little about that video? The montage work is exquisite. I especially loved the bits of power-ranger and batman cartoon clips. There’s a lot going on there… from those Monterrey 3ball crazy pointed boots to the iconic clips from Rebel Without a Cause…

For the “American Motel” video, I wanted to do a montage that was a rapid series of images that for me somehow represented what it meant to grow up in America in the 90s, the references that defined my perception both of masculinity and queer identity, as well as activities that pervaded the American landscape of my childhood. There’s a lot in there, as you said, from Power Rangers and Batman and Robin, to James Dean and Matt Dillon, then of course all the Latin American and Spanish references that were a huge part of my experience growing up: man-on-man Argentine tango, Almodóvar, the crazy pointed Mexican boots. There’s even a clip I found from my hometown of La Grande, Oregon, in which a cow is being branded. I spent about a week researching footage and then spent another week editing it all together with my singing shots. I studied film production in college, so producing and editing my own videos is probably my favourite part of what I do!

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