Ezra Axelrod Interview
Ezra Axelrod - Loud and Brave (2012)
We will always be
"Loud and Brave." That's Ezra Axelrod, an American artist now
living in London, and he's just released an album I love, called "American
Motel." I played him on my February show and now I'm delighted to
share an interview I did with him. This is JD Doyle and welcome to Part
1 of OutRadio. Of course I asked Ezra about a number of his songs, but
he also has some interesting comments about quote unquote "gay music"
in general. I started by asking if the "American Motel" album
has an overall theme.
Does the new album "American Motel" have an overall theme?
Ezra Axelrod: Well, the songs on the album are stories that I've collected, over about the past six or seven years. So I guess the theme, overarching theme is this journey I've been on since leaving my hometown of La Grande, Oregon, and kind of stumbling through the world, trying to find my place, I guess you could say.
JD: Where did you grow up?
EA: I grew up in La Grande, Oregon, which is a small town, kind of near the Idaho border.
JD: How did you get to London?
EA: Well, at 18 I left La Grande, after high school, and I studied in Vermont at a small college called Middlebury College. I studied music there, mainly composition and operatic singing and piano. And that's where I actually met my first boyfriend. We were students together, and when I graduated he had been offered a position at a company in London. So we decided to move here, and we actually ended up getting married, and that was about three years ago.
JD: In particular, talk about the song "American Motel"
EA: Yes, well, that song it kind of started out, I was remembering this morning, this particular morning that I had when I was a teenager. I woke up in a stranger's bed, and I did not know where I was. And this was back in my hometown, and I got out of bed and I looked out the window and discovered there was a big sign, a big marquee that said, American Motel, and that image has kind of been emblazoned on my mind. I was thinking about that, and the course of the song just came into my head and then this story kind of unfolded from there.
JD: So, it's pretty much a true story?
EA: (laughs) Some of it's true, and some of it is imagined.
JD: You're thinking back, oh, what did I say?
EA: For me it was kind of the story of all of the different stories that might have happened in that one room. You know, my story, and all of the different love affairs that might have taken place in secret at the American Motel.
Ezra Axelrod - American Motel (2012)
JD: It has a very fun video.
EA: Yes, well I really liked the idea obviously doing making music videos has become the main, one of the main ways in which artists present their music to an audience, and I actually studied film production a bit, and I really wanted to do this montage where I just took hundreds and hundreds of clips from things that I remember from childhood, you know, movies and cartoons and TV shows. And all kinds of cultural references that for me somehow evoked the landscape of the song "American Motel." And so I got to work and culled through about two hundred different clips, and edited them all together and there's also the scene of me actually singing the song took about a week and a half, two weeks, to do it.
JD: A lot of those clips are very gay clips.
EA: For me when you asked about an overarching theme of the album I think that the songs retrace not only my journey to find my place in the world, but also, it really is the coming out journey, because even though I came out at 18 and had this boyfriend, it's a long process. It's a process of really embracing your identity, and one of the themes I'm really interested in is our understanding of masculinity and what I've noticed through this whole coming out process is when you come out as gay people you have all these preconceptions of how you identify yourself in terms of your masculinity and they think that, oh, you're gay, that must mean you really identify with feminine things. And I think when you watch the "American Motel" music video you'll see that I'm kind of tracing my own ideas of what it means to be gay and what it means to be a man.
JD: That explains all those Liberace references, right?
EA: (laughs) Ah, what Liberace references?
JD: Kidding, kidding.
EA: I think there's a lot of images of men drinking beer.
JD: Well there's a track, I believe it's the last track, "Prayer from a Dressing Room"
EA: Yeah, well, "Prayer from a Dressing Room" is kind of I put that on as a bonus track. In the show actually that comes up at the beginning of the album, to kind of open it. It's a theatrical thing, but I don't know what to say, "Prayer from a Dressing Room" is about a really crazy concert that I had in Montreal about two years ago, at this dive well, I don't want to say it's a dive, but it's called Cabaret Mado, and it's kind of a dive drag queen bar, and I was performing there and the bartenders miraculously materialized in my dressing room, and it was very interesting. And then a lesbian saved me, so I supposed the lesbian plays the role of God in the song.
Ezra Axelrod - Prayer from a Dressing Room (2012)
JD: Next, how about the song "Southern Way"
EA: Well, "Southern Way" is actually I think that's the oldest song on the record. It's one that I actually wrote way before I came out, and it's about a feeling. I think I wrote the song when I was 15, and this feeling I had that I didn't understand. I was very award that the position I was in was a very precarious one, that there were two kind of routes that I could take. And one would be this very kind of sorted underworld route, and the other one would focus on my studies and be successful in school, and get the hell out of La Grande, Oregon.
EA: And I was very award of that, so the song "Southern Way" is about, I guess, the alter ego who didn't choose the route that I chose and instead got on a Greyhound and went to L.A. and became, you know, a prostitute not to say that I ever entertained that idea, but I just had this feeling in my mind, this awareness in my mind that teenagers, my peers, anybody could just end up in such a bad situation. And that's what the song is about.
Ezra Axelrod - Southern Way (2012)
JD: What challenges have you faced as an openly gay musician?
EA: You know, I've performed in a lot of different places and the music has always had a really warm reception, so I've been really blessed. I've always been really open in my shows, talking about who I am, where I'm from, what my life is about, what my songs are about. You know, I think that people who go to see shows in general, people who consume art are for the most part open-minded. So I've never really faced any negative backlash, I guess you could say.
JD: We've talked about this before, but for the purpose of this interview, what are your thoughts on the lack of gay artists really writing about gay life?
EA: Yeah, I think it's a huge loss. I think that people in the recording industry, recording artists more often than not, are putting forward a persona that the public is supposed to believe is personal. These songs are the story of this artist and by not being honest about their lives, gay singer/songwriters, kind of contributes to this phenomenon of the gay experience of being invisible and something that we're not supposed to talk about in public. And I've always rejected that from the beginning, from when I came out. I said, well, if I'm going to be writing about something that I supposedly experienced, I'm going to be honest about it. I'm not going to tip-toe around my identity to please somebody else. What's the point of writing?
JD: Well, many writers would say, oh, I want my writing to be universal, to appeal to everyone.
EA: Yeah, again, I just think that's their own fear and I think that that's insulting to their audience. It's assuming that their audience is somehow intolerant, somehow unintelligent, somehow unprepared for anything that's remotely challenging. What I found, is supposedly straight mainstream audience is more receptive and more interested in this just because it's different from what they experience in their day to day.
JD: Well, I guess speaking for myself, my whole I've heard music and have been able to interpret it straight songs and have been able to apply it to my feelings, my relationships. Straight people should have no problem doing the same thing.
EA: Yeah, and so many straight men listen to female artists and it's not because they're secretly gay. It's because they enjoy the music and enjoy the message of the song, and the lyrics. They don't have to be in love with guys to relate to a song by female artists that's about a guy. And actually it's funny, cause I just yesterday was meeting with a promoter, and he is very straight and he works with a lot of actually heavy metal bands in this very rock & roll world. And he loved my show, he loved the music, and he said one of his first thoughts was, oh, would this appeal to a mainstream audience. And then he realized he is a mainstream audience, he loved it, and his peers would love it, and so there's really no reason to be afraid. Rock & roll is this is a provocative environment and we are supposed to kind of challenge the boundaries. So, no, I don't approach this material with fear at all.
JD: Let's get back to talking about more music. Tell me about the song "19."
EA: "19" is about infidelity, and more specifically it's about being 19 and being a sophomore in college and thinking that you're so savvy and sophisticated and kind of ready to take on the world and are really unaware of the ways you're hurting the people around you, thinking that you're always going to have another chance, no matter how badly you mess up.
Ezra Axelrod - 19 (2012)
JD: I'll make a comment that since I've produced a show called Queer Music Heritage for 12 years I'm pretty strict on what I consider lyrically songs, and your CD is pretty gay.
EA: Pretty gay, isn't it? Were there parts of the CD that weren't gay enough for you?
JD: (laughs) I joke that I like my lyrics Blatant.
EA: But the thing is, it's so funny that for me I don't know how you could be gay and avoid writing a song that is explicitly gay, cause you would really have to go to great lengths to make a song gender neutral. And for me what makes a story interesting is vivid detail, and if you're making a song deliberately gender neutral you're losing these layers of detail. And so ultimately I think your songwriting is mediocre and really lacks in appeal.
JD: Well, many songs are first person, you know, "I miss you."
EA: But again, "I miss you," so again, that's second person there. So if you're singing second person, in which I do in the song "Hurricane Season" maybe there's some ambiguity, but also you're describing a person a person has clothes and they have a physicality and if you're a good writer a few key words bring that physicality to life, and more often than not a physicality implies gender. So I think, for example my song "Hurricane Season," it's probably pretty clear I'm singing to a guy.
JD: Would you expand a little more on that song?
EA: Well, that song comes at the end of the album. It's kind of one of the last big songs on the album. It's a song about after all of the drama sorry, backing up a little, the album also kind of traces my own relationship. It's pretty personal in terms of the conflicts that are discussed. And the song "Hurricane Season" is about getting back together with my partner after we've had this break up, that's described in the previous song, "Strangers." So, it's saying, a man's just a man, and I still love you. So it's forgiving what's happened between these two people, and saying, okay, let's move on and let's make this relationship work. On the album it comes after the song "Strangers," which is about kind of a bad breakup, and then the way it happened in real life, my boyfriend and I supposedly weren't dating anymore, but we were going to be living on campus for the summer at college. And he was going to be flying back to the States from Columbia and we were going to be living in separate houses. But there was a hurricane the day that he was going to fly, so his flight was delayed really badly. And he finally got in at 3 in the morning. It was too late for him to get his key for his house. So he called me and I said, okay, well you can come to my place and you can just sleep on the floor here. But he showed up and it was pouring rain outside, and it was very cinematic and dramatic, and I opened the door, and you know, one thing led to another and we've been together since. So sometimes all it takes is a little natural disaster.
Ezra Axelrod - Hurricane Season (2012)
JD: You included a song on the album that's in Spanish. Talk about why you did that.
EA: Well, that song it was just called "Futbol y Mangos" which means "Football and Mangos," was actually a letter that I received from my husband when we first met. So we met, like I said, when we were in college, when I was 18, he was 21, and we wrote a lot of letters to each other during that first couple of months, and predominately in Spanish. And five years later when we were already living in London I found all of those first letters and there was one in particular that really stood out to me. And I went to the piano and started playing this kind of simple chord progression, and I discovered that the letter, which was written in prose, fit perfectly into a song structure, so that song is verbatim the letter that he sent me. And it's just a really beautiful lyric and it really fits with the kind of overall theme of the album.
Ezra Axelrod - Futbol y Mangos (2012)
JD: I gather from your website you spend a lot of time in Columbia.
EA: Yes, my husband is Columbian.
JD: Have you done much performing in that country?
EA: Yeah, this past winter, not this current winter but last year, I recorded the first six tracks of the album in Bogota, and was working with a producer in Columbia and I thought it would be really wild to Columbia for two months to record, and it was. And then I did a big concert at the end of that in Bogota, which was really amazing. A lot of people came to it and they were people I did not know, that read about the concert in the paper and just showed up to check out this American artist. And it was really cool.
JD: How would you compare again, talking about you as an openly gay artist how would you compare the acceptance in Columbia versus the UK?
EA: Well, I think that the entertainment industry is similar in a lot of countries. Generally I think people are pretty nervous about explicitly gay content in broadcast to a mainstream audience. But again, I think audiences, audiences that are theatre-going, or go to music concerts, they can handle a lot. So I think you should never listen to those fearful voices. You should always look to your audience and have faith in them. And that's what I did in Columbia, and there were lots of old people, straight couples in the audience, and they loved it. They come and they hear music that they really enjoy, and they enjoy seeing a young person being so comfortable in his own skin.
JD: You briefly mentioned your stage act and I want to hear about that. I understand it's more than just singing.
EA: Yes, well I wanted to do kind of a theatrical show that told the story behind the songs on the album, and I wanted the show to take place in a motel room, with this group of musicians. And so what happens in the show is that the stage is set up like my motel room, and then my band breaks into my room. I'm in the shower and they're harassing me. We'd just played a gig and they're harassing me and want to party with me, and I come out of the shower and we start jamming, and we start playing the songs on the album. And then between the songs I do this kind of stand-up comedy banter that's based on the stories that inspired the songs.
JD: So, did you get dressed when you came out of the shower?
EA: (laughs) Yes, I get dressed.
JD: I'm so disappointed.
EA: I do get dressed on stage though. I come out of the shower in a towel.
JD: What part does sex appeal play in the marketing of your music?
EA: Well, I think you could do a little google search to find out about that if you want to.
JD: Oh, I did find an article in the Gay Times with you just wearing briefs.
EA: There you go. Well, you know a lot of these songs are about they're sexual songs, they are about sexual topics. For me, I'm only portraying an aesthetic that is definitely there in the lyrics, so I don't have any qualms about anything that I've done. But that's kind of one of the hard things about marketing to a gay audience. You're almost expected to get into your underwear if you want the coverage.
JD: Yeah, I've always hated that .not.
EA: You know, it's great right now, you're asking me about my songs and the stories behind them, that's actually a rare occasion. It's rare that we ever get to that because it's usually, just tell us about your underwear.
JD: do you have any stories about a particular gay song of yours and the reaction it got?
EA: Well, I think the first very explicit gay song that I wrote was "Around Here." So, "Around Here" is about an affair between a student and a teacher, and apparently that's a very common experience for a lot of gay men, is that some of their first interactions, sexual attractions are actually with teachers. And the song's pretty explicit, and I remember when I was first performing it, and recording it. I was recording it in a studio and people they were concerned that people weren't going to be ready to listen to a song like that.
EA: And when I perform that song, so many people say, my God, that's my favorite song, both men and women, because a lot of people have either had affairs like that or they had crushes on teachers, so they really identified with the content. So I guess what I'm trying to say it's another example of where people on the music side of things are concerned and worried about audiences and then the audience is really happy and they are happy to finally have a song that they can relate to and that touches upon an experience that they've had.
Ezra Axelrod - Around Here (2012)
That's right, and I thank Ezra for the interview and encourage you to check out his website at www.ezraaxelrod.com, and don't miss his videos. And please don't forget there are more segments of OutRadio this month found on my site. Here's one more song to take us out.
JD: I love the harmonies in "Take Me Home" the song is sexy and gorgeous.
EA: Thank you. It's my favorite actually on the album, the most recent song I've written and it's about being kind of lost in the California desert this past March, with my husband right before we were coming back to London and kind of looking back on this really long journey that we had together, which has been the story of my album. So I thought it was a very good way to end the album.
Ezra Axelrod - Take Me Home (2012)
See bottom of the page for two articles about Ezra, from Time Out London.
Pushovers - Boy or Girl (2012)
This is JD Doyle and welcome to OutRadio, Part 2. That was "Boy or Girl," a new song by a trio of three artists already recording on their own, Mara Levi, Liz DeRoche and Nancy Eddy. And next you'll hear one by each of them.
Levi - Friends or Fools (2010)
From Mara Levi's 2010 CD "We Listen to Fools" you heard "Friends or Fools;" from the album "The Moon's Song" by Liz DeRoche was "The Singing Lizard;" and Nancy Eddy gave us "What If We," from the CD "On the Inside." Up next is a benefit single from the UK, and several artists participated, including a favorite of mine, Horse McDonald. The joint effort is called "The L-Project" and the song is "It Does Get Better."
- It Does Get Better (2012)
Oh, I quite like that, can't wait to hear the rest of the album. That's Amy Ray and "Glow" from her new CD "Lung of Love." And before her from 2007 was Brandi Carlisle from "The Story," one of her best known albums. I played the title track and "Josephine."
Sue Barrett is a women's music journalist and internet friend of mine in Australia, and she just turned me onto an American artist, and I'm so glad she did. Here's Kat Devlin and a track from her new EP "REM Cycle," called "Dear Emmi."
Kat Devlin - Dear Emmi (2011)
Again, that was "Dear Emmi" by Kat Devlin. And here's a friend of mine, Sarah Golden, and I've been following her work for over ten years now, from when I first saw her perform at the Houston Women's Music Festival in 2001. She's getting some much-deserved attention now due to her appearing on the TV show "The Voice." So, I'm playing a song from her debut CD "Truth," from 2002, named "I Love You More Than Jell-O," and then the Lady Gaga song she sang on the first week of "The Voice," "You and I."
Golden - I Love You More Than Jell-O (2002)
Julie Schurr closed that set with the title track from her CD "Boi in the Girls Room," and that's spelled b-o-i, and she got a little help on it by God-Des.
Here comes an old favorite of mine. From 1995 by Jan Tilley it's the title track from her cassette tape "Scarlet Letter."
Tilley - Scarlet Letter (1995)
Here are a couple very nice tracks by the duo Driftwood Fire, from their CD from last year, "How to Untangle a Broken Heart." I picked the tracks "Turn on the Radio" and "What Would It Take?"
Fire - Turn on the Radio (2011)
And that was a long set. After Driftwood Fire Summer Osborne sang "I'm a Lesbian," from 2005, and I snuck in a spoken word piece by Dr. Madelyn Hatter called "The Lesbian Avenger." Closing this segment is the band Betty, and from their 2009 CD "Bright & Dark" is the song "A Fix of You."
Betty - A Fix of You (2009 )
Freddy Freeman - My Guy (2012)
I am very pleased with that song, and it's an OutRadio World Premiere Exclusive. That was Freddy Freeman doing a cover of the Motown classic by Mary Wells, "My Guy," but this time with the pronouns correct, at least in my opinion. That's a song I've long wanted a gay male artist to do, so when I was chatting online with Freddy I just mentioned it, and he said he'd work on it. And he finished it the same day. So, I'm honored to play it.
And, this is JD Doyle with Part 3 of OutRadio for March. It seems logical to go next with a new CD that Freddy produced, for Kendall Kelly. I've got several CDs by him but they were just billed as by Kendall. The new one is called "Truth Changes," and shows his versatility. I picked from it "Last Train" and "Do You Know How Sexy You Are."
Kelly - Last Train (2012)
And that set had a bit of variety to it. After Kendall Kelly was Eli Lieb, from his new and self-titled CD, with the songs "Place of Paradise" and "We Own the Beat." Matt Zarley kept things going with "Change Begins with Me." And Dane Vannatter finished it off with "Overjoyed," a Stevie Wonder song, from Dane's album "Here's to Life."
I'm going in a different direction now, Kiya Heartwood, of the duo Wishing Chair, has a new solo album, called "Bold Swimmer," and I'm playing two tracks from it, the title song and one called "Change (Is Gonna Come)." That's one I got to hear her sing last fall at the Houston Women's Music Festival, way before the CD was even ready. Before you hear those songs though, I'm going way back with her. In the 80's she was in a band called "Stealin Horses," so I dug out that CD and am playing the track "Harriet Tubman." And listen for the harmonica parts, that's Neil Young.
Horses - Harriet Tubman (1988)
That was Mike Acerbo and "Fairy Tale Love," from his CD from last year called "The Search." And the packaging for this CD is gorgeous; it's 8 ½ inches square and opens like a children's story book, with beautiful illustrations. Before Mike you heard Brandon Anderson and the song "Wake Up," from his new EP "Guitars & Grievances."
I'm very pleased now to bring you a couple tracks from the brand new CD by Tom Goss. It's called "Lost Songs and Underdogs," and is a very intimate and personal album. I'm looking forward to seeing him do these live when he comes through Houston on his tour. Here's "50 Years," and "I Do."
Goss - 50 Years (2012)
That was a mellow set, ending with Jay Brannan and "Greatest Hits," from his upcoming album. But directly after Tom Goss was Chris Riffle and a new cover of an old song, "And I Love Him." I'm going to let Mike Burns close the segment, with the first single from his brand new CD, "Chapter 27." It's called "Loving You."
Mike Burns - Loving You (2012)
B.A.L.L.S. - I'm a Boy Watcher (1992)
That of course was a very modified cover of the 1968 smash by the O'Kaysions, "Girl Watcher." This version came out in 1992 on a very hard to find CD-single, with four remixes, and this was the hip hop mix. Now, a friend of mine has a pressing of this CD and on his copy it says the group's name is Brothers About Living, Loving & Sensuality. On my copy they are just known by their initials, B.A.L.L.S. And this is JD Doyle with the fourth and last part of OutRadio for March. This segment will be a bit more uptempo, and next I'm playing, gasp, a straight band. Now, I never do that unless a song deals lyrically with gay issues, and this one is all about marriage equality, and it has a gorgeous video. The band is called Bye June and the song is "Shades of Purple."
June - Shades of Purple (2012, straight band)
We went back in time a little in that set, first to 1977 and 1978. The Buzzcocks were a popular UK band, featuring Pete Shelley, who a few years later brought us the dance hit "Homosapien." And then to Imperial Teen, and from their 1996 debut album "Seasick" came "You're One" and "Butch." They are still making music and have a brand new release called "Feel the Sound," and from that one I played "All the Same."
Up next, a transgender band called The Degenerettes, and don't you love that name? They have a new CD named "Philosopher Queens," and from it is "Owed to Joy," with "owed" spelled o-w-e-d.
Degenerettes - Owed to Joy (2012)
The second act in the set was Laurice and in 1973 he released a song under the band name Grudge called "When Christine Comes Around." He recorded a bunch of stuff around that time that was never released, until now. Last year he released a vinyl album called "Best of Laurice, Volume 1," and while the liner notes have more than their share of hype, I thought interesting the other track by him I played, "He's My Guy." Then back to the present and the Magnetic Fields, with a bit of an odd track called "Andrew in Drag." Then came the talented Richard Barone and the title track from his 2010 CD "Glow." Finally, Sir Ari Gold's latest album is called "Between the Spirit & the Flesh," and on the spirit side was "My Favorite Religion."
Let's get down now with a bit of blues, and Lisa Marshall. First you'll hear "Swamp Song," and then "Got 2 See You," from her 2008 CD "Simple."
Marshall - Swamp Song (2008)
After Lisa Marshall was Richard Anthony and "Fantasy" from his new album "Love Is the Power." Closing OutRadio for March is one by a friend of mine, Jay Spears. It's from his debut album "Boy Howdy," and I think it was by far the catchiest song of 2002, "I Like Mike."
Jay Spears - I Like Mike (2002)
He wrote this one, and it's cool he gave me a mention, near the end.