For folk-roots rocker Adam Ezra, music is a powerful force for bringing community together. So it’s no surprise that the Adam Ezra Group’s 2017 album Hurricane Wind is an all-hands-on-deck community effort, with some 400 fans playing a role in the production process — not only crowdfunding the project, but actually producing it. zZounds sat down with Ezra to talk about how fans were instrumental in choosing the songs, title, and artwork for the album — which includes three songs co-written with John Oates of Hall & Oates fame. Plus, we got the story behind Ezra’s charitable organization RallySound, and an inside look at how the Adam Ezra Group uses Bose F1 and L1 portable PA systems to bring their music to an ever-growing audience in their home city of Boston, around the East Coast, and across the country.
zZounds: In the credits for Hurricane Wind, one particularly famous name caught our attention. How’d you come to collaborate with Mr. John Oates?
Adam Ezra: Well, the Adam Ezra Group has a management company based out of New York City, and the head of that company used to manage Hall & Oates for years and years. And I consider myself a writer, first and foremost. I’m writing so much all the time — that’s what really inspires me. Connecting to people also inspires me, but the writing comes first, I think. Our manager — the head of this company, his name is Brian Doyle — reached out to John because he felt he and I were kindred spirits. And John listened to a couple demos and said, “Why don’t you send Adam down to Nashville, and we’ll try writing a song or two together?” Brian called me up and told me that!
zZounds: When did you get that phone call, and how did you react?
Adam Ezra: It was about two years ago. I’d been an independent artist for, at that point, 16 years. I’d never been a person that had money, or a record deal, or a lot of radio exposure by any means. We’d grown fan to fan, one independent concert at a time, one grassroots activist event at a time. So, to get an invite from a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer to come down and write — I really wanted him to like me a lot! I was nervous. Anyway, it ended up going great. We wrote two songs our first day together, and since then, I’ve been back and forth to Nashville, and we’ve become buddies and written 8 or 9 songs, so that’s pretty awesome. It’s unbelievable.
zZounds: It’s cool of him to be to open to collaborating, and it’s cool of you to be up for the challenge!
Adam Ezra: Thank you — I think that coolness is more on his part, for a guy like John to be so down-to-earth and real and just wanting to create good art. We aren’t writing pop songs together; we’re not trying to write country hits. We’re just writing songs that are real, and trying to create art together. For somebody to be devoted to that and inspired by that, still, after all of his success — and to want to do it with a little guy like me — it’s pretty amazing.
zZounds: How would you describe your writing style?
Adam Ezra: As far as my writing goes, it’s a little bit all over the place. Its roots come from folk, maybe, but really, it branches out. As the band began to get a little more successful and have people working for us, there was that pull to try to fit our sound to what was popular out there…Making a conscious decision every single day to be the artist that I want to be, rather than the artist that’s going to be popular, has, ironically, made the difference as far as me seeing a deeper connection to fans and a faster growth in places where we’re selling tickets and where we’re growing as a band.
zZounds: You can’t fake sincerity.
Adam Ezra: You cannot. But you can fake some pretty damn good music. And people will like that music. So it just depends what kind of artist you want to be. And also, it’s fun just to write songs. I was just down in Nashville writing with this amazing writer whose job it is to write hit country songs for guys like Tim McGraw and George Strait. It’s awesome to be sittin’ in a room, like, “Let’s write a f**king country hit. Let’s just see what happens.” That’s fun! Sometimes I feel like it’s my own pride saying, “Oh, this has to be deep. This has to encompass whatever I want to define as art.” Writing songs can just be having a good time — it can be going out and playing a game of basketball.
zZounds: Do you do a lot of co-writing?
Adam Ezra: I would say more and more these days. But for the most part, I write on my own. I love co-writing because I think it pushes me out of my comfort zone. As a writer, if you’re going to do anything for a living, if you want to be an expert in anything, the best thing you can do for yourself is get your ass kicked out of your comfort zone and have to do stuff that you don’t necessarily feel is super easy to do. So I’ve done a bunch of co-writing. I have not always come out with a song that I love, but I feel like I’ve always come out of the experience a better songwriter. And I love that — it helps me go back to my own place to write songs.
zZounds: What did you learn from working with Oates?
Adam Ezra: He has a sensibility about songwriting — and song delivery — that I think maybe only comes from having 20 hit songs. We would write a chorus, and I’d be in the studio singing the chorus. And I thought that I was singing the chorus. And John would be like, “Adam, you’re not singing the chorus.” And I’d be like, “What do you mean, John?” And he’d be like, “Well, this phrase is not a loosey-goosey phrase. It has to start right here on the one, and when you come up to this note, it has to hit right there. And every time you sing the chorus, it can’t be like that phrase, it has to be that phrase, because that is the hook that we’re creating. That’s the thing that is going to deliver the message of the song.”
That was something I never quite appreciated before. I felt like a chorus was a place where you were kind of laying down the main point of the song: your thesis statement. And as long as you’re saying the thesis statement, you’re getting it across, right? But actually, [John Oates] makes a really good point, and that is, if you really want to drive home your thesis statement, it’s not just the words, it’s the melody. You wouldn’t just swap out words, chorus to chorus, unless you were doing it intentionally, right? If it’s good to do the exact words, it might be smart to do the exact melody, and it might be smart to do the exact rhythm.
zZounds: Which song were you working on when you had that revelation?
Adam Ezra: I remember that conversation happening when we were working on a song called “Juna Please.” There’s the studio version, which is me singing and the band playing and John singing some subtle harmonies — and then, there’s a live version you can find on YouTube, which is John and me sitting in the studio together. We just came out with the video.
zZounds: The last track on the Hurricane Wind album, “All I Am,” is also a live version featuring John Oates. What’s the story behind that song?
Adam Ezra: That was our first song that we co-wrote together. It was a pretty special process, and felt like the beginning of something exciting. That was the performance I wanted to be on the album — just him and I singing that song.
This album, by the way, was a really unique kind of album. The fans picked which songs were going to be on the album. They literally got to choose between 23 songs that we went in and arranged in the studio, 8 of which were written by John and me. And “All I Am” is one of the songs that they picked. There was a demo version that I liked, but when he and I sat down together that day in the studio and just sang it, I was kind of like, “That’s it. It’s not ever going to get better.” I was hoping, with fingers crossed, that some awesome magic might happen in the studio that day.
zZounds: Tell me more about the fans picking the songs for Hurricane Wind. How did you go about that process?
Adam Ezra: These fans of ours…They are the reason I exist as an artist, because it’s never come from within the industry — it’s always come from these fans. So when we were going to do a fan-funded project, it didn’t feel right that it was just going to be funded by them — I wanted them to help shape what we were doing. So, we started by submitting 23 super-raw demos…as raw as me singing and playing guitar with one take on a little recording device.
We worked through PledgeMusic. There were a bunch of ways that fans could fund the album…Somebody could donate a dollar, and their voice would still be as loud as anyone else’s in the creation of this album. So we had something like 300, 400 people producing this album…and we brought them into the studio with us, virtually speaking. We would show them videos — we would do tutorials on how you layer tracks and all that stuff — and at the end of it, we had 23 rough studio arrangements. And then they voted. Then we took the 10 winners of that voting, and we dug back into those 10 songs, with “All I Am” being a bonus 11th track.
zZounds: Were you surprised by the songs that made the cut? How did the fans’ picks line up with your own personal favorites?
Adam Ezra: Six or seven out of the 11 songs on the final album were not a surprise. We’re an incredibly active live band — we do 200 shows a year — so we also know what our fan community is connecting to the most. And we play out new songs all the time, so we already knew there were fan favorites, and songs that had been on live albums that had never been done in the studio that were super popular. So we knew some of our most popular songs were going to be on this list, and that fans were really going to connect to them. But there were tons of surprises along the way. And there were some songs that I didn’t think were going to be popular, that ended up being popular. There was one song in particular that was really one of the ones I was least excited about — and fans just really loved it. I had to dig back in, and find an arrangement that ended up really connecting. The album is a better album because they were involved. It was really cool.
zZounds: Was it hard to narrow it down to 10 songs, even after the voting?
Adam Ezra: Brutal. It was brutal. But the way I do albums, I write so many songs, there’s always 20 to 30 contenders before there’s an album. So that part — the pain of choosing between my children — is something I’m a little more used to. And it was kind of fun to have that process, and that pain, and that decision-making, be a public thing for people to appreciate.
zZounds: Did you get anyone saying, “No! You have to include this one!”?
Adam Ezra: There were tons of big disappointments, and people were sad! And the thing I would say to them in those moments is, “You know what? That’s the awesome thing about music, you guys. Just because a song isn’t on this album, doesn’t mean it’s not a great song.” Some of these songs getting chosen, are songs that didn’t get chosen on another album. There will be a day for all of these songs, and part of being a songwriter is being patient with the songs that you write, to find a great window to release them. Funny enough, only three out of the eight John Oates songs that were contenders ended up getting chosen for the album.
And after they chose the songs, the fans helped choose the title, and they helped choose the artwork. That artwork would not have existed without their total input. I had an artist that I love working with, and he submitted a bunch of different concepts, and then fans voted on the concepts that they were liking. We ended up combining some concepts, and it was really cool. The album naming part was super interesting, ’cause I could not come up with a good name, and we had to give a lot of name ideas and suggestions, and we voted on stuff, but nothing was hitting. I had one that I really loved, and I said. “Okay, it’s gonna be this,” and the fans, almost unanimously, said “Dude, that’s not a good name. Bad. F**k you.”
zZounds: It’s almost as if you had a producer telling you “No” — with a level of control where they can veto you. Those fans are your boss! You can’t override them!
Adam Ezra: Totally. A lot of people on the industry side were like, “It’s great that you’re having the fans think that they’re helping out.” And there were lots of moments where I was like, “It would be super easy for us to just say the fans voted, and then just pick our 10 songs that we like.” But there also a lot of soul-searching moments, where I was like, “If I’m gonna do this, then let’s give it validity. Let’s really honor the people who are supporting my music, who love it the most.” I wanted to take the whole fan-involvement concept to a different level, and that’s something that we continuously strive for.
zZounds: You mentioned that you’re a very active live band. Any big shows or tour plans coming up?
Adam Ezra: Always! Starting in January, I’m doing a 40-show tour where I’m literally showing up in living rooms and doing house concerts. We call it the “Get Folked” tour, and in 45 days I’ll do 40 house concerts. It’s one of the things that inspires me the most: I sit in the living room and tell stories about songwriting, and I get to connect with the people who are inspired by the music. We devote a huge part of our touring to charity events, and giving back, and activism, and a lot of stuff that’s super-non-traditional.
I was thinking about some of the bands that we’ve been on tour with and opened for in the last year, and it’s crazy awesome and inspiring that we get to play with some of these artists. It’s wacky, the spread of genres. In the last 8 months, we’ve shared the stage with Guster, Los Lobos, Andy Grammer, The Fixx, Michael Franti, The Band Perry, The Wailers, Colin Hay from Men at Work, and Steve Miller — I did a run with him where it was just me solo, opening up for Steve Miller! It was totally intimidating.
So, the challenge for me is, if a fan just saw me on stage with Steve Miller in front of 2000 people, and now I’m showing up to somebody’s living room — how do I maintain the same quality of performance and connection? How can I be a pro? Unlike most of the people here at zZounds, I’m not a gearhead. I don’t give a s**t what my microphone is. I don’t think the art form is about tech at all: if I’m standing in a room and banging my head against a trash can lid, and that is connecting to an audience, then that’s the art form, and nothing else matters. I believe in that.
At the same time, if I’m playing through a Bose Model II with a T1, then I’m sounding like I’m sounding when Steve Miller’s front-of-house engineer is mixing my set. And that is a really good deal. I don’t want to study sound; I don’t want to spend time learning it. I just want it to work. And that’s what I can do with this stuff.
zZounds: What’s the PA system you bring when you’re playing living room shows?
Adam Ezra: When I do living rooms, it’s just me solo, and the Bose L1 Model II is really more than I could ever use — I don’t need all the output of the Model II for that stuff! The L1 Compact is really perfect for living room shows. And if you have 150 people, you could get away with the L1 Model 1S, especially if you’re in a room that has decent sound. But if you have a Model II, then it’s a lay-up. You have more power than you need. And you don’t have to be in the sweet spot. The person that wanders into the back won’t get muddy sound. The people in the front won’t get blown out — they’ll get the same volume as everyone else.
I was using the original 2004-era Bose L1 system for over 10 years. Now I use the Model II with the T1 ToneMatch mixer, and the B2 bass module. But since I’ve gotten my Model II, I’ve played solo shows with it, I’ve played duo shows, and I’ve even played gigs with a full drum kit and four musicians all singing harmonies, all through one single Model II. It’s been awesome. We did one the other day — a charity event to raise money for autism awareness. We were on this beach, and we were playing for about 300 people, with four of us through one Model II.
There are so many different scenarios that we’re finding to use this gear. There’s a guy who owns a radio station in New Hampshire who wanted us to come play a private event, and we were headlining a festival down the road that night, and we didn’t have a lot of time. So we went to the festival, soundchecked, scooted over to the other place, threw up a Model II, played for his event in the afternoon, and came back and headlined the festival that night.
For bigger shows, my band has started using a pair of Bose F1s for our front-of-house main PA system, which is mind-blowing — people who have seen us play many, many times will come up to us after these shows and say “We’re hearing things in your arrangements that we’ve never heard before,” which is what we totally want to hear.
What I’m experimenting with right now, is a system where we can play through two front-of-house F1s, and two L1 Model II systems behind us as stage monitors, for a quartet singing four-part harmony. We just did a charity show like that to about 500 people, and we didn’t need a sound engineer — we just did it ourselves through the T1s and Model IIs and the F1s. Not only was that a great experience, but I know that when I’ve had a chance to do 10 or 15 more shows like that, I’ll have it refined.
For that show, each musician on the stage had their own T1 ToneMatch. My fiddle player had her voice and fiddle going into her T1, and the master out fed her mix into my T1. And the output from my T1 went into my Model II, and that Model II acted as our monitor. Then, my drummer had a T1, with his kit and his vox going into his T1. His master out went into my bassist’s T1, and the bassist’s vocal, bass, and the drum mix were all going into his Model II, so the drummer and bassist shared that Model II as their monitor. Both of those L1 Model II systems’ outputs were going into the F1s, for the front-of-house system. It’s just a different way of thinking about sound and performance.
zZounds: You’ve mentioned a few of the charity events you’ve played. Can you tell us about your charitable organization, RallySound?
Adam Ezra: So, early in my music career, we played bars — any bar that would hire us. Relatively early on, people began asking me to play various charity events. Whenever I could, I would say yes. I don’t know how we did it, but we prioritized playing a ton of charity fundraising events. It was just something that moved me. Doing shows that embodied more than just a party, and were about something a little bigger than ourselves, felt better to me.
RallySound is the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that I started…to figure out a way to help musicians be subsidized for the charity work that they’re doing. Somebody is trying to do some good for the world, and they want to connect to independent artists. But that independent artist needs money to work, just as the charity needs money to work. And this is my dream for the future of RallySound: There has to be grant money to make this scenario work for more artists.
The thing that inspires me about music the most, is that it can solidify community to come together to do something that is selfless. I love that. So the mission of RallySound is to help enable people who want to make a difference in the world.
zZounds: What are some of the organizations that you’ve worked with to make that difference?
Adam Ezra: There’s so many… We were just up in Maine doing a fundraiser for a program that brought kids from the inner city out to the coast to do marine science. We did that event on the beach for 300 people for a local cause supporting families that are dealing with autism issues. We just did a show for a cause in Connecticut that raised money for microgrants for local families to help them get by if they needed a car payment, or if they needed groceries. There are so many people in our country who are one bad break away from crisis, and sometimes, a little bit of support from the community is all that it takes.
To me, the cause is always important, but what is the most important is what happens in the moment when that fundraiser is taking place, when people can be connected and inspired.
RallySound does a big event every year called the Ramble, and we just had our 8th Ramble. It’s a free festival that we hold every year on the north shore of Massachusetts. I personally invite the artists that come out every year. Everybody donates their time and talent, including the festival staff and crew, and it’s dedicated to supporting our veteran heroes. We’ve built homes for disabled vets. We partnered with local farms one year to provide food for for struggling veteran families for an entire year. We’ve done grants for children who have lost their parents in war. This year, we partnered with an organization called the New England Center and Home for Vets, and we raised, I think, enough money to take 20 homeless veterans off the street and put them into safe housing. There were over 3000 people that came out to this thing, and it’s just little old us, doing this thing put together with duct tape.
RallySound’s mission is to support people who are trying to do a little bit of good for the world, in one way or another. It’s a huge part of who we are as a band, and we believe music is one of the most powerful ways to empower community. We need it these days. We belong to each other, and we have look out for each other. Maybe that message is going to have to come from us independent artists.Find the Adam Ezra Group on Facebook Follow Adam Ezra on Twitter