Who exactly is Tony? Pwrhaus bassist Max Stein sheds some light on the elusive mind behind one of Portland’s most secretively soulful bands. The band plays Holocene on Feb. 8.
Ezza Rose left her musical family in a small mining town, to pursue the arts in big city Los Angeles. Ezza was on her own and overwhelmed by stage fright, but instead of giving up, she used her challenges as training. She made herself perform her melodic heartfelt songs for strangers to gain confidence and inspiration. Ezza would eventually find middle ground in Portland, a smaller city with a buzzing artistic community to foster her musical vision. She soon grew into a full five-piece, which has been playing a folky, rootsy sound for the last several years. The group’s last two recordings Poolside, and the soon-to-be-released When The Water’s Hot, are moving in new directions to launch the band’s growth and distinction.
ELEVEN: Tell me about Ezza Rose.
Ezza Rose: I’m from a small town in California, Julian. It’s an old high desert mining town found during the gold rush and famous for apple pie. My grandfather is a town historian. It was recently hit by the fires so it’s kind of depleting, which is really sad to see.
11: That seems to come across in your music through a little Americana, and a little folk. What brought you into music?
ER: Well, my dad plays upright bass and guitar, and sticks. He’s always influenced my family. He was in local bands in town; there were only like two, so my introduction to music was being the five-year-old sitting on top of the speakers at the bar with a tambourine. Literally my first gig. It’s kind of fun because the bass that my dad played [was] sold to my bassist Lance, so now he plays “Big Al” for my band.
11: What else have you been a part of here in Portland?
ER: I have played with Sean Flinn—that was my first introduction to singing on stage, with like, a rock band. I had so much fun doing it that I wanted to launch into doing it myself. I’ve also played with St. Even; I’ve sung backups for Sallie Ford, a lot of backups, like twelve records last year. There have been a lot of collaborations in general.
11: There is an assortment of instruments on many of your previous albums, such as mandolin, accordion, and especially banjo on Through The Music Box.
ER: We have gone so far; Through The Music Box was such a long time ago. I wrote those songs when I was seventeen and eighteen. For a long time, we took it off the market because it was so personal. But we put it back on the market, not only for business reasons but to show that the progression is pretty cool.
11: How did you come to make When The Water’s Hot differently?
ER: What really brought me to this new sound was [when] Lance inspired me to buy a new guitar. He hated my guitar because it wouldn’t stay in tune and said I had to get a new one.
Lance Leonnig: Well it was an accident because we stopped by the store.
ER: A planned accident. You had been waiting to run over my guitar forever. So we found this old guitar, and it happened to be Nathan JR’s guitar, of M. Ward, and he was working there that day and was like “oh, you picked this one, huh?”
11: What kind of guitar is it?
ER: Its a Gibson Les Paul, with TV Jones pickups. It’s black and chrome. It’s named Black Betty, after my grandmother Betty.
11: Some time went by after you released Jacob in 2011, and last year you released Poolside, which was also something totally different for you.
LL: We have been doing field recordings for years, and I was working an electrical job at an old local hotel. I went in to wire up a big huge bar, and went downstairs. There was a huge abandoned swimming pool. One day I dropped something, and the sound was amazing. The reverb is crazy. It’s quiet. There was no one around, so I kept thinking this was the perfect place to record. So Ezza comes over to my house one day thinking we are just going to rehearse there, but I was like “we are going for a walk.” We go down all of these staircases, through this maze of construction materials, and the big huge pool is there. So I said: “Sing!” We had a hard time getting her out of there.
ER: All of the sounds on that album are natural.
11: How did you record?
ER: I was sitting on the edge of the deep-end, with the sauna behind me, and that’s where we set up the sound booth. We pulled an all-nighter due to the Max and noise ordinances.
11: And now, with When The Water’s Hot, your sound is still very organic, but right away you hear the electric guitar.
ER: I think I want to pull those two things together. I still want it to be super rootsy, but I feel like I want it to have the edge that I have personally, that most people have personally really, and pull that together. I think some of the most beautiful things in life are when you take something that is really fucked up, and something that is really gorgeous, and just put them into the same basket. This electric sound is angst, anger, frustration… or the beauty of being powerful, mixed with innocence and softness and sweetness. We still have upright bass and cello, and we will probably have a violin at the show. This is the first record not having violin. But we have washed out most of the ukulele, and our banjo/accordion player has gone all electric. He’s on electric guitar.
11: It also sounds like there are some keys and spacey noises coming into play.
ER: Yeah! There are some spacey noises, we will be integrating that more and more into our live shows.
11: What are some of the underlying stories and themes of your songs?
ER: For a long time it was romantic stuff, a lot of heartache. But recently I write more about the social dynamics of people in the world, and my reflection of going from a small town to a big city to a smaller city. Comparing the ways in which people go about living their lives and connecting to people. And it’s of course the most fascinating thing that we are all doing, it’s definitely what has been driving my focus. It’s mostly public relations, but every once in a while I may still throw a love song in there.
11: Tell me about the song “Tele.” What is the special instrument on that track?
ER: We were recording the song, and in the room next door was full of like, a bunch of toys. While our guitarist was next door recording his tracks I found Kid Keys, a kid piano, and was like plinking away. I was like-this is perfect—I’m putting this in the song right now. Our keyboardist says he has found the toy piano sound.
11: It seems to talk about mind control and is very alternative.
ER: It’s a relevant subject in a lot of arts right now. Like where do we stand with all of this technology vs. our humanity.
11: What is “Sailboat Land” about?
ER: It’s about remembering your youth. That idea of youth. As people grow older they are trying to find themselves. But what does that idea even mean—that you have to find yourself? I think more people will find out that it’s a lot like being youthful without any judgement. It’s a special youthful place in your mind that you can come back to.
11: What are some of your influences, musical or otherwise?
ER: I think my original influences come from living in a small town and hearing my dad’s projects. I went from living in a town with 2000 people to L.A. When I got to Portland, I dug under the fingernails of the city. It has slowly creeped into who I am today. I think the people who influence me most are the musicians around me. I don’t actually listen to popular music that often.
11: What have you been listening to?
ER: Recently I’m listening to Amy Winehouse, Nick Jaina who is on the bill. I listen to Lance playing guitar and singing a lot. Sallie Ford, Shoeshine Blue, Run On Sentence, and whoever may be immediately around me. I think that probably stems from coming from a small town and wanting to build a community inside a city.
11: And you moved to L.A. for art school?
ER: I studied technical dance, and then they wanted to put me into the singing program. I was put into a “Triple-Threat” program where I was studying dance, acting, singing. I had very little vocal training, but some of my classmates were amazing singers–like headed right to Broadway after school. I would get in front of the class and forget my lyrics. I would just shake.
11: So you struggled with stage fright?
ER: It was horrible. After about a month I decided I could either quit, or figure out a way to do this. That’s when I picked up a guitar, wrote a song, and went to open mic. I was really young because I graduated high school early and went to college early. So I couldn’t go to bars, but I could go to some open mic nights. I made myself play in front of people almost every night of the week in Los Angeles. It was much easier to remember my own lyrics. It was really therapeutic for me and I started writing more. people kind of liked it. I never really planned to pursue music. I came to Portland and started playing here on a whim.
LL: Didn’t you and your friend hitchhike here?
ER: That was just to visit during a break from school, before moving here. It was an adventure. I couldn’t afford to fly or drive. We left the night of Christmas. My poor, poor mother. She was like “It’s your life. If you live through it you’re going to be a great person, if not… oh just do what you need to do.” We said we wouldn’t ride in any semi-trucks. We rode in semis the whole way. I just wanted to move here to paint. I kept playing open mics. I got to meet a whole community of people I didn’t expect. I was like—”Hold on, maybe I can fly with this.”
11: And now your band is actively touring.
ER: We have done the U.S., the West Coast a few times. We have made really good friends with Alaska. We are going out of the country for the first time to tour New Zealand for five weeks.
11: Wow, and you aren’t signed with a label? Do you prefer being DIY?
ER: I’m not sure. we haven’t been offered a ton of things yet. I like doing it myself, and now we have a manager. I still have to work a day job as a bartender. So that is ten hours, four days a week that I am not able to devote to my music. So I am working on being a full time musician. We have a lot of plans for 2015. I want to spend some time in New York, Austin, Nashville. »
– Brandy Crowe
Ezza Rose celebrates the release of When The Water’s Hot January 17 at Mississippi Studios.