Up Close with … Ed Kowalczyk
Live Frontman Goes It Alone for Alive
“A couple of years ago, I just started to go into this malaise about music,” Ojai-based singer/songwriter Ed Kowalczyk explained recently. “It kind of freaked me out. It was the first time in my life where I felt like music was just meh.” As a member of the rock band Live, Kowalczyk was responsible for such hits as “Lightning Crashes” and “Lakini’s Juice,” so when inspiration dried up, he decided it was time for a change. “What would happen,” he said, “if I sort of blew the doors off and threw the windows open, as they say, and let some air in?”
What did happen was Kowalczyk’s first solo record, Alive, which has been climbing the charts in the U.S. and abroad since its release in July. (The album debuted at number four on the charts in the Netherlands; and the video for the first single, “Grace,” hit number 30 on VH1’s Fresh New Music countdown.) The critics are lauding it, as well. “Everyone seems to be saying things like, ‘[Alive] is a return to form,’” said Kowalczyk, “like there’s a new urgency and passion in my delivery and that the music itself is really engaging.”
But Alive is more than engaging; it’s transfixing. While there are easily five single-worthy contenders, Kowalczyk chose the fiery anthem “Grace” to be the first cut released. “‘Grace’ just had a feel to it,” he explained. “It encapsulates in three minutes and 15 seconds where I am with this whole new era of my life as a solo artist. And when a song can do that, well … I just felt like it was a great representative of the kind of feel you’re going to get from this record.”
For the Alive tour, Kowalczyk has put together a top-notch band in the form of Ramy Antoun on drums, Chris Heerlein on bass, James Gabbie on lead guitar, and his brother Adam Kowalczyk on backing vocals and rhythm guitar. “I’m amazed with every show at how our chemistry just gets deeper and tighter and better,” Kowalczyk said. “And the fans have been great. Here I come with a new group, and a lot of these people have seen me in Live many, many times, and yet they’re loving it. … It just works as a set in a way that really surprised me.”
Your record Alive just came out in July. How’s that going? It’s going great. The reception has been wonderful. The fans are thrilled, which is always a relief from that tension of your two-year labor of love. You know, you put your body, mind, and soul into it for two years, and here it comes and you’re on pins and needles. But it’s great because, like I said, the fans are loving it. And now with Facebook I get to get the feedback directly.
The critics seem to like the album, too. Yeah, critically everyone seems to be saying things like [it’s a] return to form and like there’s a new urgency and passion in my delivery, and that the music itself is really engaging. And, hey, that’s what it’s all about.
That makes it seem to me like critics thought your last albums weren’t all there. They were definitely different; my delivery was different on those.
But they were good albums. They were really good, I thought, but there’s definitely an approach and a sort of tenor in my voice [on Alive], it feels more like the mid ’90s work I was doing in Live.
Why do you think that is? The content, and the excitement about it. The passion for [music] again. A couple of years ago I just started to go into this malaise about music, which was really weird. It kind of freaked me out a little bit. It was the first time in my life where I felt like music was just meh.…So I started to kind of look into it and thought I’ve been doing things in basically the same form for a long, long time. What would happen if I sort of blew the doors off and threw the windows open, as they say, and let some air in? And [I started to] think about a solo career and playing with other musicians. And going to Austin, Texas, to record, which I’d never done and just doing something different. As soon as I started to think that way that’s when the creativity went sort of super on.
The desire to move in a different direction started a couple of years ago for you? Yeah. It definitely came to a more critical point a couple of years ago. It had kind of been leading up to that. I was just feeling like okay, I’ve done everything I can do in this particular form.What’s next? And is there anything next in terms of creativity and what will it be. I guess I just kind of surrendered into that. Which again was a strange thing for me to not feel an inspiration about music, which I’ve had pretty solidly for a long, long time. But then with this record, you know…Once the creativity flow turned on I rode that all the way to first writing the record, then I did an acoustic tour. I went out and did solo acoustic shows for an hour and a half, which I’d never done before. And I made most of the record in Austin, Texas, and then early this year worked with some amazing visionaries…writer/producer Greg Wattenberg who produced a couple songs at the last minute including the single “Grace.” It’s been a really, really fun ride.
How did you get hooked up with Gregg Wattenberg? I was kind of looking around. Of course part of doing this solo career and being out of all my long-term recording contracts was … to go out and find partners. Of course Greg, besides being a writer and producer, is an A&R rep. So I was kind of in a bunch of discussion with different potential partners through this new material and our paths crossed. I had friends who spoke really highly of him. So we agreed to get together in my studio and see what would happen. Sure enough within about four or five hours we had this incredible song called “Grace.” And that became the single. I ended up putting out the record on Soul Whisper Records and Sony’s RED distribution, which has been really, really fun. Great partners there. They’ve been doing a great job of getting [the album] out there. And of course I have more control than you would with a more major label in terms of delivering the content and being able to make deals worldwide with great people.
It seems like you got a good, full team together quickly. Very quickly. It was the combination of looking forward and having it find you a little bit. Like figuring who’s out there. The people who were interested in this project just seemed to pop up and feel right. One of the most gratifying and thrilling things about going solo and starting this new chapter was not having any road map for who was even going to play on the record…there’s been a long litany of wonderful “ahas” and meeting people.
Perhaps they were just waiting to pounce on you, waiting to work with you. It was a really wonderful feeling to see that there were so many people who wanted to support [the album] and support me. I was blessed with not having to look too hard.
You went through kind of a rough year. Did the split with Live make it hard to keep going through this album on your own. The impetus of this record and the trajectory I was on personally to move into a new phase had started a long time ago. It came to more of a breaking point of, “Okay, I’m doing this,” a few years ago [and I began] to do solo acoustic shows. As far as a split is concerned with Live, for me, from my perspective it was a really slow, kind of natural outgrowth…sort of an end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two. And honestly it feels like the flow of a book to me. And then to have my experience confirmed by all the wonderful people I’ve been working with and the incredible music that we made it’s just sort of snowballing and we’re just full on into the swing of it now.
There’s great chemistry with the band you’re working with now. On the album it seems as if you’ve been playing with them for ages. Yeah, and then that has transferred into these amazing shows. We’ve only done about 15 concerts so far this year. The world tour kicks off in Europe at the end of August. I’m amazed with every show at how our chemistry just gets deeper and tighter and better. And the fans [have been great]. Here I come with a new group and a lot of these fans have seen me in Live many, many times and they’re loving it. And really loving the fresh take and slight re-interpretation that comes from new musicians playing the old classic Live songs. And of course [they’re] very natural on the new music. It just works as a set in a way that really surprised me.
Are you going to stay a solo artist or form a new band with a new name? With this project, it being the first time I’m being perceived outside of a band that I was in for so long, it was really important that it be a solo project. I’m sure this will be one pillar of my career and then I’m up for other pillars. Although I don’t think I’ll start as many bands as Jack White.” (Laughs.)
So how did you pick which song was going to be your first single? Because I tell you, “The Great Beyond” could have been your first single, or “Drink (Everlasting Love)”, “Fire on the Mountain”…You have so many great songs. That’s a good problem to have, to have that many songs that spoke out, “Hey I could be a single.”(Laughs) “Grace” just had a feel to it….it encapsulates in three minutes and 15 seconds where I am with this whole new era of my life as a solo artist. And when a song can do that, that’s a great representative of the kind of feel you’re going to get from this record. Not only that, but it’s a great radio song in so many ways just because of the structure and the amount of peaks and valleys that happen in that three minutes and 15 seconds emotionally. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever had a song that…I’ve had lots of songs that do that, but this one does it so many times, there are so many incredible moments in there. My hats off to Greg Wattenberg who produced it.…And we’ll see what happens after that. I think “Great Beyond”…
I love that song. Thank you. And the groove, that was really Ramy [Antoun], my new drummer. I had this song, and yeah I liked the melody, but he put that driving dance rock groove to it and now I can’t live without the song….
It’s very visceral. And live in concert it’s unbelievable. That’s the one that is just so much fun to play. It just takes off. It’s actually going to be the lead song in a movie called Killing Bono. It’s a movie being produced by a friend of mine and he heard “Great Beyond” early on and fell in love with it and said “I want this to be the song in Killing Bono”. Apparently the movie is really cool and they have tons of distribution for it already in the U.K. So we’ll see what happens, but it’s gonna be the main song in the movie.
The lyrics “Grace”, what do they mean to you? The back story of those lyrics really starts with the time that it was written. It was late last year and the Haitian earthquake happened and there were a lot images—so much comes over your wire—and I was struck by a couple of the images, like a mother and a child and a rescuer that showed this incredible charity that was emerging in the midst of this horror. Then I started to think that, to me, to even be able to perceive that charity is grace. It’s the silver lining that you can see. Then I thought about the other world, which is the enemy of peace and happiness and all of that. So what would it be like to have this dialogue between these two world views? That are not necessarily two different people, because I think we all go through that inner dialogue all the time…and the chorus being “you were wrong, there was grace” is a really passionate sort of chorus. That’s really where the whole idea of a dialogue came about, inspired by those images. I like to have a little bit of that inspiration, but then I like to leave it with an impression, leave it open to interpretation.
“Fire on the Mountain” was my first favorite song from the album. So is the mountain referring to the Ojai mountains? It’s the general impression of a person who believes and has faith. Any kind of high place has always been symbolic of the inner ascent to the higher ideals of life and love and truth and charity and all those things we gain through that realization of climbing into the highest parts of ourselves and who we are. So any mountains, they’re not really the real mountains I’m looking at right now (laughs) but they could be. People have always gone up to mountains to facilitate that experience and I happen to live practically on one so that’s cool. But it’s more symbolic of moving within into the higher places in ourselves.
Let’s talk about the song “Drink (Everlasting Love)”. Chris Daughtry helped you fine tune that one right? Yeah. Here’s the local angle to that. I was hanging down with him at his show at the Ventura Theatre and we sang on stage together and then he came back up to my house…We got out the acoustic guitars and started playing…he was playing me some of his new music and I was playing him some of mine. I started playing this song called “Everlasting Love” and at the time it was all but finished. He said “try this here, try this there” and we started to tinker with it. The next thing you know it was an impromptu collaboration on the song and it went in a little different direction. I finished it with him and it came out great. So we were both really excited; we weren’t really planning on making any new music together and yet we did.
What is Everlasting Arms? It’s part of my burgeoning little channel on my website that just gives people a view to some of the charities I’ve always given to and personally feel inspired by. I’m expanding it, it’s a work in progress. In fact one of the things about going solo is being able to expand my interests in charity work. Personally I sponsor kids from World Vision organization. [Everlasting Arms] is to give people a view into how I feel about giving. I feel it’s another channel to give people a way to say “let me check that out.”
Kowalczyk and company kicked off their world tour last week in London. Look for West Coast dates in early 2011. For more on Kowalycyzk, visit edkowalczyk.com.