Ed Kowalczyk – Going It Alone (Interview)

As the lead singer for Live, Ed Kowalczyk racked up an impressive string of hits including their 1994 multi-million selling album Throwing Copper. But Ed and the band had a somewhat acrimonious parting of the ways a few years ago which led to Kowalczyk being forced to restart his career as a solo artist. He’s just released his second album, The Flood And The Mercy, and has performed an acoustic show at Auckland’s Tuning Fork. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda got to the gig early and sat down to talk to Ed Kowalczyk about the new album and the state of his solo career.

You can listen to the interview with Ed Kowalczyk here:

Or you can read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: One thing I was interested in just because of the live show you’re doing the solo thing now is… what was involved in ramping down your songs to make them work for an acoustic setting” Most of the songs you’re known for are pretty big sounding records so I was wondering what kind of process you had to go through.

Ed: You know it’s interesting; not much of one. As big as the production on most of the music I’m known for, it all starts with an acoustic guitar in terms of the writing process. So the dynamic and the essential elements of the song are really unchanged no matter what. So I think that’s one of the things that surprises people the most about these I Alone acoustic performances. They come in not really knowing if it’s going to just, “Oh is this just going to be pretty versions of I Alone and these big rock songs”. And I think what impresses them the most is they retain all of the energy. In fact, parts of the essence of the lyric and the vocal are even more amplified or somehow brought to the front. And they leave, I think, not only happy with the show but really, really impressed that it transitioned so naturally into this environment.

MD: When you started performing these songs like this, did you find out anything new about the songs? Did you discover something?

Ed: I did. I think again the lyric and playing with that and playing with the phrasing and realising that some of these songs…I had someone come up to me and say this to me, and I was feeling it too,…a song like The Distance or even Lightning Crashes or something…that there’s a kind of folk element in there and a story telling element and aspects of the phrasing in this environment that throw back to an older type of music that I’m known for. And I felt like that too. I felt like the storytelling element of the records are definitely accentuated and I perform them a little bit differently to accentuate that. Yeah it was fun. It’s a huge part of my new look at what I’m doing as a solo artist is this approach. About 50% of the shows I do now are acoustic.

ed kowalczykMD: Now the new album The Flood and the Mercy; I think I saw somewhere you were quoted as saying even though you had a previous solo album, this one is more honest than the other record. I was hoping you could elaborate on that.

Ed: Yeah I think just the emotion on the record; the angst of the record, the sort of the picture of the emotion of the album is definitely truer to a period of life for mine that has gone on in the last couple of years. The sort of branching out, going out as a solo artist. The fallout that was made against my, what I wanted, but made public with regard to how that all went down. There are definitely some anger management songs on this record. Sort of songs as punching bags on this record. So in honest I guess what I mean is that in that sense it’s a picture, it’s a very honest picture of the emotional content of the last two years I was working on it.

MD: Is it a different thing for you now approaching recording a record now that there’s no band involved? How much does that affect your process?

Ed: You know the essential song writing process hasn’t changed at all much really. I’ve done a few more collaborations than I would have or did before in a band because you know you have more freedom to do that working with Peter Buck of R.E.M’s on the record and Rachael Yamagata sings on the record and I wrote a couple of the songs with my producer Jamie Candiloro. So stuff like that. But you know I would say the process was definitely, you know…Live wasn’t really recording as a band in a room with all the mikes going since probably the late 90’s. I would think the last record we did like that was The Distance to Here. So we had started to evolve more into a band that were getting some of the performances live but we were mostly tracking. And then once I went solo of course I didn’t have a band right away so I was using…in fact I tracked, we did do some tracking on the first album, Alive. And then The Flood and The Mercy, when I found Jamie Candiloro, he’s such a mad scientist in the studio. We just really went in there are wanted to sort of just kind of flesh out a new sound and the easiest way to do it was to sort of just track it into getting that and not have to pre-produce a band and do all that. We got a very different type of record because of that. I personally would like to go back and flip back the other direction for the next one and get some more live recording elements on it.

MD: So would that involved finding your own band to work with?

Ed: Yeah you’re definitely getting more musicians in there in more of a traditional studio setting. You’re still tracking and overdubbing stuff of course but you’ll capture more of it live.

MD: You mentioned Peter Buck and Rachael Yamagata. Why those two musicians to work with?

Ed: I just really like the happy accidents, the icing on the cakes that came at the end of the record. Peter Buck I’ve known for years. The guys in R.E.M for years…of course I’m a huge fan. My producer Jamie just happened to be at a wedding, he worked with R.E.M on three albums as an engineer. Happened to be at a wedding that Peter was attending while we were recording; told him what I was working on and Peter said, “Oh I want to play on it”. Jamie said, “Hey Peter Buck said he wants to play on the record”. I said, “Great, let’s go”! So we headed up to Portland and we hung out with Peter for a few days and recorded. He performed on nine songs on the album. Rachael just got referred to me by my manager. He said you should check her out, she’s really cool, she plays a lot at the Hotel Café, she has a great voice. And I immediately recalled her voice from when he turned me onto a song called All That I Wanted. I though wow I just love to hear her sing. Turns out she was a huge fan of mine so it was really easy.

MD: When I was listening to the album there seemed to be something of a theme running through it about rebirth and rising again. I don’t know if that was something I was just picking up on or if that is something you were trying to get across.

Ed: Well I mean clearly, my life, after being in a band with the same guys for twenty some odd years, there was a feeling of stepping out and taking on the world a little bit in a new way, new challenges and stuff. I think that it definitely reinvigorated me and inspired some of the song’s lyrics to be about transcending obstacles as they pop up when you’re doing something new.

MD: And you touched on this but, one song that particularly stuck out was Parasite because of the anger that’s coming from there. Obviously there’s going to be some speculation as to where the anger is directed at. Maybe you could clarify that.

Ed: It seems pretty clear without getting too dirty on the specifics. It was definitely one of the anger management songs on the record. You know, definitely sharing my perspective on the dissolution of the old band and how that was handled. And we’ll leave it at that.

MD: In general, your imagery, like your song Seven, you have seven gallows and seven maidens. A lot of the lyrics seem to come from a different time. A lot of words that aren’t necessarily coined these days. Where does that come from from you?

Click here to listen to Seven from The Flood And The Mercy:

Ed: I guess I’m reading older books these days. I dunno. I just felt like they were really vivid. I didn’t even think about it. Gallows and maidens. There haven’t been gallows and maidens in a modern rock song in a really long time, I’m pretty proud of that.

MD: Almost a bit like Johnny Cash.

Ed: It’s funny because I’m an adult onset Johnny Cash fanatic. I always liked him but something about the last couple the years and what I’ve been going through and just touring as more of a solo artist and playing a lot of acoustic shows. Just going back to his authenticity of his whole thing and just trying to take just general pages out of it in terms of how I communicate and how I write my lyrics. So I think there’s definitely some of that seeping in. Definitely more so than what I’m doing now. I think I’m getting a little even more stripped down. People have said to me, “Man this is so great, acoustically you should do a record that is like this”. And so, I think, that’s where we’re headed.

MD: And other than Johnny Cash who is maybe alluded to, the other influence on the record is Bob Marley. You do one of his songs at the end. Why did you choose that song?

marley_xlgEd: Well I’ve been a huge Marley fan forever. And I got totally rekindled by this latest Marley biopic, Marley the movie. The amazing two hour motion picture. And I’d read a lot, I’ve read pretty much everything you can buy about Marley’s life and seen any biographies that have been made. But this one in particular was just so well done. There were so many perspectives I hadn’t; I don’t think a lot of people hadn’t heard from before. Chris Blackwell’s perspective…like all the different parts of the story. The one that moved me the most was where Bob talked about his life as sort of like the outsider in his own family. Where Cornerstone came from and how he likened that biblical metaphor that’s in the Bible to his own experience; he was the outcast Marley that ended up being THE Marley. And I felt like what an archetypal type of thing and the fact that so many times in life we miss the most important element of whatever it is we’re studying because we esteem it in our normal way of It’s gotta sell lots of records or everyone’s gotta love it. Meanwhile the best thing ever is something that is sitting over there in a little club and is uncelebrated and then it becomes the big thing.

MD: And I guess you could take it on in what’s happened in your own career as well. You didn’t plan on being a solo artist; it was kind of thrust upon you.

Ed: Oh I definitely felt a resonance with what I was going through in my life. And I also thought about it too. I’ve been doing a lot of work with World Vision in the last four of five years. Gotten a lot of kids hooked up with sponsors and changing their lives and they do incredible work. I thought about them and I thought about you know… we’re sort of almost anesthetised to it now because we see it so much you know, it never not moving…little kids struggling in these far off distant parts of Africa and the world. You realise if that kid could just put down the water jug and get to go to school, that could be Nelson Mandela, that could be the next whatever, doctor; just a successful human being. I thought of that too. how important it is to see, to recognise the treasures that are not necessarily right on the surface but they are there deep in some African village. Just help that kid out and who knows…society tends to esteem the wrong things.

MD: It seems like…well, the show is sold out tonight…so your fans have followed you. Were you worried no one was going to be there?

Ed: You know everyone says, “Oh man what a big risk, just jumping into the unknown, going out as a solo artist”. I’m not going to give myself that much risk taking credit. It was a calculated risk. I knew there was going to be some challenges, getting people to be aware of the fact that I was going to be in this direction and stuff. I really had a pretty strong feeling that my fans…that I just built such a strong relationship with these wonderful people all over the world for all these years with my lyric, that they’d come, that they would appreciate this. I was pretty confidant. That said, yeah, it definitely and there have been things that have been challenging. It’s definitely been blowing my mind down here for sure. I mean it’s been an incredible response to everything.

Click here to read the Ed Kowalczyk concert review.