Words Kirk Truman
Photography Astrid Schulz
“My parents are both writers. I grew up in a storytelling environment, and music quickly became my preferred medium. I wanted to tell stories through music…”
A man approaches the tall sash window fronts. An eye looks towards Charlotte Street as a taxi makes the awkward turn onto Rathbone Street. The vacant seat at the piano front is taken up and fingers are raised above the keys at the corner of Rathbone Place and Percy Street. The thoughts borne are of music, lyrics and endless composure. In the moment of the idea the fingers are caused to tremble between songs and words. The contrast of Bach’s classical numbers, the riveting ‘Goldberg Variations Aria’ and endless European pop influences cause his lips and vocal cords to stammer between ideas. The idea is set, a composition presents itself. The piano keys begin their clicking. Lyrics are recited; the voice is soft and airing. The American begins his singing. Ezra Axelrod tells me of his American routes, finding his musical feet, new ventures and his beloved Fitzrovia.
Born in Ohio and raised in the state of Oregan, USA. He describes himself as being from the middle of nowhere or as he calls it, “a tumbleweed town” he says. I learn that he grew up in a literary household: “My parents are both writers,” he tells me – his mother writes essays, his father poetry and non-fiction prose. “I grew up in a storytelling environment. I was the only musician in the family. I wanted to tell stories through music.” He continues to tell me about his conflicted upbringing in the United States, “where I grew up was complicated, it was a place full of contradictions.” He goes to explain the lack of outlet for these feelings, “they weren’t contradictions that I could speak about at school. People didn’t understand those contractions although they were part of them.” Ezra was raised in a secular Jewish family, though identified as an atheist at age 11, although he admits his views on spirituality are ever-evolving. Growing up in the United States, Ezra was aware of the troubling contradictions that surrounded him. Many aspects of his home country both politically and socially were issues that Ezra wanted to speak out about, like abstinence-only education for a highly sexually active youth or lack of educational funding vs. military spending, anti-abortion campaigns yet lack of resources for mothers. “The U.S. is complicated, it’s a place full of contradictions, where you’re expected to be exceptional but ostracised if you stand out. My parents taught me to be very analytical and critical, so at a young age I was aware of what was going on around me, but didn’t feel entirely at ease exploring the contradictions of my environment. Music became the coded language through which I could discuss these issues,” he explains.
A self-confessed Tori Amos fan, Ezra was inspired by Amos’ candid approach to controversial issues and began writing pop songs at the age of 11, having already studied piano from the age of 5. Ezra went on to study music at university in Vermont, at Middlebury College, focusing on voice, piano and composition. In contrast to his pop song-writing, at university he delved deep into classical music. As we discuss everything from Schubert’s Winterreise forward to Swedish pop, his diversity in musical taste and performance becomes all the more evident as we converse. “Coming from a region that was very much country music orientated, I’ve had a lot of folk influences. Also having studied so much classical music and classical piano I’ve had a combination of lots of influences. I’m now living in Northern Europe where it’s so electronic. For a while I was really resistant to this genre as I was so attached to my roots but finally, after six years in London, I can really hear my new home taking hold in my music.”
Ezra moved to London in 2008 after his husband (who’s been his partner since they were teenagers) was offered a job here, the decision feeling right for the both of them, as binational same-sex couples didn’t have access to immigration rights at that time in the U.S. (Ezra’s husband is Colombian). He and his husband spent about 4 years living in Soho, first in a shoebox on Old Compton Street and then another shoebox on Rupert Street. Although they were fond of Soho, at times they grew tired of its constant buzz. “When you live in an environment like that you don’t notice how frenetic, chaotic and cluttered it really is and how similarly your mind is frenetic and chaotic. There really was no rest from the constant flow of people,” he says on his years living in Soho. He had started looking at properties in East London though as a keen runner, Ezra often ran through Fitzrovia to reach Regent’s Park and longed to live in the quiet, ultra-Central neighbourhood. On a whim, he phoned an estate agent and found a rare gem of a flat and hasn’t looked back since, now living in the purple corner house on Rathbone Street. “I think it’s the one neighbourhood in London that I really identify with. It’s made all the difference to me! I come from a really stunning natural setting where you look out of your window and see mountains, you of course don’t get that in London. I needed something I could latch onto, and I think it’s being able to walk around and feel like you’re in a small town that drew me here. It’s that element of minimalism and character that I fell in love with, you can tell that the people who live here take pride in the neighbourhood. That is a very Scandinavian quality to me, and Scandinavia is a place that influences me a lot, so Fitzrovia to me is the perfect home to come back to after those adventures in the North! In terms of my creative process, last October I started a routine where I got up at 6am every day to work and record demos. Fitzrovia helps me work creatively” he says on how Fitzrovia has helped rejuvenate his talents.
In essence, songwriting is Ezra’s chosen poetic language utilised to explore all of the issues that surrounded him during his youth through to his present. “I really discovered pop music in high-school – I wanted to be a soul singer! I continued on with my songwriting through to university though my desire for pop and soul faded in university, when I was pushed more toward academic music. I stopped songwriting for some time,” he explains. When Ezra moved to London, he rekindled his relationship with pop and embarked on writing his first album, American Motel (2012). On the album, he explores stories of lust, love, and the trial and error of learning to live as a young gay man. “My first album all about learning how to love and lust as a gay man without having any precedents to follow, no stable role models to look up to. I think the album tells a fairly unique story in pop music,” he says. Ezra turned the album into a live theatre piece that had a 20-show at Leicester Square Theatre in 2012. Currently working on his second album while balancing a career on the business side of the music industry, Ezra is also preparing to embark on a new musical journey this autumn as a graduate student at the Royal College of Music.
Now a permanent resident in the UK, Ezra feels very much at home in London and in Fitzrovia. “It’s taken six years, but I’m finally starting to feel like I have a community here.” With his new album, Ezra is exploring themes of recovery, the struggles of so many people he holds dear to his heart, and their resilience. “The new album is very dance and pop orientated, and I think that’s appropriate, this is a celebration, even if the content is still moody and dark at the core,” he says. I am assured that this truly creative musician who fears not the need to express his inner soul through the voice of his talent shall only continue to rise to success in the years to come. The piano keys stop their clicking. The voice slows. Ezra Axelrod stops his singing.