In the summer of 2014, Alex Ebert felt his band was at a critical crossroads. Where he once viewed Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros as a “social experiment of ramshackleness” — a group of several musicians free to make mistakes while playing with an almost childlike innocence and freedom — over time, he’d come to realize they were all becoming quite proficient musicians and should treat their music as such. “Just by virtue of the process, we started to become a great band, basically,” he says bluntly.
Moreover, with the departure of longtime singer Jade Castrinos earlier that year, the musician began to feel as if the synchronicity of the group — a key component of the band’s longtime narrative, with Ebert cast as some sort of shamanistic messiah — was beginning to splinter. “Three albums deep, it sort of started to feel like a posturing of a commune basically,” he says of his band. “My whole vision for Edward Sharpe to begin with was this merry band of pranksters or brothers and sisters; sort of this egalitarian ideal. But I was taking eight tenths of the song burden as far as songwriting and yet splitting evenly the money.” To that end, Ebert had what seemed like a logical idea: He’d invite his entire band down to New Orleans, where he’d recently purchased a recording studio, and for the first time in their eight years together, they’d collectively write their new album.
“What was really amazing is that a band of 10 people managed to all sit around and have the patience to hack through chords and continue to the process of discovery altogether,” Ebert says excitedly of Edward Sharpe’s forthcoming new album, PersonA, due April 15th. “That took a lot of patience. We all did that. A good deal of the songs were written altogether.”
Oftentimes, Ebert says, band members would begin playing their respective instruments without any sense of where a song was headed. “They felt the complete liberty to start playing however they were inspired, and I felt the complete liberty to stop them or shout out, ‘Yes!’ or ‘You add this!'” he says. “The niceties had no use in the room. It was unmediated communication between 10 people. It was pretty magnificent. I think it was a major step forward for us and something I don’t think we were capable of before this because we hadn’t played together long enough. There’s something about getting in tune.”
The result is the band’s most risk-taking, freewheeling album yet. For lead single “Hot Coals,” the band constructed a seven-minute-plus epic that devolves from a mellow, acoustic-guitar-driven opening into a riotous, horn-inflected crescendo. With a laugh, Ebert describes the track as “not a song that a high school band would try and cover. I do think it’s an epic, but what makes it great is not the songwriting but the playing,” he says. “The timing of the guitar strums and the timing of everything is the song. A lot of the song [is] … hanging on a single chord for a really long time.”
Similarly, “The Ballad of Yaya” swings with a lively gait, a direct reflection, Ebert says, of each band member not being afraid to speak his or her voice. “My experience in the past was that I would have to be extraordinarily gentle and cautious about the way I would try and manipulate the songwriting if we were writing together,” he explains. “But now we all understood our contribution, and it allowed us to do away with any of the eggshells that are usually on the floor in any recording session.”
Lyrically, Ebert was equally unrestricted this go-round. “Lyrically, I think I was always really conscious that I’m representing a bunch of other people and that we all want to play this stuff together,” he says of his past mindset for Edward Sharpe. “But I gotta say: For this album, that wasn’t a prohibitive or guiding force. I just wrote whatever was on my mind.”
Changes in Ebert’s personal life — he says the birth of his daughter with his longtime girlfriend has completely altered his perspective — found their way into the music; as a result, the two songs he wrote by his lonesome were the most autobiographical. “Lullaby,” a spry meditation over gentle piano, is a direct homage to Ebert’s child. “It’s odd to write a song about your own child because there’s this sense of wanting to protect them,” he says of the song. “It’s this strange wariness and yet this gigantic urge to honor them with a song.” The fingerpicked “Somewhere,” meanwhile, pays homage to Ebert’s girlfriend.
With the album recently mixed and mastered — “I have no distance from it,” he says with a laugh — Ebert is eager to discus his excitement of owning his own recording studio. The musician purchased Piety Street Recording — a 4,865-square-foot corner building at Dauphine and Piety Streets that opened in the 1920s as a post office and has hosted sessions from everyone from Tom Waits to John Fogerty and Dave Matthews — in August 2014. In addition to the building, he also bought all the equipment inside, including a vintage recording console and a B3 Organ. “It’s just this amazing studio that I feel insanely grateful to have,” he says. “I feel like I almost inherited it.”
Should we expect other musicians to begin recording at Piety in the near future? “So far I just haven’t had the opportunity to do that because I’ve been using it,” Ebert explains. “It’s not that I’m going to operate it as a functional, look-you-up-in-the-yellow-pages studio, but certainly I don’t want it to lay in disuse at any time. The likelihood that other bands and performers will record here is fairly high.”