Alex Ebert is reborn. Not literally, but in the new six-minute video for "No Love Like Yours," the latest single from his band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, the 37-year-old singer plays a man on a spiritual search through a desolate urban landscape, only to hook up with a procession of New Orleans musicians walking atop a hill in a way that's eerily similar to the final image from The Seventh Seal. Eventually, he'll discover it's a funeral procession, and Ebert dutifully, willingly enters the coffin.
The video, shot by Ebert's longtime friend Olivia Wilde (making her video directorial debut), is the first volley from an album, dropping April 15th, that plays with notions of identity and persona. That's clear enough from the title, PersonA, but it also comes across on the cover art, in which the name Edward Sharpe has been bluntly crossed out. Ebert wants us to think about how selves are manufactured – and also reconstructed.
Filmed on an iPhone 6s, "No Love Like Yours" premiered last night at a pop-up in a Los Angeles gallery space, where one patron could be overheard glowingly describing the video's melancholy, ethereal imagery as "The Tree of Life in three minutes." In a quiet backroom, Wilde and Ebert are thrilled to hear that comparison, and they're excited to discuss a collaboration that's been more than a decade in the making. In person, she's radiant and enthusiastic, while he's more reflective and reserved. "I'll tell you, man, I felt vulnerable as hell doing this video," Ebert says, punctuating it with a laugh. "And that's why I knew it was good — that's why I was attracted to it. Every time I had that fear, I knew we were doing something right."
So, how you'd two first meet?
Olivia Wilde: I am good friends with Bryan [Ling], the band's manager. Many, many years ago — I think it was 2003 around Halloween — I was in the Lower East Side, and I walked into a bar, and Bryan said, "You're going to meet one of the greatest, most creative people." We walked in, and Alex was standing on the bar. [To Ebert] In my memory, you were in a loincloth?
Alex Ebert: I did a loincloth bit, but that was in L.A.
Wilde: Well, the important thing was that he was covered in glitter. I thought, "This guy is great." From that point on, I followed as Edward Sharpe came together. I really was a fan of theirs from the inception — I loved the optimism that they were spreading in such pessimistic times. I thought, "I really want to work with these guys — I want to make a video with them." They're so prolific that so many albums would come out, but it was never the right time. Then, I heard they were making [PersonA] in New Orleans, which is where Alex lives. Bryan played me really early, early cuts that he probably wasn't supposed to share. I heard a little bit of "No Love Like Yours," and I thought, "What is this? This is the one!" When I pitched Alex my [video] idea, weirdly and serendipitously, it matched with what he was trying to say with the album.
Alex, how would you describe the idea behind PersonA?
Ebert: [Long pause] I haven't spoken much about it yet, so it's hard … [Long pause] My name's Alex Ebert — Alexander Ebert is what my parents named me — and, yet, I have this band that, for whatever fucking reason, I called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. [laughs] There was this perception that I was doing this alter-ego thing, and that whenever I went on stage, it was me putting on a mask. And yet the reality was, when I went on stage, I always felt like I was able to take the mask off, and thereby access whatever actual power there is within me. I had this idea of destroying the façade in a visual and overt fashion. Months before Olivia and I had spoken about doing a video, I had come up with this idea for artwork for this new album where it says, "Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros," and I cross out "Edward Sharpe." It was sort of this death of the persona. We ended up talking, and she's like, "OK, I want to pitch this to you, and don't take this the wrong way, but my idea is you'd be at your own funeral." And I was like, "Perfect."
Wilde: The unique thing about directing a music video is that you are not the sole creative voice. You are inherently collaborating with the artist, because you're trying to create something that's an accurate reflection of what they're trying to say. And that's what intrigues me about music videos: It's a way to transcend the sound of a song and to transcend maybe even the fan base for that band and to bring other people into it and expand the whole experience. But you can't, as a director, make it your own vision. The whole fun of it is, "Let's link visions. I connect to this song — let me help tell the story that I think we should tell with it."
This video looks amazing for being shot on an iPhone.
Wilde: I always thank Steve Jobs for making us all think we're artists. [laughs] I was on the subway recently, and there was this woman sitting next to me in a nurse's uniform headed uptown. She was on her phone editing photos for Instagram, playing with "tilt shift" and "brightness." And I was like, "She's a full-on artist right now." We can all feel that [way] because of this technology. Part of my hope with this video is that people will see it and then head outside and start shooting with their phone.
Olivia, you're on Vinyl, which chronicles an iconic period in the music business. How do you think a band like Edward Sharpe would have fared in the early 1970s?
Wilde: That's a good question. What I think is so special about this band is their authenticity and that they forged their own path. They don't feel overly produced by a label — their identities don't feel produced. I think it's why people find it very refreshing to watch them evolve. [To Ebert] I wonder in the early '70s, during that time when the labels really owned the artist, would you be able to have that autonomy? I think it would have been very hard.
Ebert: To me, music has gotten worse since the 1970s. I have these arguments with people all the time — everything's relative, and it's very hard [to quantify]. But someone said to me, "Oooh, Adele is just the best." And I'm like, "Eh, I'm not sure." And she was singing something I could compare to Nina Simone's version, and it was like, "Let's walk away right now and not discuss this any further." I think we've gotten to a point where process has outpaced content. And now you've got such involved process that the process has become the content. You can no longer tell, "Is that song good?"
But, I wanted to touch on something you said that I thought was really interesting. You mentioned, "the character in the video." I don't know if you were being careful to not necessarily associate me with that character. Or, if it's engrained in us to distrust the performer [and assume] it cannot be the real person. I'm curious to hear what you meant.
I never assume that an artist is playing himself in a video — just like I don't assume that a songwriter is talking about himself in a song, even if he uses "I." I love Randy Newman, but I know those characters aren't him.
Ebert: I like that. But, if Randy Newman sings a song from the "I" perspective — and it's about someone else, but he does it really convincingly — what is that? Is that truth? And how was he able to access that? Like, Olivia does a role, she nails it, but it's not her life. How does she do that? To me, it speaks to this idea of human interconnectivity, which also speaks to the idea of empathy — it's all part of this same thing.
I scored a movie a couple years ago [the Robert Redford survival tale All Is Lost], and I was just imagining myself out at sea, so I was doing "method songwriting." [laughs] It's the first time I'd ever done that, ‘cuz usually I'm always speaking about myself. I don't usually do the Randy Newman approach.
Wilde: But that speaks to everything you've been saying about what's perceived as persona, like Edward Sharpe. You are actually more yourself, more vulnerable and revealed, when you're performing.
Ebert: I actually feel very self-conscious if it's not speaking directly from me. Like, I trip out when I sing, "Can't read or write" [in "No Love Like Yours"]. I think, "Fuck, I can read and write." [laughs] I'm only really interested in the truth, and anytime I deviate from there, it's a struggle for me and I have to work through it. For me, music and art are an avenue for me to grow as a human being and explore more of myself.