“I’m completely untrustworthy as an artist,” says Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert. “It’s my superpower — I can do whatever I want.” It’s a bold yet liberating statement that fits Ebert’s aesthetic perfectly.
For more than 20 years, Ebert has been making music in different capacities — starting out in a band called The Lucky 13's, signing to Virgin Records with his dance-rock group Ima Robot and leading indie-folk outfit Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, as well as releasing solo material under his own name.
Last year, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros released their fourth album, PersonA, with Edward Sharpe's name crossed out on the cover. It seems Ebert felt that the character of “Edward Sharpe” had been worn out, and after touring behind the album, the Magnetic Zeros quietly decided to go on indefinite hiatus. “As with so many things in life, you don’t do something unless you’re really inspired to do it,” Ebert notes.
Ebert released his first and (to date) only solo album, Alexander, in 2011, and decided to return to solo music after breaking up with the mother of his child and finding himself in a more introspective space. “I found myself nearly in that zone where I could write a love song of longing — with that sense of, ‘Won’t you take me back? I’ll be here for you,’" he confesses. “That’s not a feeling I had that much familiarity with.”
In early May, Ebert gave fans a taste of his new reality with a glimmering, lovelorn psych-folk track called “Broken Record.” And so as Sharpe disappeared, Ebert came back to life. Instead of releasing a full record initially, Ebert will drop new songs every few weeks. “The totality of songs will probably come out in September if someone doesn’t end up leaking it first,” he says.
It’s been a while since you released new solo music. How come the last music you put out was in 2011?
Well, that’s a good question. Mainly I was busy with the various other projects — Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros taking up most of that time. Also, I was scoring movies. I scored All Is Lost, which I won a Golden Globe for, with Robert Redford. I also scored a movie called A Most Violent Year, which I loved. I did a Disney short that won an Academy Award — I made a sweet, li'l short thing about a dog called Feast. I’ve been writing prose a lot and just working on a lot of art. I’ve been just getting back to my roots of doing a lot of stuff at once. Touring can kind of narrow your field of view.
So Edward Sharpe is on hiatus. Can you tell me a little bit about why that is?
I think it was just time for a freakin’ break. Our last album [PersonA] was a real big statement album for us. I feel like I said all I needed to say for a little while. Then I was having a lot of other things I wanted to do musically and otherwise. It felt like the right time to put some love and focus back on just expressing myself. I know that sounds sort of weird, because it’s my band and I should be able to express that within the band, but there are always some constraints that we find ourselves in that our surroundings just require. It was time to change the environment.
Is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros completely done?
We’re on a hiatus — it’s hard to say. I think I’m just waiting for the next time I’m really inspired. As with so many things in life, you don’t do something unless you’re really inspired to do it. If it’s picking your kid up from school, you go fucking do it, but if it’s writing a song — especially when it’s three years of your life making and touring it — that’s enough of a commitment that you want to make sure you’re really engaged and it’s the proper intention for you in that time.
You have been living in New Orleans for a while, but you were in L.A. for a long time. What was it like transitioning from L.A. to New Orleans?
It was incredible. I had been coming to New Orleans for years and every time I came here I kept thinking, “I need to move here.” Finally I decided I was going to try and rent a place. I was walking down the street with the whole band. A few years later I was going to have a kid and we didn’t want to raise a kid in L.A. I went to Craigslist, which is my go-to, and that was that.
Your most recent single, “Broken Record,” is about your ex-girlfriend with whom you have a child. How did that impact your music? How did that change you, personally?
It was so gnarly. You have so many dreams that outrun reality, and you have these realities that get exhausted and quit before the dream is over. So you have this odd, curious nether-region of life where you’re living stopped short of a dream and yet it’s the right thing. Everything has changed. Relationships for me are probably the most strange and curious things. I haven’t put enough thought into them to judge them publicly, but I have my thoughts on relationships.
How did you go about conceiving your first single?
I basically lived in a studio, so I’d start playing stuff. I started playing guitar, which is odd because I had mostly given up guitar in terms of songwriting for the most part. I just rolled in the studio, started playing a guitar and it just sort of happened. I was right in the middle of that breakup. It was a clean, chill, groovy, friendly breakup, but that doesn’t mean you’re not in this weird limbo zone where dreams don’t match reality; and not only don’t match reality but don’t match desire. So you have this weird contrast between dreams and desire, and therein lies my torment — curiosity and search for the truth.
I found myself nearly in that zone where I could write a love song of longing — with that sense of, “Won’t you take me back? I’ll be here for you.” That’s not a feeling I had that much familiarity with. I was like, “Oh, now I get it. I better write a love song like this while I have this feeling because there are so many great songs about that kind of thing," and I had never really written one. So I took advantage of the heartache.
That’s what art’s for, right?
I guess so.
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I heard you’ve delved into rapping. Tell me more about that.
I’ve been rapping a lot lately. I’m fairly busy, so I feel like I should be in a rigorous freestyle rap boot camp because it’s been so long. I gave up rapping when I was about 17 because I just didn’t feel it anymore. All of a sudden, when I did my first solo album and I put out the song “Truth,” I was basically rapping on that song as far as I’m concerned. Lately, [my desire to] rap just came back in full force.
The thing with rapping is that you have to have a lot to say because there are so many fucking words, and if you don’t have anything to say, you just end up talking shit and saying the same thing over and over again. That’s what 95 percent of rap music [is]. It’s not necessarily the rapper’s fault; it’s just the fact that you have to say so many words in so many bars of music. New Orleans bounce artists have figured that puzzle out by repeating the same two- or three-word phrase for an entire song, which is kinda fun.
I started [rapping again] but it’s something I had to grapple with because I got a lot of criticism [for] switching from Ima Robot to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Of course it wasn’t a switch; it was a long-coming, slow-burning, inward change. Outwardly, it looked like I flipped the script and became a hippie because I thought it was going to be popular or something. I don’t know what the point of view was there. Sustaining that kind of criticism like, “Oh you can’t trust him as an artist” eventually made me take a look at myself and realize that’s who I am: I’m completely untrustworthy as an artist. It’s my superpower — I can do whatever I want. You’re goddamn right you can’t trust me, because I’m unpredictable — even to myself. I’m not a brand. Critics and fans want a brand that they can trust, and you start changing that brand and suddenly people don’t know where you stand and [think] you’re just trying to make a buck by capitalizing on some trend or another. The flipside of that and detriment of that is you become a brand and you become stale. I didn’t want that, so I started rapping. It’s the first art form that grabbed me in the guts and never let go.
You’re releasing your new music untraditionally — you’re staggering it. Why put it out into the world that way?
I think that albums are art for art’s sake now. I think they’re cool, but they were a function of the physical limitations of vinyl and of CDs. They could only fit so much content on those things. Now, those requirements are over in the digital age. Now when you do put something out, they turn into playlists. I started to realize that that’s how I worked, so that’s how I wanted to put out music. I wanted to expose the way I actually worked to the world. It’s a way to more correctly put out music in a way that I end up making it. There will be a collection of songs, and there will be that difficult product I’ll end up being talked into, but for now it’s all about taking advantage of what technology affords us in terms of how we put out music. We were forced into that bucket [of albums] by the limitations of technology, so I’m trying to extricate myself from that because I’ve never enjoyed it.