Parting from Live in 2009 (a departure not free from drama and its fair share of finger-pointing), vocalist Ed Kowalczyk has struck out on his own. After a bout with flagging inspiration and disinterest, Kowalczyk released a solo album, Alive, in July of 2010. I recently spoke with him about his inspiration to return to music, new collaborations and the importance of a good multivitamin.
A little late, but congratulations on the release of Alive. I wanted to discuss your bio. You said you were feeling uninspired and weren’t sure of future involvement in the music business. Can you explain and how the album came about from that perspective?
Yeah. A few years ago, I definitely came to one of those end-of-chapter moments in life, where I found myself sort of at a blank about music and about art and just wasn’t inspired. Of course, it freaked me out somewhat because I’d been such a prolific writer up until that point, and really loved to sing and to perform. I thought, ‘This is really serious because I’m kind of… I’m just not feeling it.’ You know, I looked into that space and of course you can understand that it wasn’t super comfortable to look into, because it’s my career (laughs). Like, what’s my problem? And so I started to really take some time and really look into it.
What I realized is that I’d been doing things the same way; same people, same environment, same gigs for so long. What would happen if I really shook this up? What would happen if I just said, ‘Okay, I’m going to make a solo record and get lost in Texas and re-learn how to make a record using a different producer and musicians.’ What came of that is that I grabbed an acoustic guitar and thought about how I’d always done acoustic music, because I’ve always written on acoustic guitar. What if I went out and did some shows? What would that be like?
So I started to do that and I loved it. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with music again. I fell in love with being with my fans. Before, I’d perform, of course, but this was even better, more intimate, more conversational. I felt like I really needed it, but I never knew I needed it until I was up there doing it. The fans had all grown up with my lyrics and my music and I was still in this relationship with them. So, to have me show up in an environment where there was 150—200 people in a smaller room, and play an acoustic guitar was really inspiring for me and for them, I think. So of course I went on and did a full-on rock record and have done mostly rock performances last tour, but this tour I decided in March, I would sort of bring acoustic out again and do a bunch of those shows. I just felt like a certain place in those two sides of my career that’s mutually inspirational. So I’m coming very soon to the East Coast.
It’s funny that I never did it before because it really was a natural progression for me as an artist. It didn’t feel strange at all. I mean, yeah, maybe it was a little challenging at times when I had to kind of rethink how I wanted to build the set and that kind of thing. As for how it came together and how it was, in itself, it was very natural. I’m was immediately struck by people’s response to the fact that, here’s this guy that I know very well, and is part of a process that I know very well, having his day, if you would, in the spotlight. It’s really a new side of my career and person coming out to show to people. It’s really exciting, for them and for me.
You’d mentioned how it was quite scary to realize you weren’t inspired anymore. I can understand that. It’s not like you were changing trades.
Exactly, because you really are one with it and it’s unique. In a way, it’s your whole life. It’s bonded to you in a way that—it’s not even bonded—it’s a union. I would have to say, too, that another interesting thing that came the fact that I’ve seen how this music has touched people and is received by people in such a way that it’s a means in their lives to reflect and it’s a spiritual inspiration. Just all of these things and you can really see it. I feel it in the bigger rock concerts too, but there’s something about being that close to it. I went into the studio for Alive and I think I took the record that much more seriously because I realized I’m in a kind of role. I saw that I had a responsibility to make sure that the record really spoke to that relationship and was really honest. I can see myself doing this for years to come.
Listening to Alive, I felt that it wasn’t an album that you trudged through. It wasn’t an album for the sake of putting out another album. It is much more personal. Not saying Live’s work wasn’t to you, but…
Yeah, definitely. I regained a connection to my own music. I know that sounds kind of strange but I think when you do something that’s creative and you do it professionally for a really long time, I know that for me—being a major label recording artist, especially in the last part of the ‘90s and the first part of this millennium—is that it becomes your job now. There’s a little bit of a distance between you and the art. There are so many other people involved, so many other chefs in the kitchen, as they say, that over time all of that stuff can kind of creep in and keep you at a distance.
One of the things about recording this solo album is I got totally re-bonded with my own art. And not only is it a solo record so that it’s mine in all kinds of ways, but it’s also me, Ed Kowalczyk. It’s not that there was a barrier there before, but there’s even less of one now because it’s very clear that it’s one perspective. I reconnected with it in a really powerful way for myself. As a solo artist in 2011, with the music business the way that it is and all of the different rapid, incredible changes that are happening all the time in every way in pop culture, it’s exciting. I’m not on a major label anymore which is, again, a part of it that I’ve never engaged in, full out, in an entrepreneur way. I mean, I can’t blame this on Universal Records anymore, this is me. If anything is messed up, I messed it up! There is an excitement and responsibility with that that I think brings out diversity, challenge and a drive that I never even knew I had.
With playing acoustic shows, there were times I’d get up there and realize I’d done five or six songs at a time on a radio station but I’ve never played for an hour and a half just with an acoustic guitar. I don’t know that many jokes! About an hour into it I can’t throw in a long band jam! But I kind of discovered that I’m actually good at developing a conversational rapport. I had to develop these capacities that I didn’t even know were there and it’s just been really fun. I mean, I tour with my percussionist Jen Lowe who plays the cajon drum, so I guess it’s semi-acoustic at that point. She’s amazing and will be out west for West Coast shows with me. I play with her about half the time that I’m out.
You also collaborated with different musicians and producers on Alive. What was that experience like after working with the same group for so long?
The whole event of this was, for me, collaborating at all. In the sense that, in Live, I did the melodies and lyrics and 90 percent of the music for years and years, essentially producing it and doing it myself. So letting guys in like Greg Wattenburg in to produce “Grace” and then to collaborate on new music and lyrics… it’s my poetry with collaborative aspects coming in here and there with music and arrangements and such. But to let that kind of new creative mind in on a song, it’s a new area for me and I love it. To find a kindred creative spirit like that and get into a room where it’s just about making music happen, I noticed that when those collaborations are really on and right, you get kind of a one plus one equals three, or four, or five sometimes. You get really special stuff.
It’s like more minds working on one problem. If the problem is a song—it’s not really a problem. Probably a bad analogy. But you get a greater sense of energy from those people working with you. When there’s a kindred spirit there, it’s really special and I’ve come up with some amazing material in my collaborations with Greg Wattenburg on “Grace” and “Stand” and my friend Chris Daughtry on “Everlasting Love.” I’ll be doing a lot more of that for this new album as well. That’s a part of this new thing that’s very exciting.
Was this the first collaboration you’ve done with Chris Daughtry?
He asked us to do his American Idol finale show, which was really cool and we jumped up. I met Chris then and watched his ascent. Of course, he’s a huge fan of me and what I do, so we just became buds over the years. He came over to my house for dinner and we ended up jamming with acoustic guitars into the wee hours of the morning and worked on “Everlasting Love.” I had started it and he’d say, ‘Try this here. And try this here.” The next thing you know we’d finished it and I plan on working with him more this year as well.
What would you say to someone who feels they are in the same sort of creative funk that you experienced leading up to Alive?
I’d say don’t look away from that space, as hard as that can be. You have to peer into it and unpack it, as they say. I think, for me, it was something really simple that was staring me in the face but was too close to see. I had been doing it so long and was bored. I’d just grown tired of doing the same thing over and over. Just the routine of it was weighing on my creativity. Maybe it was more than that, but, I think at the end of the day, it was something that simple. My advice to anybody dealing with that as an artist is to just stare it down and don’t miss that it could be something extremely simple like you just need, uh… some multivitamins (laughs).
Ed Kowalczyk will be performing at YMCA Boulton Center For The Performing Arts in Bay Shore, NY on March 3 and at City Winery on March 4. More info at edkowalczyk.com.