Interview by Harry Kaplan
Twangri-La got a chance to spend some quality time with Elijah Ocean and speak about his latest album, Born Blue, released on August 13, 2021. Born Blue is a pretty straight ahead, traditional country record heavily fortified with the Bakersfield Sound. Elijah also discussed the record making process, touring, and working with other artists. Read more to find out what is on his mind. You can listen to and buy Born Blue here.
Twangri-La (TL): I want to congratulate you on your new album, Born Blue.
Elijah Ocean (EO): Thank you.
TL: I’ve had a chance to listen and it’s 100 percent authentic country—definitely captured that Bakersfield sound.
EO: That sound has been a huge influence on me, for sure, over the last bunch of years. I dove pretty heavily into that.
TL: I can tell, because one of the songs on your 2020 release was Bring Back That Bakersfield Sound (laugh), so I kind of figured that was something that was important to you.
EO: For sure. That Buck Owens stuff and Merle Haggard—Wynn Stewart, oh yeah. Love that guy. That stuff is always very exciting, compared to a lot of the stuff that was coming out of Nashville at that time.
TL: There’s something about that twang, the pedal steel and those twangy guitars that never gets old.
EO: That’s true, yeah. It’s classic stuff.
TL: And it’s perfect for sad songs, happy songs—any occasion.
EO: (laugh) Definitely.
TL: Can you tell me about the technical stuff on Born Blue, about writing—did you write the material yourself?
EO: I wrote all the songs myself. They were all written over the course of five years or so. The album I put out last year, was all songs from basically the same time period, but those were the ones that didn’t make the cut for this album. These songs were my favorites—the best of the best.
TL: Where’d you record it?
EO: In LA. There’s this studio in Echo Park called Station House and I’ve done a bunch of recording over there over the years and went in there and did about five sessions or so with guys from my band in California to get basic tracks. Then, I ended up taking all of the sessions back home during the pandemic and I was getting really into home recording during that time. I revamped a lot of stuff and recorded a bunch of stuff at home; did all the vocals at home and flew in a lot of the lead instruments, like the steel and fiddle—did a lot of the piano, too—from other parts of the country from friends of mine. I edited a bunch of it.
Then I had Julian King, in Nashville mix it all. Sent him the tracks. He’s engineered and mixed big country sessions in Nashville, since the ‘80s. He knows the genre pretty well and he was able to nail it—nail the sound I was going for.
TL: It sounds like a live recording, which I like—very clear. Not a lot of over production.
EO: I wanted to keep it sounding pretty simple. Some of the touchtone I was going for are late ‘80s, early ’90 stuff, like the first Alan Jackson record, where it’s all just piano and steel and fiddle and guitars. There’s always room for all of those instruments on a song, to me. It’s like they all have their place and it’s a very full sound.
TL: I agree with that. You mentioned everyone played their parts individually and you put them all together or did you all play together and record it?
EO: It was a mix. We did a three or four piece band live in the studio, but most of what I kept was just the rhythm section of that stuff and then had people do new parts on their own a lot of the time. Or I would sit there—I know it sounds like it was all played together, but it really was pieced together in a lot of ways. I would sit there for hours with the guitar just redoing some things and trying out different stuff; layering things. I’ve got a six string bass. It’s like a baritone bass guitar, where you’ll notice there’s like a tic-tac kind of sound that’s going on doubling the bass line. Little things like that—little honkytonk tricks, I call them.
There’s a high strung acoustic guitar, which is basically the top and there’s a 12-string strumming along with the other acoustic layered in there. It does sound simple and that’s the idea, but there’s definitely some bells and whistles hidden under there.
TL: Whatever you did to make it sound complete, you did the right thing.
EO: Well, thank you.
TL: I really enjoy it. You mentioned that Born Blue was you picking out the best songs, but do you have any out of those songs that stand out for you? For me, I’ve got to say it’s The Ice Machine, Thirty-Five, and Born Blue—the cover track.
EO: I like all those. Yeah, those are all some of my favorites, too. In a Perfect World, didn’t always stand out to me, but I think that one grew on me, for some reason. I feel like the whole thing is complete as a group of songs. Actually, the ones that you said are definitely some of the strongest ones, I think.
TL: Ice Machine reminds me of Swinging Doors a little bit.
EO: Oh, yeah?
TL: Yeah. Where the inanimate object tells the story.
EO: I was thinking of “Hello Walls” when I wrote it. I think Gene Watson has a song about talking to a wall, as well. Yeah, that whole idea of humanizing something.
TL: I like Thirty-Five a lot.
EO: Thanks. That one turned out pretty good. That’s a really fun one to play live.
TL: You’ve had a chance to play all these live?
EO: would throw some of these songs into sets before we started recording them to work out some stuff with the band here and there. But when I did my release show in Nashville in August, we played the entire record front to back with a seven-piece band. A lot of the guys that played on the record got to play the show with me. It was awesome. It was really fun.
I’ve been playing around town a little bit. I just played for AmericanaFest in Nashville and did a few shows for that and played most of the album—the majority of the album, mixed with some of my other songs. I’m booking some more shows right now, as we speak. I’ll be doing mostly the new record at any of those shows.
TL: I see. I want to get back to the touring part in a little bit.
This is your sixth full-length release; right? I guess—did you call the one in 2020 a full-length or is it more of—you said outtakes, but it sounds like a proper album.
EO: I call that an album. It’s 12 songs and I mixed that one myself. Listening back, to me, there’s definitely things I would have done differently. I’ve thought about remixing it, but I consider it—it’s a moment in time, for sure, but it’s an album.
TL: What have you learned about making a record that helped you get to the point where you are now?
EO: I’ve been doing it for a long time, with all kinds of different bands and genres. I got to produce some stuff for other artists last year, as well. Every single album’s a learning process for sure. Even this most recent one, I learned so much about making a record. I’m ready to make the next one now. Each one is such a different process. It’s hard to plan. There’s always curveballs that get thrown at you. You always have to shift.
I’ve always tried to stay true to what I think is going to be good music. It can be a fight, sometimes, but I think I’d like to be able to be quicker at making records, because it tends to take me a long time.
TL: Patience is a virtue.
EO: I know (laugh). I know.
TL: I think your philosophy of following the good music and following what sounds good to you is probably the best approach. That really never goes out of style.
EO: That’s true. I want every record I make to be unique and different from the other ones. Just got to follow your gut or your heart, because there’s endless options for how to make a record, these days.
TL: Definitely. You touched on you’ve done production work. I know you produced Kyle LaLone’s recent album, Looking For The Good. Twangri-La reviewed that one. It’s a really good album. He’s a great performer.
EO: He’s awesome. He’s a really good friend of mine. He always sends me his new songs. I was really excited when he asked me to produce that record. It was a very smooth process. It was really fun to do that. That was really the first full length album I had produced, in a project I wasn’t in—wasn’t my band. I had done singles before but never a full length release. I even mixed that one, too. That was a very good learning experience for me.
TL: When you do production, do you tend to be more of a hands on guy or take a more holistic approach and let the music dictate where it goes?
EO: I try to take the artist’s vision, what works for their voice and their style. Do they want something super polished or not? For Kyle’s album, we were going for a pretty organic songwriter album with elements of California country music and some swampy kind of slide guitar and southern rock vibes.
TL: I got the Laurel Canyon vibe.
EO: Oh, yeah. That was really fun. I got to layer a bunch of vocal harmonies on that stuff. I ended up playing a lot of instruments. We were going for an organic sound, so we did basic tracking at the same studio that I did mine at. I think we did two days in the studio as a three-piece, with a drummer. I was playing bass and Kyle was strumming acoustic and singing in the booth.
We did it to tape. We did all the songs in two days. Then, I took it home and we did over dubs. Kyle and I did over dubs at our houses. I gave him this isolation guitar speaker and he did all the electric guitars, because he’s a great guitar player. He would do all that stuff and send it to me. Again, we flew in pedal steel and piano some other guys and I played most of the organ on the album. There’s a banjo I played and some extra acoustic stuff. I sang most of the vocal harmonies. It was a pretty smooth process, working with Kyle. He doesn’t get in his own way. He keeps it moving, which is helpful.
TL: Does working with other artists in the studio help you when you record your own material?
EO: Yes, I think so, because you see it from another perspective. I’ve done a lot of sideman work for artists and so I know how I want to be treated as a sideman. I know how to be clear with all the information I can see the struggle an artist is going through to get their vision out. I think it is very helpful.
TL: I would think so. Any time you have experience doing something, especially when you have more of an objective role, I think that that would definitely help you when you’re recording your own material.
EO: I really enjoy producing my own records, now. This has happened to me a handful of times, where I start out a project with somebody else in the role of producer or a coproducer chair and I end up taking over the reins, at some point. It’s happened to me several times. Over the years, I think I’ve learned how I want things to go and what the roles should be between engineer, producer, co-producer, and band member and whatnot. It’s good to have those roles defined, because there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.
TL: Let’s talk about live performances. I’ve looked at your schedule and you play out in Nashville a ton. The name that comes to mind is Charlie Crocket, who you have opened for in the past. Are you two the hardest working guys in country music?
EO: (laugh) I don’t know. He definitely tours a lot. He’s killing it right now; he’s crushing it.
EO: I could definitely work harder. I could be on the road a lot more than I am. I’ve been spending the last six months basically gigging in town in Nashville, doing a lot of these gigs on Broadway; just paying my bills.
It’s definitely a grind. I get pretty wiped out after five days, but ideally, I would be doing more touring at this point. But the pandemic threw a wrench in everything, as far as that goes.
TL: That’s absolutely true for everyone. The fact that you’re in a place like Nashville, where you can play live is a good thing, right now.
EO: I know. It takes a lot to get the wheels of the van up and running, as far as a touring machine goes. But I feel like I’m starting to turn those again. I’ve been reaching out to some people and booking some more stuff. It’s different, because I was out in California for about six years. I was steadily doing runs on the west coast and we would do like a cross country run every summer.
It’s tough being in California. It’s really hard to drive these three cities that are really far from each other. Here, closer to the east coast, there’s all these cities that are within a couple hours of each other and you can just go out for a few days and come back to Nashville and go out, hit another region the next week.
TL: So, you’ve played bass for a number of artists. Tell me who you’ve played with and what you’ve learned from that experience.
EO: I used to live in New York and that’s where I started playing bass, at this bar called “Skinny Dennis,” which is like a little honkytonk in Williamsburg.
TL: I think Zephaniah [Ohora] plays there.
EO: He books over there, actually. He’s a big part of that. That’s where I met him. I also met Michaela Anne in New York at that time. When I first moved to California, she called me up and she was coming out there to do a west coast run and asked me if I wanted to do bass for her west coast run, which I did. That was awesome. I toured with her a bunch, over the years.
A couple of years ago, I did the same thing with Zephaniah. We did a bunch of touring. I think it was 2019, I want to say.
TL: It sounds like you have quite a network of up and coming country musicians all across the country, probably the world.
EO: There’s so many. I’ve been doing this for a while and you meet new people all the time.
TL: As far as touring goes, are there any plans—I guess you’re starting to think about it, but do you have any places that you want to play, when things get back to normal, if they ever do? (laugh)
EO: I’d love to be playing more in Texas. I haven’t taken my band to Texas very much. Basically, we’ve done mostly Austin and Houston and Fort Worth. I look at my demographics on Spotify and where people are that are streaming my music. The first three cities are Texas cities, for me. I need to be getting in the van with the band and going there. I would love to get back out west. I love going up to the Pacific Northwest and the east coast. I love this whole country. I love playing everywhere.
TL: You mentioned you’re anxious to do a new album. Do you have any plans or is it just in the beginning stages, right now?
EO: I have a new group of songs that I’ve written and recorded demos for. I’ve narrowed it down to about a dozen of those, right now. I’ve been talking to a close friend of mine here in Nashville—actually Michaela Anne’s husband, Aaron. He is a drummer and he’s also from Maine. He just built a new studio.
We got together the other day after one of my shows, because he would play drums for me and talked about it a little bit. We may be starting to record it next month, actually. I think he and I are going to try to do most of the instruments ourselves, because he’s an amazing drummer. His studio is set up to engineer and play at the same time, with remote controls. I’m going to play the bass and a lot of the guitars. He’s going to play drums and probably keys and stuff.
It’s going to be a little bit of a different vibe on this record. It’s going to be some world music influences, I think.
TL: That’s good. Who wants to make the same record over and over again?
EO: I don’t think that’s my style. There are guys that can do that, but I think my favorite artists evolve. It’s going to be country music 100 percent, but we’re going to borrow some rhythms from other places.
EO: I think Born Blue, my intention was to make almost like the most straight up album I could make.
TL: You’ve done it already, so why do it again?
EO: I’m going to get a little weirder. Aaron, the drummer, has played in Afro Cuban bands and he’s studied percussion in New York City. We’re going to borrow some Cajun rhythms and some Caribbean stuff, here and there. It’s going to be a little beachy.
TL: Sounds exciting. I’m looking forward to it.
How can people get a hold of your stuff and find out what you’re up to?
EO: I’ve got a website, elijahocean.com. Basically, the best place to buy the music is on my Bandcamp page, elijahocean.bandcamp.com. There’s vinyl records and other merch—CDs and stuff available there. The new record is coming out on vinyl. Born Blue was delayed. There’s a preorder available for the vinyl, if they’re interested in that.
TL: Is it on blue vinyl, by any chance?
EO: I didn’t spring for that, yet.
That would be cool, though. Yeah, maybe the deluxe edition will be blue. Yeah, all my older albums are available there. I’m on Instagram and Facebook and twitter and all that stuff, too.
TL: Well, Elijah, I want to thank you for taking time out to talk to Twangri-La.
EO: Yeah, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.