IN THE SADDLE: Alex Ebert sings and plays guitar, keyboards, clarinet,… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
On a steamy afternoon last August in Chicago's Lincoln Park, Alex Ebert led his folk-rock band Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros through one of the charged, evangelistic sets that put them on the national landscape. Fans had climbed trees in the forested alcove at Lollapalooza to see them, and after an hour they roared for an encore.
Backstage, Ebert looked spent, hollow-eyed. He'd given all, as he had for almost two years of steady touring. Yet he breathed deeply, traipsed back onstage and, in a moment that has to go down somewhere in festival history, bade the entire crowd to sit down. Then, seated themselves, the Magnetic Zeros played an acoustic song as something of a benediction.
That dogged spirit forms the underpinning of "Alexander," the improbable solo debut from the 32-year-old singer-songwriter who, rather than vacation or party during breaks in the Magnetic Zeros' rigorous schedule, sequestered himself in his Echo Park apartment and made an album in true DIY fashion.
"Yes, I'd been driving myself a little hard and maybe pushing myself unhealthily," says Ebert, who also spent part of last year promoting the release of a new album from his previous band, electro-rockers Ima Robot. "But beneath that was a drive to learn and grow. Sometimes the best nourishment is just to pay attention to yourself."
So apart from his 10-person ensemble, Ebert did just that, playing and recording everything on the album — guitar, vocals, keyboards, clarinet, violin, drums, kazoo and percussion — and teaching himself the instruments he didn't already know. The whistling, knee slaps and handclaps are his too.
"He's so connected to life, it's always fun to see what Alex comes up with," says Christian Letts, Ebert's friend since boyhood and a band mate in the Magnetic Zeros. "He played everything; it's just amazing how he continues to challenge himself."
"Alexander" (which came out Tuesday via Community Music/Vagrant) is at turns whimsical, somber and poignant — Bob Dylan meets Roy Orbison meets Mungo Jerry, if you will. Rooted in the '60s folk tradition, Ebert's messages of love and self-reliance don't approach the Brobdingnagian entreaties of the Magnetic Zeros' messianic neo-psychedelia, but they reflect the same earnestness.
"I think overall it's a bit less broad, more personal in a goofy way, and while it may or may not be timeless it is nonetheless honest," he says, while dismissing the notion his solo work is a retreat from the Magnetic Zeros' collectivist campaign. "The band and my experiences in the band are present in the fabric of the album, but it's not exactly a response to the pressures of the band."
Indeed, Ebert sounds ever committed on the shuffling "Awake My Body," tel-
ling himself, "Don't hide my eyes/ I want
to see/ Don't hide my ears/ I want to
hear/ Don't hide my tongue/ from anyone."
In "Truth" — a song he calls "a holler in the distance at my hip-hop days" — Ebert nods to a past troubled by drug addiction and sundry narcissism ("I never shook my shadow") and self-prescribes "have faith in myself … Truth."
Such messages may seem like inspirational Post-it notes, but Ebert is preaching vigilance and perseverance in a world on overdrive.
"It's an interesting time," he says. "You start a run and you realize that 20 minutes into it, it's getting hard. At the same time you're going forward, there's this stiff wind pushing back. That's the test."
He could be talking about the Magnetic Zeros, whom Ebert birthed in 2008 after Ima Robot dissolved in personal demons and record-label woes. Or he could be talking about the national political climate — the same wave of hippie-fied euphoria the Magnetic Zeros rode to prominence was reflected in the "HOPE" slogans of Barack Obama's campaign, and Ebert submits that America was only starting its run.
"When Obama got elected, I could hear kids shouting from my balcony in Echo Park. 'We live in the coolest country on the planet!' And then some bro would shout back, 'Shut the … up!' Everything was heightened," Ebert says. "Now a couple years have passed and things have calmed down in a way that's left me hanging. It's as if we were pushing toward something and have gotten stuck again.
"And everything's moving so fast, there doesn't seem to be any time to wallow in any feelings."
In that way, "Alexander" offered him a chance to take a timeout, to take stock.
"I guess I'm trying to keep things a little present," says Ebert, who will tour behind the solo album with a small ensemble
he's calling "Alexander & Friends." "My depth of field is intentionally a little bit blurry.
"Anything could happen — the world could blow up tomorrow, or everything could be golden. I'm not sure the whole game is supposed to be played right now. I would like to think we could all hold hands and get this done, but maybe it's not like that. Maybe right now it's just about growing as an individual."