The singer for Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros gave us the first taste of a hip-hop-flavored solo album still in process.
[Updated] “Joy is My Armor” by Alex Ebert is no “Home,” and he’s fine with that. The song moves to a bass line that employs dub reggae’s offbeat motor, and Ebert repeats the title phrase until it takes on a life beyond the lyrics. Joy is a shield; is it also a weapon? And why doesn’t joy seem more joyful? Does the military context take some of the fun out of joy?
At this point, we only have one other track to give “Joy is My Armor” some context. Ebert released “Broken Record” earlier this year, but the two songs are stand-alones and not part of marketing campaign for an eminent release.
“I’ve been working on a hip-hop-ish album, but so far I’ve been reluctant to put out the rap stuff,” Ebert says. “I’ve been putting out the stuff where I’m still singing on it. ‘Joy is My Armor’ is one one the rare cases where I found something I made years and years ago that I’m still proud of. I thought, ‘Shit, this still works,’ so I added a bridge and put it out.” It is something Ebert worked on in the past but not, as first reported, an old Magnetic Zeros song.
He doesn’t have a timetable for the album, but he does have an aesthetic concept to work with, and he has a hashtag: #otherness. “If you see me put out a song with the hashtag #otherness, that means it’s part of that #otherness album.”
Really, the singer, songwriter and leader of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros hasn’t sounded like a hippie folk band since the band’s 2013 self-titled album, which itself wipes away the homespun, rough-and-tumble sound that characterized 2009’s Up from Below—where we first heard “Home”—and 2012’s Here. The band’s latest album, 2016’s PersonA, traded acoustic guitars for keyboards and combed the songs for folky, anthemic elements, then disposed of them like fleas.
Folk wasn’t the first musical style that Ebert loved, but it was the one that introduced him to the world, so he has had to contend with it since. He felt confined by the association even before The Lumineers made “Ho Hey” a loud, last sing-along for that brief folk revival when the song became omnipresent in 2012. Ad agencies belatedly soundtracked commercials by picking the faux-Appalachian bones and rock 'n' roll thump that caricatured Edward Sharpe and Mumford & Sons, but Ebert had moved on. His solo projects—2011’s Alexander, and All is Lost and A Most Violent Year, the soundtracks he did in 2013 and 2014 respectively—used the common musical tongue rather than fly an acoustic flag, no matter how life-affirming.
Ebert knows that there is still money to make from the Magnetic Zeros’ sound. “The most obvious thing to do would be to write another song, four on the floor, get an acoustic guitar, duet with Jade [Castrinos], and recreate that experience. Capitalize on past successes and refine it,” he says. Eight years into a career though, he wonders why. Why repeat yourself? Why maintain a signature sound? Why release an album and not just tracks? The book of writings by Marx in a stack of books in Ebert’s living room hints at the answer he settled on.
“The basic principle of capitalism—of success—is you repeat your past successes. Oh, they liked this? We’ll give them that but slightly different. I shoot myself in the foot when it comes to that proposition.”
“I’ve never fancied the album as a format for myself,” he continues. “I’ve always loved albums from other people, but making albums has felt like this contrived effort that I never understood. The reason why albums are the way that they were was because of the physical restraints of vinyl, and that spilled over to CDs. It’s the maximum capitalist product that you could spit out. Now that everything’s being particulated after you put out an album and albums are becoming irrelevant because they turn into this weird playlist and people are coming back to singles, I’m really enjoying this song-at-a-time thing.”
Maybe there was a time when Ebert’s primary goal was success, but four band albums and three solo albums into his career, chasing sales and audiences doesn’t pack the same motivational punch. The most exciting part of making music now is the moment of inspiration, so much so that he’s willing to sacrifice sound quality for it. “I get the snare to sound weird because I rushed,” he says. “I didn’t put the mic in the right place because I didn’t have the time. I didn’t use a snare stick because I couldn’t find one and I needed to record right now so I used my hand.”
When those ad hoc choices became a sound other bands actively pursued, Ebert couldn’t take that it seriously. He still loves traditional folk like The Carter Family and thinks about revisiting that, maybe with the band and only two microphones to capture the raw spirit of the performance. “To me, that’s punk rock,” Ebert says.
He values those moments of musical discovery so much that he’s considering swearing off touring. “The real killer to creativity,” he says. “You wrote a bunch of songs, you record them, you mix them, then you have to go tour it for sometimes two and a half years. You never get back into a studio. It was just crushing me. I don’t know if I’ll ever tour again.” He tried carrying a mobile unit on one tour, but he wore himself out trying to work in the early morning hours after shows, wrecking an already dicey sleep schedule.
The Magnetic Zeros are on hiatus while Ebert searches for the sounds, instruments or impulses that lead him to write new music for the band. PersonA was in part the product of his then-newfound fascination with the piano and his affection for Nina Simone. “We explored everything we needed to explore during that time,” Ebert says, and since nothing sparked him to write songs that make sense for the Magnetic Zeros, he has turned his attention to his solo work. He connects sounds with identities, which makes sense for someone whose primary band began with an assumed name and concept. “I have a hard time sticking with any identity for too long because I find it confining,” he says, which might explain in part his fascination with soundtrack music.
“For the first time in music, I didn’t feel compelled to repeat anything.”
Now, as Ebert works on his #otherness project, he is inspired by mixtapes, where the big picture logic is consistent with his own musical restlessness. “In a mixtape you might hear a verse and half a chorus and it slams into another song,” he says. “That’s what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I’ll put out every single song in its entirety, but the album will live as a single piece—hopefully.”
Ebert’s unwillingness to return to “Home” doesn’t mean he has disowned or repudiated the folk music that put his name on the map. The Railroad Revival Tour with Mumford & Sons and Old Crow that ended in New Orleans with a show in Woldenberg Park remains one of the highlights of his life. “If you asked anyone in those three bands what’s the greatest tour experience you ever had, I’d be shocked if any of them didn’t say it was that tour,” he says. It ended in New Orleans, and Ebert remembers walking by the river talking about the experience with a writer from Rolling Stone and crying. He learned later that others on the tour shed similar tears that night.
“It was the dream that I had as a kid about what being a musician could be like in my cartoon fantasy,” he says. “You’re traveling with a bunch of musicians and the music never ends. You’re on a train, you all live together, you all sleep together. It’s not like a bus where there’s not enough room. It’s a giant, beautiful thing with a music room. We became more successful after that, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore.”
Updated August 11, 9:05 a.m.
The "Broken Record" visualizer video has been replaced with the official video for the song.