Heard It: MusicTalks with RH Drexel

Recently, at “Live in the Vineyard," a music, wine and food festival held annually in the Napa Valley, I sat down with a handful of some of my favorite artists to get the lowdown on their newest creative efforts, and then some.

Ocean Park Standoff: It’s Somewhere Out There

Let’s take the night off from caring ‘bout tomorrow.

Let’s take our minds off the things we can’t control.

Let’s take our clothes off and jump into the ocean.

Don’t know where we’re goin’ but it’s somewhere out there.
From “Lost Boys” — Ocean Park Standoff

From left: Samantha Ronson, Ethan Thompson and Pete Nappi of Ocean Park Standoff.

The first time I heard Ocean Park Standoff, I was driving through the small coastal California town of Jenner. Their song “Lost Boys” became the soundtrack for my drive along a particularly circuitous stretch of highway that hugs the rugged Pacific shoreline. With the smell of ocean brine coming through the window, “Lost Boys” reminded me of “Good Vibrations," off of Pet Sounds—exuberant, nuanced, distantly tinged with minor-key melancholy before a chorus that comes in to save the day. Like The Beach Boys, Ocean Park Standoff’s strength lies in the psychologically valid production of their deceptively escapist, oftentimes plainspoken lyrics and addictive melodies. Band members Ethan Thompson (lead vocals, guitar), Pete Nappi (production, drums, guitar) and Samantha Ronson (keys, guitar, backing vocals) released their eponymously-titled EP earlier this year, and in this too-brief five-song introduction, they have created an holistic overview of what’s to be expected from these three talented musicians. Nappi, who began working on recording and song production at the age of 14, lends a nearly three-dimensional shape to the OPS sound through his deft hand at production. Jangly, bright guitar riffs and seamless harmonies are often tucked into a saturated, atmospheric texture of rounded sound—at times dark, at times mellow. The result is a breadth of songs that leave one feeling uplifted and ruminative in equal measure. Recently, I sat down to chat with the inquisitive, thoughtful trio:

RH Drexel: For me, there’s this wonderful irony in “Lost Boys.” As a Buddhist, I appreciate the chorus, which seems to be a call-to-action to “be present”. On the rare occasions that I am able to be present for a longer stretch of time, I feel “found,” if you will. Not lost.

Samantha Ronson
: That’s actually the first song we wrote. We were going back and forth with lyrics. And “Lost Boys” was inspired by Peter Pan...you know, we’re just not going to grow up. I just liked the title of that song.

Ethan Thompson:
And we wrote that song at the same time that we were writing “Good News,” as well. They are kind of the yin and yang of each other. “Lost Boys” is about forgetting about what’s going on that’s stressful. 

But that is kind of what “Lost Boys” is all about—instead of spending so much time focusing on the things we have absolutely no control over, why not just focus on being in the moment and having a good time. 

It’s funny because “Good News” [the band’s biggest hit to date], seemed to hit the airwaves when there was just a lot of bad news happening in the world. Was that coincidental, synchronistic… intentional? 

Well, we wrote that song a couple of years previous to its release. And we wrote it about things we were each going through, and also what was going on in the world. By the time it came out, we were still feeling the same way. I think it’s something we’re always feeling; if we’re going through a hard time, we’re always wondering, when is the good news coming? 

The song off your EP that resonates the most with me is “Photos and Liquor.” The production on that song is so powerful. For me, it perfectly mirrors the narrative of the lyrics. It makes my head feel confused, foggy, and regretful, but in a way I’m okay with. It takes me to a pretty emotional place. Was creating that song a collaboration between the three of you?

Pete Nappi:
Well, Samantha always says it the best. What did you say before we sat down to do that one?

I had been DJ’ing the night before, and I said, ‘Let’s make something that sounds like an old Biggie record.’ The idea of having the bass be dirty, soulful, warm. 

The first lyrics were completely different.

Yes, all the melodies were there, except the bridge. Then that pulsing sound Pete created was actually from two piano chords that Samantha had been playing, and I just started playing them back and forth, and Pete turned them into this mesmerizing, pulsing backdrop. We kept going back and forth on what the verse melody should be. We wrote the chorus and then the bridge, and then Pete had made this string section while we were in the other room going back and forth on these bridge lyrics. When we came in, we just heard this beautiful section Pete made, so we took that and our bridge lyrics, and it became just this beautiful scene. It was such a moment.

The bridge vocal you hear on the EP was the first take. 

That was such a great little moment. It was like “something just happened.” It was nice. 

You three strike me as being intentional and purposeful, but also, when you’re performing, you come across as just three friends jamming. Are you thinking about where your careers together are headed? Are you watching the journey or just along for the ride?

We are just trying to enjoy ourselves. We were all going through different musical journeys at the time that we got together, and we really just bonded. We want to invite people into a world where they can escape what they are doing and do it with us, and be part of our family. And also, we want to remain a family and keep writing music that inspires each of us. Wherever that takes us, we’re happy to go along that journey. 

Obviously, thankfully, our label and management have an idea of where to guide us. On the creative level, they leave us to ourselves, and then, once we have a somewhat almost-finished product, they then help us to figure out where to go from there. There are no accidents when it comes to the business side of things. There are a lot of amazing people working together—at Hollywood Records, on the radio—that make it even possible for anyone to hear our music. 

Do you have rituals you go through to stay grounded on the road as you’re all traveling? 

Well, we take our dogs on the road with us when we tour. 

It’s pretty easy, because we get to be with each other. When we’re on a tour bus, it’s not that different from being at Samantha’s house, just working and hanging out together. 


Julia Michaels and Her Brilliant Paradox of Delicate Strength

You do shit on purpose

You get mad and you break things

Feel bad, try to fix things

But you're perfect

Poorly wired circuit

And got hands like an ocean

Push you out, pull you back in.
From “Issues” — Julia Michaels

When I was in the 7th grade, I couldn’t wait to get home from school each day so that I could close myself up in my room and listen to music. Music was for me then—as it is now—the greatest of balms against the harsh edges of this world. It was my safe zone, one of the few places I felt understood. While classmates were deep into the Bee Gees and the soundtrack of Grease at that time, I was reveling in my own small, private world to which the music of Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Jennifer Warnes, Carly Simon and Bernadette Peters provided the soundtrack. I recall the first time I saw Bernadette Peters perform on the Carol Burnett Show. Up until that time, I had never seen an entertainer appear so delicate and ethereal while performing, still communicating all the while a strong, centered, sense of self. My memories from that time are somewhat sparse, but I can recall very clearly being in awe of Peters. She was comfortable in her delicate nature, in her porcelain-like aura, because she knew who she was. She was unapologetic in her vulnerability. Observing her, and other performers like her, made me feel less alone. If they were comfortable showing others the most exposed aspects of themselves, then maybe it was okay for me to be tender, too. Maybe I could be the same way around people the way I was around animals: Unguarded. Hopeful. Open.

The 24-year-old gifted songwriter-turned-singer/songwriter Julia Michaels makes me feel very much the same way I did when I was 12 years old. The first time I heard her current hit, “Issues,” off of her superlative EP Nervous System, I cried alone in my car. It’s not a sad song—the unexpected tears came from an overwhelming sense of relief. Like Peters, Michaels owns her vulnerability like a badge of honor. She has a strong presence on stage, and is no wilting flower, but every note, every inflection, is softened by a quiet empathy and nakedness that comes through in her voice and her brilliant lyrics, many of which she pens herself or with frequent writing collaborator Justin Tranter. Some of the songs Michaels has written include: Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar,” Linkin Park’s “Heavy,” Kelly Clarkson’s “War Paint,” and Ed Sheeran’s “Dive,” among many others. Her presence and her music are reminders that to be strong does not mean one cannot also be delicate with oneself and with others. Recently, I got to catch up with Michaels between shows. 

RHD: How do you protect your interior life as a songwriter now that you’ve transitioned into becoming a fairly well-known singer? How do you carve out time to still write? 

Julia Michaels: I don’t have a lot of time to write when I’m on tour. Being on tour is very task-oriented. Going from being on tour to being creative is so hard to do. But, every time I come home, I try to make it a point to write, because it’s the place I feel most free, and where I feel like I can be myself the most. I try to write as much as possible when I’m home. 

RHD: You’ve collaborated a lot with other songwriters. What is it you like about the act of collaboration?

I love the combining of minds. Sometimes there’s a lyric, melody or production element you just wouldn’t think of. I love a different perspective…the feedback. When someone says, “Let’s take this out and put this in.” Or, “Let’s make the chorus bigger or bring it down.” I just love the joy of it. It’s so exciting! When you feel like together you’ve done something great and you can just feel it in your body. It’s like fireworks. It’s like flying.

RHD: Do you have rituals that you perform at home to get you in the mood to write?

JM: No. When I write, especially if I’m in a very emotional state, a lot of times I’ll just have someone play chords. I will go in the booth and sing on the mike just everything I’m feeling. Kind of verbal vomit. Then I’ll come out and tweak everything from there.

RHD: So, kind of a stream-of-consciousness exercise.

JM: Yes. It’s like walking in to the booth with an inhale and walking out with an exhale. 

RHD: You have such a facility with language. I just dig your rhymes. Do you collect words?

JM: No, but I do have favorite words that I love, which is funny because a lot of the words I love are used to describe horrible things. Like I love the word “ostentatious.” Or “egregious.” Words that describe awful things, but I love how they sound. Another one I love is “tempestuous.” Such a great word.

RHD: Are you waiting for your career to unfold, or are you planning ahead?

JM: Next year I will be touring all year. I go on tour with Niall Horan next spring, and then I tour with Maroon 5 all through summer and fall, so January and February will be months where I’m just going to hunker down and write, solely for my next mini-album or whatever body of work I decide to put out next. I try not to think about all of that too much because I can get overwhelmed easily, so I try and take life one day at a time. 

RHD: Well, you’re very wise for your age. You know, a lot of the music you’ve written for other singers, or that you wrote for your new EP, Nervous System, have provided me with some healing. Do you find healing through music in your own life? 

JM: It’s always been the kind of thing that has healed me, and that I’ve seen heal others. Music is so powerful. It has the ability to change somebody’s mood. It can make someone who is going through heartbreak laugh, and want to drink, dance and have the best time of their lives. It can change everything for people’s minds at times. Music is a major source of healing in my life. 


ZZ Ward’s Old Soul Permeates the Modern Music Landscape

Hear the rain on the rooftop

Crown and Coke on a table by my bed

I'm laying here like it's my grave

A bag of bones with a fire in my head

Oh, yes, I am

I tell you, "No," then I start to give in

You tear me down, then we do it all over again

And again
From Cannonball by ZZ Ward, featuring Fantastic Negrito

You know how sometimes somebody will ask you, “If you could host a dinner party for anyone, who would it be?” Frequent answers I hear from others range from Jesus to Winston Churchill. My list? Well, out of the 12 or so guests I’d invite, probably all of them would be known for making musical or poetic/literary history. Certainly I’d invite Amy Winehouse to sit at one head of the table. Janis Joplin would sit at the other head. At 31, ZZ Ward might be one of the only living musicians/singers/songwriters invited to my fictional shindig. Why? Because she’s cut from the same cloth as those other inimitable artists; she is hard to categorize. She refuses to get out of her lane and into something more “sellable” or “trendy.” She’s a raw nerve of a performer, incapable of being comfortable with too much attention, yet compelling herself to create, time and again, simply because, like any true artist, she has no other choice. When one hears Ward perform, there’s no denying that she has found her life’s purpose. 

ZZ Ward’s sound is an amalgam of the blues, hip hop and country—an amalgam that at once feels completely unpredictable, yet comfortably familiar. Having previously collaborated with Kendrick Lamar and Ali Shaheed Muhammed on her debut album The Casket Drops, Ward’s latest album, the striking, deeply evocative The Storm finds her paring down to soulful, bluesy essentials. So unsparing is the starkness of her honesty that I felt as though I might be imposing on Ward when we met to chat before a recent performance. Seemingly an empath, Ward immediately tried to put me at ease, reclining her slim contour onto a plain, white sofa as our interview began. Though due on stage about a couple of after  before we sat down, she was relaxed, focused and present. 

RHD: I first heard your music on the FX show Justified. Your song “Charlie Ain’t Home” just seemed to blend in with that show’s fifth season. What’s it like to see a song of yours inserted into some other writer’s narrative? 

ZZ Ward: It was such a cool experience to have someone else interpret my song, to experience how they see it visually. I wrote that song about things that I was going through and that I was feeling, so to see how it effects someone else is really a cool thing.

RHD: So, I’m about 22 years older than you are, and I’m somewhat taken aback by your maturity. I think I’d even describe it as earned swagger. But there’s also this very pronounced rawness when you perform. That’s an unusual combination when it’s real. Of course, Winehouse and Joplin come to mind, but there are so many other performers whose reactions seem almost manufactured on stage. How do you maintain that balance on stage, sharing so much deep emotion but still being capable of finishing a great set?

ZZW: I feel more comfortable having that swagger on stage. I usually like to be vulnerable. Writing songs has really helped me to get through some very difficult situations in my life. Sometimes all of those emotions I’ve been bottling up will result in a song, so that when it finally comes out, I feel a release. I feel empowered. That kind of empowerment I feel on stage is the result of a lot of hurt earlier on. 

RHD: You’re not an aggressive self-promoter like a lot of singers your age. Would you describe yourself as shy?

ZZW: I think I am somewhat shy. Different artists feel different ways. I am comfortable being on stage, but most of my life, I have had to push myself to be comfortable in those situations. I push myself to do things out of my comfort zone. I like overcoming challenges. There are also parts of my life that I really like to keep private. It’s a fine line I’m always walking. 

RHD: On your song, “Lil’ Darlin’,” you marry hip hop and blues. Why do you think you like to marry those two musical genres in particular? 

ZZW: I grew up listening to a lot of blues and also, loving hip hop. At one point in my life I was doing those two things separately. I was driving up to Eugene, Oregon in my 1990 Dodge Ram to perform at hip hop shows, opening for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and working with a lot of local rap artists. At the same time, I was playing music in my father’s blues band. These were two things that I really, really loved and it took a while for me to figure out how to put them together. I think it’s when I collaborated with Blended Babies on “Lil’ Darlin’” that I was able to bring the two together. 

RHD: On “Last Love Song” you sound really exposed and raw. How are you able to recreate those very intense emotions when you perform that song live. Do you emotionally go back to the place of the original pain that must have inspired that song?

ZZW: I don’t think you can ever go back to that same place. When I wrote that song, I was living in that place. That song came to me very quickly…like a breath…like crying. It poured out of me. I think it’s really important to be sincere and tell a story when you’re on stage performing a song. Every day I find emotions of sadness, or helplessness, emotions that I can draw from to convey real emotion when I perform. You get inspiration every day from different emotions, but I can never go back to the exact place I was when I wrote that song while I’m on stage. 

RHD: On the song “The Storm,” there are inflections in your voice that recall a young Loretta Lynn. Can you name some of your inspirations? 

ZZW: A lot of Howlin’ Wolf. Big Mama Thorton. I do like old country. I recently performed “The Home You’re Tearing Down” by Loretta Lynn at a tribute show for her at the Troubador.

RHD: Damn! How did I miss that?

ZZW: Yeah, it was really cool to dive into a bunch of her songs. What an incredible artist. The things she was writing about were things that were happening to her in her life. I’m also really inspired by Vera Ward Hall. She had a very haunting voice. Growing up, I felt like I had a kind of different voice and Vera Ward Hall also had a very unique voice, so I was very drawn to her growing up. 

From left: Zambricki Li, Austin Bisnow and Zang of Magic Giant.

Magic Giant: Reviving the Traveling Music Show for a Gypsy-like Fan Base

If time travel existed, my first stop would be March 3rd, 1968, when the Grateful Dead put on a free concert at the corner of San Francisco’s counter-culture mecca, Haight Ashbury. It was a performance that shattered the existing paradigm of “the concert.” The band didn’t plan in advance how the afternoon’s performance might go. From song list to the number of attendees, the entire concert experience—for the band and the audience—was unfettered by logistics. Concert-goers lined the streets, sidewalks and tops of buildings, and even poured into adjacent neighborhoods, all responding to a seemingly mutually-agreed-upon act of deep communion. Untouched by commodification, this brazen act of generosity and rebellion forever inducted The Grateful Dead into the Collective Unconscious Hall of Fame. They cemented the launch of The Grateful Dead culture—a culture as vital as the music itself. A culture that embodied the spirit of improvisational creative expression, the unrepentant pursuit of fun and an abiding resistance against the cult of fame and the formulaic pursuit of wealth.

Heavily influenced by The Grateful Dead, Magic Giant is slowly and organically appealing to a broad base of gypsy-like fans who follow the unpretentious, gifted trio around the country, spurred on by an almost feverish optimism. The first time I saw Magic Giant perform, I was seated next to a couple of their devoted fans. They had lyrics from the bands popular song “Jade” tattooed across their forearms. They knew every single lyric. They were hard to categorize; they looked like normal folks…people you might otherwise see at the local movie theater on a Friday night. While I filmed the band on my phone, I noticed that none of their fans around me are viewing the concert through the screen of a smart phone. And there was plenty to film; the band danced and played multiple instruments with unbounded amounts of joy and energy. Their interaction with the audience was spontaneous and natural; they disappeared into their songs as deeply as the audience. Curious, I asked the young woman beside me why she isn’t filming the band. “I just want to get lost in the music. I don’t like anything to interfere with that.” She may have also been talking about me, so I took her lead and allowed the music to carry me away.

Before a recent performance, I was able to join the band for a little chat. Band members Austin Bisnow, Zambricki Li and Zang surprised me a little by greeting me with genuine embraces, even though I’d never met them. Uniquely attired in a style that might be best described as traveling-minstrel-meets-woodland-forest-sprite, they lounged comfortably while we spoke:

RHD: Your debut album is titled In the Wind. Tell me about that title choice.

Austin Bisnow: We had a full summer festival booked. We were looking at this grand map of the United States and Canada, and we were playing these beautiful, amazing places. So, we thought, during this festival run, let’s book recording sessions in nature. We plotted out places in-between festivals where we’d record. For example, we played the Wanderlust Festival in Tahoe, so in-between travel there we went to the Redwoods, and recorded inside a hollowed-out redwood tree. It sounded amazing in there.

RHD: That must have been like recording inside a womb!

Zambricki Li: Yes! And we recorded inside a tunnel in the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington.

[In the Wind also features songs recorded on a daisy field near Crested Butte, and an airstrip in Marble, both in Colorado.]

This represented us just giving ourselves over to the road and to nature. Instead of just playing shows, we wrote, created and made this album while out on the road, as part of the journey.

RHD: You make seriously good music without taking yourselves too seriously. Your song “Window” has an almost childlike sense of wonder. It’s kind of a like a fairy tale set to music. Does that song in particular reflect the Magic Giant culture, if you will?

Zang: From the very beginning, we’ve said that you don’t have to be big to be a giant. You don’t have to have an empire. From very early on in the shows, we noticed people leaving with huge smiles on their face. There was also this sense of community among the fans. We’ve been vibing off that. We try to be intentional in what we do. We do things that are importance to us, and other people have kind of just gravitated towards us, so we have a really strong community that comes along with us on the road.

AB: I saw a couple of our fans out in front of the theatre when we got here. They’ve probably been to about 30 of our shows so far. We have ambitions of having a traveling circus of like-minded people.

RHD: That’s interesting that you use that word “ambitions” because in many ways, you also strike me as quite unambitious, when compared to so many other contemporary artists. I don’t see you and think, ‘those guys are obsessing about winning a Grammy.’ You kind of present like that doesn’t even really matter to you because there’s nothing formulaic about you guys. Like your song “Jade.” Let’s talk about that.

Z: That was one of the songs that got the most attention when we were on the road. It’s very intertwined with our community in that we played it untitled and unfinished at a few shows just to see how it would go. It was only half-written. The lyrics weren’t even finished. We played it on this mountain top in Tahoe; it was kind of a small crowd. And this girl comes up to us after the show in tears about that song. She told us she’d lost her best friend at the age of 16, and she felt her presence throughout that entire song. And her name was Jade. So we then shaped the song around her story and this person Jade we had never met but felt so connected to, and ultimately named it after her.

RHD: “Jade” feels almost tribal to me, in that it’s trance-inducing, or nearly trance-inducing. From a production level, it’s unpredictable. Another tune I connect with a lot personally is “Nothing Left.” It’s got this pretty depressing title but it’s very redemptive. I find there’s quite a bit of tension in that song. Are you able to recreate that tension when you perform it live?

Z: The main emotion in that song is very recurrent. It’s basically about the triumph of the human spirit, the human soul. Life isn’t always easy, but one thing to look forward to is just the ability to get through these difficult moments. We’ve all experienced that so we can recreate those emotions when we perform that song.

ZL: And there’s is a seed of hope there. That’s something we really try to focus on. Just connecting with people through our music. Spreading love.

All photos by RH Drexel.  

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