Welcome to #TBT Mixtape, Billboard’s new series that showcases chart-topping artists compile their very own throwback themed playlist exclusive to Billboard’s Spotify account. The curated set features the artists’ favorite tracks from their youth and childhood that inspired them to be a musician. The only rule? Make it as creative and unique to them as possible.
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros‘ frontman Alex Ebert has been on hiatus from the folk pop group that first propelled him to stardom since the release of the band’s fourth studio album in April 2016, and the international tour that followed, which included sets at Coachella and Newport Folk Festival.
On his own, Ebert has established himself as a shape-shifting folk-pop enigma (and occasional rapper) via his early hip-hop tinged project Ima Robot, mainstream breakthrough Edward Sharpe, and his more experimental solo efforts. He has even delved into film scoring: He won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score to J.C. Chandor’s film All Is Lost starring Robert Redford, and scored Chandor’s next film A Most Violent Year as well as the Oscar winning Disney animated short Feast.
Currently residing in New Orleans, the artist — who dropped his first solo album Alexander in 2011 — has spent time away from the spotlight focused on his new solo material, which rather than a traditional album rollout, will be released in a slow-and-steady unveiling of singles, beginning with the experimental, electronic folk-pop cut “Broken Record,” which premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show last month.
“Once in awhile enough heartache piles up and you get that tender electric,” Ebert says of the track’s somber inspiration. “That wide open space is that terribly alive shit. That’s the ocean I love best. That’s that void-blown, step-blind trust. I’m leaning out. I can’t speak for other people right now. Just myself.”
Today, for Billboard’s inaugural #TBT Mixtape, Ebert went deep to craft a playlist of his youthful musicial inspiration, based on his affinity for early ’90s rap, dubbed “’91-’94 – Otherness: A Hip-Hop Renaissance.” Give it a spin below.
To celebrate the mixtape, Billboard spoke with Ebert about his new music, improbable rapping skills, and went through his childhood photo albums for some throwback snaps prime for the occasion.
How is this new solo music different from your first record Alexander?
On the Alexander album, I was for the most part still very under the influence of Paul Simon, that sort of ’70s-era singer-songwriter, and just sort of exploring the more personal stuff I had to say, and in that sense it’s the same, that’s the through line. When I’m not in a band, I don’t feel compelled to write in such a way that the whole band can feel like they’re expressing themselves as well. I give myself permission to go ahead and just write from a more self-centered point of view, that’s pejorative, but in the positive, more personal.
Writing for the band, was the character a way to avoid getting personal?
With Edward Sharpe, all that longing for and reaching for the heavens so to speak, the universal ideas are very personal to me too. I feel very exposed when I express them. I think in the last two years really I’ve gone through so much personally it just would be bullshit not to go ahead and write about it. On a certain level you feel like personal shit is just like pop bullshit, but when you’re going through it personally and you think about maybe suppressing it artistically, you start to ask yourself why wouldn’t you talk about these personal things if they’re what you’re going through? That’s where I ended up landing, talking about things like relationships, which I usually tried to stay away from, but this round I just couldn’t help it.
I know your recent break-up inspired “Broken Record,” and you described the ensuing heartache as “the ocean you love best.” Did the sadness inspire the bulk of the new songs?
Not all of the new songs, but I think so. That’s not to say there’s not a silver lining on some of it, you know when you’re in enough pain you just start laughing? There is some levity, but I think generally it’s where I was at. It’s kind of a fun, tender place to be at artistically. I feel like I’ve endured a lot of self-criticism and criticism for skipping from Ima Robot to Edward Sharpe to now, premiering too many mutations of myself to be trusted as an artist. Yet what I’ve realized after some soul searching is that well yeah, it’s because that’s who the f–k I am! That’s one of my super powers is to feel different ways and be able to express them, and be able to play with different modes of music, or compose a score or whatever. And suddenly I just came to this place where I was just like f–k it I don’t care what anyone is gonna say anymore.
How did that mentality lead to your desire to delve into hip-hop?
The new thing for me was suddenly saying OK I’m not under the influence of any particular music right now but I’m writing music, and suddenly I started to remember that Ima Robot started off as a hip-hop band. We didn’t have a drummer, it was all beats based, and I found myself going back to hip-hop. it occurred to me at some point, “well you thought they were gonna get upset with you then, just wait…” I said f–k it and I just started rapping. “Broken Record” doesn’t have any rap on it, but at some point some of that stuff may come out. I don’t feel lke I’m under the influence of anything for the first time. The last Edward Sharpe album I felt under the influence of Nina Simone and right now it’s just a really fun place to be at.
You called the forthcoming project an adventure, not an album. How do you explain the distinction there?
Albums have this sort of trapping of being homogenous, where each song has to have an affinity for the one before and after it, and that’s cool, but one thing for me who just wants to do whatever comes naturally in the moment, they don’t always make for a homogenous album. And the fact that albums are being replaced by the playlist, even if you put one out, people parse them out, and turn them into different albums. My note to any young artist out there is once you put an album out, it’s done. You put a lot of effort into the album and promoting it and getting people to listen to it, but you have your little three-month window and then it’s over. If you just put out singles and keep putting them out, it’s an on-going experiment.
I particularly love the saxophone in the track. Were you always a fan of the sax?
The [early ’90s] playlist that I put together for you guys, those were the days that a sax lick might be used. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” has a really great sax lick to lead the whole song. Like a lot of things I do, it occurred to me one thing that as an artist you should look for things that have fallen completely out of fashion. Those areas seem to be ripe for exploration. Soprano sax, of all the instruments in the world ever probably, has fallen more out of fashion than even the alto sax. Saxophones in general.
You live in New Orleans and purchased a studio, Piety St. Recording Studios, in the Bywater section of the city back in 2014, which saved it from being foreclosed. What inspired you to make that move?
If [Piety St.] did turn into a restaurant or some kind of American Apparel type thing… I’ve realized that superficiality is the language of the profound, and I realized that by living on Frenchman Street here in New Orleans. Frenchman is where you get the real music and it’s just amazing. You’ve got The Spotted Cat [Music Club] and all these venues that are just completely acoustic and legit and over night Frenchman became Bourbon Street. And it really was “you will build it, they will come,” but what I realized is it’s superficial. They change the façade, they change the name, and suddenly the whole vibe is different. That corner in the Bywater, to me it’s about protecting neighborhoods. It’s like those neighborhoods that Brooklyn has where the artists come in and they’re mixing with the local culture, and right around some point it reaches this equilibrium where it’s just f–king electric, but then everything goes south because it just leans too far. For me, my big passion besides music is trying to protect at risk neighborhoods from becoming overly hip. That was my personal contribution to buy the studio and keep it a studio, and keep the graffiti up. Just trying to allow the streets to have a say.
Your #TBT Mixtape is centered around early ’90s hip-hop. What about that time period stands out to you?
I was between the age of 11 and 14 and to me that era was magical and really really special. What I love so much about it was there was this sense of creativity in the music, which I think you see some rappers coming back to now, but then it didn’t hinge entirely on ‘bitches’ and ‘money’ and gang shit. It was all completely wrapped up in storytelling and lyrical skills, exploring different ways to rap and creating a whole vibe that wasn’t all about repping your crew. I really felt like that was a return to art, and that’s why I used the term renaissance, but it just felt artful, even back then, and it’s just a mix of the fact that they were still sampling, and usually really out there shit, pushing the limits of that, and still really jazz based.
I know you’re getting more into rapping yourself – what about that medium opens you up? How is the songwriting process different?
I think the reason I hadn’t rapped in awhile was I was just trying to sing, but when you rap, it can be shit upwards of 15 words in 8 bars, you better have some shit to say, and I think that’s why a lot of rap ends up becoming lyrically redundant and repetitive, and nonsensical, because at a certain point, how much else can you say? There’s just so many words you have to fit in. You have one song where you tell a great story, and there’s certain albums that are just amazing and precious because somehow on every track the artist had something to say, but I think that’s the difficult thing you can’t really lean on a melody, you can’t just emote a single word and have it be a thousand pictures but in reverse. You really have to have a lot to say, and I guess I do right now. Things I can say better rapping than I could singing actually.
Do you think Edward Sharpe fans will welcome a transition to hip-hip?
For all I know [they] could be like ‘f–k this dude,’ but I think at this point you just have to embrace the whole ‘follow your bliss’ shit. But that playlist, some of those things are just really basic, standards at this point, but then there’s some like The Nonce, and “Van Full of Pakistans” by Yall So Stupid, and these little blips that would happen between 1992 and 1993. You had so much f–king incredible shit coming out, it was so creative and pushed through a line of not just talking shit, but exploring ways of rapping. That whole The Pharcyde album [“Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde”] is an outright masterpiece, up there with Rubber Soul and everything, it’s one of the greats.