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From Pittsburgh to Ithaca: Rev Ezra grows roots in the CNY music scene

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Rev Ezra performs at the Downstairs in Ithaca in 2022.

The ever-fertile Ithaca music scene keeps on cultivating new talent – some of it homegrown, and some transplanted from elsewhere.

Rev Ezra falls into the latter category. Originally from Pittsburgh, he moved to Ithaca in 2021 and quickly found a home in the local music community.

In May, Rev Ezra released his debut solo album, “These Days,” which he recorded at Pittsburgh’s Music Garden Studio with producer Caleb Thomas and engineer Al Torrence. The seven-song album combines deeply personal lyrics with a variety of influences – country, folk, pop, and rock – to create a powerful statement that ranks among the best local releases of 2022.

Rev Ezra has two local shows in the coming week: Wednesday, he’ll share a bill with his Pittsburgh-via-Syracuse friend Dr. D at the Downstairs in downtown Ithaca; the cover is $5 for the 8 p.m. show. And Saturday, he’ll join Freight’s JP Payton at Stone Bend Farm in Enfield; there’s no cover charge for the 5-7 p.m. show.

Earlier this fall, Rev Ezra sat down for an interview in which he talked about his musical upbringing, family background, recording his debut album, and much more.

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The cover art for Rev Ezra's debut album, "These Days."

Q: So how and when did you move to Ithaca?

Rev Ezra: I came here in August 2021 because my girlfriend is doing her Ph.D. at Cornell. I had never been here, but I remember when I was looking at colleges when I was in high school, I Googled what the best colleges for musicians are or the best college towns for a musician. I knew I wanted to be in a city. And Ithaca came up, so it was on my radar. But I ended up going to Pitt, which was 20 minutes up the street from my mom's place.

I was nervous about moving here because it's smaller than Pittsburgh, population-wise. I know it had this reputation for its awesome music, but I was still nervous because I'd never lived anywhere else. And it has definitely exceeded expectations. Not only do we get really good acts through here, like Gary Clark Jr., Bela Fleck, and Gregory Alan Isakov, but the local scene is super vibrant and supportive, with lots of wineries, breweries, and clubs that are really great spots to play. So, yeah, it's been a really great move.

Q: Are you from Pittsburgh itself?

RE: I grew up about 15 minutes from the city proper, but I’ve always lived in Allegheny County, which is the county Pittsburgh's in. So it was always like a bus ride away to get to the city proper. I was in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh a lot growing up because my sister swam while she was at Pitt and also in high school.

I had never done a move that was more than a 20-minute drive from the last place I lived at. I graduated college in 2019, but I still lived in Pittsburgh. I couldn't get away, not that it was a bad thing. I love Pittsburgh, and so I lived there until 2021.

Q: What was your musical upbringing like at home?

RE: My mom put me into piano lessons, and I played saxophone through school when I was young, but I didn’t really take to it – I was more into sports, which I did for a long time. But my sister was a great piano player, and I used to sit underneath her piano while she played, and like, just listen to it. And that got me interested. And then in middle school, I started to sing, just to myself; I was in the chorus, but it wasn't cool to be a musician yet in middle school – it was cool to be an athlete, so I was still focused on sports. I played baseball, I swam, I played tennis and I ran track. I was good at swimming, so that was the one that I ended up sticking with, but I loved all of them. But when you get to high school you have to pick what you focus on. So I swam and then just did track on the side.

And then in high school, my friends started a band. They knew that my sister was a singer – she was Miss Three Rivers, and singing was her talent, and she would also sing at local festivals – so they asked me, “Do you sing like your sister?” I said I’m not like her, but I also sing, so they had me join their band, and I’ve never looked back.

Shortly after I joined, our bass player quit, so I picked up the bass and learned to play it. And I really took to it. I loved the groove. I loved playing that while singing and it became my instrument. And, again, I never looked back – bass is still my primary instrument.

Q: What sort of music were you playing with them?

RE: It was mostly covers. I started writing soon after, though, within months. You have to learn covers first to understand how music is. And then once you do that, it's like, “Oh, it's not this mystical, magical thing. It's like chords and riffs.” You learn how to write riffs and chords and basically poetry and it's like, “Oh my god, I get songs!” So it wasn't long after that, that we started playing original music.

We played a variety from rock and roll to folk. You know, we liked the old-school Simon and Garfunkel; we had one guy who was really into that stuff. We had another guy who was really into the alternative rock of the time, like, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Black Keys, and Coldplay. And then I was more into the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and those kinds of bands. It was a mishmash of all that kind of music, so that's what we played.

Q: What happened after that?

RE: I started going to open mics when I was in high school. They would have them at this bar called Hambone’s in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, so that’s where I started playing. And they'd let me hang out and play even though I wasn't 21; I just had to leave at 11 p.m. And it was a lot of fun. That's kind of how I got started, and that's how I met a bunch of people in the scene.

And then the Pittsburgh NPR Music radio station, WYEP, did a thing called the Reimagination Project, where local area high-schoolers could submit original music. And then if they selected you to be on their album, they'd pay for you to have a day in the professional studio to work with a producer who was a local musician. And so we got set up with this guy, Josh Verbanets, who’s in an awesome band called Meaning of Important People. I really liked that guy. He taught me the ropes of the scene, and then we got to record with him. Because of all that, I learned that actually I did like music better than sports and that I didn't have any interest in playing sports in college. I knew it was music for me.

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Rev Ezra performs at Stone Bend Farm in Enfield, N.Y.

Q: Did you record after that?

RE: I did write an album with my college band before I graduated. We played a lot of shows, and I learned a lot about playing in a group and all that stuff. But then after college, I had the opportunity to live out of my truck for a while. I inherited my dad’s old pickup truck when he passed away, and I turned his old truck into a tiny home and traveled the country, and took my last classes online while I did that to finish my degree. And a lot of the songs on the album are about that. I felt this immense sense of freedom while I was on the road. I didn't do it to write an album, I wasn't like, “Oh, I'm gonna write songs while I'm on the road.” I did write while I was on the road, but it wasn't like the point of it. The point was just to enjoy it. But then I had this profound sense of freedom.

And then when I got back, that's what I was writing about. I started working my first full-time job – I had worked throughout college, but not full-time. But now I had this full-time thing that was pulling all my time and a lot of my creative energy into it, you know what I mean? But I have this heart for the road where I want to always be traveling and just doing that. So a lot of the music's about those four months. Then for another couple of months, I was still working my college jobs and playing a lot of music, and traveling a bit more using the money I had saved. But then I had to pay the bills, so I started working a full-time job.

Around then, Caleb Thomas, a buddy of mine who’s also a Pittsburgh musician, approached me and said he wanted to produce an album with me as the solo artist. And so we wrote a lot of these songs together – I'd come to him with an idea and some basic lyrics, and we'd build them out. And he'd motivate me to continue to write the lyrics and stuff like that. And then we went into the studio together and recorded this thing. And it was an awesome experience creating that album together.

Q: Some of the songs remind me of Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” album, with the full arrangements, and others recall singer-songwriters from the 1970s.

RE: Absolutely. “Wanted Man” is like the big blend of Springsteen and Billy Joel. Me and Caleb are both into classic American songwriters. And with “Lose What You Go” I remember when we were writing it. I was rocking on the same three chords all song, and Caleb said I should mix it up in the bridge. So I came back to him with this really jazzy progression to kind of break up the monotony of the song. And I think it worked out really well.

Q: Did you record during the pandemic?

RE: I started working with Caleb at the end of 2019, and we wrote all these songs. We were supposed to get into the studio in March 2020. And then we had to delay it until we could figure out how we could do this safely with COVID. So we had to quarantine leading up to going into the studio, which we ended up doing in the spring and summer of 2020. Which was crazy, because that was also the summer of the George Floyd protests. It was an exhausting summer because I was working every day at my full-time job, which was remote. And then I'd get off and go help with some of these mutual aid things that were going on. Between that, and then also recording the album, it was exhausting, but it was also very fulfilling. So that pretty much went on from April 2020 until the fall, when we finished up recording.

After that, it was all the production stuff. I'm not a guy who's going to nitpick a bunch – the music's there and I really trusted the engineer at that point. His name's Al Torrence, and he did an awesome job. I had very minor feedback for the mixes, and then it was ready to go, and then we cued it up for a May release, and then we had an album release show here in Ithaca in August. And that was a blast, I had been here less than a year but had met people through open mics and through going to shows, so I was able to throw it together.

Q: Have you also been playing with some other bands?

RE: Yeah, I do play with a couple of bands: the Cast Iron Cowboys, and one called Red Betty. They’re both newcomers to the local scene. I play stand-up bass and sing in both bands.

But then I also do this rebellious stuff. I do it mostly solo, but sometimes I'll have one accompanist. If I were to play a big show, I think I would try to put a band together, but I'm also good with doing the solo thing because it's so easy to show up at a brewery set up, play, and keep all the money. It’s more complicated with a band. I rehearsed for two hours by myself last night and I didn't have to go anywhere, and I could still hang out with my girlfriend.

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Rev Ezra performs at Atwater Winery in 2022.

Q: Where did the name "Rev Ezra" come from?

RE: It’s a made-up name. My given name is Josh Chamberlain. I'm named after a northern Civil War general, who was one of the good guys, thankfully. But if you Google “Josh Chamberlain,” you'll never find me – it’s like I'm invisible online.

So I had to come up with a stage name. And at the time, I thought that it'd be cool to give myself some kind of title. Like, you know, a lot of people go with “Doctor,” even though they're not that. I always thought “Reverend” sounded cool. A reverend is someone who has something to say and I think my music is intense, and I tend to write about concepts and things that are applicable to a lot of people. So I thought Reverend kind of made sense.

It was Reverend Ezra at first, as it was just a cool name – it has nothing to do with Ezra Cornell (who founded Cornell University). But then I just picked up the nickname “Rev” in Pittsburgh because no one wants to call you Reverend. And I actually liked it better. So that's how it came to be Rev Ezra. I've dropped the Reverend moniker. And I'm not ordained or anything. I just like the nickname Rev.

Q: You mention on your website that you’re from a multiracial, immigrant family.

RE: Yes. My mom's from the Philippines. She always had ties to the U.S. because her dad worked as a civil servant for the U.S. Navy. And as you know, post-World War Two – well, really, post-Spanish American War, but even more so post-World War Two, the U.S. military influence is huge in the Philippines. So she went to school there and then after she graduated, she moved to Honolulu, Hawaii.

My dad is from Flushing, Michigan, which is near Flint. And then he was stationed in Honolulu for the Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base. So that's how he ended up there. But it was actually long after that, that they actually met there. They got married there, but then they moved to Pittsburgh before we were born.

Q: So how did that affect you?

RE: When you're half of something, and half the other, you're not like fully either. So, for example, I'm super tall for my cousins on the Filipino side, and short for the cousins on the white side, you know what I mean? And there was always a little bit of a cultural difference – a lot of my cousins are fully Filipino, they live on the West Coast or in Hawaii, or were born and raised there, and a lot of them speak some Tagalog in the house so they can at least understand it. And when I would come to visit, I could not understand Tagalog. So my mom sent me for a couple of summers to live in L.A. with my uncle, and so I learned a little bit about the Filipino culture there. But you're still always not quite Filipino. So I was always kind of in the middle.

I was not close to my dad's side of the family – I knew my uncle, but other than that, I didn't really talk to anyone. So that was definitely a dynamic, as well. I did get a lot of crap for being the only Asian kid growing up in elementary school – kids are brutal, you know.

But anyway, I think that's kind of when it started, where I was stuck in the middle between two worlds. And that continued on in a different form. It's still very relevant, but in a new form as an adult now. I'm happiest when I'm playing music and I'm on the road, but I have to pay the bills and do the career thing and I feel like a middleman in that way now. So I’m no stranger to being in the middle of things and having to make decisions based on that.

Q: I wanted to run down each of the songs on the new album. Let’s start with “Older I Get.”

RE: That one is about my dad; he passed away when I was just finishing up high school. I was really close with my dad, so it was pretty tough. And it was right before I was going to college, too, so that's one of the main reasons I stayed in the area, close to my mom's place, just in case she needed anything. My sister was living in Scranton at the time, so it made sense for somebody to be close by.

It took me a long time to kind of process that, but I'm a lot like my dad. And that song is kind of me realizing that and realizing why I do things the way I do. You know, like, just like, the older I get, the more I that's literally the lyrics. it's kind of like a conversation with my dad and telling him, “Hey, here’s an update on my life. You know, like, I wish I could have asked you about these things, but lie I figured them out on my own, you know?” So that's what that song is about.

Q: Next is “Lose What You Got.”

RE: That’s the fun song of the album. It was the first single, so it's meant to be kind of like the hook. That one is about being so indecisive between two decisions that you end up not being able to make the decision at all. Like I say in the chorus, like a “Smooth talker, what are you going to say this time?” and I'm like talking to myself. I usually can talk myself out of a situation like that. But it was getting to the point where it's like, “You can't anymore, you have to make a decision one way or the other.” So that's what that song is about. And then at the end, it's like, “if you don't make it, you're gonna lose either of them.”

Q: How about “These Days”? That one has some big production on it, reminding me a bit of some Mumford and Sons songs

RE: Yeah, absolutely. I love Mumford and Sons. I like their old stuff. When I was in high school, they were really popular. And that song is probably the one where I am the most honest about myself, like, “Ah, I'm stuck in the middle, you know, I'm not making the decision to go fully in one way or the other.” I call myself the middleman, and that's what I mean. As I mentioned, being raised stuck between two worlds and then after college being stuck between two worlds again, that's what that song is about. And it's about like, “Oh my God, these days, I just feel like I'm stuck,” not fully committing to one or the other, but maybe it's okay to not fully commit to one or the other and try to make them both work, maybe that's all right. But I think at the time I was really conflicted about it.

Q: “Strange Winds” is next.

RE: That one's about that one's about climate change, how you see the world changing really quickly around you, and sometimes feel individually helpless to change it. And it's about that feeling of “Oh my god, I like I feel like it's just flying by me and there's like, nothing I can do.” And I just feel like, you know, I'm going about the motions while watching these things change, and it’s stressful. So I think the song is, it is more about that stressful feeling of watching these things happen. I think that feeling is what spurs you into action.

So that song was actually used in a YouTube campaign for this thing called CGC Action. Long story short, I know a guy who's whose dad was putting together this nonprofit climate bank that will make green jobs in Arizona. They did a YouTube campaign, and that song was used for it. And it was cool because it's what the song is about.

Q: “Come Back to Georgia”

RE: It came while I was on the road, so I was writing about this feeling of why don't I just settle down in one of the spots that I find? There are all these cool little towns, and at the time I was around a mountain town north of Atlanta. And it was like, why not just stay here and be happy with the small-town life? It was kind of a moment of reflection. I don't think I'd do that now, but in the moment, it felt very much like that.

Q: “Wanted Man”

RE: That's a metaphor, it's like the wanted man is the guy that's on the road and running from the law. And in my metaphor, the law is like everyday life, settling back into the regular routine. So “Wanted Man” is about this kind of metaphor for being like, "I can't go back to that, I need to just do this thing and embrace the freedom of the road." So that's what that one's about. But I don't actually have the law chasing me around.

Q: What spurred you to end with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”? Most people don’t know all the verses to that song.

JC: Yeah, they just know the first verse, right? And I didn't even record the whole song with all of the verses, because we decided to slow it down a lot for that cover. But we got the ones that we thought were very poignant. And I liked the song because it's a protest song. It's saying, this land is made for everyone, not just a select few or a specific group. So that's why we chose that one – it felt relevant. After spending the whole year getting involved in the community, it felt like it was the right song to do.

Q: Have you written more songs since the album came out?

RE: I do have a lot of new songs. I have a few that are pretty much studio ready, and then I'm working on a few more. I've been writing a lot lately. I think in the flurry of recording, I wasn't writing as much, and then moving to Ithaca, I wasn't writing as much, and then during last year, I was just working on getting my feet into the music scene and making myself known as someone who's a musician getting used to the new town. And I feel like I've done that now. So I've been starting to write a lot more and focusing a lot of my time on that.

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Rev Ezra

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, WITHradio.org) and its affiliates.