It may have been raining in Austin, Texas, on the afternoon I call up Elijah Ford but it wasn’t putting a damper on his mood. Next month he will not only release his third solo recording, aptly titled As You Were, but he will be heading to France to play some shows with the ATX6, a project consisting of Austin musicians spreading their city’s musical BBQ at festivals across the globe. In fact, they will have played their first show at home this past weekend, a few days after my conversation with the talented guitar player, singer and songwriter.
He is almost a hidden gem, this young man, despite coming from rock roots (his father is former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford and his mother, a lovely singer herself, is the daughter of Three Dog Night keyboardist Skip Konte). He has played in his dad’s band and most notably in the Dead Horses with Ryan Bingham, who calls Ford “an amazing player.” He is soft spoken yet laughs easily; he is happy yet his music sometimes sinks its teeth into heartache and reflection, something his latest CD, which officially comes out on September 16th, has in abundance. So who is this young man with the many facets? Glide called him up to find out.
He was born in California yet fell in love with the Texas capital close to a decade ago and makes it his home. He began his musical exploration on the drums yet ended up on guitar and bass. “I think he was maybe fourteen or something and I started hearing him play guitar and he asked me about some chords,” the elder Ford told me in a 2014 interview with Glide. “I was gone on the road a lot so I think that he didn’t really want to get too involved with it. Then, you know, music sort of picks you and you just say yes.”
Ford released Upon Waking in 2011. “He wanted to write his own songs and make some of his own records and get a band together,” Bingham told us in an interview last year. “And that’s not something you can really do if you’re in another band as well.” His follow-up was the six song Ashes, which sonically has a lot of bite with it’s bark. But Ford takes all three of his signature elements – guitar, vocals and songwriting – to a higher, more emotional, level on As You Were. Whereas “Try As You Might,” the first single, is a trippy, foot-tapper, others are more borne from the scars of the heart, reminders that life is both golden and grey. “Faltering,” especially, digs deep into the well of the soul, followed closely by “Say The Words” and “Daggers.”
So honestly, is this man really a happy fellow? “Oh hell yeah!” he says with a laugh when I ask him. He may be drawn to melancholia in his music but normal, everyday life is not too bad.
Your dad said you were about fourteen when you went to him and asked him about the guitar. How long before that had you started messing around with it and why didn’t you go to him sooner?
Well, I played drums when I was really little so music was always in the home, obviously, with both of my parents. But as far as guitar goes, I wasn’t really playing or didn’t have a real interest until maybe I was twelve or thirteen. There was a Baby Taylor that he left at home when he was touring and I just picked it up and learned a few things, just to mess around and put down and didn’t really catch the itch yet. Then, I just think puberty happened and the power of rock & roll hit me a little harder, you know, and I realized what an awesome resource I had in my dad. Then I went on to discover Burning Tree and dug into the Black Crowes and it was easy to talk to him about it. It was great.
Where do you see his musical DNA in you the most – with your guitar playing or your songwriting?
Oh that’s a hard one. I can certainly see it in both but I think it’s more of a mentality rather than specifically in playing or writing. I’ve watched him produce records, driving around in the car with him listening to music, to before I started playing with Ryan and watching him write and record his records. I think a lot of what I got from him was to listen more and stay out of the way. It should be simple. It’s about the song and about the lyrics and the melody and not about how much you can play. And he can play a lot but he chooses not to at times and waits to put the exclamation point or the comma on the phrase or the story.
And he needs to smile more
(laughs) Yeah, he does. You know, I think I’ve seen more pictures of him smiling recently than ever and that’s awesome. I actually just talked to him maybe a half hour ago. He’s getting on a plane to go play with Rich Robinson.
For your new record, what was on your mind when you were writing these songs?
Well, we wrote and recorded it in 2013 so now a lot of these songs are three years old almost. But I think it came out of a lot of reflection on spending most of my adult life up to that point touring and then my peers in Austin and the local music scene. It’s a lot of reflection, really, and reminders of who I want to be and who I don’t want to be. A lot of it is about lies we tell ourselves and about relationships. It’s kind of all in there.
But I don’t really know what it’s all about until it’s done and this record was recorded and then I spent a couple of years on the road before I really got a chance to finish it. I shaved a couple of tracks off that we had recorded that didn’t seem to fit after the fact and it sums up a nice few years of my life and it’s cool now to look back on it. And it feels new again now that everybody else is hearing it. I guess in a short answer, it’s about what everybody else thinks it’s about. I like a little element of mystery. But I think it’s all there and it’s honest.
So you weren’t dreading bringing these songs back up.
Well, I’ve been checking in with this thing once every few months, in-between touring and life and making a few baby steps forward. So I’ve fallen in and out of love with the record. But I’m in love with it now that it’s finished and people are hearing it. I love the songs and I’m immensely proud of what Chris [Konte] and Z [Alexander Lynch] and I wrote together and the sounds we got. I’m excited for people now to be able to have a relationship with the songs outside of just hearing them for forty-five minutes when I play it.
You’ve played “Daggers” live while on tour so you’ve sort of brought some of them out in the open already.
Yeah, I’ve heard giant bands don’t play songs until the record is out and maybe I can understand a little bit of that mentality when the audience is that large. But at this point I just, at any point really, I want to just play the best songs that I have at the time or what I am connecting with. On the Holy Ghost [Marc Ford’s 2014 record] tour I was touring with Stew Jackson, who produced my record, so he knew the songs and could accompany me. It just fit. I didn’t really have to think twice about it. That was what I was feeling at the time and went for it.
Are you happier?
In general? Hell yeah (laughs)
Good cause some of the songs sound a little bitter.
You know, I think I’m kind of drawn to melancholia, as I like music that’s a little blue or grey in general, or books, but I don’t feel like that sort of person in day-to-day life. But the things that inspire me most are generally hardship and the problems of communicating so a lot of the songs on the record are darker. It’s almost vindicating to sing about how hard shit gets sometimes. You can let it out, acknowledge it and look at it and be reminded that you’re not there anymore or if you are, there is a way out, there’s always another side. But I don’t want to just write sad bastard music. Even “Faltering,” which is a rough song content-wise, the end is still I love you. I don’t want to leave on a sour note ever really. Real life isn’t all dark, so I try and reflect that.
So you’re like a really nice guy who hates to hurt anybody’s feelings, right
(laughs) Yeah, there is a bit of that. My wife says I’m so nice I could talk to a wall. But it’s all about connecting and sometimes it doesn’t work. I think “Daggers” is also about relationships that went sour. You know, it’s been a long time since those things have happened but it’s still worth mining from experience.
So it’s safe to say that you prefer writing about real life rather than fantasy
Yes, it’s hard for me to write and sing about things I don’t know about, it’s hard for me to connect with it.
“Say The Words” sounds different from the rest of the songs on this one. It sounds like it could fit on Ashes cause it has that vibe from that record.
Actually, “Blessed” was finished around Ashes so I could have stuck “Blessed” on Ashes and called that a record but I’m glad that I saved it. But “Say The Words,” actually, I wrote when I was sixteen or seventeen. My grandfather, my Mom’s dad, is an amazing musician and he was in Three Dog Night and wrote and produced a bunch of records and is a great keyboard player. And he bought me a keyboard to mess around with and write on. And that riff that is now both the bassline and the guitar was all a simple piano thing. For years, I beat my head against the wall trying to figure out what the hell to do with it and it finally made sense in the context of the players. Stew and Jesse Ebaugh, the bass player, were super important in arranging that song to be what it is. It’s one of my favorites to play live now for sure. But I think you’re right that it is more angular like Ashes and I love that and continue to write that way but I think it still fits within the context of this record sonically.
What can you tell us about “Hollow Years.”
I think I just wanted something a little simpler and I kind of made that effort to condense the writing from Ashes; like the songs are a bit long and lots of changes, and I wanted to see what I could get away with with less chords and just kind of letting the guitar ring and the band carry me. The lyrics came pretty quick, another sort of communication breakdown instance that now feels like a reminder to myself when I sing it. But I love how that turned out as well.
Which song, if you can remember back, changed the most from it’s original composition to it’s final recorded version?
“Relief” was fast, like a rock song, and Stew thought it would be awesome to fill it full of Quaaludes and acid and have it stretch out. That was super fun to have that song be taken on that ride. We haven’t played that live yet so I’m excited to break it out for the record release tour. “Faltering” also changed a lot. That came pretty quick after Ashes too and that was way more angular but it didn’t work because the chorus was, well, the chorus was the same but the verses were too angular. Again, I tried to simplify and my mom encouraged me to try to sing it on piano and it just flowed better when I blocked it out. But a lot of them the feel remained from the original intent and then it just kind of got either sharpened or the edges smoothed by other input in production.
Is your comfort zone writing songs on tour or do you prefer the quietness of home?
I love writing on tour. It’s mostly pen and paper sort of writing or maybe a riff or something that’ll come at soundcheck. It takes a bit of time and silence and space to turn all of those pieces into something you could call a song, though. But I definitely feel inspired by the road.
Do you work songs out with your band or do you come in with your songs basically complete?
I had a really strong idea of how everything should go but it’s also why I’m extra proud of this one because I involved Z and Chris, or they wanted to be involved in the writing process. So some songs that we got, like “If Not Today” and “Black & Red,” were over halfway done when Chris showed them to me and I was able to give them help with the chorus or the story in “Black & Red” and then it became ours and the momentum kind of gathered when more pieces were involved.
Stew seems to be a very important part of this record. How did you originally hook up with him?
My dad was touring with Booker T in Europe and met Dan Moore, who was the keyboard player in Stew’s band Phantom Limb. My dad gave Dan Bingham’s records and Dan loved them and gave them to Stew. Stew was a Crowes fan anyway and then realized that my dad produced and asked if my dad would produce Phantom Limb’s second album, which is fantastic by the way if you haven’t heard it. It’s easily one of my favorites of all time. It’s called The Pines. So Stew’s band from Bristol in the UK all flew over to Long Beach to record at The Compound where the Bingham records were done. I was on tour with Bingham at the time and our run ended in California and I was visiting with the family a little bit and Ashley [Ford’s wife] and I ended up crashing at The Compound for a couple of nights at the tail end of the session for The Pines so I got to sing backup on a couple of those tracks and just hang out with everybody and became like instant friends. It was great.
So over the next couple of European tours with Bingham I would stay extra and hang out with Stew. Then my dad was hired to produce a record in Croatia so I tagged along cause he was going to record with Stew on the way back in the UK and that was Holy Ghost. So Holy Ghost I just kind of sat on the side and played super simple static with an acoustic guitar and just watched this incredible band unfold around me and how Stew sharpened and simplified my dad’s arrangements and loved that process. That was in January of 2013 and then by, I think, July or August we had the record written and then I asked Stew to come out and produce me. So he flew to Austin.
What was the main guitar you used recording As You Were?
It was almost exclusively a 1962 Telecaster that my dad gave me for a wedding gift. I thought he was fucking with me when he gave it to me cause it was one of his babies for such a long time. It’s easily the best guitar that I own or ever dreamed of owning. So that was pretty much the entire album. Also, I have one of the Marc Ford model Asher guitars and so the mini-humbuckers are on “Say The Words” and I think the other couple of tracks we ended up leaving for bonus material. But it was almost all the Tele.
Which is the one you play in the “Try As You Might” video?
That’s the Starcaster. I got that recently. There have been a few shows recently where I’m the only guitar player cause my boys are out of town and playing something thinner like a Telecaster or a Strat just wasn’t doing it for me. So I got that big guy to help fill it out and I’ll be bringing it on tour someday. But I’m about to do all these fly dates with the ATX6 project and I’m bringing my big Strat.
What can you tell us about that project?
The timing is incredible. I’d been playing bass with Carson McHone, a great Austin songstress, and she was a part of ATX6 a couple of years back. It’s the third season for this and Chris Brecht is filming six Austin musicians that he selects and we travel to a couple of international festivals. He is turning it into a documentary/mini-series/travelogue kind of thing. So yeah, a bunch of Austin businesses are donating for the project to happen. The first show is actually this Saturday night [August 20]. The bands aren’t getting paid, we’re doing this to fund tickets and lodging and food for the trip. And yeah, Austin is really rallying behind this project.
And you’re going to France with it
Yep, that’s the first trip. We leave September 10th and we land in Paris and do a warm-up show and then head to Angers, which I guess is a sister city of Austin. They are doing a festival called Austin Week and it’s food, film, music, tech and we’re basically going to be playing once a day in Angers record stores and clubs and stuff and it will be awesome. I can’t wait. It’s going to be incredible.
You mentioned Austin. Why does Austin click with you so much that you want to stay there?
The music community, really. It’s just so rich. You can go out any night of the week and see an amazing band. I spent a week off here in-between tours with Bingham and met my wife and a bunch of people I still play with. So after that week was up I just packed up my shit and turned my ass around and got back to Texas. That was eight years ago now, almost nine.
What did you learn the most during those years with Ryan Bingham?
Touring with Bingham and the guys was incredible. I learned how to handle the road. I went out before Bingham with my dad for a year. But touring with your dad as an eighteen year old is different than touring with a bunch of twenty-somethings when you’re nineteen (laughs). It was much more fun with Bingham. But man, just his work ethic was incredible and he’s a man of his word and lyrically, he was huge to me as a writer. I didn’t realize how much I picked up from until later, when touring had slowed down enough for me to start writing in my off-time.
But I also learned how to play bass with the Dead Horses watching PawPaw’s [Matthew Smith] kick pedal. I’d only really played guitar up to that point so after the first gig with Bingham we sat down and went over the tunes again just to refresh for night two and PawPaw just said, “Man, just look at my foot if you can’t hear me.” So the next like three and a half weeks of that tour I just stared at his kick pedal and figured out how to play bass. But it was great and like I said, the ATX6 thing came through playing bass cause Carson McHone was a Bingham fan and she recommended me for the project. It’s all a full circle.
When you were learning bass was it more difficult or easy after learning guitar?
Well, the notes are the same but the intent has to change because you have to support everything rhythmically. You’re playing drums with notes. That was the thing that it took me a few gigs to fall in and find where the meter was, where the downbeat was, cause with PawPaw it was always a little more laid back than you’d expect, which was why Dead Horses got so heavy, and I was playing more guitar, which is that couple milliseconds ahead. So I wouldn’t say that it was difficult to learn the instrument, it was more a mentality thing.
When you were first learning to play guitar, were your first original songs more on the rock side or the country side, because I can hear both of those elements in your songs?
You know, I never ever thought I would be playing bass in a country band; not that I would even call Bingham country. There’s hints of classic Cash or Haggard but it’s Americana, if you will. I would say it’s always veered more towards rock and pop; I mean, The Beatles and Pink Floyd and Nirvana and The White Stripes. Then I ended up playing bass for Bingham. I see it all connecting under the banner of rock & roll, which is just folk music plugged in, and possibly a little more aggressive. There’s folk elements, like “On Your Side” off my first record and “Distance Between” are more folk songs than rock. But I don’t know, I don’t really discriminate anymore (laughs). If I think it sounds good then it’s going on the record. I mean, The White Album is almost schizophrenic for how many styles it covers. They did it and it’s okay so go for it.
But you called this album a pop/rock album. Those are your words.
Yeah, I think it’s rock & roll music. I discovered how much fun a sweaty rock show is in Austin, going out and dancing with my wife, and I wanted to hit that energy right cause the songs from Ashes and some of them from Upon Waking can do that when the band was hitting it. So I wanted to make a record that was more live rock & roll sounding and I think we did it. But yeah, I will say that like Tom Petty or Big Star is pop/rock, you know. Rock & roll with emphasis on melody.
So what is an Elijah Ford show really like?
I hope it’s a hell of a good time (laughs). I’m having fun up there. It’s loud rock & roll music with guitars and harmony singing and I am honored to share the stage with so many incredible instrumentalists. Being in Austin, the common denominator of musicianship is high. It’s certainly made me step up my game a bit. But if people aren’t having a good time coming to the show then we’re not doing our job.
Who is currently in your live band?
Chris Konte, who is my uncle actually. He’s my mom’s brother and he’s a couple years younger than I am. I got him to move out to Texas cause he’s an incredible keyboard player and guitar player and writer and producer. So I got him out here when I showed him how much work he could get. Then Alexander Lynch plays drums on the record and has since moved to bass and guitar and he kind of knows everything so whoever I need him to be. Jesse Ebaugh from the Heartless Bastards plays bass on the album and he’s playing bass with me as often as I can get him. Then the rest kind of switch up. I love to play with Ricky Ray Jackson, from Phosphorescent and the Happen-ins, when I can. He’s a hell of a player. He is the lead guitar player on “Try As You Might” and “The Way We Were” and he really made those songs come to life for me. So whenever he’s in town, I love to have him. But I think Phosphorescent are making another record and he’s been out with Nikki Lane. So he’s a busy dude, very in-demand.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
My parents tell me I met Angus Young when I was a toddler and he did a magic trick for me and gave me a pick (laughs). I don’t remember that cause I was probably like two. As a teenager I met Neil Young backstage at his Bridge School benefit cause my dad was playing with Ben Harper. That was pretty unbelievable to get to meet someone who had been playing in my household since I was a baby. He talked to me about how ambulance sirens sounded like music to him (laughs). It was very quick cause he said, “Oh hey look, there’s Paul,” and I turned around and Paul McCartney was hanging out with his wife and Paul was the headliner that night. I crossed the backstage area and then Neil was gone but that was pretty cool.
When was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?
Probably getting to watch the Crowes learn their songs again in like 2005. I went with my dad to New York for a few weeks for the rehearsals for the reunion shows and I would just hang out in the corner and watch them go through everything again. That was awesome.
Did you like making the video for “Try As You Might” and tripping that little girl?
(laughs) Yep, that was fun. That little girl I tripped is actually my cousin on my wife’s side. Ashley is a killer producer in town so we put the word out that we were trying to do something and we had so many awesome people come help. It was unbelievable and I couldn’t be more proud of it.
And at the end you got to do your little dance in your tiara.
(laughs) It was fun. I have to take Ashley’s word for it that I was acting well because I can watch myself play music or listen to myself play guitar but to watch myself acting is something that I have no experience doing. But they were saying it worked so I trusted them.
So it’s a compliment saying you look kind of goofy up there with all those little girls.
(laughs) Yeah, I think that was the point
The As You Were album cover is very interesting and unique. What can you tell us about that?
I had a couple of ideas and we thought it would be cool to continue our artwork kind of pattern from the other two releases. Ashley took that picture of me when we were in Paris a couple of years ago and it was black & white and awesome but the starkness of it didn’t match the sound of the record. I think the record is very colorful and vibrant so an awesome friend of ours, Alexandra Valenti, has been doing this thing where she takes pictures and then prints them on canvas and then paints over them. So Ashley brought Alexandra this picture and she knocked that out in no time. I think that was her first attempt at painting that photograph and we just loved it so we went with it.
You better hang on to Ashley. She’s bringing a lot of positive things into your life.
(laughs) Damn right. That’s why I put a ring on it.
Is the rest of your year just playing these shows and promoting the record?
It’s pretty stacked. This first ATX6 trip to France leads into a record release run in the Northeast where we’re doing Boston and Brooklyn and the New York area. Then I fly to the UK and do a little tour into the second ATX6 trip. I fly home and do the Texas release run and then I fly to play bass for my dad for a week for his tour – October 27th it starts. Then it goes into the third ATX6 trip and then I think it’s Thanksgiving and the year is over. Then we’re going to Europe for a month doing a European tour for the record at the end of January. And I think I’m playing in Prague on my birthday. I have not been to Prague but Ashley has and says it’s beautiful. So I’m looking forward to it.
Photograph by The Joelsons