Sometimes I get a hankering for that tender, savory, slow-cooked southern BBQ that isn’t easy (or even possible) to find between Philadelphia and Manhattan. Much like my food cravings, us northerners can often go for some dynamic, blues-based rock and roll with impassioned melodies and sultry vocals. Perhaps if we traveled to Texas, we’d find what I’m talking about in talented musicians like Dallas’ Ezra Vancil.
Vancil has dedicated his life to music and has found profound significance in the lyrics and instrumentations he weaves into the fabric of each of his songs. His life of being fully immersed in music began as a child and has continued through his adulthood, several albums, and countless live performances.
The raw emotion isn’t absent from a single one of Vancil’s songs, and just like any respectable writer, the meanings aren’t lost either, touching on weighty topics like struggling and healing. Vancil offers an extensive catalog of music on his Bandcamp page, from live recordings to studio tracks. He continues to actively record and perform and satisfy his fans with his original tunes.
When did music become such an important part of your life and your identity?
Ezra Vancil: I don’t know a time that it was not a part of my identity. My parents had a traveling gospel band. Bedtime for us kids was songwriting and rehearsal time for my parents. I think I absorbed music into my dreams over many years. Music was everywhere, every day and every night.
I remember taking their first album to show-and-tell at one school. The other kids showed Swiss Army knives and Barbie dolls; I pulled out my parents’ album. The teacher played it the rest of the class. I felt like their album was my album.
Our life was hard in those days. I say “our life” was — I mean, my parents’ life was. We were very poor, but they kept us fed and took care of us. Instead of me thinking, Look how poor we are, I thought that my parents had some kind of honorable life, that to be a musician was somehow more important than what I saw the other families doing, that it was a special calling. I was very proud of our music family. I eventually took the vow of music in my mid-teens.
You have a very distinct, moving voice. Who are some of the musicians who have really influenced you vocally?
Ezra: I’ve been told that a few times recently, and it surprises me. I guess I never think about the quality of vocals. I don’t think about other artists’ vocals either. I think about songs and whether they hit the spot. But to answer, I guess I’d have to say Harry Nilsson probably had a big early influence on my vocals, and later Daniel Lanois; his vocals have always pulled me into the story of his songs.
You’ve released a number of songs over your musical career. Which have been some of your own favorites?
Ezra: My whole songwriting life I’ve felt like I was trying to write just a few songs, songs that give me a feeling that I couldn’t yet describe. “Song Before I Go” — when I finished it, I knew that was one of the songs I’d been trying to write. Another one was “Peace on the Morning” from my Live From The Deep album. And it may sound like a cheap promo, but the album that is slated to come out in a few months, titled You, is probably my favorite collection of songs I’ve done so far.
What goes into writing a good song?
Ezra: My mind complicates that question. Songwriting for me is spirituality with a good work ethic. I always have to differentiate between writing a “popular song’” that might be good and a “good song” that might get popular. Most think that a popular song is a good song. I don’t like to bash popular music, but so much of what is out there is soulless, and so it will not live on in souls.
To me, a good song, even if heard only a few times, has in some small way changed the way you perceive your life or the world. It may even help you remember yourself, let you just be for a few minutes. It will travel with you through life, and when you hear it again, it will instantly bring back the memory of yourself that it helped you remember.
To write that kind of song, I think you really need to abandon the idea of writing a popular song, which means abandoning songwriting courses and books and probably abandoning the idea that you’ll ever be winning a Grammy. For that type of song, you’ll have to dig deep into the secrets inside of you. You may not even have to work hard for it the first time, but that eternal self won’t let you have it so easily the next time, so you’ll have to go deeper, which means it must be your life’s goal to write that song. I like to say, aim for the very center of your heart, and you will be sure to pierce other hearts.
Humility is a big part of it. When I write, I don’t think of it as an active, dominate role; I come to it in need, in an open and receiving role. It’s important to realize that songs come in the quiet. So it is, for me at least, becoming comfortable with the more solitude than most people can stand.
Your latest album, A Retrospective, was released last year. What sets that album apart from your previous recordings?
Ezra: A Retrospective was put together after my live album for a specific reason. I wanted to place a marker in the road of my music career — to look back to the past and follow the trail of my songwriting until now and make something that represented the journey, for the purpose of shaking the dust off my feet and going on a new journey.
I love that album personally, because I actually consulted fans on what songs impacted them over the years. I had never done anything like that. I was not expecting to put many new songs on this album, but two songs that were requested were songs that are live performance staples but were not released widely. One of those was “Song Before I Go,” which, in the end, made a true landscape of my songwriting journey.
How did you challenge yourself making that record?
Ezra: This album had a new challenge for me. Most of the songs on A Retrospective are studio recorded, professionally mixed, but there were a few songs that needed to be on the album to tell the story. I didn’t have the resources to go into the studio, so all the parts were performed, recorded, and mixed by me. I was worried that I quite frankly sucked at this side of things, yet one of the mixes, in an early reveal, placed in some awards and got some accolades. I guess it worked okay.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Song Before I Go.” What did you hope listeners could take away from that particular song?
Ezra: For me, life has been difficult and is sometimes unbearably frustrating. I tend to want to think of my life like a novel, with a beginning, a middle, and a good ending. It doesn’t look like that at all. It looks more like a Jackson Pollock painting. I look and see all these loose ends of hopes, dreams, and relationships whipping around in the wind seemingly with no connection.
I usually end my set with “Song Before I Go.” The song soothes my turbulent longings when I sing it. It puts a story on my life. It looks at the broad picture, and from there, it is moving and beautiful. It even makes sense. I hope those that hear it can see the big picture of their life between the chords.
Tell us about the Dallas indie music scene.
Ezra: Dallas is not very Texan. It’s like most big cites I’ve played in. There is not so much as a unified “scene,” as there is pockets in different genres, communities, and areas throughout the city, which is a good thing. I’ve always found a pocket to feel a part of here. It does have a certain energy in venues that is a tangible feeling to me of “hurry up, show me if your worth my time so I can decide if I’m going to stay here,” which also is probably good for a performer — makes them put on their best at all times.
I tend to like cities with more of a unified feel and more relaxed energy. Denver is one of my favorites to play. Austin, though it has changed a lot, is still a music town.
Do you have any favorite venues or specific places to play in?
Ezra: In Dallas, my favorite place to play acoustic shows is the Opening Bell. Right down the road, in Fort Worth, is a very strong Americana music scene. There is a real songwriter community there. Magnolia Motor Lounge it Fort Worth is a cool place with great sound and community.
I really enjoyed performing at Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas. It is a songwriter’s dream month.
Outside of Denver is a place called Estes Park. I’ve tried to make it there every year during off-season. I do private ticketed shows there. It’s my favorite crowd.
Who would you want to play you in a movie about your life?
Ezra: Well, I think we’d need a time machine, but for sure the Dude, Jeff Bridges. It’s been a joke in my circles — people call me his Dude-ness.
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