A Conversation with Ed Kowalczyk of Live

This is the original transcript of the interview, only minor editing has been applied for readability. This has been the basis for articles but has never been published in the original form.
Wortraub: How would you say your sound has developed from “Birds of Pray” to “Songs from Black Mountain”?

Ed: I would say that “Birds of Pray” was the beginning of a process for Live that we were getting back to basics. We experimented quite a bit with the record before that “V”. We had a keyboard player with us on tour. We had all kinds of things that we were doing that were kind of unexpected for the band. I think that “Birds of Pray” was the beginning of kind of getting back to the guitar, bass, drums and vocal thing. “Songs from Black Mountain” is really a continuation of that process, even in terms of the producer it is the same. The main difference is that the songs are shining a little brighter in terms of the song writing. I feel like there is some uplifting, really renewed energy to the songs that was missing from “Birds of Pray”. “Birds of Pray” had some really amazing moments. There are just more of those moments on “Songs from Black Mountain”. Also, the production is a little more organic, less overall heavy guitars, lots more acoustic guitars. The overall sound being not necessary lighter, but just a different approach. Like I said: a more organic approach to the guitars. Trying some different sounds there, sort of soaring and more sort of orchestral. Which again Jim Ward, the producer, is really responsible for.

Wortraub: Isn’t that a contradiction? The orchestral sound on one hand and the back-to-the-roots idea on the other?

Ed: I mean orchestral in a sense that it is all guitars, apart from a string section on one song. The rest of it is still using guitars. I just feel the sound is – I keep using the word organic –because it is just not a big wall of loud guitars, it is more delicately arranged. It is still a basic rock sound. I am talking more about a subtle change that our fans will pick up on. A lot of people were saying it sounded more like our first album which is kind of amazing. I am happy about that. It has evolved though. The production for the songs was just obvious. It did not need the old Live-approach. We allowed Jim Ward to put a stamp on the musical approach this profoundly, which adds to the new moment in production for the band.

Wortraub: You have stated that you were inspired by the female aspect of the muse on “Songs …”. How do you feel the muse? How does your creative process work?

Ed: I would say this is the first record where I decided to personify her. It is something that I thought would inspire the lyric. This came around when I was writing the lyrics for this album. It kind of coincided with this idea that I would for the first time conceptualize this force, this creative process, that I’ve been so in love with for years. This is kind of a love affair. Let’s go into this: that it is a love affair with a female presence, the muse presence. I started to buy all these statues of muses, reproductions. I started to surround myself with this idea of it being a female presence. That really focused the lyric and gave it a really beautiful eroticism too. Songs like “Mystery” or “The River” obviously have this metaphoric sort of erotic kind of thing going on between man and woman. But for me as a songwriter it was this sort of dance that I have always done, but yet for the first time I felt, that when I am writing a song, I kind of write of this love affair, this process in me and how much fun that is.

Wortraub: Is there a correlative between the artist and the muse on the one hand and man and woman on the other?

Ed: I feel this presence when I write, this dance, this play. You are using intuition and feeling to such degree that it feels like a love affair. The ideal dance between a real man and a real woman is full of this intuition and play with each other. They definitely work together, the lyrics generally speaking to the people. They will listen to “The River” and say love song. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But for me it is also much more expansive, which includes my creativity itself.

Wortraub: You have a lot of nature imagery in your lyrics. What is your relationship to nature? Why is that a favorite imagery for you?

Ed: My relationship with nature is just profound. It has become so deep to me over the last five years. I live in the mountains with hardly any neighbors or any people around at all. It is just such an enjoyable environment. When I first moved there I felt like: “Oh my God, am I gonna lose my tension and the angst? The city life? Is that part of why I write and is it part of who I am? Will I be able to write songs?” My manager asked me: “Are you sure you wanna do this? Are you gonna be able to write up there?” and I told him: “I don’t know”. After 6 months he asked me again and I had already written 8 or 9 songs for “Birds of Pray”. I think it is having the opposite effect. I think when you are in nature, you can’t help but to reflect on the fact that everything is creative. Everything exists in a kind of creative space. That nature is at one time random. There are so many different species and it seems such a chaos. But it has this drive to be, this drive to live. The song writing process is similar. You are playing your own little role in this symphony of creativity. Me – being in nature has really inspired more of that. It also helps that I live in Southern California were it is sunny all the time.

Wortraub: You do have a strong Christian touch in your lyrics but it is not dogmatic. What is your opinion on the church? How do you practice religion?

Ed: What I have been saying about that, the catch phrase that I have stolen from my friend Ken, is that I am spiritual and not religious. For me spirituality is a direct experience of this feeling of oneness with all things. Freedom, which you feel maybe in meditation, maybe not. Spirituality is the essence of this transformative experience that you can practice however you want. Meditation is not a religious event but a spiritual event. It is directly relating to my every question of moment to moment. Whereas religion is a whole other bag of history, symbols, things that tend to divide people. I think there is a whole lot of religion in the world, and a whole lot of trouble. But there is not enough spirituality, not enough of this actual realization that everything is one which is supposed to be the whole deal, supposed to be what religion stands for. Apparently that has been lost somehow.

Wortraub: There seems to be a lot of Buddhism in there…

Ed: Yes, absolutely. If I have a practice in my life, it is along the lines of Zen meditation in the sense that it is the sitting. I just sit, I don’t pray. That is the whole practice. I would not say I am a Zen Buddhist, I have never taken a vow and I am not part of any organized religion. I am not official, I am just a sitter.

Wortraub: Our world is developing towards intolerance and misunderstandings. It is getting constantly harder to make out the good. Where do you take the optimism from?

Ed: We just touched on where my deep inspiration about life comes from: my interest in spirituality, my interest in having a meditation practice. It is in experiencing love and freedom in my own life, which is an extensive thing and informs my songwriting. If you are feeling happy, listening to Live’s new record it is basically because you are feeling part of my own happyness, my own discoveries in the music, in the emotional impact of music. That is what is so powerful about music in general, when it comes from this kind of inspiration. It is getting more and more difficult to find authentic happiness in the world and art has always been a way to locate that and to participate in it. I have participated in many other artists’ happiness, like U2, Peter Gabriel and any number of musicians that share their happiness with me. That’s all I want to do really. Just let it come from the heart and hope that people want to party with me as well.

Wortraub: There is the concept of things – or words for that matter – having no inherent meaning. The meaning exists through our own cognitive process. How important is the listener’s interpretation to the meaning of the song?

Ed: If you try to get a linear meaning from a song like “Mystery” it is going to leave you kind of blank, because from phrase to phrase I am just intimating a kind of feeling depth which has to be experienced as an emotional event, or as a feeling event. There isn’t much linear meaning that I put in it. That’s true for a lot of these songs. For Live in general, from my point of as a lyricist. To a song like “Lightning Crashes” I have never attached much actual linear meaning. It is more important to drop that and just feel it. Another tenent of Buddhism, which I resonate with profoundly, is that you must experience the depths of life, love, mind and heart directly yourself. You cannot take anybodies word for it. So to be effective, art doesn’t need an inherent meaning.

Wortraub: Thank you for the interview. It has been a pleasure talking to you.