When you think of water you may think of a still, calming pond with the only detectable movement being the ripples made on its vulnerable surface from thrown pebbles. Or maybe a roaring waterfall, with a haunting beauty in the way it clashes against the jagged rocks beneath it, knowing it could kill you if you stood beneath it, beckoning you closer nonetheless. A river comes to my mind, mesmerizing waves changing pace depending on where it resides, hugging the land around it, cutting through the land before it.
Ezra Waters has managed to encapsulate the ever-changing versatility of water in his music. A musician from Alabama currently in his senior year of studying political science and Africana studies at Amherst College, Waters has exemplified the very notion set forward by artists before him such as Pharrell Williams and Tyler, the Creator, that no one person has to be bound to one field – and especially not one genre. Originally hypnotized by a fervor for jazz welcomed by his Southern upbringing, Waters has roped in influences from Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Toronto and countless other places to provide a sound that flows in the same way as water. Rushing and consuming its audience with zeal one second, coursing swiftly through their ears, bringing peace the next. Waters is part of a collective called Nocoast, full of individuals that share his ardor for welcoming influences from every corner, and only focusing on making music they love.
How did Ezra Waters come about?
Waters :Me and a friend that I first started producing music with, we had a rap group called Water\Light, it was like a duo sophomore year of college. His rap name now is Zay Lewis but back then it was Zay Light because [the concept of] Light was a lot more focused, very driven, with a clear creative process. Water for me was kinda more improvisational. I started [making music] with jazz, I just kind of flow more. So that was that, we’re still in the same collective together but the duo isn’t a thing anymore. Waters just kinda stayed, one time my brother asked me if it was supposed to be a reference to Muddy Waters -the blues guy- and I was like “I don’t know maybe.” Because I can’t say it’s for the group anymore, it’s not a thing, I have to make up a new name.*laughs*
Why did you choose to major in political science, and Africana studies?
Waters : For a while I was interested in law, that was something I saw myself doing, I was just interested in policy in general. Just from where I grew up in Alabama, I always knew I would try to work in something related to that. Then when I got to college, politics and Africana studies gave me this feeling of like “oh I can make a difference and do this,”combined with law work between summers. I think I kind of transitioned in college from thinking the only way you can do something meaningful and worthwhile is with an established profession. I had an epiphany the summer after freshman year that no profession intrinsically exists to benefit people. Everything is meant to make money, even medicine. I realized, just because I want to help people doesn’t mean I have to go into this major and go into law. That’s when I started focusing more into music, and more into art in terms of yes I’m majoring in poli-sci, but career wise I don’t see myself staying in something like that.
What originally inspired you to make music?
Waters : My entire life up until tenth grade I had done visual arts, I went to an art school in Birmingham for a couple of years for visual art. Then, I started wanting to play piano probably around ninth grade, so I left the art school – cus I stopped caring about painting, and drawing and that. I think [it had a lot to do with] “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, I heard that album and was like this is incredible, that album changed my life. That’s when I started getting into jazz. From then I was heavy into jazz, started playing jazz piano, did jazz band. Then, I came to college and was playing in this hip-hop cover band, I was on keys. Then, one of my friends gave me a production software called Logic. He was like “you already know a lot of stuff music based so I think you could definitely produce.” We started making music together, it’s kind of evolved. I kinda started off with “oh my god I only want to play jazz,” then got into college and started getting more into hip-hop, and now it’s kind of a mix of the two. But the first thing that made me want to get into music was Miles Davis.
What is the songwriting process for you like?
Waters : It’s a mess, it’s a huge mess. I produce and record, so I always start from the production. I think the rhythm, the tempo, the mood of the beat in the production – whatever instrumental you’re using- always influences the songwriting process. A lot of times I’ll have a beat, and writing stuff out a lot of time makes me lose ideas, or what the rhythm was. So, I’ll record a voice memo of me humming over whatever the melody is, even if its not words. Then, I’ll come back and write the words for it, but it’ll kinda just be all over the place. I usually take a lot longer to write the song than to make the production.
You’re from Alabama, spend a lot of time in New York and Atlanta, and go to school in Amherst. How have all of these communities influenced your music in different ways?
Waters : I think back home (Alabama) is where a lot of my sound comes from, like when I started out playing jazz. It differs by place, I have a lot of my friends and family in Atlanta, and that sound is definitely an influence as well. The energy and the production there is a big influence, in terms of places Atlanta and Alabama have influenced my sound (the most.) It’s the place combined with the genre. A lot of the jazz, soul artists no matter where they’re from have had a lot of influence – but I did start getting into that in Alabama. I would say maybe New York has the least influence over my sound. I think the New York scene right now is always very competitive, and there’s always one sound that dominates it. So, I feel like right now I wouldn’t fit in to the New York scene as much. But aside from Alabama and Atlanta, I think Chicago is a city that definitely influenced my sound. I was in Chicago the summer after freshman year and that’s when I picked up guitar. I think a lot of even the hip-hop artists there have a really soulful underlying sound. Like Saba, Chance, a lot of the gospel and house influence. I think Chicago is an amazing city with an amazing sound. So yeah, just bits and pieces from different places, and you can kind of hear it in my music I guess.
So Water\Light doesn’t exist anymore, but you are part of a collective called Nocoast, can you tell me a little more about how it originated, what it’s all about?
Waters : It started with the friends that put me onto producing and whatnot. We had a band, and we had a couple of original songs but it was more geared towards doing covers of songs. Kind of like The Roots, there were two people that rapped and I was on keys, it was like a band with rappers in it basically. We would do events, BSU events, perform, and stuff like that basically. It was Zay that had the idea after freshman year to expand more into throwing our own events, making our own music, recording our own music, and creating more of a brand in terms of merchandising, more content. It started sophomore year, we came up with the name Nocoast. We put both the words together without a capital in between them because it’s supposed to be one word creating its own new meaning. It came from the fact that everyone in it is from a bunch of different places. Zay is from Illinois, Mal is from Brooklyn, one of the drummers is from Florida, we’ve got people from DC, I’m from alabama…etc. It’s just the whole idea that you can be from anywhere, and just because you rep somewhere doesn’t mean it makes anywhere else less valid. The idea that people can come together from a bunch of different places and we’re all here making art together. We do a lot of events, we produce our own music together, we opened for Kelela last year, so it’s been fun.
Who did you listen to growing up?
Waters : There’s like phases I went through. My parents are super religious, so for the most part I didn’t start listening to hip-hop until early high school. They didn’t like that a lot, in my house it was a lot of gospel and soul like Stevie Wonder, Motown, like hella gospel. Then, I got into jazz and it was just a whole different genre like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Grant Green – this amazing jazz guitarist who definitely influenced me. For people in general, I listened to a lot of D’Angelo, I always thought he was really good, Frank Ocean – I was heavy into Odd Future, I had a heavy OF phase.
You were heavy into OF in a super religious household?
Waters : Yeaahhh, I was like “I hate everything! I’m misunderstood!” But it’s been cool to watch them develop into artists and how that collective evolved. How Frank came from that to being a global pop star now. But hmm who else…Daniel Caesar is dope. In terms of gospel artists I’d say Israel & New Breed, Gary Oliver, Marvin Sapp, Fred Hammond, yeah.
If you could paint your ideal future after graduation, what would it look like?
Waters : Ideally I’d be making a living by producing for different artists. I’d be doing design work in terms of creative direction and album art. I think songwriting is also a good place to be in the industry. You actually get a better cut as a songwriter than a producer a lot of the time. I still want to make my own music and put my own music out, but I eventually see myself transitioning from recording my own music to producing for other artists. I’d also be doing more design work, and being more behind the scenes but also being around the industry and making connections enough to get my production out.
Do you believe authenticity in music is slowly diminishing, as everyone’s desire for clout and fame grows to overpower it?
Waters : I don’t really think so, I think we have this idea because we romanticize the past and everytime you look back you remember the good and not really the bad. There’s a lot of cookie cutter artists that blow up overnight – and some of them stay around – but the thing is when you blow up that quick it’s hard to keep that same level of hype like with going viral. There are a lot of artists like that in this era, but I think we’ve seen this advent of more original artists in the present. I think making music in this day has become democratized – like with home studios and whatnot, there’s just a lot more people making music.
Cardi B recently won best rap album of the year in the 2018 Grammys over Travis Scott, Pusha T, Nipsey Hussle, and Mac Miller. Do you believe people are more drawn to the persona behind the music rather than the actual music nowadays?
Waters : To be honest – and this isn’t even about Cardi or talking down on Cardi – I do think people are drawn to the persona. Now in the era of streaming and visuals and having a brand as an artist – which has always been the case- but as an artist you are selling your brand. I think that’s something artists like Drake have revolutionized. People aren’t just buying his music, they’re buying his brand, they’re buying OVO, the videos, his personality, everything around him. I think it’s almost inevitable, especially with the way social media works now. You’re always looking at somebody, the image, the personality is almost more important than the music sometimes. It’s about the branding. I even think about it in terms of the producers, I think they’re a lot of talented producers that are famous, but a lot of the time producers get f****d over in the industry. They’ll get their beats stolen, they’ll get a bad cut, they won’t get paid, but producers that make their own brand – like Metro Boomin, Pierre are on another level. When you make something a brand around your music -not just the product you’re putting out- that’s when people reach that next level, because it gives them a story. People want a story. And Cardi B has an amazing story, she came up from literally nothing.
Do you have a story?
Waters : I think I do, I go back and forth about how I want to frame it, and how much of it I want to tell ‘cus I think there’s still boundaries. I was watching a Vince Staples interview and he talked about how for black artists a lot of time, black art is trauma, black art is just black pain. 21 Savage, Uzi – a lot of people who in their music there’s a lot of pain, there’s depression, suffering. I think a lot of times when white audiences consume black art they want to see some sort of black trauma in it. They want to see someone come up, be poor, come from this, come from that. And I think that’s why Drake had the whole “started from the bottom” thing even though he didn’t really start from the bottom, ‘cus people want to hear a come up story or some type of pain.
When can we expect new music from you?
Waters : This year? *laughs* maybe by May.
Keep your eyes peeled for new music from Waters dropping around May, as well as new merchandise from Nocoast releasing slightly before then.
Email Astghik Dion at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @astghikjourn.