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May/June 2021

by Sam Stonell

Ezra Phoenix: Burning Ambition

by Sam Stonell

Ezra Phoenix: Burning Ambition

Wellington-based artist Ezra Phoenix is on the rise, looking to share his soulful and heartfelt music with the world. Recently released, his self-titled debut album explores his pride in his identity as a gay Samoan man, and announces his presence as a formidable musician. Ezra’s music is honest and provocative, beautifully blending pop and RnB styles, crowned by lush and complex vocal harmonies. It’s the type of music you play on repeat and gets stuck in your head. Sam Stonell talked with him.

Solomon Esera, known by his artist name Ezra Phoenix, was born in Aotearoa to Samoan parents, and raised in a typically Pacific Island Christian environment. He grew up surrounded by music, particularly singing, at home, school and church. Explaining those fine harmonies, he began barbershop quartet-style singing while at school, and says he still enjoys and participates in it often.

Rightly proud of his rich cultural and religious heritage, Ezra admits that aspects of each at times conflict with his sexual identity. There are certain expectations that come with Samoan culture and its religion, and he says it was often difficult for him to feel as if he had a proper place of belonging in his community, especially in the sense of trying to stay true to himself as a person and his own identity.

Music has been integral to helping Ezra define exactly who he is and stake claim to his own place of belonging in the world.

“I want to be the first Pacific Island gay pop star in NZ to make it, and to be known as a gay, Samoan popstar!”, he forthrightly offers, adding his motivations are both to honour himself, and to let others like him know that it’s important to be who you are, to take up a space of your own.

“I never grew up with a role model like that, I didn’t grow up seeing a Pacific male gay popstar icon in NZ. Like, in the limelight. Someone I could look up to. So I want to be that person. I want the younger boy that’s at home to look up to me and be like, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can do it!’”

He says he has been inundated with encouraging messages from people relating to his content and inspired by the ideas he is trying to put across, so it seems he’s already beginning to reach audiences in the way he describes.
While seeming to now have a strong sense of his own identity, he admits that the process of self-discovery and self-love is often cyclical, something reflected in his self-titled album – both in the songwriting process and the finished product.

“I’m realising that I’m always changing. I thought that this one album was going to be it, and I was going to become this new person, but every day is different. Every day it’s growing. I was like, ‘I need to tell my story’, and then as we started recording the album different themes popped up, like rebirth and growth.

“That’s how my name came about as well – Ezra Phoenix. Once it was done, then I was like, ‘Well, I’m obsessed with the phoenix, how it’s able to die and give birth again to itself, and that’s sort of the overarching theme.’ The way the album is designed is you just listen to it over and over again, it’s like a cycle. Here we are, we go through some shit, we die, we’re born again, and then we repeat the same thing.”

The music video for Love My Brain, Boy, directed by Lee Gingold, also explores the way his cultural and religious identity work alongside his sexual identity. The release of the video was, he admits, nerve-wracking, especially given that some of his family hadn’t quite fully accepted his sexuality at the time, but the making of the video ended up being a particularly special memory for him as his dad was there to help. The production process allowed Ezra to explore being a phoenix using visual media, as well as audio.

“It’s about being a proud member of the LGBTQ community, being a gay Samoan, and owning that space within a church context. Because growing up I never felt a part of the church, I always felt out of place, and the music video highlights the importance of taking up space. If you feel like you’re not being accepted, take up a space, be who you truly are, regardless of where you are. That clip was kind’a like my coming out, my Ezra Phoenix rising…”

The process of recording these songs was incredibly emotional and he speaks highly of his producer, Toby Lloyd of Tiny Triumph Recordings, who contributed to multiple aspects, including songwriting, instrumentation, recording, producing and mixing. He notes that Lloyd always knew the right advice to give at the right time, and it was his insistence on the importance of strategic track listing that helped him to realise how cyclical the album’s structure was.

“It was organic. It was always an honest process. I always tell everyone, vibe is everything. I feel like, if you don’t vibe with the producer, you’re not going to be vulnerable and get what you want, and express yourself.

“From the get-go his vibe was really down to earth, really cool. He just understands how I feel. He gets it. As an artist, you put a lot of trust in people when you’re trying to create your art, so, if you feel like someone doesn’t get you then it’s awkward, it’s not going to work. He was so easy to work with. Good vibe. Good vibe. I call him Gandalf. He’s like a wizard!”

Developing the album in the studio proved a very positive, authentic experience. Ezra can hear his emotions clearly within each song, saying he struggled particularly with the track Oxygen Tank.

“That was probably the hardest song for me to record because I had to dive into that space. And I was getting frustrated at myself because there were moments where we were recording and I was like, ‘I’m not feeling it. I’m just frustrated.’ But now listening back to it, I can hear my frustration in how I recorded it, which is exactly what the song is. If I had recorded it and I was comfortable and confident, it wouldn’t have sounded the way it does now.”

In these sorts of ways, he describes the creation of his album as a form of personal healing, reflecting the cyclical nature of his life and identity. He has fully embraced the idea of being a phoenix and is ready to do more growing and learning.

“I want to perform it live, I think it’s just finding time… and the resources and opportunity.”

“Everyone has a phoenix inside of themselves, duh!”, Ezra says with a chuckle, when asked about the main message that he’d like people to take away from the album. “Everyone has a phoenix. You just have to be willing to free it, and willing to sacrifice. Not yourself, but let go of the parts you know you should let go of. Baptised by the fire. It’s going to burn, it’s going to hurt, but you’ll come out glorious! Then you’re going to die again, and it’s another cycle, you just continue rolling.”