Now/It's: An Interview with Ellery Bonham (EZA)

One of the most cliched assumptions about Nashville is that everyone can sing and play guitar , piano, drums, whatever, with the best of them. Sure, there are plenty of people who can do exactly that and might never tell a soul, but the number of people who claim to be able to so and fail to back it up far outnumber the former. That being said, when those who truly can perform with the "best of them" do choose to reveal themselves, they do so in a big way. Enter Ellery Bonham, perhaps (or soon to be, if not already so) better known as "EZA." Bonham admits that the adjustment to Nashville from Rhode Island was considerable, but she maintained a level purview, electing not to "add to the chaos" until she truly believed that what she had to say was worthwhile. After cautiously observing Nashville's music environment and the Industry which calls it home, she decided to take the plunge in 2014. Upon deciding it was time to carve out her own space in Nashville, it was immediately apparent that not only was it just that, but exceptional as well. In that relatively short period of time, EZA's trajectory has taken a delightful upward swing, and thanks to Bonham and her team, it would appear as though that ascendant track is about as long and continuous as one could hope for.    

Now/It's met with Ellery Bonham at her home in the Riverside Village neighborhood of East Nashville.

Ellery - Hello! How have you been?

N/I - I’ve been well - busy, but doing well.

Ellery - That’s always nice.

N/I - It is. It also sounds like things have been going quite nicely for you, too. In talking to [Ellery’s manager] Tatiana [Angulo], it sounds like there have been some exciting things developing in your world.

Ellery - Yes! There are some exciting things in the works.

N/I - So we knew each other when we were in school, but I have to admit, I didn’t know you were a musician. During that time, were you writing music as EZA?

Ellery - I wasn’t writing it as EZA - I was writing it, though. I always knew - especially once I got to Nashville - that once I released something, my name was on it permanently. And not in the sense that you can’t take it down, but people’s impressions of you….

N/I - They can be tough to get rid of!

Ellery - You can’t get rid of that initial view. Especially because there’s so much music in Nashville, I didn’t want to add to the “chaos” until I felt like whatever I was doing or saying was actually worthwhile. So I just wrote. I don’t think I released anything until the beginning or end of 2014…. So it would have been the Summer of 2014, I believe. That was when I tried to release stuff as Ellery, got a cease and desist, and had to rebrand to do the whole rename thing to trademark.

N/I - I assume that means there was another “Ellery” that took issue with you?

Ellery - They were a duo. Which was really unfortunate….

N/I - Were they a US based band?

Ellery - They were from the US. But even still, it was something I had a huge lesson in - trademarks. In talking with my attorney - who also is an adjunct professor - I felt like I got a class from him, outside of class. He said that trademarking is really difficult, because even phonetically, you can’t share the same name as someone else. Ultimately, the safest thing to do, even if they have 10 followers on SoundCloud, is to avoid it. They can be from somewhere like Norway, but you still shouldn’t do it. So that was difficult, not only parting with my name, but also figuring out a name that was available, and that I liked [laughs]. So that was a huge reality check.

N/I - I would imagine so. I’ll spare you the question of “what other names?” but with EZA, I immediately think of RZA of Wu-Tang Clan. Was the adoption of the new name in any way a nod to him or them?

Ellery - I never thought of that, actually. I know their name, sure, but I wouldn’t call it an homage or anything.

N/I - Interesting. The reason I ask was because, knowing you a little bit before all the EZA stuff came to fruition - a friend of mine sent me a video you had uploaded a little while back, and I was really into the sound, and the production, and the aesthetic, but then I realized that this “EZA” was in fact you, and that leads me to simply state, this all kind of seemed to come out of nowhere. Were you hiding these recordings and what not? Obviously not entirely - due to the video - but to different extents with different people?

Ellery - It’s so funny you say that, because that is such a Nashville thing. Everyone comes to Nashville as this sort of “big fish” in their pond. So that was the thing I was known for at home….

N/I - And where is home again?

Ellery - Rhode Island. There aren’t that many people that live there, and then cut that number down by those who are actively doing music. I just got used to that being my thing for my whole life. But then I get to Nashville, and I tell people that I’ve been writing and working on this thing, they’d respond with “Wow, I didn’t know you did music!” And that was the most deflating thing. I felt so unknown. But it’s true and it’s fine.

N/I - I understand. I ran into the same thing. I would occupy my time with cutting up and being ridiculous in class, which I in turn learned can inhibit trying to break into certain avenues if someone only knows you as one way versus another.

Ellery - It’s humbling…. And it should be. Just because I was that back home, this is a clean slate. And in a lot of ways, it’s great. I decided that I needed to remake a name for myself here, and eventually figure out what that means. If I end up playing with the big hitters, great. If not, that’s great too.

N/I - Did you struggle with getting things off the ground once you got past the cease and desist and the rebranding? I’d imagine you’d have more time to write actively.

Ellery - Totally. I definitely was out of commission for a while, because I couldn’t write and release new stuff, because what name do you release it under? Or to play a show, what name do I play under? So I felt that I was radio silent for a few months after my initial release, but realistically, who needs to hear from you after your first project? I was thinking “They need to hear from me!” [laughs]. Really? Those 10 people need to hear from me?

N/I - Well it’s like you said, there are a lot of humbling aspects to these things, and I’d imagine it takes a lot to come to grips with, because it’s the first thing you’re really working on in a project. You likely feel like you need to make a mark with the release. It’s sort of like the Grammy’s “Best New Artist” category….

Ellery - Absolutely. They’ve all been around more often than not.

N/I - You’ve heard of them. And they’ve probably been around for years. It’s just that the larger public might not be as aware.

Ellery - It’s more like an award for the year that they broke out.

N/I - Exactly. So with all that in mind, what was that like trying to get started?

Ellery - I was lucky enough to have found a publicist who wanted to help. At the time, Spotify was in a very different place than where it is now. I think Spotify was leaning way more into the indie scene….

N/I - Trying to break artists on their own.

Ellery - Trying to expose music. Labels hadn’t really gotten in to the degree that they are now. If you look at New Music Friday now, 80% are people you hear on the radio, and the remaining 20 are new or underground. Back then, in 2014, Spotify was still very friendly to new music, and I got in just in time. So a few of my songs had done really well on Spotify…. I’m so thankful for that, because if I had released that EP now, it would have completely fallen by the wayside.

N/I - Why is that? Just because of the structure of things?

Ellery - There’s just way too much music out there. It was “good,” it was “fine,” but it wasn’t exceptional music. So these days, to get on a New Music Friday playlist, or the New Indie Scene playlists, it has to be exceptional. Not everything is going to be, but most of it will be. I’m lucky I got in when I did.

N/I - There’s more “morass,” so to speak….

Ellery - Good word.

N/I - I know, right? Putting those English classes to good use…. But there’s a lot more stuff to sift through. There are people like you, who got in early, and there’s more merit to what you were doing then than someone who recorded an EP six months ago and then plans to put it out this Friday. They’re operating under the pretense of just getting it out and in the world, hoping to maybe politick their way into playlist. At one point, there were a thousand people doing it, but now, there are one hundred thousand people doing it.

Ellery - That’s the sad thing, but it’s just the way it is. So many people will have an artist profile on Spotify, and it’s just a side project. It’s just like SoundCloud, but with all of the music that exists. People have their side project, their main project, their side side project, people who do sync and they just throw it up on Spotify for extra streaming money. It does cloud people who are really trying to get noticed, the people who have invested their entire life to this project. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. So back then, I’m thankful I got in when I did. I still did things wrong.

N/I - Like what in particular?

Ellery - I had a publicist after I released my music [laughs]. Just things like that. Or the fact that I didn’t consider having someone mix my record after it was produced. I just had the mix that the producer had, and then mastered that. There are all of these little things that I wish I knew then, but I don’t know how I would have learned them based on where I was at at the time. I didn’t know enough people that had that sort of information. I am thankful for the people I had then, and now.

N/I - So how do you go about meeting those people who can help you out? I feel like that’s something a lot of people struggle with understanding, in terms of networking. As buzzy of a word that it is, I could say I’m putting together a networking event where people pay me $25, and there will inevitably be fifty or so people that show up, regardless of whether or not they’ll find any benefit. So did you run into pitfalls like that? Obviously, you’re an intuitive person.

Ellery - I do think I’m pretty intuitive. I’ve relied heavily on that, while making plenty of mistakes, and continue to do so, but I think one area where I can trust myself is trusting my gut and knowing what to say “yes” or “no” to. That will lead you to meeting people where you can tell that the relationship is going to be mutually beneficial versus opportunities that might work out, but you can almost predict that they wouldn’t be worth it. I think something that probably helped a lot was creating this idea of an exclusive brand, where I wasn’t wanting to play shows often. It was a “fake it until you make it” scenario. I didn’t want to say “yes” to everything and everyone and be so out there that people just get tired of it.

N/I - You can easily overaturate yourself in an instant.

Ellery - Exactly. So the intuition has always been there. I don’t want to release my first record or songs on YouTube and ask people what they thought. That’s what I was trying to do initially, and I love that aspect of this industry. I love that this industry is so much reliant on people and interaction and gut than it is on facts and numbers.

N/I - Less of the “What’s your degree in? What’s your post-graduate area of focus?”

Ellery - “What are your grades?” [laughs]. I’m so glad this job does not rely on that, because I don’t put that much merit into it. I think there’s so much more about someone that comes into play - “How do you handle yourself in this situation? What’s your judgement like?” That’s something I’ve always loved about this industry, and I think I’ve done a decent job of figuring out what’s a good fit for me and what’s not. And again, I’m definitely still learning, still making mistakes, and I’ll continue to do that. I think in the early stages, that helped me out. I didn’t want to say “yes” to everything and lose my way, only to wind up unsure of who I am.

N/I - So jumping forward to now, has that perspective shifted at all? I know you have a team behind you and there are some big recent “announcements….” I figure most people don’t understand fully what it takes to know that you really “want” to pursue music seriously.

Ellery - That just made my brain light up - when you asked if I wanted to take this seriously. That question has not gone away. I find myself asking that question maybe every year and a half when something is on the line. It’s the question that I keep asking “Do I lean into this, or not?” This is a super, super aside which is not important, but when I was 16, I auditioned for American Idol, and it seemed like the natural thing to do at that age, because when you sing at 16, what else do you do? So that was the obvious thing. So I did all the audition processes and went to Hollywood. My mom came with me, because I was underage, and at the time, my parents were helping me understand what a professional does in terms of appearance, song choice, and all that. I remember I got there, and everyone there was so LA. They had crazy clothes, crazy hair, crazy glasses. It was also 2009….

N/I - Well that was before social media and YouTube became a remotely viable career, so you take all of that energy and put it on TV, in hopes that you’ll stick.

Ellery - Exactly. I remember having a moment of realization that everyone there was dressed in a way that they dressed on the street. They figured out who they are and what their look was….

N/I - Or at least who they wanted to be perceived as.

Ellery - Exactly. So I was like, “I hate the fact that what I’m wearing right now is because I feel like I have to wear it to walk on stage.” Or impress somebody. Compared to those people, I knew nothing in terms of who I was. So I remember coming home from that experience and being ready to take the next steps to taking it all seriously. So I started listening to different music, wearing different clothes, and throughout college I was running into the same problem of “Will I release this before I’m done with school? Or will nobody know that I even made music during college?” Or like when I had a safe office job when I graduated, I had to decide whether or not I was going to stay there and do music on the side, or quit the job and finally lean into doing music full-time. I was on the fence, because I could have done it, I couldn’t decide if I totally needed to do it, but man, that leap is the scariest. But then I got to the point that if I wanted to take it seriously, I had to take the leap that most people refuse to do. The point where most people have decided it’s too much. That’s how you get ahead, you just keep jumping. That’s not to say you jump without an education….

N/I - I get what you’re saying. There’s a mental fortitude and power of will that is apparent in any person who has become a sensation in their field. They were willing to put in more sweat equity, for lack of a better term. When other people want to let go - and there are people who do go from bagging groceries to getting their big break at a later age.

Ellery - I think Steve Carrell was a little later.

N/I - I think he was. Cobert was another. Leslie Jones, on SNL, she’s 50. And so you hear all these success stories about people working day jobs for decades, doing comedy on the side and she made it. But the thing that gets thrown by the wayside is that she’s doing the day job and then doing six hours of stand up every night.

Ellery - And that attitude of “I really want this” and “How bad do I want this?” are important. I’ve never had something in my life excite me or give me as much of a purpose as this. So I just felt that if I don’t pursue music, that’s fine. No one was going to strike me with lightning for not following this dream, but I would feel like I was abandoning who God made me to be. Or just to dare to dream bigger, like “What if I actually tried to go all the way?” and not stay comfortable. It’s so scary. And in this season right now, I have to know what I’m willing to give up and what I’m willing to have happen. It’s not out of fame, it’s just that to get to that level, it requires so much more of you. And if you’re not basically sacrificing your entire belief system, you’re always going to feel like it’s a burden.

N/I - Or that it’s deferred in some capacity.

Ellery - I’ve just never felt like music was more of a burden than it was as a blessing. So because I’ve always leaned on that side of “It’s still worth it! I still love it.” I’m willing to figure out what that means. It’s really scary, but I love it.

N/I - Sure. But you’ve experienced some recent positive affirmations - some more concrete than others.

Ellery -  Totally. Having someone whose in the industry at that level look at you and say “I know what you’re going for and I believe in it too,” means so much. To have someone at that level give you that confidence, suddenly, you’re like “I knew I was onto something!” And I’m so glad someone was there to confirm my suspicion that I really had something to offer. Some people go way longer than I have without affirmation, and that stamina is something I am in awe of. It is so easy to get down on yourself in this industry - to go “Why am I doing this?” And if it’s for anyone else, you’re done.

N/I - Because a lot of times, things can seem pretty intangible, or so I would imagine. You hear stories about people going years upon years, upon decades’ worth of time knowing at some point things will catch on, but how do you keep that as a tangible goal?

Ellery - That’s honestly a spiritual thing, at least to me. Because there’s no way you can have that much… perseverance, or that sense of purpose if you’re not meant to do it.