Artist previews album at alma mater

MIDDLEBURY — Singer/songwriter Ezra Axelrod’s upcoming album, “American Motel,” represents the Middlebury College alum’s journey through the last few years.
Axelrod’s music represents the meandering experience of many 20-somethings that publications like The New York Times and “The Atlantic” reported on this past summer.
Since graduating from Middlebury in 2008, Axelrod has moved to London, married his college sweetheart, been cast in a London musical, co-founded a performing arts series and composed an album’s worth of new songs.
Axelrod will preview tracks from “American Motel,” at 8 p.m. on Saturday night in his alma mater’s Mahaney Center for the Arts concert hall before going to Bogotá, Colombia, later this month to begin recording. Though Axelrod produced the tracks on his 2008 recording “Around Here” himself, this time around he will be working with Grammy-award-winning engineer/producer Toño Castillo. Castillo made a name for himself in Latin America producing songs with popular Columbian artists including Shakira and Juanes.
“I have friends in Bogotá, and I wanted to spend the winter there — go somewhere different than London,” Axelrod said. “I wanted to go to a different environment and work with different kinds of musicians, so I kind of put out the feelers and somebody got me in touch with (Castillo) and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in Bogotá and I would love to work with you,’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
In his junior year at Middlebury, Axelrod studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he made life-long connections in Latin America. But he made his first tie when he began dating 2006 Middlebury graduate David Restrepo when he was a freshman. After Axelrod graduated in 2008, he and Restrepo were married in London, where they continue to live today.
Though Axelrod does not claim to be writing political songs, he does hope to capture his experiences as a gay man in his compositions.
“I really wanted to write something that represented my experiences, the experiences of my friends and the experiences that I think a lot of people in their 20s go through, you know, just trying to find your place in the world and stumbling through relationships or love and lust and things like that,” he said. “And I also wanted to write more specifically about my experiences as a gay man — not in a political way, per se, but in a very honest way.”
Axelrod, an Oregon native, wrote the majority of the songs for “American Motel” while living in London’s SoHo neighborhood in the older city center.
“I live in SoHo, so it’s a very gay neighborhood and I wanted to write about the experiences of people who move there,” he said. “A lot of the people in that community have kind of left homes where they couldn’t be themselves and they’ve moved to London to realize their identities and I’ve found that to be a very moving experience. There are a lot of inspiring people that I’ve met in London and my friends from Middlebury still inspire me and I wanted to tell all of those stories in an album that was very down to earth, very personal and very universal at the same time.”
He writes in a style that he has dubbed, “Vernacular Realist Song.” In almost ballad-like structures, Axelrod’s piano-heavy songs feature characters that tell a story, often through some form of dialogue.
“I want to write songs that focus on these everyday experiences in a very detail-oriented way — not necessarily metaphoric or too overloaded with imagery or flowered poetics,” he said. “A lot of the songs are kind of conversational.”
One of his favorites is the song “Bolivar,” which appeared on his 2008 recording and will be rerecorded under the name “Fútbol y Mangos” and released as a single in Latin America this summer. The lyrics for the song were taken directly from a love letter that Restrepo had sent Axelrod when they were both still at Middlebury.
In 2008, just before they were married, Axelrod discovered the old letter in a box.
“I dug it out of a box and I was reading it — I was writing that day and I took it to the piano and I started playing and singing the melody with the words, and it fit perfectly into this kind of song structure,” he said. “The song has had an amazing journey and its been great to be able to share that with my husband.”
After recording the new version of the song, Axelrod hopes to shoot a music video with a director from Buenos Aires that will also be released in Latin America. Though he noted that countries like Argentina and Mexico have made great progress in terms of gay rights, he knows that culturally, there are still a lot of hang-ups about men loving men.
“There are still a lot of challenges, and this is a love song between two men and the imagery — they’re playing soccer and doing these boyish things,” Axelrod said. “If you were in Latin America and to see that imagery in a gay context, it would be very confrontational. But that’s why I want to do that. The song is very nonchalant and it’s very honest, and yet people will be seeing images that aren’t really allowed in a gay context in this way.”
Along with the support of producer Castillo and the film director, Axelrod has also been lucky enough to gain a financial backer and business partner to support his artistic efforts over the next year. This fall, Axelrod was cast in the new musical “Legacy Falls.” While working on the show, Axelrod was introduced to executive producer Warren Cabral, who was interested in Axelrod’s work on the Menagerie music series, a collaborative project among SoHo artists.
Just this past week, Axelrod received confirmation that Cabral will help launch a new company, Menagerie Entertainment, which will encompass the performance series, along with Axelrod’s own recording and touring.
Axelrod plans to wrap up recording in Bogotá in March, and then start touring in the area before starting another North American tour in the fall. If all goes according to plan, Axelrod hopes to make another appearance in Middlebury sometime in the 2011-2012 academic year.
In the two years since his graduation, Axelrod has made significant progress in launching his musical career, but he admits that it has not always been easy, and that he still has a ways to go in his journey.
“If you really want to go for it in terms of your career you have to move to these cities — you’re almost forced to,” he said. “It’s hard. I do feel like you have to sacrifice a lot. The hardest thing about moving to London was starting from zero. I didn’t know anyone. There were no family connections, there’s a Middlebury community there but it’s generally older and finance based and you don’t have this arts network to fall back on. But that motivated me more — it was very sink or swim.”
With his impending recording and international touring schedule, it would seem that Axelrod is indeed keeping his head above water.
“There was nobody there who was going to hold your hand,” he said. “You either make a name for yourself, or you go back to the States.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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