I Stand On That: Zephaniah OHora Talks New Album, Neal Casal, and Being the Independent All American Singer

Zephaniah OHora picks up the phone, and I know he’s tired. It’s early afternoon, the day after Hurricane Isaias battered the East Coast and OHora’s Brooklyn home. The Empire State remains on spaghetti legs after a sustained beating from COVD-19, and even though situations are improving, Skinny Dennis, the Williamsburg honky tonk where OHora has played and booked music since 2013 is closed. Considering the heightened sense of emergency, I’m sure that Isaias’ lashing was more than enough to keep Zeph alert through the night– even if he didn’t have a barely 2-month old son. Which, of course, he does. Add to that, he’s damn near the release date of his second album, Listening to the Music, and his apartment is wall-to-wall with copies of CDs, vinyl, t-shirts, and all the packing materials necessary to fulfill orders destined for Kickstarter supporters and fans around the world. There’s anxiety there too as the fate and ability of the United States Postal Service is under siege and would threaten to be another troll on the bridge hellbent on exacting one more toll from independent musicians already struggling during the pandemic. Still, though, Zeph seems to be in good spirits. I waste no time letting him know how much I’ve been looking forward to catching up with him since our last conversation. That was in 2018 in advance of a show on the Creek Stage, a bit after the release of This Highway, a stunning debut that owed as much to the Bakersfield aesthetic as it did the late New York nights and guitar pulls at Skinny Dennis. The album was years in the making as OHora obsessively cultivated his country music style, drawing from heroes like Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons as well as Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Listening to the Music continues to echo that passion but showcases more than just a studied love of country music. It displays chops honed on the road and lyrics that have matured on the stage before becoming bottled in bond in the studio. It’s as clear as a church bell and as rebel-rousing as last call. Helmed by the prolific Neal Casal in his final role as producer (OHora would go on to name his son after Neal in tribute), Listening to the Music features outstanding original songs, classic performances, and guest appearances from bonafide country music legends. 

AI- How are things goin’ there in your world with the pandemic?

ZO- I think it’s one day at a time, really, is all you can do. The place, Skinny Dennis, I worked for since 2013 when it opened, I book all their music. That place of course is not open. We’ve just been hunkering down here at the apartment with my partner– and we just had a baby like two months ago! I’m really just doing that and then just packing up a bunch of records for the preorders and the Kickstarter and trying to get all the radio stuff out. So I’m keeping pretty busy, to be honest. But it’s one day at a time really with the pandemic, ’cause you just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s weird.

I jumped on that Kickstarter back when it first started because I was very excited that you were finally gonna be gettin’ back in the studio and makin’ a new record and it’s been really cool to get the updates and watch that whole thing unfold. One of the major moments of this whole thing was the passing of your friend, Neal Casal. I know it’s a rough place to start, but tell me how you came to work with Neal and about the process of putting the album together.

Of course, I knew who Neal was for a long time. I did my album release show for This Highway at this place called Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan. I had just started to have talks with a guy named Gary Waldman who’s Jon Graboff’s friend. Jon Graboff played pedal steel on both the records and played with Neal in The Cardinals and Shooter Jenning’s band and different things like that. Jon Graboff introduced me to Gary and helped me shop the first record around, tried to get me a booking agent, and just manage me as much as he could. He came out to the release show– and he brought Neal! I guess maybe Neal was in town or what have you, and they’re really good friends. They’ve been friends for like decades, Gary and Neal have. I met Neal before I went on and I was just like, “Oh wow, I can’t believe this guy’s here. I hope it’s a good show!” And then it was a good show. But afterwards, he came up to me and was just so excited about the music and the songs and bought a bunch of vinyl and was just like giving me nonstop really nice compliments! But I could tell they were genuine. We just struck up a rapport from there, and then we kept in touch a little bit here and there on social media. Or if he was playing in town, I went to a couple shows when Circles Around The Sun was playing. Kind of in the early days for them, I guess.

I was trying to figure out whether I should work with the same people for the second record or should I completely change it up. I was chatting with my friend and he was like, “Hey, aren’t you connected with Neal Casal? He would be a great person!” And a light bulb went off like, “Yeah! That is a great idea!” From there I just contacted him and he thought about it and then took on the great responsibility to be at the helm, so to speak. That’s the long, long story of how that came about.

You can definitely hear that influence from Neal on the record. With This Highway, you had an opportunity to be out touring and playing in a capacity, if I’m not mistaken, you really hadn’t before. I feel like that influences your playing on the record as well. There’s a lot more dynamic between the instruments, the guitars, the pedal steel, and the fiddle. That existed before, but it really feels more fleshed out this time around.

Yeah, I think I’ve definitely learned a lot with the first record, you know, it was my first real legitimate record. That was also really my introduction to that whole process. I’ve always had a pretty clear vision of the sound I want, but I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the whole thing. I was actually just looking at some old footage last night which is kind of a thing I feel like everybody’s doing during the pandemic– looking back at old footage you might have somewhere and being like, “Wow. That was five years ago!” Just reminiscing on the good times. I realized that some of those tunes that are on this current record, I was already startin’ to play them a little bit live before the first record even came out! Those are like really early-stage versions of some of those tunes.

And then I continued to write songs up to the record, I suppose. Like “All American Singer” and a couple of other ones were not as close to This Highway. They were a little bit later on but yeah, it definitely influenced it. And then Neal was just someone that was really focused on serving the song. He wasn’t playing an instrument full time on it, so he could dedicate all of his energy to getting us to connect with each other and play all together on the live takes. All those things together made for, I think, just a little step above the last record on some major aspects.

You mentioned the birth of your son earlier– and I wasn’t skipping over that ’cause I definitely wanted to ask you about that. First off, congratulations!

Thank you!

I got one who’s three and she just puts everything in such a different perspective. I understand there was a bit of excitement and drama and fear pretty soon thereafter the birth, right?

Yeah. It was. I mean, kinda from the get-go because it was like everything all happened around the same time. Neal passed away. And then we found out we were havin’ a kid. It was very just like, WHOA! Like two big life shifts. And then it was just preparing for your typical pregnancies and doing, learning everything we can, doing the classes– and then the pandemic happened, of course. And that was just like, “Good God, this is not a great time to be trying to be at a hospital!” Especially as you get towards the end– once a week you’re going and checking up, you know? So then we decided to do a home birth and did all that with a midwife. But it’s like any birth– they say you can’t plan for it. Anyhow, what seemed like a minor thing, we went to the hospital and it was just the nature of the intensive care unit, which is great because they look for every possible thing, but every day it was a new, like, “Okay, we want to do the test for this which could be this which could be going on.” And you’re like, “WHAT?”So yeah, it was a really scary experience, but really an interesting life experience and now the doctors are like, “He’s totally normal.” He’s still getting a little physical therapy and stuff, but hopefully, everything is completely on the mend. Now we’re just trying to navigate visiting with family. It’s just a really weird time to be having a newborn child.

It’s already weird. It’s already like, “Wow, my world has changed!” But a pandemic on top of that? Yeah. But you know, the protests were happening here. There was helicopters overhead in our neighborhood for probably… I think I counted almost 10 days straight, which is just not healthy for someone who’s about to give birth. We knew actually a few other friends that had difficult births too. And it seemed like there was a general uneasiness in the air in New York. It was affecting people’s birth processes, but thankfully we’re pretty much in the clear now.

Do you think that– and I don’t want to phrase it as a blessing, but I have to imagine that you appreciate the fact that had anything been different– if we weren’t dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, protests or anything like that, you most likely would be out performing and playing and gettin’ ready either to release the album or out they’re already playing it. Now you do have the opportunity to be home with your family. I would think that you are somewhat thankful for that.

Absolutely! Yeah. I can’t even imagine… I mean, already for me, touring… Because I’m not on a big label or have a whole infrastructure, everything’s on me unless I hire someone to do that. It’s a lot of moving parts and hoping that I don’t go into debt doing it. ‘Cause it’s expensive and you have a whole band. So it’s always a little bit of like, “Oh boy, here we go… Let’s hope this works out okay!” I was trying to release the album earlier, but the distribution label and the publicist were like, “Let’s give it the summer. We’ll spend a lot of time working on press and get it released at the end of summer.” And I was like, “Argh! I can’t wait any longer! I’ve already been makin’ people wait forever!” And the radio publicist, Angela [Backstrom], was like, “Dude, you’re gonna release a record in late May and then have a baby in June and go on tour? Are you crazy?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s probably not a good idea!” And now here we are.

I want to talk about the nuts and bolts of that– being an independent artist. I’ve seen on Facebook, you getting all of the product, if you will, in. Gettin’ it ready to go, doin’ this distribution yourself. Initially, you guys were lookin’ to be involved with a label to get things movin’ along. Ultimately, what was it that you found that was not going to work in that capacity?

A lot of it was really just a lot of people like, “Oh, we really like it a lot! We’ll pass it around the office and we’ll get back to you.” Or, “We’re not really trying to add any more artists.” It could just be that I don’t check off all the lists that maybe a label wants to take a risk. And that’s still a mystery to me, to be honest. Other than maybe some smaller labels that definitely would have done it with me, but they don’t have any money. So what’s the point? The whole idea is to have someone that has a little bit of clout and connections and has a budget to invest just a little bit of money in you. ‘Cause for me, between the Kickstarter and… I had to put in lots of my own money. People don’t realize Kickstarter, too, it’s almost like a public loan that you work really hard to pay back and you put some of your own money in just to pay just to create products. You don’t make any money off it, basically.

For signing with a label, especially if I’m going to give them any of my money that comes in from sales, it’s just like, if you can’t invest any money in PR or things like that, then why don’t I just stay independent? Because then I have to come up with that. And the problem for someone like me is I don’t have money in my family– which you find that out in the industry. A lot of people just have like a little bit of backing from someone and that’s how they get through those hard hurdles. You kind of need to have some money to make things happen. But thankfully I was able to get the Kickstarter going. Honestly, if I hadn’t done that, there’s just no way I could have made a record. It’s tricky waters to navigate as far as all that goes.

You brought up “All American Singer” earlier. That song goes back a ways. I didn’t realize that. You wrote that back around the same time you were putting things together for This Highway?

I think that song “Emily”, I actually wrote that and another song called “It’s Not So Easy Today” and “Black & Blue”… I think we started playing some of those live late winter, early spring before This Highway came out. And then ‘American Singer’, I wrote a little later on. But it’s still a while ago anyway. ‘Cause I spent a lot of time working on that song. Like a good year and a half probably.

Yeah, I saw that.

I didn’t really finish it until the record. I wrote the last verse on the train. I was stuck on the last verse for probably a year. I was like, “There’s something missing. There’s another part that needs to be in there.” And then I just had this idea on the train on the way home from the grocery store and jotted it down in my notes on my phone. And that was it!

The world, the country, Brooklyn were different worlds when you wrote that song. If you were writin’ that song now, is there anything that you would do or say differently?

We prepared that one to be the first single back in February or January. Or maybe it was March, I can’t remember. But it just felt like my mission statement as an artist, that I was coming to make it clear that as much as I might have different political ideas or views than other people, my goal was I hope I can still connect with people through my music and maybe other people can connect with my music to someone else. But I’m not really interested in drawing any hard lines that would cut anyone out of the conversation if there’s something I need to learn or my perspective needs to change or whatever that is.

And then all the stuff started happening with George Floyd and all these other things going on and COVID and I just was like, “Oh man, I dunno if this is the best song to be releasing right now.” I was pretty nervous to be honest. ‘Cause I don’t know? Someone could take it in a bad way and it could just… I don’t know what could happen these days. But also, it felt really inappropriate to do a song that wasn’t talking about something meaningful like that to a lot of people because of COVID and all that. So maybe it didn’t seem right to be singing a song like “Heaven’s On The Way” about traveling on the road somewhere and love– because nobody’s doing that, you know? So it kind of worked out in a way that it was kind of perfect for the moment. I don’t think that I would do anything different with it. ‘Cause I still feel like it’s relevant to a lot of things that were going on before COVID and all this other stuff and then it’s still relevant and I still feel passionate about that. I don’t want to build any walls up against people that I don’t agree with politically or socially. So I stand on that.

The sound of the record. I mean, it still sounds like Zephaniah OHora, but the last time we spoke, we talked about your Merle Haggard and your Gram Parsons influence, which is of course still there. I hear a lot of, probably more [Flying] Burrito Brothers on this one as opposed to Gram by himself.

That’s cool.

But you also got some Texas Swing in there with “Riding That Train” and you got those great Countrypolitan string arrangements… Throughout the course of writin’ songs and makin’ the album, what records had you found yourself gravitatin’ towards and listening to?

I think that I just kind of pulled from all of the periods, my phases of country that I’ve obsessed over. From Ray Price to Glen Campbell to Merle to, right before I made the record, a ton of Bobby Bare. There’s a couple of moments on there where we were like, “Oh, let’s try to get a little bit of that! Like a good Bobby Bare record!” I think that I mix it all up. And I wanted to cover the sonic territory related to the song in some way. There’s a little bit of that. There’s like a little bit of The Byrds thing… Yeah, I can see the Burrito Brothers thing with like the B-Bender. And that was the other thing! I wanted to get more of that stuff in there ’cause I don’t think there’s enough good recordings, like modern recordings, like really good– besides the Marty Stuart records, obviously– with B-Bender and having a little bit more of that country rock thing going on in there.

And obviously, there’s a lot of the Merle stuff in there I suppose, even though that sort of feels like a phase that started… I get really into something and I really try to get inside of it, but I’m still trying to find my own voice, which is really difficult to do. Like really get it right and still do the style. So there’s a lot of that, ’cause I spent so much time studying his recordings and his songwriting. So I think I just kind of put everyone together that I’ve been influenced by and listened to. And maybe certain songs seem to call for this person or this style. As opposed to the first record, every song and everything was in a similar tempo or feel or spirit. I really wanted to try to like push myself to write different types of songs that have a different energy to them, you know? Hopefully, it’s translated well,

The players on it are spectacular. You even got to have one of my favorite players of all time, Mickey Raphael on the harmonica. How’d that come about?

That was through Neal. I wanted to get a harmonica… I was thinking definitely the one song or maybe two songs, but I was limited on a budget, so I couldn’t really go crazy until I saw how much it cost. I can’t remember if I even mentioned Mickey Raphael or [Neal] was like, “I know Mickey Raphael! I’ll hit ‘im up!” And I was like, “Really? That’s crazy!” And then Mickey, he’d never heard of me before. He heard my first record and he was like, “Dude, sign me up, I’m down! Please, yeah, I’ll play on it!” That was a really nice feeling that he genuinely dug the music that I was trying to make.

A special attraction really would be Norm Hamlet who plays some dobro. What track does he appear on ?

He’s on the song “Time Won’t Take It’s Time With Me”, which is the last track on the record. One of my friends, Mario Carboni. I don’t know if you know who he is, but he’s a really great piano player and he lives out on the West Coast. He’s just this guy that I’ve known for a couple of years. Somehow he finds all these legends from the past– these famous session players or musicians from famous country bands. Finds ’em and plays music with them. He did a bunch of stuff with Red Simpson before he passed away and then him and Norm hooked up. I think this happened before he came out to Brooklyn to play Skinny Dennis. Mario would come out every year and he did a show with Norm there and then we also did a show with Norm.

We had this band that I played with for a while called The Last Roundup Boys, which is really just the band that only exists at Skinny Dennis. It started out as, “Hey, let’s just do a Merle tribute and play all Merle tunes.” Then it kind of evolved and we added some other repertoire, but we kind of always focused around his repertoire. It was just a lot of fun because we got to really get inside of his catalog and learn stuff. It just made us all better musicians and better songwriters– and it’s fun, great songs to play. So perfect for a bar, obviously. Mario and Norm came out and we played two long sets of all Merle stuff with Norm, which was amazing.

That was really cool. The bar was just packed to the gills and it was just like, “Jeez, Norm Hamlet’s playin’ pedal steel!” Some of those parts you hear in the live recordings, he was playing that part! I was like, “Whoa!” It was almost like a little bit of a musical out of body experience. We hung out afterwards and he told me a bunch of really cool stories and he’s such a sweet guy. I think I sent Mario a track and asked if Norm wanted to play on it and then he just recorded the dobro separate out on the West Coast. And then we mixed his recording in with Jon Graboff’s pedal steel, which is kind of like what they did on the [Same Train, A Different Time] record where there’s dobro and pedal steel. It kind of weaves in and out, so we did a similar method as far as that goes. Or similar approach, I should say.

And you don’t have any covers on this album this time around, is that right?

Nah, no covers. I wanted to maybe do like a Grateful Dead cover for the Kickstarter, but…

Actually, I was happily and pleasantly surprised to see that you had gone ahead and filled it out with all originals– because I know how much care and detail you put into writing those songs. I was glad to see that it was a full-on Zephaniah OHora project. And speaking of which, no 18 Wheelers on the title of this record.

Yeah, no. That was like a totally different band– Jim Campilongo played guitar… I mean, Jon Graboff was in that band but different rhythm section. Jon Graboff was in that band then Roy Williams was also in that band and John Shannon played acoustic guitar on “This Highway”. So those three guys played on this new record, but then I had a different rhythm section. It was a lot of the guys that I used for touring or I played hundreds or thousands of hours with locally. Like Arthur [Vint] who plays drums on the record. I hadn’t been playing with [the 18 Wheelers] for years at this point ’cause everybody’s like moved out of town or on tour with big bands on big tours. Jim has his own career, so he’s not about to go rough it with me to Iowa or somewhere (laughs)! It just felt like I had been playing those songs with Jon and other people and it just needed a different approach musically. It felt like the right decision to mix up the band.

Tell me what the plan is for the album release. August 28th, right, is when the album comes out? Have you been doin’ any streaming shows?

I haven’t. I think people really appreciate that, but there’s something about like, I dunno… The audio quality still isn’t where it should be at and you’re just in your apartment or somewhere. I don’t know if it really does justice to a live performance that I could even justify charging anyone any entrance fee into that. It’d be great if I could get a band or get people together. But honestly, I don’t know who’s still here. A couple of those guys have left town to be with family or to get out of New York. And there’s the thing of do we all hang out in the same room? Jon Graboff lives in Santa Fe and Roy is back in Pennsylvania for a while. I also have a brand new baby. I don’t know if I need to risk being around people when I don’t really need to be. So there’s all those elements.

I don’t know how I could possibly put together a live band performance. Unfortunately, my original plan was that I was going to be doing some touring and do a whole thing, but that’s obviously off the table for the foreseeable future. It might just be that Beatles style, I guess– people just enjoy the recording and that’s it (laughs)! ‘Cause we can’t even do a worldwide simulcast broadcast like The Beatles did! We can’t be in the same room. We’re all in different places and different situations. I admire and I envy some people and what they are able to do– like Billy Strings doing that thing at Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, playing with the full band and all that. Maybe if I was in Nashville, I could pull something off like that. But New York is just…

I don’t know where the light is going to appear at the end of the tunnel as far as live shows go. But I will say to you, I don’t think that you should discount doing a streaming show. I certainly wouldn’t plan to do one all the time, but here and there, and particularly when you get ready to release the album? I think you would be pleasantly surprised at the support you’ll receive. Even if you were only doing it with just a Venmo, PayPal, Cash App virtual tip jar for half an hour to play the songs. And I tell you, I honestly don’t think anybody would mind if young James was singin’ along in the background!

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s true. Everybody loves babies! It’s cute if it’s someone else’s, I guess!

Awww, Zeph, what’s more country than playin’ a country song with a baby cryin’ in the background?

True. You’re absolutely right about that!

Listening to the Music is available for pre-order now and will land on all your favorite platforms Friday, August 28th. Be sure to Like and Follow Zephaniah OHora on social media to keep up with updates and future performances!