On Born Blue, Elijah Ocean makes explicit honky tonk designed for hardwood dancefloors, cold beer, and folks not looking to haggle over the definition of country music. With pre-pandemic origins stretching back years, the Maine native turned Golden State cowboy (he’s currently hanging his Stetson in Nashville) gave listeners a peek behind the denim curtain with 2020’s Blue Jeans & Barstools, a collection of hillbilly experimentations that acted as a healthy appetizer to the fully realized banquet of movers, shakers, and heartachers supplied on his newest effort. Ocean’s current sound is rooted in the neotraditionalist movement of the 1980s, blending classic hallmarks with polished pop production to create country music equally suited for the radio or the roadhouse. Featuring a hot band further enhanced by guest appearances from fiddle player & CMA Musician of the Year Jenee Fleenor (Terri Clark, Martina McBride), multi-instrumentalist Brian Whelan (Dwight Yoakam, Jaime Wyatt), and Hall of Fame guitarist Brent Mason (Alan Jackson, George Strait), Born Blue rides high with a welcome and unapologetic country style.
AI- I want to get into the new album, I want to talk about the stuff you’ve been doin’ with the Rose Petals, but I thought a good place to start would actually be with last spring when you put Blue Jeans & Barstools out– which just had to be the worst time to put out a record in the history of puttin’ out records! What was on your mind at the time of the buildup? You had to be terrified?
EO- Well, that was a funny record. Basically, that record started out as a bunch of demos that didn’t make the cut for this new record. I was workin’ on the new record at that same time, and I had all these demos piled up. I knew I wasn’t gonna use ’em for Born Blue, so I was like, “I don’t really know what to do with all these?” And my guitar player was like, “Why don’t you just put ’em out as an album, as their own thing?” And I was like, “Oh, that’s actually not a bad idea!” It was like easing into the sound a little bit, ’cause it was a bit of a departure for me as an artist. I wanted to set the stage for this new record. So I was like, “Alright, cool!” I just finished up the demos and started to plan to put them out just digitally. I didn’t do a giant push behind it– and then the pandemic hit too! I didn’t want to cancel it. I just decided to toss it out there and see what happened. I think I got some good response. It’s not my greatest, proudest record by any means, but I think it’s cool. It’s different.
It actually gave you an opportunity to sorta do a soft opening for Born Blue?
Exactly! That’s exactly what it was!
So then talkin’ about that, I love you fellas out there on the West Coast, you’ve got great titles for everything that you do! I’ll bring up your pal Alex Owen in a little bit– but Second Wave Neo-Traditional Country & Western music! I love it, and it’s something that I think is… Can I say coming back around? This particular sound?
I guess the sound now is like 30 years old or more. When I say neo-traditional, I’m talkin’ about ’80s mostly country music by George Strait, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, and Keith Whitley and Clint Black and all these guys. I started getting back into that music five or six or seven years ago. It started sneaking into my shows! It’s something about the sound of it. It just came back around for me, and I started getting obsessed with it and playing a lot of that music and learning a lot of that music. I didn’t want to recreate that sound, but I wanted to take that sound into account when I made my record. Because that’s what they were doing at the time. In the ’80s, they were taking into account the history of country music– I would say the entire 20th Century up to that point– and then modernizing it or making it current without reinventing it. It’s like riding a line between a throwback and a completely new thing. They were paying respect to the history of the genre while also being current. That’s what I love about that mentality. It’s not easy to do, but I was trying to do that.
Indeed! Something that you did was you made a danceable country music album. You’ve said that that was your goal, but that’s also a facet of country music that I believe often gets lost or ignored– being able to write country songs that people can dance to. And one of the things I love about country music is that you can write the saddest song in the world, but you can still dance to it!
I love that too! It’s a juxtaposition of the hard trials of life with just cuttin’ loose on the dance floor at the same time. I wanted to make every single song [have] a dance feel, and think that worked out pretty good.
You talk a lot about cheatin’ songs, divorce, too much whiskey, gambling, and even prostitution. Your themes have gotten more adult as your songwriting has progressed. Is that indicative of how you yourself are progressing as an individual?
I’ve definitely grown up a lot over the years. I definitely had a lot more experiences. A lot of my songwriting comes from my imagination, so it’s not like I’ve actually lived every single moment that I write about. Or maybe I’m just stretching out my experiences at times. But yeah, I’ve experienced a lot in my life so far with all the traveling and living in a bunch of different places and whatnot. I just try to write things that [have] universal themes, but I can talk about them in a different way– or laugh at terrible experiences (laughs)!
“Thirty-Five” is very introspective let’s-look-at-the-world-around-me-and-how-I-have-outgrown-certain-aspects-of-it. You also get to have one of the progenitors of that sound that we were just talking about in Brent Mason. What was it like hearing that guy play guitar on your record?
It was a dream come true! I’d say he defined the guitar sound of that era. My guitar player, Stephen [Musselman], loves Brian Mason and has learned a lot of his licks over the years and studied him as a guitar player. He can pull that stuff off, you know? We sat down with Stephen to work on it and I was like, “Yeah, basically, I just want you to sound like Brent Mason.” He was like, “Why don’t you just get Brent Mason to do it?” (Laughs) And I was like, “Oh yeah! Why not? Sure!” So I put in a call– and he was excited to work on it! He was like, “Oh, real country music!” That’s what he said! He’s like, “So what are you kinda thinkin’ for the sound that you want on this?” I was like, “Well, basically, “Mercury Blues” by Alan Jackson. Like the thing you do.” And he was like, “Great! I’ll give it the Alan Jackson treatment!” He sent me a whole rhythm track and a whole lead track and then this tic-tac baritone guitar track that goes on the other side. It worked out awesome! It was perfect. He just nailed it!
I have enjoyed talkin’ to your pal Alex Owen, who I brought up earlier, AKA Lasers Lasers Birmingham. We’ve spoken on a couple of occasions. You’ve produced his most recent tracks, “Makin’ a Scene” and “Can You Believe My Luck”. Alex, who’s extremely complimentary of you, led me to believe that you have a fairly clear vision of what you want your sound to be. Tell me about initially tapping Brian Whelan to produce Born Blue.
I started workin’ with Brian in 2018 when this album was just gettin’ goin’. It’s been a long time! We were at a bar in January listening to some ’90s country, and I just started talkin’ to him about the sound. I said, “Man, I love how like crisp and giant this all sounds,” ’cause in the past I’d pretty much gone for a warm analog ’70s vibe. He’s like, “Yeah, they’re using drum samples in a lot of this stuff. The kick drum and the snare drum, it’s samples. Or they’re at least samples mixed in.” And I was like, “Really? That’s crazy!”
I started goin’ over to his place and playing him my new songs and talkin’ to him about it. The conversation led to him producing my record, and we did a handful of sessions that started off as this record together. He was very helpful for me in getting the ball rolling with it all and kicking off the division that I’d been wanting to do. After a few months, it just seemed like we were… I don’t know if he was exactly getting what I wanted to go for or something like that. So we just split ways on the project and I took the reins from there. He ended up playing some keys on a few of the songs. He’s such a talented guy. He’s great!
I surmised that you have remained friends as he was still credited on the album.
Yes, of course! There’s no hard feelings there. It just seemed like that’s what needed to happen.
Another project that you’ve been involved with is the Rose Petals. American Grenadine just came out this past spring. I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete 180 from Born Blue, but it’s definitely a different sound– kind of Laurel Canyon meets IRS Records, healthy splash of No Depression tossed in there for good measure. Tell me about writing with Peter Donovan. Does switching styles and genres work different muscles for you creatively?
It does, I think. I met Peter way back in 2008 in Maine and we were in a band together. I joined up with his band at the time and we started writing songs together pretty early on. He has a much different style than me, but I think we complemented each other pretty well. We settled on this writing style of him writing lyrics and me kind of writing the music for it. Pretty quick, I moved down to New York City and he moved out west, and then we just continued to write songs from a distance over the years. We tried to make an album a handful of times. We had these false starts and it just never really panned out. I think we might’ve not even written for a few years or something like that and then we started writing again. He started sending me new lyrics. And that’s where the Rose Petals idea started of like a band with two lead singers and with this jangly folk-rock thing goin’ on.
He wrote all the lyrics and it’s a concept record about the presidents of the United States. Every single song is about a different president. That was a very fun record to make! Some of my best friends were part of that record. Curran [McDowell] is the same drummer that played on Born Blue. The guy who played most of the fiddle on Born Blue [Dan Destiny] actually engineered it. There’s a lotta tie-in. I was making those kind of at the same time too. They’re a completely different sound, but on the Rose Petals album, I played all the guitars. So I spent a lot of time with all these 12-string guitars and experimenting with that rock guitar sound.
That 12-string is such an evocative sound too. When you hear it, it automatically conjures up the ’60s and the Byrds and George Harrison. These things immediately come to mind.
We wanted to continue that lineage there from the Byrds through [Tom] Petty through even bands like R.E.M. and Gin Blossoms and stuff [in] that sort of vein. I grew up listening to a lot of that stuff too. So it was very natural for me to do that, whereas the neo-traditional country sound is something that I remember happening on the radio when I was in high school– but it wasn’t cool to like country music in high school, you know (laughs)? But I remember every once in a while seeing some of those videos on CMT, or I’d be alone in my car and a song would come on the radio and I’d be like, “Man, this is awesome! I’m not supposed to like this, but I could definitely sing along to this and get into it!”
Yeah, it definitely worked very different muscles. I was probably able to be a little more freely creative with the Rose Petals stuff because, yes, we were going for a jangly sound, but I think it was a little bit more like anything could work. There’s way more things that can work in that setting. Whereas for Born Blue, it was very specific what I was going for, and there’s only certain things that work in that world for me.
The parameters of country music. That’s something that has been discussed time and time again of what can be done, what should be done, and what needs to be left out. For you– and I’m glad that you brought that up– what do you think those parameters for country music are? Did you have ideals that you wanted to follow through with for Born Blue?
Yes, absolutely! And that’s what I love about making country music– the parameters like you said! It’s really fun to fit into this world. Obviously, the definition of what country music is, is something that’s debated all the time and people argue about it. I came to the conclusion that I have a very specific idea of what I think country music is or what it means to me. It might not be the same for everybody and that’s fine. I have come to terms with that. I don’t want to fight with anybody about what country music is and what it isn’t. I know what I think it is. To me, it’s certain specific dance feels and fiddle and steel and good songs about life. I know what it is when I hear it. For this album, I was just trying to fit into my own personal definition of what country music is.
Do you feel like the album Born Blue is going to be an unveiling of sorts for who and what you do going forward?
I think it’s an unveiling of what I’m doing right now, for sure. I don’t know exactly where I’m gonna go after this. I think I need to keep evolving as an artist. I don’t want to make this same record again. I have written a new batch of songs that expands on this a little bit. I started listening to a lot of Jimmy Buffet to be honest (laughs)!
If you take out “Margaritaville” and parrotheads and you reduce it to those songs, it is compelling.
I love “Margaritaville” to be honest! I think it’s an amazing song and it makes me feel great! It may be overplayed, but I’m just imagining hearing that song for the first time, you know? It’s a standup song! On a podcast yesterday, I said the same thing about “Friends In Low Places”!
You’re not gonna win me over on that one. I never could get on that bandwagon. I just couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now.
Well, listen to Mark Chesnutt’s version!
You know what? I’ll do that!
It’s classy (laughs)!