Elijah Ocean and the lonesome cowboys of Los Angeles
When Elijah Ocean answers your call, you never know where he's going to be. We've chatted as he crossed the country in a tour van or boarded a flight to Nashville. He might have a few minutes to talk while he's setting up for a gig in Brooklyn or heading up to the Maine coast to visit the state where he grew up. There's a restlessness to the man and his music that never lets up. But for now, at least, he's found a physical and musical home in Los Angeles.
Ocean moved there two years ago after nearly a half-decade struggling to make ends meet in Brooklyn. Now, he's among a burgeoning scene of long-haired dreamers ushering in a new era of L.A. country music.
"I wasn't making a living as a musician in Brooklyn," Ocean said in a phone conversation. "I was working on food trucks and doing construction, and I wasn't really happy doing that. I was looking for a more joyful life experience."
Ocean always had an affinity for Southern California's music, from the classic 1950s "Bakersfield Sound" of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard to the heady Laurel Canyon heyday of The Byrds, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Mamas and the Papas. He liked the communal spirit of those halcyon hippie days.
"I wanted to set up shop in L.A. and see if I could find like-minded songwriters," he said.
Honky tonk happenings. It didn't take long. Ocean started showing up at the Honky Tonk Hacienda, a semi-weekly showcase of the area's country music talent at El Cid in Silver Lake. Put on by promoter Suzanne O'Keeffe, the event has showcased local musicians in more than 125 shows over the last three years. Ocean quickly fell in with a group of local players thirsty for the same community he was searching for.
One of those was Ben Reddell, musician, promoter and general manager of Bedrock.LA, a 37,000-square-foot complex in Echo Park that houses rehearsal spaces, recording studios and an instrument rental and repair shop.
"L.A. was really a mean, unaccepting place when I came here [from Texas] in 2002," Reddell said in a phone interview. "Whatever I can do for younger musicians like Elijah to come to L.A. and make good country music, I try to do."
Reddell started playing the Grand Ole Echo, a country showcase on the back porch of The Echo put on by promoter Kim Grant. "[It] was pretty much, on the east side of Los Angeles...the only hub for Americana-type music," Reddell said. "At the time it wasn't really a growing scene because country music was kind of seen as lame."
"It's finally hip to be country." The Grand Ole Echo is still going strong, but it's no longer lonesome. Reddell books a Sunday night country show at Harvard & Stone on Hollywood Boulevard. There's also Outlaw Country Night at The Escondite Downtown on Saturday nights and other assorted country-centric shows around town.
"Ben's booking all these great national acts, so we're joining forces," singer Jaime Wyatt said in a phone interview. "Now everyone's going on tour out of L.A. and hooking up with bands who play at the Grand OIe Echo or the Bootleg."
Wyatt, who fronts Jaime Wyatt and the Bang Bangs, has deep roots in California country music. Her great-great grandparents played barn dances in the San Fernando Valley and owned a feed store outside of San Bernardino frequented by Roy Rogers.
"It's finally hip to be country, which is great," she said with a laugh. "We've all been doing it for a while, but it's finally hip."
At home in L.A. Ocean lives on the second floor of a walkup apartment in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood, just a few minutes from some of the venues he frequents. Old LP sleeves cover the floor, Martin and Telecaster guitars hang from the walls — there's both an art-deco formality and a lived-in comfort to the place. Coffee cups sit in the sink, and Ocean's cat slinks about. It feels like a home from another time. Like Gram Parsons might stop by to hang out and play a couple of tunes.
"When I first moved out here, I sat down and wrote a bunch of songs right away," he recalled. "When you move it's almost like a reset button — just to try to find the next direction for the art form."
Reddell offered high praise for Ocean's homespun songs. "His strength is his songwriting and his capacity to present the song in the way he does...not only is it super witty, but it's also heartfelt and heartbreaking," he said. "He can convey emotion like no other songwriter I know."
Being in L.A. has allowed Ocean to focus only on music, without the side-gig paychecks. In addition to his solo work, he plays bass in both Reddell's band and the country-folk band Björn and the Sun. He's an occasional touring member of Nashville-based songwriter Michaela Anne's band and plays in a local just-for-fun country covers band.
"I've seen it grow big time," Ocean said of the local country scene. "There's way more talent coming through and artists that I really respect. The community's growing."
Next year, Ocean will release his fourth solo record, a collection of ten songs all written and recorded in his adopted home state. He'll hit the road for a national tour following the release. But for now he's perfectly at home in L.A.