words by sammy maine
Jake Ewald has always written with a sense of place, crafting his characters – fictional or otherwise – with a depth that allows us to construct their stories through his thoughtful, expansive narratives. While we were allowed glimpses of this world through his work with Modern Baseball, it’s on his second full length under the Slaughter Beach, Dog moniker that enables Ewald to showcase writing that feels more vulnerable than ever; rich with imagery of his childhood, Birdie is an album where Ewald is able to produce an introspective universe that taps into the kind of stuff we can all relate to.
Slaughter Beach started as a fictional place so that Ewald could divert from the hyper-personal confessions he was known for. Struggling for inspiration, it was a project that allowed him to create a world where he was simply its narrator. It turned out that this exercise in distancing his own experiences from his songwriting allowed him to rediscover his own reality and bring that back to his musical output – an exhale in an inner-landscape that once felt suffocating.
Speaking to Ewald over the phone, he says that he ‘definitely mixed in a lot more real life stuff’ into the new album, compared to his debut released earlier this year. “It’’s kind of just an alternative universe to my own reality where I can make up situations that can be influenced by some of the same things that I’ve experience,” he says. “I can project things onto other people and be able to explore ideas but be a little more removed from it as opposed to just writing it about myself. With this album it’s a combination of both styles where I pull from everything and then stick stuff together.”
On Modern Baseball’s last album Holy Ghost, Ewald was wrestling with the grieving process of losing his Grandfather. On Birdie, he continues to include the influence of his family, allowing him to discover a perspective he was yet to realise. “I definitely dug more into my relationship with my family when I was younger because as we were nearing the slowing down of Modern Baseball, one of the big things about being on tour was spending a lot of time away from my family which for me was not something like, ‘I wish I could hang out with my parents’ but a lot of the time, it was my parents calling me saying they missed me and asking why I was gone all the time and I would complain about it and we would get in fights about it.
“Later on, I realised that the reason that happened and the reason I do still go home and we have a good relationship is because when I was younger my parents put in so much work with my sister and I – nurturing us and helping us grow, and helping us form relationships with our extended family and because of them I now have this huge support system from my extended family.
I’ve realised that and how indebted I am to them and thinking about all the memories that I had when I was younger with my sister and with my parents and finally realising that I can use that when I’m writing a song. I have all these emotions that I had experienced that I hadn’t really tapped into before, so I’ve just started plucking at those memories and throwing them into these newer songs, which feels good, as kind of, in itself, creating this neat thing between me and my sister and me and my parents where we’re at this place where I’m taking more time at home and also, I’m including them in the music in this really special way that I’ve never really done before and it just feels really good.”
Due to this extensive touring schedule with Modern Baseball over the past few years, he explains that the sense of place on the album is ‘definitely’ influenced by the instability of that lifestyle. “Friend Song” for example, opens with the line “It’s nice to be home,” and details Ewald’s extensive anxiety that is thankfully stifled by the people he is able to surround himself with when he’s home. “My relationships definitely were strained and I couldn’t connect to that many things because I was gone all the time so when I would come home, it wasn’t like I was coming home to this big vast homey thing, I was just going to this place where I could turn off for a second,” he says. “It was difficult to cultivate relationships and have a place that you could lean on when you needed to. The feeling of home or the feeling of being away from home is really less about the actual place and more about the people that you surround yourself with so usually that’s the first thing I go to whenever I’m working on a song.”
This instability is mimicked in the artwork for Birdie, which features items associated with a home – lamps, chairs, a bicycle – all thrown into a pile of chaos. While Ewald didn’t necessarily want to portray that, he says it’s surprising that it worked out that way. “I didn’t think of a concept for it before coming up with the idea. I was trying to think of artwork and then I thought it would be so cool if I had all this shit in my house just piled up in the back yard. My partner Jess took the picture and I was looking at the picture and I thought ‘wow, this is what my life has been like for the past four or five years’. These are all the things that I have and they’re all in this pile and every now and then I see them when I’m home and I move them around. So it was a very surprising, meaningful experience at the end.”
Ewald adds that creating Birdie was a meaningful experience in itself that enabled him to go past the limitations that he had set for himself in the past. When it came to diving into his personal experience and relationships, his anxieties of being authentic would marr his progress, meaning he would often hit a wall when it came to his productivity. “I would have all these rules for myself where I’d write something and I’d be like ‘oh I’m making that up, it’s not real or that’s not personal enough, nobody’s going to believe it when I sing it and I want people to be able to connect to it so it has to be true’,” he adds. “Then I started writing these songs that were totally fictional and I had to come up with all my own scenarios out of thin air.
“After that I was able to get comfortable doing both things. Now I’m in this neat place that if I have something that’s affecting me personally I can start writing about it but also I still feel comfortable pulling from a fictional scenario to elaborate on the personal thing that happened to me. If I want to dive into an emotion a little further or investigate some sort of relationship, I can just toy with it using both elements. It’s a pretty valuable resource that I tap into a lot. Something that I’m trying to get better with over the last couple of years is communicating with people honestly so this is kind of my practice zone for communicating with people. It’s a nice escape sometimes.”
While the album has allowed him to communicate with others more honestly, it seems it’s also helped him to communicate with himself. “I think I have a tendency to take stock of myself and make these big lists and try to look at it and have everything figured out. When I’m writing a song, it’s really easy to jump to that but something that I’m trying to learn how to do in songwriting and in real life – it’s kind of going together – is not necessarily thinking about all of it at once. It’s letting myself be vulnerable in a moment and not have to think about the next ten moves; how this conversation is going to go, or how this relationship is going to go. I’m learning to just relax and just say what I want to say – in a song or real life.”
Ewald’s previous inner-battle of trying to have everything figured out was often a pinpoint of Modern Baseball’s songwriting. During their shows, MoBo fans would scream every syllable with a tenacity that said they were going through the same motions as their heroes and with Ewald still only in his mid-twenties, I ask him if the passionate intensity of MoBo fans put any pressure on him to dig even deeper – to be as open and as vulnerable as the teengers who looked up to him. “Maybe it was just because of the way that the MoBo fanbase was but I never really felt pressured by them at any time. It was always really inspiring,” he says. “I think from the way that we communicated with them from the beginning – we had a really honest, on the same playing field type of relationship – kind of like, we’re young, you’re young, we’re going through the same things and we can communicate about them. That was really valuable from the beginning.
“It got confusing later in the game when everything was growing just because, as we got bigger, it became natural – especially for newer fans – to see us as rock stars in a way, which we totally weren’t. But that was really confusing and it was a weird thing to deal with because we were just trying to say ‘hey we are just like you, why do you want to take a picture with me? We’re just the same person.’ So that took awhile to get a grip on but I don’t know, I think we got really lucky with the fanbase just being so supportive of whatever we wanted to do and just being appreciative of the music we made and we were always appreciative of them listening to us and letting us know how much they cared about what we did.”
Ewald has noticeably steered away from this ‘rock star’ image, shunning the larger venues that MoBo regularly frequented and instead, quietly playing a handful of intimate solo shows in support of the new album. It’s perhaps his way of continuing to try and present himself as the regular guy he is – going through the same tussles as just about any 20-something out there. “It makes me so happy that people can connect to it and sometimes find comfort in it but just don’t forget that if you can find comfort in it, that doesn’t mean that I’m a genius or anything, that just means that we have something in common. So I hope that it inspires people to see it that way,” he says.
In terms of what Ewald wants Birdie to say about him and the Slaughter Beach, Dog project, the Philadelphian hopes that it ‘sounds mature’. “I’m a little bit more tired so I feel like it kind of expresses that. Not that I want it to sound tired,” he says, laughing. “It sounds so corny to say this but… writing these songs and recording these songs felt so peaceful. For the first time in three or four years, I just felt truly at peace; not upset about anything but also not jumping out of my skin excited about something – just totally calm, happy, even. It was an incredible feeling. So I hope that feeling translates through the record and maybe some other people can feel that also. To just have a break from both sides of the spectrum and just able to sit in one place and feel good.”
Full Album Stream:
‘Birdie’ is released on October 27th, via Lame-O / Big Scary Monsters / Cooking Vinyl