To fans of Live, Ed Kowalczyk’s backstory is well-documented. After forming the band in 1988 with three middle-school friends in York, PA, Live went on to become an international sensation, selling more than 20 million albums. Two albums, 1994’s Throwing Copper and 1997’s Secret Samadhi, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. The band also scored five No. 1 singles (including the blockbuster “I Alone”) and nine Top 10 singles.
Kowalczyk, the legendary lead singer and songwriter now teams with his new band – James Gabbie on lead guitar, Chris Heerlein on bass and Ramy Antoun (Black Eyed Peas, Seal) on drums. They played their debut gig in the UK headlining London’s Camden Koko. They will open re:create 2011 Monday evening, Feb.7 with a full show including greatest hits such as Lightning Crashes, I Alone and many more.
In mid-2008, Ed Kowalczyk found himself in an unfamiliar situation. As the singer and songwriting force behind the multi-platinum rock band Live, Kowalczyk had been playing music professionally for nearly two decades. But for the first time in his life, Kowalczyk felt no urgency to write songs or have anything to do with music for that matter. “I was in a malaise about the whole thing,” Kowalczyk says. “I felt like I had done everything I wanted to do and wasn’t sure if I wanted to re-engage.”
A contemplative person by nature, Kowalczyk turned inward for a period of soul-searching. “Then, out of nowhere, I got this incredible inspiration to do it again in this new way,” he says. “I realized that one of the limitations I was experiencing was the fact that I’d been doing it the same way for so long that I wondered what would happen if I challenged myself and tried things differently. From then on, it was like uncorking a bottle that had been shaken and it exploded into this writing fervor.”
The result of that burst of inspiration is Kowalczyk’s debut solo album Alive — a collection of powerful, melodic rock songs that represents Kowalczyk’s renaissance as a vocalist and songwriter, while retaining the searching lyrical qualities and emotional uplift that have made him beloved by fans the world over. “It is a reinvention of my sound,” Kowalczyk says, “but, thematically, Alive is very much vintage me. The material is dark at times, but it’s not depressing. I’ve always been a big fan of Peter Gabriel because he can capture a feeling of darkness, but also give you this intense feeling of hope as well.”
Knowing he wanted to make a rock record, rather than an acoustic affair, Kowalczyk turned to a friend, Texas-based producer and engineer CJ Eiriksson, who has worked with Live, Phish, and Incubus, among others. “CJ said, ‘I’ve got this full set-up down in Austin and am plugged in with all these great musicians. Come make your record here,’” Kowalczyk recalls. “So I went down there trusting him to put me with whomever he thought was great, and, sure enough, he totally went over the top with it.”
Eiriksson brought in lead guitarist James Gabbie, bassist Chris Heerlein, and drummer Ramy Antoun, whose combined experience and technical abilities meant rock-solid performances, which lend the proceedings a more musically sophisticated air than anything Kowalczyk has recorded prior. “What I’ve noticed about the new stuff is that the space in the music is being interpreted differently,” Kowalczyk says. “By space, I mean where there isn’t a lyric or something going on melodically. How that space gets interpreted is really where a musician’s talent and genius come through and that’s where this record has a lot of different aspects going on.”
The best example of Kowalczyk’s new direction on Alive is “The Great Beyond.” “Because of Ramy’s playing, it went to this dance rock place that was really exciting,” Kowalczyk says. “Here was a song that I could have easily written eight years ago and had it sound one way, but Ramy brought a totally fresh perspective. That’s when I knew I had done the right thing for myself as an artist, which was to break out and not rest on a style I was used to.”
Lyrically, “The Great Beyond” addresses an idea that permeates the entire album: “The song is about having no boundaries and heading off into the unknown — a place you’re unsure of, but that feels free,” Kowalczyk says. Other songs carry on the theme of letting go: On “Drive” Kowalczyk sings about falling asleep at the wheel and letting inspiration take over, while “Zion” is a call to meditation and contemplation. Then there’s “Drink (Everlasting Love)” — a song Kowalczyk wrote with Chris Daughtry, a friend he describes as “an incredible melodist and writer.” “That song is ultimately about my faith,” Kowalczyk says, “but I always like to leave a door open for people to respond to my lyrics in the way that feels natural to them. That’s the beauty of the language of music, it is the universal language of the heart.”
Finally, Alive’s first single is “Grace,” which Kowalczyk says was inspired by watching the news coverage of the devastating January earthquake in Haiti. “Every time something like that happens you get this onslaught of images,” Kowalczyk says. “Most of them were obviously very tragic, but there were also these perceptible moments where there was a sparkle in someone’s eye. I picked up on it as this really heartfelt thing that felt like a silver lining of hope or love amidst this incredible disaster. I wanted to write about that and make sense of it.” “Grace” was produced by Greg Wattenberg, who has worked with Daughtry, Train, and Five For Fighting, among others. “He’s a visionary co-writer and producer who challenged me to see guitars and song structure in a different way,” Kowalczyk says. “That song has a lot of emotional weight and I feel like it really represents this new era of my life.”
Kowalczyk hadn’t been in the recording studio since making Live’s last studio album, 2006’s Songs From Black Mountain. When his songwriting muse returned in early 2009, Kowalczyk hit the road for a series of solo acoustic shows that re-ignited his love for performing. “I fell in love with it all over again because I discovered a new capacity in myself to build a rapport with people that you just don’t get when you’re on stage with the big rock band,” he says. “But I also fell in love with writing at the same time, so it was really personal, emotional, and creative process.”
The result, of course, is Alive, which Kowalczyk feels truly represents who he is as an artist. “There are moments on it where I get as close to how I feel about myself as I’ve every gotten in my songwriting,” he says, “moments when I feel like I’ve really connected to something in myself that, for whatever reason, I’m compelled to share with others. As an artist, that’s about the best you can hope for.”