photo by Meredith Jenks
Zephaniah OHora is a musician who shows that country artists don’t have to live in Nashville or Texas. He lives in Brooklyn, which nobody would peg as a hotbed of country music. But if you listen to This Highway and his new album Listening to the Music (produced by Neal Casal), it’s clear that OHora has a strong grasp of traditional country music.
By phone, he discussed his musical beginnings in church, his early country influences, and what Neal Casal brought to the new album.
Americana Highways: How have you been occupying yourself during quarantine?
Zephaniah OHora: Right now I’m occupying myself by setting up all the packages to send out: pre-order, Kickstarter, radio. It’s been a good way to occupy myself.
AH: You started playing guitar in church. Were you playing anything else at that time or just the music you played in church?
ZO: My first instrument was an alto saxophone in sixth grade, That was a recital group at our church with a trumpet player and another saxophone player. We learned songs and played together. Then my dad got me an electric guitar when I was 13. That’s when I started trying to learn to play. That’s how it all started. Then I started playing in a contemporary church band. That’s how I fell into it.
AH: Your family was very involved in the church. Was it one of those households where anything other than Christian music was not allowed?
ZO: Pretty much. We could listen to older music. My dad would play a lot of older stuff. My mother was more of the enforcer of some of that stuff. Then I listened to the radio. I wasn’t allowed to have 90s rock CDs, hair metal. I had some Christian versions of that. My older brother would send me tapes from California. He exposed me to a lot of music over the years. He would send me tapes. One side would be John Coltrane. One side would be Miles Davis. My mother seemed OK with it because it was instrumental music. I listened to a lot of that, Kool and The Gang, Otis Redding. He sent me some Beatles albums on tape: Abbey Road and things like that. It was more like I couldn’t listen to music with swearing or contemporary Satanic music.
AH: What were some of the country records that inspired you to write your own songs?
ZO: The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo introduced me to Gram Parsons. That sent me down the country thing. It was pretty influential early on. I’ve always collected vinyl. I started going to the country section and found Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Then I got a lap steel and tried to figure out how to play that terribly. I just tried to figure out how to write country songs while playing the lap steel.
AH: How was recording the new album different than recording This Highway?
ZO: The only way it wasn’t different was that it was in the same studio. We had everyone in the same room. Everyone had their own booth. Everything was different as far as the personnel. It was me, John Shannon, Roy Williams, and Arthur Vint. They played with me for years. We’ve played countless hours together in various groups. The other portion was Jeff Hill on bass, Jon Graboff on pedal steel, and Neal producing. They were all friends who played for decades. It was like two groups of friends in the same room playing. It was pretty cool and different than the last record. The guys from the last record, we weren’t necessarily friends in the same way outside of that group.
AH: What did Neal bring to the album that it wouldn’t have had otherwise?
ZO: I’m still figuring that out. I think he brought a different approach. I had two guitars producing the last record. It was guitar-centric. This time I wanted to find someone just to produce, to listen to us play and figure out how to capture the best possible spirit. Neal’s approach is as a singer-songwriter. He had a deep reverence for songwriting and for the song itself. It was a more musically spiritual approach. It was more about getting the vibe, not so much how we played. You have moments where you wish you had sung something different, or recorded a song in a different key. That’s always going to be the case, but we captured a nice moment in time. It was really fun doing it.
AH: What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
ZO: I worked at Skinny Dennis, this bar in Brooklyn, which is how I got started making music more professionally. I started booking music, so I got to meet all these talented musicians. I got to be a part of the music community. That was the best job I ever had in my life. It felt like Cheers in a way. I was in the process of trying to expand and open some other locations right before COVID-19. I don’t know what the future holds for them, but that’s my dream: to someday have another location or to have my own spot. A music venue that’s very music-focused. A place where people can have great musical experiences and memories. It’s a much more lucrative business to get into rather than releasing records that cost $30,000. Especially now since you can’t tour, but touring costs tons of money. That’s my hope some day: that I can open a music venue. I can’t say where exactly.
The Neal Casal Music Foundation is a 501c3 charity organization dedicated to provide instruments and music lessons to aspiring musicians in New York and New Jersey, where Casal grew up. The foundation also seeks to provide mental health support to musicians. To support the foundation, visit https://nealcasalmusicfoundation.org/.
Listening to the Music will be available everywhere on August 28. Order your copy here (https://www.zephaniahohora.com/).