“People think you have to be from Texas or Nashville to play this music,” says Zephaniah OHora. “But that’s not the way I see it. Country’s all about being true to yourself and telling honest, authentic stories. You can do that anywhere.”
Written and recorded in his adopted hometown of Brooklyn, NY, OHora’s outstanding new album, ‘Listening To The Music,’ is proof of that. Produced by Neal Casal, the collection fuses timeless twang with modern sensibilities, tipping its cap to the likes of Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons as it explores a distinctly urban, 21st century landscape through a classic country lens. OHora is a master craftsman backed by a virtuosic band here, and his songs absolutely crackle with electricity, moving beyond throwback revivalism to break fresh artistic ground with dazzling fretwork and dizzying pedal steel. The result is a record all about the power of music to bind us to our past and reinvent our future, a lush, intoxicating celebration of melody and memory that bridges the considerable miles between Bakersfield and Brooklyn.
“It was actually New York that first introduced me to country music,” says OHora, whose rich baritone voice belies his New England roots. “When I moved here, I wasn’t actually playing all that much, but I was really into collecting old records. The more of those classic country albums I discovered around the city, the more I studied and absorbed the structure and the spirit of the music.”
Born in New Hampshire to a deeply religious family, OHora first became enamored with music as a youngster in church, which inspired him to pick up the guitar and begin leading his congregation’s worship group on Sundays. By his early 20’s, OHora was living in New York, and though he wasn’t pursuing music professionally, his burgeoning love for classic country led to a regular gig performing and DJing at a small bar in Williamsburg. Soon he was booking the club, and when the owners opened another nearby location, things took a turn for the serious. The new bar, Skinny Dennis, quickly became the epicenter of the revitalized country scene in New York, hosting live shows seven nights a week, and OHora found himself smack dab in the middle of it, living and breathing the music as he booked and performed with some of the finest instrumentalist the city had to offer.
“I never planned to make a career out of it,” says OHora, “but playing all those Ray Price and Red Simpson and Merle Haggard covers just naturally led me to writing my own material, and that naturally led me to making my first record.”
Co-produced by guitar wizards Luca Benedetti (Martha Redbone, The National Reserve) and Jim Campilongo (Norah Jones, Teddy Thompson), OHora’s debut, ‘This Highway,’ was a breakout critical hit, earning rave reviews in both the US and Europe. Rolling Stone praised OHora’s “razor-sharp band” and “killer new songs,” while No Depression hailed his “ability to conjure honest, humble and tearful pathos,” and Colorado Public Radio referred to him as a “future household name.” Songs from the record racked up more than a million streams on Spotify, and the album helped OHora land dates with the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale, Shooter Jennings, and Kelsey Waldon in addition to festival slots everywhere from Hopscotch to Pickathon.
It was at the release show for ‘This Highway’ that OHora first met beloved guitarist and songwriter Neal Casal (Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson), who seemed like a perfect fit to produce a follow-up record. The two assembled an all-star cast of players for ‘Listening To The Music,’ combining three of Casal’s longtime associates with three of OHora’s (plus special guests Mickey Raphael, from Willie Nelson’s band, and Norm Hamlet, from Merle Haggard’s) to form a multi-generational group with deep ties and broad, wide-ranging backgrounds.
“The way we built that lineup added a lot of warmth and friendship to the songs,” says OHora. “Everybody had a lot of history together in their own respective groups, and the guys that didn’t know each other already just clicked immediately.”
Working out of The Bunker studio in Brooklyn, OHora and the band recorded much of the album live, capturing the kind of spark and spontaneity that can only come from raw performances. They laid down basic tracks in just four days, after which OHora and Casal spent another week on finishing touches. Mixing for the album wrapped at the end of April 2019, and Casal tragically passed away just a few months later in August.
“My hope is that this recording shines a light on the unique gift Neal had,” says OHora. “Whether he was on stage in front of thousands or in a small recording studio with friends, Neal connected with people through music in a profound and lasting way. His legacy serves as a reminder of just how precious a commodity music is for humankind. I’m thankful I got to experience the growth that comes with working with someone who embodied that.”
OHora’s growth is obvious on ‘Listening To The Music,’ which opens with the breezy “Heaven’s On The Way.” Written in an ecstatic fit of inspiration, the tune is an ode to the kind of love that supersedes all else, and it sets the stage beautifully for an album that frequently reflects on the small moments and little gestures that can come to define a relationship. The funky “Black & Blue,” for instance, reckons with the struggle of loving someone who’s just as stubborn as you are, while the heartrending “We Planned To Have It All” makes peace with loss and change, and the amiable “You Make It Easy To Love Again” finds happiness in second chances.
“I wanted to write songs that weren’t all doom and gloom this time around,” says OHora. “I wasn’t in a relationship when I was writing this record, but I was looking at the couples in my life and thinking a lot about the kind of person I hoped to meet.”
While romance certainly runs throughout the album, OHora also uses ‘Listening To The Music’ as an opportunity to explore the challenges of growing older in a city as alluring and unforgiving as New York. The rollicking “Riding That Train” comes to grips with reality during a trip on the subway, while the wistful “It’s Not So Easy Today” and sauntering “Time Won’t Take Its Time” watch the sand slip through the hourglass, and the jaunty “Living Too Long” stands up to the inexorable march of gentrification. It’s perhaps the earnest “All American Singer,” though, that best captures OHora’s spirit on the album, celebrating music’s ability to bridge generations and politics, race and religion.
“I’ve always seen music as a tool for uniting people,” says OHora. “A good song can bring people together, no matter what ideology they’ve adopted. It can serve as a source of solace or a tool for self-reflection. It can remind us what we all share in common.”
In that sense, ‘Listening To The Music’ isn’t just a nostalgic look back on the role that music has played in shaping OHora’s life; it’s a celebration of the power it has to connect us in the present and guide us toward a better tomorrow. “Let the singer sing a song and a guitar play the chord,” he sings on the gorgeous title track. “I’m right where I belong in the glory of the song.”