He was that little kid you'd see a few years ago, incessant about playing his saxophone outside the art studios at the old Jerome high school.
Today, Ezra Anderson is a freshman at Sedona-Red Rock High School. He just turned 15. He's written more than 60 songs and is quickly establishing a reputation as one of the most captivating singer-songwriters in the Verde Valley.
He's also recorded his second CD featuring 15 self-penned songs. More importantly, it's a collection of songs that displays an across-the-board huge step forward for Anderson: His songwriting has more depth. His voice has matured. He sings with more confidence. His guitar playing tells you this kid has spent hundreds of hours wood-shedding.
"He knew what he wanted and he did it," said recording engineer Steve Botterweg of Ghost Town Studios in Jerome. "He's very mature in his approach to music and life.
"This was actually the second time he was in my studio," Botterweg continued. "He came in about a year ago and did some songs, but this time he was much more sophisticated not only with his playing, but especially with his song-writing. His versatility is also impressive. He's a very interesting kid in that he's not doing hip-hop, but writing songs in a genre of music that is classic Americana and strongly influenced by blues. You don't run into very many kids his age who are into the blues."
Ezra still has that old saxophone, but his musical direction really took root when he bought his first guitar while in the seventh grade. "I had saved up some money," he recalls, "and it was a choice of going to the fair or buying a guitar. So it was like, 'I want a guitar.'"
Self-taught "doodling" soon advanced to formal instruction from Sedona guitar master Alan James. "He met me at a point when I was really beginning to understand the guitar," Ezra said of James. "I made good progress under his instruction."
From there, Ezra made the decision that confronts anyone who has ever picked up the instrument. Was he going to sit and play for hours on end alone in his music room or was he going to test his skill-set in front of an audience?
He first began playing street-side in the Jerome Art Park and later began attending open mics at Quince's in Jerome and at the former La Bella Café in Old Town Cottonwood. Most often, he was carrying piles of paper with songs he'd written and a dog-eared copy of an old Bob Dylan songbook. If he saw another musician who had a guitar styling that piqued his interest or sang songs in the genre to which he gravitated, he was quickly picking their brains and asking for advice.
In particular, at the Thursday open mics at Quince's, Anderson became captivated with Sedona musician Karl Jones. Jones is the master of a Celtic-jazz hybrid and one of the most skilled musicians in the Verde Valley. Anderson also cites the influence of local musicians Mark Hemleben, Matt Dupont, and Brice Woods.
"Basically everyone. I've learned something from everyone. Whenever I jam with someone or watch someone new play, I always learn something," Ezra explained. "But more than anyone else, I learned quite a lot from Karl. Just watching him. Everything about him is so professional: His guitar technique, the different tunings he uses, his singing and song-writing and his style of performing. He's a remarkable musician."
Anderson said his song-writing most often is birthed in simple guitar doodling. He'll discover a riff, a chord progression or just a sound and expand on that until he has a composition. The lyrics, he explained, come later.
"It's just how my mind works," he said. "I'll find something on the guitar that catches my ear and I'll develop the progression and then add the lyrics later. The words come very unexpectedly. There are times when I'm sitting in class and it hits me like 'oh my gosh, I have to write this now' ... I'm not that good at forcing music. When it does come, though, it just seems to pour out. It's rare that I would write half a song now and half a song later because I can never capture that moment again. It all comes in a moment almost like it was already written."
The new self-titled CD was a matter of necessity, he said. "I had a CD from about a year ago, but I felt like I had progressed so much in the span of a year and I just really needed a new CD. I felt like I could do a lot more. The first one was a learning experience. This one was a great accomplishment. My voice has gotten a little lower since a year ago and I've learned a lot of new guitar technique. Plus I had all these new songs and overall my product was just a lot better."
In all, Anderson recorded 25 songs and chose 15 from those sessions to include on the CD.
"Most all his stuff was stripped down," said Botterweg, "two takes each and he played it live and then we decided which take was best. It didn't take too long. On most of the tunes he knew what he wanted to do and we collaborated on the drums and percussion. Afterward, he'd look at me and say 'that's perfect.' We didn't have to work that hard. I captured him pretty good, not only on his guitar but also the tone of his voice."