Ethan Azarian’s Life on the Fringe
A new album emerging, the songwriter-painter reflects on his journey
By Doug Freeman,
11:10AM, Thu. Oct. 21, 2021
Ethan Azarian is an Austin icon, and iconoclast. His music, like his artwork, fills with a sense of wonder and possibility, raw and vulnerable, but beautifully surreal.
As leader of the Orange Mothers, Azarian’s pop style could be joyous and provoking, and his subsequent solo work unfolds with a lo-fi pop and folk reveling in lyrics both bizarre and poignant.
Azarian’s latest LP, On the Fringe, spins a journey both reflective and cosmically adventurous. Production from Will Courtney fills the sound with a lush pop behind Azarian’s nasal croon and the atmospheric support from longtime collaborators Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston of Little Mazarn.
Azarian plays his official release show for On the Fringe this Saturday at Wyldwood Shows in South Austin, with Little Mazarn opening. To reserve tickets, visit www.ethanazarianmusic.com.
We sat down with Azarian to discuss the new album, his artistic upbringing in Vermont, and his life on Austin’s fringe.
Austin Chronicle: I was surprised by how lush the production was on the album.
Ethan Azarian: That’s Will [Courtney] and his Seventies vibe. He’s very unassuming. I’m not sure if that’s the right word for it, but he was very almost hands off, but not hands off. He definitely knew what he wanted to do, but he didn’t have his own agenda, was just subtle. But we’re all well-versed together. Me and Lindsey, and of course me and Jeff go back to ’91. Lindsey joined us in the middle of our residency at the Hole in the Wall to start singing with us onstage, just arbitrarily whatever song. I remember being very distinctly worried about having Lindsey sing – not because she can’t sing, she can sing better than me – but to sing with me and Jeff, because that’s a tall order because we have our own thing. But I swear the first time she started singing, in the middle of the song, she knew exactly how to fit in between us.
We were really well rehearsed and we played a bunch of shows together, so by the time Will got us, he didn’t have to do too much. It was all there, and he just put it together. I think his playing the piano and the guitar parts really glued the whole thing. It’s beautiful, and I feel lucky it came out as good as it did.
My son Francis records a few piano notes on it, too. He just turned 12, so I took him out there.
Austin Chronicle: Is Francis artistic?
Ethan Azarian: Like most kids, he’ll draw or doodle or whatever, but it’s hard to tell whether he’ll stick with it. But he went to the School of Rock and has a teacher who’s teaching him piano, so he’s learning how to play the technical stuff. And then he plays with me, which is nice. I want to keep him playing with me so he can get his ear and a good sense of music at his age, and he’s got it. He can hear things and write his own piano parts, but of course like any 12 year old, it’s hard for him to practice with dad.
Austin Chronicle: You seem to have had a pretty extraordinary childhood growing up in Vermont.
Ethan Azarian: Yeah, a lot of musicians used to visit my dad. My mom and dad had a farm, so a lot of musicians from Boston and Cambridge would come up and play folk music and spend the weekend. They were all in their 20s, and my mom was 20 when I was born, that was ’63. So by ’70 there were people coming to the house all the time to play music. I was just inundated with that folk sound – banjos, fiddles, and guitars. They were mostly playing old Appalachian songs, a little bit of bluegrass, but not so much singer-songwriter stuff. They were die-hard folkies.
Austin Chronicle: Boston around that time was, of course, a hotbed for folk.
Ethan Azarian: It was. Judy Collins and Taj Mahal. My dad actually did a few shows with Judy Collins, back in the day, as they say, and knows Taj Mahal. In that area, there was a little folk revival that was happening, so when dad and mom moved to the farm in Vermont, everyone was just dying to get out of the city and come up for the weekend. People would be camping in the barn or the field. And they were all young, so they’re all drinking and God-knows-what, but I would just come downstairs and they would just play all night, like you do in your 20s. And I was just a kid, and of course wanted to play guitar like my dad and his friends. And it was really easy for me, because my ears were trained.
Part of the reason I started practicing with Francis was so that could happen, because I don’t really have people coming over to the house, even before COVID. I’m older. When Francis was born, I was 46, so I was done with having people just drop by and party! Which is maybe kinda sad in a way. What ever happened to people just dropping by?
Austin Chronicle: Have you ever considered moving further out to the country?
Ethan Azarian: No, no. If I moved to the country, I’d go back to Vermont. It’s peaceful up there. Although, it’s getting a little built up too. If it weren’t for the hard cold winters, it would probably be overrun with people.
Austin Chronicle: What brought you to Austin back in the Nineties?
Ethan Azarian: I had a friend that moved here in ’84 and there was a boom going on here. He was a carpenter. He got integrated with the music scene: Ed Hall, Pocket FishRMen, and those guys. I was doing music in Burlington and I knew about the [Butthole] Surfers, and Scratch Acid. I think at the point I moved down, the Surfers might have already not been playing much, were too famous.
I moved here in ’89. I wanted to go to a place that was warm, and that wasn’t too large. So moving here was just an experiment, but I fell in with a good crew of people, music and otherwise. I got a job at [Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired] and met a lot of musicians there, and was able to work part-time and do music. So two or three years turned into five or six years, and here I am now, still.
Part of that is the feeling that I’m able to go and escape, and go to Vermont for a couple of months every year in the summer, and that breaks it up nicely. I get kind of rejuvenated and when I come back here, it’s lovely because I know a lot of people and am plugged in here. When I go to Vermont, I can work on my paintings there and I write a lot of my albums up there because there’s less distractions. So we’re really lucky to have that. I always feel like Vermont is just a few heartbeats away.
Austin Chronicle: I have to ask about the album title, On the Fringe. What does that mean to you? Do you feel like you’re on the fringe?
Ethan Azarian: I do feel like I’m personally on the fringe. Having lived in Austin for so long, it’s really hard to establish yourself and make a living doing music, so I feel like a lot of other stuff, it’s a constant struggle. I always feel kind of on the fringe, and this is my own take, but I think I’m not the typical Texas songwriter. I’m not necessarily Daniel Johnston, but I’m more into Daniel Johnston than, say, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. So I’m kind of in a weird spot, and part of it is I’m just self-trained and coming from a really serious folk background. So I have that banjo and fiddle sensibility mixed with singer-songwriter, and how it all evolved into the Orange Mothers which is a pop-rock band, but definitely quirky. And then the self-realization that I can just write songs and play with a guitar, and I don’t need all these drums and stuff. That took 10 years to do and have the confidence to do.
So I feel like I’ve always been on the fringe, and that’s not like ‘poor Ethan.’ I’m thankful. I’m still playing music and it’s a real therapy for me. It’s good for me and I know I need to make a noise. When I realized I was comfortable with singing and had the confidence to sing, it was like a whole new instrument. I always had the sense of quirky lyrics and fucking with people for a reaction, but actually singing with conviction and feeling you can project, I didn’t have that until I started doing my own singer-songwriting. I can kind of use my falsetto a little bit, which is totally homemade and funky, but it sounds sweet sometimes, and that’s so empowering.
Just going into the studio and singing to please myself and have a good time, that’s awesome. It’s easy to overlook that if you’re not making any money or playing any gigs. All of that might be nice, to play more gigs or make a living, but I don’t know. If you had to be on the road to make a living, it’s a grind.
Austin Chronicle: So it seems like being on the fringe is an advantage in a lot of ways.
Ethan Azarian: Sure, because I’m kind of left on my own and I make my own itinerary. There’s nobody saying, “You’ve gotta sound like this, or we need another album.” So I’m really able to do my own thing, just kind of quietly, and that is an advantage for sure.
But also the fringe is the idea of the planet as a whole, that we’re out here on the fringe. We’re not the center. I’m on the fringe, but we’re all on the fringe.
Austin Chronicle: To me, your music and visual art are so inseparable, but I don’t know if they’re that way for you.
Ethan Azarian: I think it’s more different than it is the same. But I don’t know. With the visual art, I get stimulated by the color. It’s not so much about the cow or the little house or the cityscape, it’s more about how the colors play with each other. So with writing songs, I guess it’s kind of like the melody and verses, but it’s different.
It is problematic, having the two mediums: visual art and the music. It’s hard to do both. Just doing one is hard enough, and I’ve often wondered if maybe that’s been dogging me to some degree to where I can’t give full attention to either. The upside is that I love the visual and the music because they’re so very different. I’m a show-off and I love being on stage, and the challenge of trying to tell the story each time. There’s all this gray area you get to work with.
It’s really beneficial to get to do both for me. I get to be creative in a way that’s very different than the music. I can be by myself in my studio and it’s easy to sustain that creativity. It’s a lot quieter, and I really like that.
Austin Chronicle:: Do you think of yourself as more one over the other?
Ethan Azarian: I think I’m probably a better musician, really. I think because of my upbringing, and having listened to music and the influence of my dad’s friends. With art, I didn’t have any formal training, though my mom’s a printmaker. I didn’t do art until high school and just kind of took it up. I’m obviously self-taught, but I’ve gotten good at it and I’m really enjoying painting, and feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I can satisfy myself more consistently.
Austin Chronicle: What keeps you stimulated when you’re writing music?
Ethan Azarian: I think I’ve just always been naturally creative. Like I feel I could be a good producer of other people’s music, or I think I’d be a really good director of a play or movie. I say that and I’m probably talking out of my butt, I don’t know, but I just see things and say ‘oh, put this here or that there.’ It just comes natural to me and I’m comfortable making the decision. And I really like the challenge of the colors and the composition, and of the melody and the verses. I never really think about it at all and it’s really kind of stream-of-consciousness. That in tandem with just being prolific and doing it all the time.
That’s what keeps me enthusiastic, just the creative challenges that they both present. It’s the creative process and the feeling like I’m progressing and evolving as an artist. It has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with status. I’m right where I should be. Because I’m older now, and I’ve spent so much time doing both, I feel accomplished, and pretty happy about what I’m doing musically and artistically. And that’s pretty awesome.