When Zephaniah OHora released his debut album “The Highway” in 2017, the question most critics seemed to have was “Can a musician from New York really be a true country singer?”
It took a good ten seconds of listening to OHora’s pure country throwback voice to put to bed any of those questions.
Throwback does not mean an early 90s or turn-of-the-century country sound. For OHora, his voice instantly takes you back to 1950s and 60s pioneers as Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and everyone else who shaped the classic country sound of that era.
OHora ups his game significantly with his second release “Listening to the Music.” For his sophomore effort, he made two noteworthy decisions that paid off in droves. The first was getting the late Neal Casal to produce the album. The second was working with Casal to bring in a handpicked backing band that seamlessly meshed with OHora’s natural vocals. The result creates a much bigger sound, painting almost the entire country music canvas both lyrically and musically.
For album number two, OHora made expanding his sound a top priority. He said, “I’m constantly trying to evolve. I learned a lot making my first record so the next record I wanted to and had the chance to play these songs a lot more out on tour.
“With the new record, I was able to put out a little more variety. That was a goal for sure. I didn’t want it to be like… here’s the mid-tempo guy and everything sounds like it.”
Ironically, OHora and Casal met through a mutual friend at the release party for “The Highway.” Casal let his love of OHora’s album be known, and a bond between the two was born.
“I met Neal…of course I knew who he was. I had been an admirer for a long time,” OHora states. “At my release show, Neal came over and was just like, so excited about my songs and performance and the whole package. He was just congratulating me and telling me how great it was.
“That was really flattering because I respect and admire him. It was reaffirming that someone on his level was paying me such compliments.”
OHora and Casal kept in touch after that. When it came time for OHora to start thinking about his second album, he knew he wanted to shake things up from his debut.
“Eventually, I got to the stage where I said ‘I’ve got to make a good record.’ I have all these songs that I wish I could have recorded but haven’t. How do I make the record and should I have producers?,” he says. “It felt like I should work with someone new and kick myself out of my comfort zone. Then a friend said, ‘Aren’t you friends with that guy Neal Casal?’ And I said ‘that’s a brilliant idea,’ and this lightbulb went off.”
You can hear the expanded sound of “Listening to the Music” right off the bat with the opener “Heaven’s on the Way.” Jon Graboff’s pedal steel guitar and Arthur Vint’s drumming create a much more expansive sound while OHora eventually lets all the musicians take a solo on the opener.
OHora adds, “Everyone plays on that song and it’s a positive, encouraging song. So that was the direction I was headed in anyway and it felt like the right kind of vibe and road song, saying ‘here’s a journey we’re going to go on for the next twelve songs.’ I felt like that song should have been first on the record for over a year before we made it.”
“Black and Blue” is a vintage upbeat country song that battles with the popular country music theme of being done wrong by the woman you love. Things slow down for “It’s Not So Easy” and “When I’ve No More Tears to Cry,” both covering the theme of losing something that you loved.
Although it was written years ago, the song “All American Singer” is a definite stand out on the album. OHora laments in a non-partisan way some of the biggest issues we are dealing with as a country.
OHora spoke about the importance of the song, stating “I spent a lot of time on that one. It’s probably still not 100% of where I want it to be. It’s as close as I could possibly get. I don’t want to build any walls around myself as far as connecting with people, or just as a human being and as a citizen of this country. I always want to be changing or altering my perspective if that needs to happen and not to be set in a specific mindset.”
The title track “Listening to the Music” meshes an island-y feel with the country vibe of the record. That’s followed by guitarist John Shannon’s major contributions to “Living Too Long,” which, according to OHora perfectly paints a picture of the changes people deal with as they get older.
“I think it’s more of a New York thing. You live what seems like many lifetimes here,” OHora states. “It’s that feeling a lot has changed. Those places I used to go are gone now. Everyone is leaving town and I’m like, ‘what am I doing?’ As you know, time goes quick.”
“We Planned to Have It All” slows the pace as OHora sings about unfulfilled dreams. Things pick up quickly after that with “Riding That Train,” both guitarists front and center, perfectly matching the pace of the song.
While the manicured upbeat country sound might make you visualize early 20th century New York or Chicago, that’s not necessarily what OHora had in mind.
“I definitely try to write from my own personal perspective and experience,” he claims. “Some stuff may not be classic country. I may be talking about riding a train, and that’s a subway train not a railcar.”
“Emily” and “You Make it Easy to Love Again” are both great examples, lyrically and instrumentally, of capturing the pure country sound. “Time Won’t Take It’s Time” ends the album with another tale about realizing the years are passing you by.
“Listening to the Music” makes a statement that you can be from Nashville, New York, or New Hampshire and be a country star. Both albums have solidified a place for OHora in the country music world. Given his knack for shaking things up, it should be interesting to see where everything falls in place for his third release.
As mentioned earlier, Neal Casal left the earth in August 2019. Zephaniah OHora has been donating some of the proceeds from his music to the Neal Casal Music Foundation which was set up to give away musical instruments and music lessons to students while also providing mental health assistance for musicians in need.
OHora wants his fans to continue to support Neal’s foundation and shared one final story about Casal. “Initially Neal thought I was asking him to play a few guitar parts on the album,” OHora says. “I was like ‘Oh no, I want you to produce it.’
“While he was on tour with Chris Robinson Brotherhood, he started texting me asking ‘what was up’ with this song, or ‘I really like’ this song. It was never an official ‘we’re working together.’
“Once we started breaking down the songs and how we wanted to record them, it was done. That was Neal in a nutshell and what made him so great to work with,” says OHora. “It wasn’t even business for him, it was all about the song. That’s why I think he was able to collaborate with so many different people.”