Ram Jams: Evan Haywood's latest solo album is one of many new projects for this busy Ann Arbor creative
Evan Haywood's 2023 solo album, Elderberry Wine, is an engaging showcase for his craft as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. But that’s just the start of this Ann Arborite's growing creative ambitions, which have been on public display since Haywood joined the hip-hop group Tree City in 2006 when he was at Huron High School.
Elderberry Wine is a pleasure. Opening track “Peggy’s Farm” is good-time acoustic roots rock. Other tracks maintain a largely acoustic sound with a mellow, almost 1970s vibe. “Strands of Love” offers an engaging a cappella interlude, while the title track is an instrumental featuring a string section—one of the few instances on the record where Haywood didn’t play the instruments himself.
Beyond writing and performing, Haywood also operates a recording studio, Black Ram Treehouse, and his own record label, Black Ram Sound. He wants to branch out into clothing and merchandising as well. That sounds like a lot, which is partly why he recently left his “day job” in order to work on his creative pursuits as a full-time venture.
Haywood recently answered a few questions about his recent and upcoming projects.
Q: Was Elderberry Wine a pandemic project for you?
A: I worked on a ton of music during the pandemic and this is just one piece of the puzzle. Elderberry Wine is the first new collection of songs I have chosen to release following a five-year hiatus. It's music I have lived with for a while—some of these songs go back as far as 2014. They all share certain creative and aesthetic elements, so I decided to build a home for them and put a project together. I have a lot more coming!
Q: What was it about these songs that made them be the ones you wanted to release first?
A: These songs are very personal and they hold a few narrative threads that I have been wanting to express for a while. The lyrics address the isolation we all experienced during the COVID pandemic and reflect on some of the things I've been going through with chronic health issues. I wanted to open up the gate with an album that is gentle and poetic, which I hope people can draw some enjoyment from, as we all continue to rebuild our lives.
Q: You’ve been involved in a number of different musical styles and genres over the years. Did you make a conscious decision that Elderberry Wine would be your acoustic/roots album, or did it just evolve that way?
A: It's really my third album in this progression under the Evan Haywood name. The first two had bigger arrangements; they were a little bit more fleshed out. Elderberry Wine is more personal and stripped down. These songs contain shared themes of isolation, loss, memory, and redemption. I like the fact that this album sounds like I’m singing to you in the room. A lot of these tunes were home recordings and little sketches that I was able to put together into a cohesive whole, which happened very organically. Often, I will live with my songs for a few years before I decide how to arrange and sequence them into projects.
Q: It’s hard to see the title “Peggy’s Farm” without thinking of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm." Was that intentional?
A: Bob Dylan is a huge influence, so I wouldn't be surprised if that made its way into the title subconsciously. But I actually worked on a farm for four years when I was a teenager, and the owners were Asa and Peggy Wilson. It was just outside of Ann Arbor and we grew organic vegetables. That was my first job, where I developed my work ethic. The lyrics of “Peggy’s Farm” reminisce about that period of my life and my subsequent loss of Innocence as I grew into an adult. That's why it has such a nostalgic and blissful vibe.
That said, I love “Maggie’s Farm,” especially the live version on Hard Rain, which was the first Bob Dylan album I bought. I scored it for 25 cents at a church garage sale when I was 12. It's the first song on the first Bob Dylan album I heard, so it has a certain importance for me. I love the Rolling Thunder period.
Q: “Black Lagoon” is a standout on Elderberry Wine, with several nice turns of phrase. What led to that song?
A: I wrote “Black Lagoon” around 2014 following a breakup when my ex had moved to another country. I was feeling a lot of things and many of them made their way into that song. It’s about holding on to the essence of a person internally, but not being able to communicate with them in real life, and dealing with that loss. A lot of this album is about grief, in all its forms.
Q: At least two songs, “Cinema” and “Foreign Film,” explicitly call out the movies. Are you a movie fan, and does that affect your songwriting?
A: I am a huge fan of cinema and an aspiring filmmaker. I shot a documentary film in Jamaica back in 2019 and I'm still working on the editing and post-production for that. Over the past 20 years, I have collected a library of films from all over the world and they have left deep impressions on me. A few of my favorites are Kwaidan, Apocalypse Now, After Hours, Blue Velvet, Mughal-E-Azam, City of God, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Woman in the Dunes. But I’m just as likely to watch a low-budget kung-fu epic or a gritty giallo thriller as the highbrow stuff. I think film is one of the ultimate ways of expressing and documenting cultural traditions.
Q: What led to your recent decision to focus full-time on music and studio/label work?
A: It is very hard to be an artist and a musician these days, largely due to the greed of music streaming companies. As independent artists, we all have the ability to gain exposure and to promote and release our own music, but we have to do 10 people’s jobs! We have to act as the head of marketing, video editor, social media manager, booking agent, accountant, graphic designer, producer, engineer, archivist, and more to release our music. Being an artist in this era often feels like working multiple full-time jobs, with 90% of that work being unpaid.
Many of us consider music to be our career, but sometimes we have to do other things just to maintain our lives. I decided I needed to make a change in my life to be able to build my creative vision into something that is profitable and sustainable. When you're stuck in that 9 to 5 cycle and you're going to work and coming home exhausted every day, it is very hard to consistently maintain the level of effort on music that is necessary to complete projects. I’ve been building a team that can support my vision and work with me to increase the scale of what is possible.
Q: What is motivating you?
A: Beyond my drive to succeed in anything I do, I want to bring value to musicians and help them make a living off of their art. I want to show that it’s possible to do that independently. I want to help educate the younger generations on the structure and language of the music business, so they can benefit from that knowledge and avoid predatory contracts.
Musicians are my people and I want to help make us all proud to be doing the work we do, because I feel it’s so important in the scope of human history. I am constantly competing with myself to be a better person and a better artist. Above all, being creative keeps me occupied and out of trouble.
Q: How does the business work? Can people book time in your studio, or is it just for artists you’re working with directly?A: Both.
My work at the Black Ram Treehouse is all over the board. I do recording, mixing, and mastering. Some clients prefer to work directly with me in the studio, while other clients send me .wav stems of their material over the internet and I send them back the finalized versions. I'm happy to support many artists’ unique visions and help them get their sounds together.
In the studio, I have worked with artists from all over the U.S., India, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Jamaica, Cuba, and many other places. It’s a place of cultural connection and shared creativity. I foster an environment of mutual respect and reverence for the arts, so all types of artists are welcome. When I am working on music that isn’t already spoken for and I know it would fit in with the vision for my label, I'll usually ask the artist if they want to release it through my label, Black Ram Sound. But it's never a requirement for working with me. I try to be as transparent as possible in my communication with clients, so everyone is on the same page.
Q: What is your overall vision?
A: Essentially, I want to build an archive of art and music that is going to stand the test of time and act as a living catalog for future generations to understand some of the events that are currently taking place. I feel that music, film, and other forms of art are some of the best tools for interpreting history because they can show us an on-the-ground view of what it's like to live in a particular time. Art reflects the attitudes and perspectives of its creators.
Black Ram Sound is dedicated to highlighting under-represented artists and musicians that might not fit into the molds of what is expected in the current marketplace. I think that's a strength because this openness to ideas allows us to innovate and to create genres of music and storytelling techniques that may have never existed before. I tend to work with the types of artists who are pushing stylistic boundaries and may be working in multiple genres of music. That's also why I like to work with musicians from different areas of the world because they're bringing their traditional and instinctual understanding of music into the process.
Ultimately, I aim to provide a platform for global conversations to take place between artists from different areas of the world. I believe this will bring greater harmony between diverse musical histories and allow us to curate top-shelf content that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard before. I want to inspire people to work tirelessly on their craft and break through the barriers that block their creative impulses. Above all, I want to run an ethical business in which people are compensated fairly for their work. We are getting there, one little step at a time.
Q: Do you have any other projects in the works that you’d like to mention?
A: There are so many projects on the table right now! First of all, I have multiple solo albums completed and ready for release. There’s also the magnum opus from Tree City, Pure Levels. I am currently working on getting resources together to release an album I made with Lee “Scratch” Perry called I Reign Forever. Then there’s my [reggae] documentary, Blood & Fire. In early August, I will be presenting a show of my visual artworks at The Deep End Cafe in Ypsi. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of projects on the docket.
Another big thing I'm doing this year with Black Ram Sound is designing original clothing and accessories for creatives. I'm always trying to figure out how I can make music more profitable for artists. If we sell premium physical goods—with the same level of quality and Innovation that we're doing with the music—then those items can promote the music, and vice-versa. Basically, I realized that selling fashion items via e-commerce has a much greater potential for profit than the paltry percentages streaming services are paying to artists and publishers, so it’s a way of keeping the whole machine running.
We're planning to do our first clothing drop sometime this fall/winter. We want to offer heirloom-quality clothing at prices that are affordable to the average consumer. I am currently working with the Black Ram team to source our materials and create our first set of designs. We meet a couple of times a week to keep the ball rolling. A lot of credit is due to my creative partners Adonis Fitzgerald and Gowri Balasubramaniam, who have been extremely helpful this year, as we have been carefully preparing to scale an abstract concept into a legitimate business.
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.