He answers to Zeph, but his name in full – and it should always be said in full, preferably preceded by a stern Mr – is Zephaniah Ohora. No apostrophe in the surname, two Hs in the first name, old power in the whole name.
He sings, rather attractively, a brand of country music that flowered five or six decades ago and sometimes came with sweeteners like orchestras and choirs and neatly pressed suits. He writes songs that speak of tears running out and heaven on the way, of living too long and loving too short, and how you shouldn’t judge a man by the length of his hair, the name of his god, the colour of his skin or the lean of his vote.
We’ll get to that music very soon – there’s two albums of it and they’re both rewarding. But for now, let’s just stay a minute with that marvellous name. Among its purported definitions, Zephaniah can mean one who has hidden or conceals, so Mr Zephaniah Ohora, would you like to confess something upfront? Get it out of the way early.
“I always thought that the name meant ‘God protects’, that’s what my mom always told me,” he says, laughing. “And as far as I know, I tell the truth.”
Well, yes, three chords and the truth etc. But let’s dig into that name a little bit more, the product of a deeply religious upbringing in America’s northeast that didn’t really offer him much in the way of secular song or “worldly” activities: did he take his mother’s recommendation of the name as meaning God protects, to heart?
“When I was growing up, sometimes I would have nightmares - and this might sound like an odd suggestion in retrospect – she would say, ‘hey you could read your book in the Bible’. I remember sitting up on the couch, really late at night because I was too scared to go back to my bed or something, but the [Old Testament] Book of Zephaniah is full of hell and damnation and judgement from God upon mankind’s shortcomings. It was actually not a very comforting book to read.”
Holy hell, that’s hardcore.
“Maybe she didn’t say that; maybe I made it up,” Ohora says. “But it’s in my mind as a memory and I remember specifically reading that late at night and wondering why I was doing that.”
Still, hell, damnation and mankind’s shortcomings? Sounds the perfect breeding ground for a country (or soul) singer. The greatest country songs, and the greatest country artists, tended to have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell – or one foot in the bar and one foot in the church.
“I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve always thought it was an interesting juxtaposition in country music, and its apparent in a lot of the content,” says Ohora. “Country and soul, they have a conscience, it’s sort of built-in. I don’t think you find a lot of that in rock ‘n’ roll, which is more about rebellion and youth.”
When Ohora says “I’ve thought a lot about it”, he isn’t just filling space. As someone for whom country music only really became a factor in his life in his late 20s, after he’d moved to New York, Ohora has mixed a kind of born-again passion with adult intellectual curiosity.
He is a student of the form, which you can see in his latest album, Listening To The Music, and in slightly simpler form, his 2017 debut, This Highway. But a student who’d found his way. Or was pointed there at least.
Having grown up more likely to hear songs from the ‘30s, ‘40s and mid-century musicals than pop radio, it was when Ohora was hosting music nights at a New York bar every Monday that he was first asked to play some Merle Haggard. Who?, he asked.
That spurred him into crate digging, online searches and song explorations, among them Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys – who connected with the swing bands of his childhood – and Tommy Duncan, the main vocalist for the Texas Playboys, and one of Haggard’s early heroes.
Soon enough the songs he was hearing were sliding into the songs he was writing, as incongruous as it might seem to anyone doubting New York’s place in the country universe.
I put to Ohora my theory that to really sing country or soul well you need to have been hurt badly, have sinned badly or behaved badly - ideally all three. Without it, you’re just singing, not feeling.
But there’s a twist to that: there’s nothing that says you have to be living on the land, riding the range or digging coal in some holler to do it.
Why not a country singing New Yorker? If you can sing a song about listening to a train coming over the hill past your farm, why not one about the subway, like Ohora’s Riding That Train?
“That song was sort of like a lightbulb moment for me,” Ohora says. “There was a time when people only heard the music that was available in your region, as far as your radio dial would reach, so you were influenced by people around you. Now we have a situation where I could get into street music from Thailand, music from South America or country. Everyone has access to history and information and you can draw from that well of recordings and if something reaches you and means something to you, you can use it to express yourself artistically. That’s what I’ve done.”
And hopefully skating past the most boring debate of all, authenticity. You can’t write and feel a country song from a life grown in the city? Tell that to Gillian Welch. That said, Ohora does measure up for old school country in one way: an impressive moustache that looks more down-home than downtown.
“Yeah, unfortunately I can’t grow a beard like my brothers can, he says. “This is the best I can do.”
More important that birthplace or even facial hair, Ohora has a voice that sounds just right for the smooth, masculine but not aggressive, almost countrypolitan style he performs. One that tips its hat to Haggard, yes, but also a world of George Jones and strings, Lefty Frizzell and high romance, Tommy Duncan & western nights.
I wonder how much of that was found, and how much of it was formed?
“I think I’m still forming it, still trying to define what my real voice is,” Ohora says. “But there is a certain way to sing the style of music because people like Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard and George Jones created that style. It’s a little bit of a balancing act I think, with how long you hold certain notes out and how you phrase things. I’ve thought about this a lot too. I get a little bit of flak for being the Merle Haggard guy but I was drawn to it because in some way maybe our voices sit in a similar spot. I wish I could sing as well as he did, he is one of the greatest of all time, but I strive towards that.
“I came to it as an adult, as a musician and songwriter, saying hey I’m really drawn to this music and I can also sing it. It feels natural to me.”
Listening To The Music is out now, on Last Roundup Records.