Singer-guitarist Ed Kowalczyk was still in middle school when he formed the spiritually-inspired rock act Live. Though that band imploded in 2009 and Kowalczyk left on such bad terms that his former bandmates filed lawsuits claiming that he had ripped them off, the guy soldiered on and just released The Flood and the Mercy, a new album that continues to present the kind of spiritual themes that he famously explored with Live. Speaking via phone from his Connecticut home, he admits he stole a thing or two out of U2's musical playbook when he was first putting Live together and starting to think about a career in rock 'n' roll.
"I've always had this element in my music and in my life of valuing all the spiritual traditions, even beyond music," he says. "When I first heard U2 when I was 16 or 17 and saw them on the Joshua Tree tour, it blew me away. Here's this full package of uncompromising spiritual message done in a way that's so cool and unique and powerful. They really inspired me simply because of that unique blend. I try to keep my music inspired by my faith but also keep it open to anyone, whether it's just a feeling of freedom or whether fans want to dig deeper. That's what I get from U2."
That sensibility certainly came through on the albums Live delivered in the '90s. Tunes such as "Lightening Crashes" and "I Alone" had powerful subtexts about self-discovery and faith. Kowalczyk's powerful voice made the songs resonate all the more. In the wake of Live's dissolution, Kowalczyk initially took some time off. But nearly four years ago when he started to play acoustic shows, he began to get his groove back.
"I got to an end of a chapter moment a couple of years ago," he says. "I was losing interest in doing things the same way. One of the things I did was grabbed an acoustic guitar and started to do shows. That was a huge moment. I surprised myself at how excited I was to do it and how intimate the shows were and how well I connected with the fans. It sparked a new interest in playing shows and making music."
For The Flood and the Mercy, he worked with producer Jamie Candiloro, a guy known for his work with R.E.M. and Ryan Adams. Candiloro even helped recruit R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to play on the album.
"On record, I'm still inspired to make the songs with big guitars and big production to capture the dynamic of what I'm doing," explains Jamie Candiloro. "There's this Jeckyll and Hyde thing going on. The Flood and the Mercy is mostly a rock record. I'm touring with an acoustic guitar behind it. The intensity of the lyrics and melody might come out a bit stronger at listening room environments like the Kent Stage, which is a good listening room where people can really connect."
Kowalczyk certainly comes out swinging on the album's hard rocking opening track, "The One.".
"Anytime you're making a record, I like to make albums that tell that emotional story and have that arc and not just putting a bunch of songs together," he says. "I take time with the sequence. On that song, I'm just going for it. I've been through whatever I've been through. I'm taking a leap with this solo career and it's going great, but I'm not finished yet. That's the spirit of the first song. Then, the album touches a lot of different places emotionally and includes a lot of different textures. It could be my finest yet in that respect."
The album's centerpiece is the nasty little number "Parasite." On it, Kowalczyk really cranks up the guitar and vents his frustration as he sings about wanting to rip someone to shreds.
"That's my Wall Street song," he says. "I had a guy come up to me not that long ago and he said, 'I don't know what the song is about but you took the words I wanted to say to my boss the other day right out of my mouth.' It's really that song about how everyone has that person who is just living off your energy and sapping you. It's about knocking the barnacles off your boat once in awhile and how that's inevitable in life."
The album ends with an restrained cover of the Bob Marley tune "Cornerstone." Kowalczyk says he identified with the song because.
"I had heard it watching the Bob Marley movie, which was great," he says. "There's a moment where he describes growing up and his father was white and aristocratic and he was mixed race and he felt ostracized by the family. He felt like the cornerstone that had been refused."
Even though Kowalczyk isn't on speaking terms with his former Live band mates, he still revisits the band's back catalog for his live show.
"I play all the hits from my work from 'Selling the Drama' to 'I Alone' and 'Lightening Crashes.' I play a smattering of solo stuff and a few covers. It's the most excited I've felt about music. There's this balance. I continue to feel really blessed and grateful for all my experiences in the original group and now. It's beautiful."
Ed Kowalczyk performs with Callaghan at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 15 at the Kent Stage. Tickets are $30.