Ebony Lamb has always been an artist of various mediums and music was not one of her first. Growing up in Hastings with her sister and solo father, her focus was on painting, dancing, and photography. She lived a few different lives before picking up a guitar: a traveller, a mother, and a worker in many different roles. She describes the years before her musicianship as artistically stagnant.
“I had my baby at 21. I had almost 10 years of not creating anything. I kind of went a bit crazy, and I didn’t know why,” Lamb told AudioCulture in 2021. “I think my dad knew because he always thought I was going to be an artist of some kind.”
It wasn’t until age 29 that Lamb began writing songs. It was a way to distract and express herself during a painful break-up. Equipped with a few guitar chords her former partner – also a songwriter – had taught her, she worked out the rest by herself. Perhaps more important than the technical lessons, he had been hugely encouraging of her musicianship.
“I always thought music was for other people and I was more of an appreciator. I remember saying to him, ‘I’ll never be a songwriter.’ And he turned around and said ‘you don’t know that. You don’t know that you could totally be sitting with this gift.’ I held onto that.”
When the relationship ended, her songwriting become prolific. “I churned out a song a day for a long time – shit songs, good songs – I think it’s just getting it all out.”
In 2010, Lamb made the jump to play her first gig at the Ruby Lounge in Wellington, a venue run by local folk musicians (now called the Fork & Brewer). She describes the venue as a “gateway” – a small but supportive community that was instrumental to her getting started. Aside from the handful of chords she learnt from her former partner, Lamb was self-taught, and these connections were vital to her development. “The Ruby Lounge and the folk community were deeply encouraging. I started making those types of relationships that people would teach me, and sing with me, and I’d learn things.”
Lamb’s first key collaborator was her friend Bryn Heveldt, whose childhood nickname the “Racing Sparrow” – he was little, and very busy – came to represent the full band in the name Eb & Sparrow. Heveldt played guitars and lap steel, the latter of which was integral to the group’s sound. “It looks so simple on paper, but he never played straight lap steel,” Lamb reflected in 2021. “He didn’t play country lap steel, he played slants, and he went through a multitude of pedals, so it was always semi psychedelic ... he found a language with that.”
the band first recorded at Heveldt’s home studio. “In his bedroom, he had a microphone hanging from the light.”
In 2010, Eb & Sparrow – at that stage, just Lamb and Heveldt – released their first EP, The Hearts Arrow, which was recorded at Heveldt’s home studio. “In his bedroom, he had a microphone hanging from the light. And we just played underneath it and recorded into it,” says Lamb. “Then I’d go to work on Monday, and he’d send me by like, Tuesday, Wednesday, he’d send me little mp3 clips of mixes that he had done, and it was always amazing ... I felt happy all over for a long time.”
Eb & Sparrow launched three EPs in four years, gaining a new band member or two with every new release. After The Hearts Arrow, Nick Brown (drums) joined for EP For Light Years in 2011, then Jason Johnson (bass) and Chris Winter (trumpet) for The Moorings in 2013. Throughout the transformation from solo singer-songwriter to the full, layered sound of a five-piece, Eb & Sparrow touched on a handful of genres, making them difficult to pin down.
“Our music is, I find, hard to define,” Lamb told RNZ during a Live Session in 2013. “We find ourselves calling ourselves ‘alt country’, for lack of a better word ... it tends to cross genres of folk, indie, country, Americana.”
Eb and Sparrow’s profile grew steadily, thanks to their consistent releases and gigging, and by 2013 they were landing opening spots for high profile acts including Anika Moa, Beth Orton, and Rodriguez.
It was time for a full-length album, and over the 2013 Easter period they holed up with sound engineer/producer Ben Edwards in Lyttelton to make it happen. With 10 tracks to explore, there was an element of expansion to the project, and they were joined by special guests to layer the sound, such as Flora Knight (The Eastern) on fiddle. The self-titled debut, Eb & Sparrow, arrived in September 2014, and was supported with a 13-date tour.
The response was positive, and the tour sold well; Lamb was immediately itching to make their second record. “After all the touring we did, we were tighter and stronger as a band,” Lamb told Jesse Mulligan at RNZ in 2015. “Musically, things were starting to change, and I just felt like if we had waited another year, it would have been so stagnant.”
Teaming up with sound engineer and producer Brett Stanton, they recorded in his studio in Te Awanga, Hawke’s Bay, “in the middle of an olive grove”. “I thought he just got more punch out of us,” Johnson told RNZ’s Mulligan. “That was the main thing – he had this warm sound with all of his gear, and whenever we played, he’d say ‘well that was great! And now, I want to …’”
The band recorded together live, with several of the final tracks on the album being first takes. As was becoming customary, they were joined by a few special guests, perhaps most noticeably Anita Clarke (The Eastern, also known as Motte) on strings. The album, named Sun/Son, was released in mid-2015.
Reviewing for NZ Musician, Amanda Mills described the record as “heavy with emotion, delivered with pathos and Lamb’s smoky, bluesy voice ... Eb & Sparrow’s sound is part Cowboy Junkies, part Renderers, but their own personality is stamped firmly with dusty alt-country, and a touch of mariachi trumpet on ‘Loaded Gun’ … an album that comes from the dark night of the soul – lonesome, shadowy – but glorious.”
The 17-date album tour for Sun/Son grew into a rigorous live schedule, with six more dates to launch the vinyl release and a number of arts festivals shows. Speaking to AudioCulture, Lamb described 2016 as Eb & Sparrows’s “biggest-ever year” and the group took more time before making a new record.
In the space between albums two and three, Lamb began to seriously pursue photography. A year-long course at The Photo School kickstarted her career as a portraiture photographer. It was also during this time that drummer Nick Brown decided to step away from Eb & Sparrow indefinitely, to spend more time at home with his family. Justin Barr, who had previously toured with Eb & Sparrow when Brown couldn’t, was the natural replacement.
Alongside this obvious change in line-up, there was an organic shift in instrumentation over the years. Winter, originally on trumpet, began to play more bass, bassist Johnson picked up more lead guitar and Heveldt eased off guitar for more lap steel. The latter instrument had become particularly important to grounding Eb & Sparrow’s sound as their line-up extended.
“We would call Bryn’s lap steel the ‘doom glue’, because it would glue us all together.”
“We would call Bryn’s lap steel the ‘doom glue’, because it would glue us all together,” Lamb told AudioCulture. “In the live shows, the lap steel is pushing around the room ... people used to call it ‘ghostly’, but I just call it ‘atmospheric’, a cinematic sound. And I think, had we not had the lap steel, we would have done it through more contemporary synths. So in that way, [the lap steel] pushed us into a more country style.”
The period following Sun/Son was one of growth for Eb & Sparrow, and by 2017 they were ready to capture the elevated sound in a new record. To cover costs, a fundraiser gig was held at Wellington’s San Fran, with special guests Nadia Reid, Rosy Tin Teacaddy, Kim Bonnington and Dusty Burnell. As well as raising the money, they were also offered the use of Ahiaruhe for 12 days, an historic villa in the Wairarapa that was built in 1870. Joined again by Brett Stanton as co-producer, the aim was to be explorative.
“With Seeing Things, the whole point was to shift into another space,” says Lamb. “To start to make a segue, because you can wake up one day and say, ‘do I even want to be making this sound anymore? What do I actually want to do?’”
The recent change in drummer naturally created a new sound, as did Lamb ditching her acoustic guitar entirely for electric, a Fender Telecaster – a first for an Eb & Sparrow record.
Anita Clark (Motte) joined the team again on strings, and Sharon Boyd and Andrew Leggett recorded additional horns to supplement Winter’s trumpet. Seeing Things was released in early 2018, accompanied by a vinyl release by Slow Boat Records, and a nationwide tour.
Reviewing for RNZ’s The Sampler, Nick Bollinger said, “Seeing Things is a beautifully-made, richly atmospheric record. The playing is subtle and understated, and has been captured and rendered to something close to perfection by producer and engineer Brett Stanton. And if it peers into some dark corners, and delivers some spooky moods, it ends on an unexpectantly comforting note.”
That “comforting note” refers to the final track, ‘My Old House’, a song that was originally sung by Johnson – now Lamb’s partner – for their frightened son during a storm.
Eb & Sparrow played with the strings and horns as much as possible for the Seeing Things tour, often making them a seven-piece, and they enjoyed many sold-out shows. After the dust settled on this ambitious record and tour, a unanimous feeling began to rise that it was time for something new.
“It was so loving,” Lamb told AudioCulture, “we decided for about five different reasons not to be a band anymore.”
THE GROUP’S DEMISE “WAS SO LOVING,” SAys LAMB. “WE DECIDED FOR ABOUT FIVE DIFFERENT REASONS NOT TO BE A BAND ANYMORE.”
Speaking to Lamb in 2021, the major factors she attributes are her own burnout, the expense of touring a large band, and everyone’s natural desire to do something new – be it music or not. Winter completed a master’s degree in composition and film scoring, Heveldt moved to Nelson, and Johnson pursued further musical projects as Gram Antler, as well as playing in other bands. Winter and Johnson still play together in art-rock outfit Pashtag, and Barr also plays with The Golden Awesome, The Raskolnikovs and The Perms.
“My band have always been supportive of me making a solo record,” she told AudioCulture. “I became a musician later in life ... I realised that I wouldn’t have the skills that I wanted to push myself in that trajectory. And now, I’m really ready.” Lamb plays acoustic guitar and hollow-body electric guitar, and is sometimes accompanied by Johnson, as Gram Antler. Lamb is now a solo artist, sometimes performing under the name Successful Feelings, but more commonly as Ebony Lamb. She attempted a solo record in 2015, travelling to Auckland to record with Tom Healy of Tiny Ruins, but the time just wasn’t right.
“I can sing better. I can play better. I think the songs have just got a better shape and a better groove … It’s still me, I’m not making pop songs, but I’m not making sad country songs. I’m making songs about life.”
Slow Boat Records
Home Alone Music
Ebony Lamb - vocals, guitars
Bryn Heveldt - lap steel, guitar
Jason Johnson - guitar, bass, vocals
Chris Winter - trumpet, mellophone, bass, vocals
Justin Barr - drums
Nick Brown - drums, vocals
Jason Johnson has finished an album of his original songs – as Gram Antler – with Brett Stanton, to be released in 2022.