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Three-way tie for first

The Essex Green aren’t your typical pop band. They can sound like the Mamas and Papas in one song and the Shins in the next.
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“I really like it better when you sing.”

For Chris Ziter, having a fan come up and say that is one of the strangest things about being a member of the Essex Green. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, he’s baffled. And the same exact thing happens to bandmate and co-lead singer, Sasha Bell.

“It’s almost like they’re complimenting you by telling you that they like your voice more than the other person’s,” he told me. “I find it interesting that people aren’t able to accept a band that has multiple sounds.”

And it’s true, the Essex Green aren’t your typical pop band. They can sound like the Mamas and Papas in one song, and the Shins in the next. “The roots of it are based in ’60s and ’70s kind of pop songwriting,” said Ziter. “But because of the diversity in songwriting — there are three of us that write — it becomes difficult to pin it down.”

That third songwriter is Jeff Baron, and the three make up the core of the Essex Green. “Jeff and I have been playing music for about 15 years,” said Ziter. “Sasha, for about 11 or so. It’s really after spending that much time together that you really learn how to communicate with each other.”

The three have worked out a system of collaboration over the years. “A lot of the songwriting is really done independently, just to write [basically] the structure of the song and lyrics,” Ziter told me. “And then when it’s brought to the table for recording, then the arrangement will shift around and everyone gets their input on the songs and the instrumentation and that’s when it really becomes fleshed out.”

For me, the fun of having multiple singers comes in the songs where Bell and Ziter actually seem to be talking to each other. The song “Penny and Jack” lets the two singers trade lines. Jack isn’t happy living in New York, while Penny wonders why the heck he stays if he doesn’t like it. It’s an interplay that you don’t see with a lot of other bands, and one that Ziter enjoys playing with.

The need to get away isn’t limited to “Penny and Jack.” The band’s songs revolve around wanting to find pockets of paradise away from the city. Not too surprising from a band who, until recently, when Ziter moved to Cincinnati, were all based in Brooklyn. “You’re creating these little planets or universes or areas in time in space that you’d like to live in but you don’t or can’t,” Ziter said. “Somewhere where maybe it’s less expensive and you don’t have to worry so much about working a job you wouldn’t normally want to do just to pay the bills.”

In the song “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)” one of these fine citizens becomes a Pinocchio-like puppet, someone who’s almost not real. “Step along the hum of the sidewalk/ A marionette, a slave,” Ziter sings, “Your legs are wood and tied to the city/ Who has the final say?” It’s a song anyone who’s found themselves going into autopilot during the course of their day can relate to. And it’s just one of a series of songs that tackles the existential dilemmas of everyday life. One song, “Elsinore,” is even set in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” landscape.

Yet even with all this questioning the songs always stay upbeat, as if the act of questioning isn’t something you do when you’re feeling downhearted, but rather something that actually connects you to life. And it’s part of what gives the band that Mamas and Papas feel — a harkening back to a time when questioning was part of experience, rather than inertia.

The band isn’t staying inert by any means. After recently finishing up some shows at SXSW, the Essex Green are heading off to Germany for some overseas dates. Then they’ll be back in the states, hitting the road once again — sizing up all the towns to see if maybe they finally find that one that fits just right.

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