His reputation for crafting sticky hooks in any genre has made Eytan Oren a secret weapon in the entertainment industry. His compositions can be heard on everything from a pair of 2011 MasterCard spots to the jazzy soundtrack for the 2005 Chinese hit drama Beauty Remains to a trio of parody videos to virally promote the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. Of the latter, he says, “I wrote four songs in a day and a half for that.”
While paying the rent with these jobs, the prodigious musician nurtured his most fertile creative outlet since 2009: Eytan & the Embassy. Joined by a four-piece live band, Oren has earned comparisons to Ben Folds for his dexterous use of the piano, and Mark Ronson for his love of brass. Word of mouth about his buoyant live shows has also won him slots on the Summerfest and Isle of Wight lineups, plus gigs opening for the Old 97s and the Hold Steady. And in October 2010, Eytan & the Embassy embarked on its first-ever tour, opening for OK Go. Never one to slack, Oren subsequently created the Musician’s Energy Conservation Alliance (joinmeca.org), a charity that helps facilitate green touring practices.
A gifted student, Oren was reared by his journalist dad and landscape-architect mom on an aural diet of Bob Dylan and The Beatles. He started taking piano lessons at age 6 and spent his formative years in Westchester, NY, before heading to Columbia University. There, he majored in music. “My parents have always been almost too supportive,” he says. “My grandmother was like, ‘Don’t get him a guitar on his birthday! One day he’ll be hanging out in bars with people who do drugs and smoke.’ And I do.”
Radiohead, in particular, proved a potent influence. “I went from being obsessive about Springsteen to kind of flipping into Radiohead. I probably saw Radiohead 10 times in college,” he says. “That was definitely the band that got me excited about playing.” He joined mostly guitar-centric indie-rock bands, such as The Diamond Club (with future OK Go member Andy Ross), and the pop-punk band Fuzzy Suzy—“a good band for what it was,” he quips, “only what it was, was not good.”
Then in 2008, Oren rediscovered soul, which lent heart to his work. “Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ had the biggest impact on me. I listened to it over and over,” he says. “It was such a huge creative leap from his earlier songs and so powerful on both a personal and cultural level. He was also such an amazing songwriter, entertainer, activist, and businessman. I would like to be that type of guy.”
He’s off to an enticing start. Everything Changes, featuring appearances from OK Go’s Ross and members of Locksley, is collection of piano-and-horn-driven pop songs that focus on the sunny side of bummers. The Strokes-turned-Elton John banger “No Reason to Cry” begins as a consolation until exploding into a dance song. Meanwhile, the minor-keyed “Good Morning Marilyn” muses on interfaith dating while finding a blissful mean between the late-Beatles sound and ’90s guitar pop. Oren’s lead single, the percussive “Everything Changes” boasts sunny vocals from old friend Nicole Atkins and is, he says tellingly, “about having the guts to reinvent yourself.”
Indeed, ever the music omnivore, Oren has already been plotting to switch up his sound by tinkering with a Chinese violin called an erhu. The plan: to write pop songs using the old-timey instrument. No, he’s not masochistic—just ambitious. “I’m always thinking about what hasn’t been done, what might be interesting on a larger level than a chord change,” Oren says. “My favorite artists—Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Radiohead—all share one common theme: They constantly experiment, take risks, evolve.”