Ellis won! She was awarded the Best Female Singer Songwriter Album of 2009 by one of the world’s largest independent music awards, presented by Just Plain Folks. When you hear her music you’ll get why they picked her.
In our conversation, she talks about making the tough choice to walk away from a band (and the chance to be signed) in order to retain more creative freedom on her own. It definitely made me think about how sometimes the seemingly “easier” path isn’t always the more rewarding path. I’ve also been reflecting on Ellis’ “favorite mantra” in the Proust Questionnaire (see it at the end of the q&a)…good thing her music provides such a nice soundtrack to all this heavy thinking!
Ellis is always touring around the US — she recently played one of my favorite places to hear live music, Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta. I hope you get a chance to see her live…in the meantime, get a slice of her right here. Ellis’ website has her tour schedule and more music.
You used to sing lead in a band called Bobby Llama. After the band won the Sam Goody/Musicland “Best Unsigned Band in America” in 2000, Bobby Llama had an opportunity to be signed to a label, but you chose to remain an independent musician. Can you share more about that decision?
Everyone in the band had different goals. I was interested in touring independently to continue growing a fan base. I also wanted to develop a bit more musically before trying to get a lot of mainstream attention. I knew at the time it was what I needed as a performer and songwriter, and I saw that as something that would make the band stronger, too.
I think other folks wanted the band to be more of a “fun highlight” in their youth and not so much a “career path,” so their time lines were shorter. Also, the rumor mill about how major labels could have loads of red tape, keeping the music from getting out to fans (by albums getting shelved or postponed for various reasons) made me less enthusiastic to jump into that major label world.
Do you write music or lyrics first?
Sometimes I write the music first, sometimes the lyrics, sometimes both at once. Really I’m pretty open to writing in whatever way that helps a song come to life! Each song has a different timeline and I find that songs can often be a little rebellious or stubborn in becoming realized, so it helps to try different approaches and kind of sneak up on them.
Do you schedule time to sit down and write songs or do you write whenever, wherever?
I don’t have a regular writing schedule right now. I tend to write in between touring and daily home life in intense creative bursts. However, I’ve been experimenting with time this summer. One idea that’s really working for me is simply picking up my guitar every day.
Even if I only have 20 minutes, sometimes that time holds a really great idea musically or lyrically that I can develop more later on (without the pressure to write a whole song). Plus, I think our minds are wired to work on creative ideas even while we’re doing other things, so I find that I’m actually working out ideas that I started during that time the rest of the day!
(Ellis sings her funny love song to coffee at The Living Room in NYC)
What was going on in your life when you had a really productive period?
Usually an intense creative period coincides with goals to get songs done for the next record. In the last year, I’ve been recording a song a month for my Song of The Month Club download. I think having a deadline of some sort definitely helps me write.
I don’t know why I love to procrastinate, but I do! That’s why deadlines are so helpful for me. Creatively, the “just pick up your guitar every day” idea is really working because it’s becoming a habit. I think this summer has been a particularly productive period for me because I’m making creativity and songwriting space every day. It’s very intentional and I think that’s why it’s working.
What was the weirdest thing that inspired you and what song came out of it?
Weirdest… I write little ditties all the time about regular life things that I would never publicly share! Ok, maybe the song “Georgeanne.” People have been calling my number for years asking for her, and so I think it was inevitable that eventually I would write a song about it. I started to wonder if she was giving my number to people she didn’t want to talk to!
What are your favorite songs to listen to when you’re needing a pick-me-up?
Well, often the newest song I’ve written cheers me up and it also tends to be how I start a creative session.
I was recently listening to The Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record “Raising Sand,” I also love listening to Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Larkin whenever I need a pick me up. Oh… A definite pick me is Dolly Parton’s “The Grass is Blue” CD! That record makes me so happy! Also, Billy Joel’s greatest hits will get me singing along.
Who’s your favorite musician right now?
I love Patty Larkin. I really love her exploration of the guitar and her playfulness.
Any advice for aspiring musicians with limited time (aka, moms who want to rock?)
Limited time can actually be an asset. I think that there are creative ideas literally all around us, and making a little space to explore opens our minds up the rest of the day.
I think our brains are actually wired to problem solve. I think creating in any medium starts with a mysterious “problem” or “equation” to be figured out. When time is set aside, whether it’s 10 min, 20 min, every day, 3 times a week, the creative brain will acclimate to that creative schedule. A musician friend of mine, who not too long ago had a baby, literally wrote her last album during nap time!
How can we parents encourage/motivate our kids to embrace music at all ages?
I think if you love music yourself, then you can’t help but pass that love along. I don’t have my own kids yet, however, I have an inkling that they’ll like to make noise and have fun. Making noise and having fun has been the start to a lot of successful rock bands… and I bet even the classically-minded folks started there too! I think that being proficient at an instrument without joy is a serious loss.
When I have a child, I think my strategy will be to introduce as much music as I can into his/her environment and then go with the joy. I hope that I’ll try to make it fun, and trust that the kid will find whatever I didn’t know to put in the mix if something’s missing.
Proust Questionnaire for Ellis:
my favorite snack is: granola and yogurt
don’t ask me to: iron anything EVER! I put more wrinkles in than I take out!
I would put in a time capsule my: Smart Socks
my favorite place is: home
when i have a creative block I: do something fun
my favorite mantra is: a song lyric that comes to mind: “What if loving what you have is everything?”