Indie Artist Spotlight: Ellis
By Mark E. Waterbury
Artist Name: Ellis
Musical Genre: Female singer/songwriter with alt folk influences
Current Residence: Minneapolis
Years In Music Biz: 10 years
Web Site: http://www.ellis-music.com
CD's Sold: 20,000 total 4 CDs
MM: Did you start out more playing in other people's bands and not doing as much of your own music?
Ellis: The first band I was in I was not a primary songwriter. Then I joined another band in college and became the primary songwriter for that group, which is really why I jumped from one band to the other. I had so much material and I really wanted to be able to express that. It was also when I joined that second band that I started to do solo stuff, because I realized that I had a lot of songs that were not appropriate for a band that I still wanted to play. I also realized that I could perform by myself and people were really into that.
MM: Did you eventually stop playing in the band to concentrate more on your solo music?
Ellis: Yes, I did that in 2000. The band I was in was doing really well, but internally we had some problems that we couldn't work out so I split off from them. I decided to concentrate on my solo music because I wanted to be on the road doing just that, and I knew that I could do it on my own so much easier.
MM: Is it more satisfying for you doing your solo music then it was in the band?
Ellis: I really enjoyed both sides. I enjoyed being the front person and collaborating in a band, and being a solo performer, I enjoy steering my own ship. The intimacy you have with an audience when you are playing solo really feeds me. As far as what is more satisfying, with the solo music I have been able to be on the road and meet more people and play a hundred and fifty dates a year. Touring has been amazing for me as an artist and as a musician, and I feel like I've grown so much. In that sense, going solo has been an amazing thing for me as an artist.
MM: You released your first album on your own?
Ellis: I released the first album primarily because of this guy that I met who was really sweet and told me that I should record my songs. At that point, it had not even occurred to me that it was what I wanted to do, but because of his enthusiasm I decided to do it. I released it on my own and what surprised me is that I sold about a thousand copies in the first seven months or so at St. Olaf's College where I was attending. I had established myself as an artist on campus, and when people started buying it, I realized that it was a viable thing and I could do this independently. I made my money back and started making money on the project.
MM: Has each subsequent album had a plan for further growth?
Ellis: The second project I did was a live album that was my senior project in college. It was a dual purpose, because people wanted to have something to take home with them that reminded them of my personality in my live performance, so I knew that was a good next step for me. That was about the time that I left the band I was in, so my next studio project was all about me taking the reins, me getting the musicians, me producing, me putting everything together and making it happen and making the songs unfold in the way I directed them. It was very exciting for me. Then my latest project is all about working with a producer and working with musicians. Having someone come in a bringing all of their history and talent to the project and making it that much more rich.
MM: How did you go about growing your fan base beyond the Twin Cities?
Ellis: Early on when I released my first album, I joined Peppermint, which is not a label but a grass roots distribution company. They worked with indie artists who are touring full time and have quality music and are going out there and doing it independently. It was really helpful for me because with every newsletter that went out about their other artists that were touring, there would be a little blurb in there about me. So people became used to my name in that small circle of the Peppermint mailing list. I get a lot of people coming out to see me in other markets due to that. I just go out there and try to connect with different groups of people who I think may be interested in hearing my music before I play a show, and I get them to come out and see the shows. It's really just about going out there and doing it; you bring in five people the first time and the next time out they each bring five of their friends. I really believe that developing a fan base is about being consistent and doing it and going back. I do a lot of house concerts, too, because there can be a lot of magic that can happen in an intimate setting with just me and my guitar and a room full of people. I also really connect to my fans sort of one person at a time, and they really respond to that connecting.
MM: What inspires some of your lyric writing, especially on your new album "Tigers Above Tigers Below?"
Ellis: Doing a lot of personal work and figuring out who I am in this world and why I'm doing what I'm doing. I feel like in some ways it's very soul searching, about me trying to figure out how I can embrace who I am both as an artist and as a person. All the good things that I am and all the bad things that I am; seeing all of it and not being so judgmental of all it. It's very introspective and is really important for me to realize that everyone goes through that and a lot of these songs come from the perspective of trying to sit on the ground and divine the very truth of what is going on right now. Songs tend to be the best way for me to express that and bring out the solid truth of what I am feeling and hold on to it to make the song as tangible and real as possible.
MM: What are your plans for "Tigers Above Tigers Below" to take the next step with your career?
Ellis: I've hired a publicist for the first time in my career. We've been doing a lot of the work ourselves, and there are about a hundred million things that you have to do in an independent record company and it's hard to cover all of your bases. One of the things we recognize now is that we can't do it all, so we are handing off some of the publicity to a company to get the word out about what I am doing. I think a lot of people can relate to what I am doing and would really love my music and get a lot out of seeing me perform. It's a matter of how do we get on their radar, so we just looked for someone who knows how to do that and funnels all of our work and efforts together. It's still a matter of keeping going.
MM: Tell us a bit about "Amaze Me - Songs in the Key of Peace."
Ellis: That is a project that the woman I run our label with (Terri Mazurek), and I were brainstorming ways to get involved with the peace movement. I felt almost powerless in not being able to have a voice in what is going on in this country right now. I don't tend to write political songs, but I did write two songs and I feel kind of uncomfortable playing them live. It felt so incredible to me that we as a country were not realizing what was going on with the war on terrorism. We wondered what we could do to participate, and I'm too busy touring to be a regular member of some movement. A couple of our friends wrote songs and we wanted to find out who else out there had voices, and there were a lot of men that had voices but not as many women. So we thought it would be cool to create a CD compilation that was independently done and all about indie women singing about what was going on. We came up with thirteen tracks that we are very happy with, and it seemed like it just happened. A lot of these songs are from the heart, more coming from compassion and love than anger. I'm really moved by a lot of the songs on it and I really feel that I'm part of something that will touch people and make a difference helping people not feel so alone.
MM: Do you feel you have already achieved success with your music career and do you want to take it further?
Ellis: I'm really trying to acknowledge the fact that no matter what level of success you are at you can always reach another level. For example Madonna is so successful but there are still things that she wants. For me, I don't want to take anything for granted. I want to feel happy where I am but still want to grow and learn and achieve and have hunger in away that is not so self-consuming but gives me energy without eating away at who I am. So my ideal is that if I can be happy right now with what I have then I am succeeding. I love performing for people; I love it when there are five people in the room and I love it when there are five hundred people there. It's important to embrace all of those experiences as valuable and integral to the whole experience. In that sense, I think I'm very successful and I've never lost money on tour because I have always been able to sell CDs. It takes time for these things to happen and I'm sure that I'll be even more successful because I'm doing what it takes and pushing myself with my career because I want success in a bigger way. It's a balancing act of looking at everything that is happening now as being beautiful, but at the same time, to keep going forward. If it stays this way the rest of my life I will be satisfied.
Indie Artist Spotlight: Ellis