Singer-songwriter Ellis heard the Buddhist fable a long time ago, and it stayed with her in an unsettling way. Goes like this: A young woman finds herself chased by tigers and runs away. She gets to a cliff, spies a vine, and scrambles down. Above, she sees the tigers swarming. Down below, however, she sees more tigers gathering. Then she hears a disturbing sound — a mouse, chewing on the vine.
"She looks up at the tigers, and then looks down, and up at the mouse again. She looks over to the side and sees a patch of strawberries," Ellis said. "She picks one, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly."
What, no rescue?
"That's it — the whole story, no grand conclusion," said Ellis. "I carried that story with me a long time. I felt frustrated by it and also inspired; I'm not sure why. The fact she ate a strawberry ... Why? Why not try to find another vine? Didn't she want to save her life?"
But the fable's meaning sank in as Ellis began work on a new CD.
"In a sense, in my own life, I am caught between the future and the past. I spend a lot of time thinking about things that happened or I'd do differently, and imagining what would happen if I'd grown up under different circumstances. Or I'll spend time in the future, about plans I have, and things I'll do to make things happen. I realized there are opportunities for joy right here today."
SHE'S IN A GOOD PLACE, though it took time getting there. Ellis grew up in Liberty, Texas, where her stepfather was verbally abusive. She moved with her mother to Minneapolis at age 16.
"I really feel that's where I changed a lot, when I made that move," Ellis said. "In many respects, it impacted my music a great deal. All of a sudden, I was out of my element and having to really figure out who I was."
She eventually wound up in a popular Minneapolis band, Bobby Llama, which won the Sam Goody / Musicland Best Unsigned Band in America contest in 2000.
"At that point, we'd been together five years and had sort of reached a point where we'd decided to split," Ellis said. "As a result of winning it, everyone decided they wanted to stay. But I had already spent time considering my life without the group, and what I'd do. And I got very excited."
Her excitement won out. Ellis wanted freedom, not only as a solo artist but to tour the country and reach new fans.
"We were doing regional stuff, which was really good. But I felt having all these part-time jobs, to make ends meet, was distracting me from my music," she said.
Ellis had already released two solo CDs while with the group, so going on her own was not a stretch. Neither was starting her own label, Rubberneck, to release her CDs. "Everything That's Real," her first post-Bobby Llama CD, sold about 12,000 copies.
With "Tigers Above, Tigers Below," Ellis expands her acoustic-driven folk by incorporating keyboards, accordion, and occasional strings for color and texture. She's got a supple, assured voice that's equally adept at tender, delicate fare ("Broken") as it is at harder-edged rhythmic songs ("Give Me Your Hand"). Lyrically, she writes open, honest, compassionate songs that address insecurity, vulnerability, loneliness, inner fears. Yet the overall tone is upbeat and comforting. "Tigers" clearly benefited from her new here-and-now approach.
"I feel like there's so much heart in this album," Ellis said. "My feet were really firmly planted on the ground. My intention before going in was about how I could be present for this album in every single moment, just put my whole self there and not be distracted. I feel I succeeded with that."
Live, Ellis not only sings, but spills stories and converses with fans, making people feel like they're in her living room with shoes off, fireplace roaring.
"I wouldn't be able to put on another face," Ellis said. "Some performers have that other person they bring to the stage. I just bring myself and I am who I am. I'm genuine, in that way."
Troubled? In danger? Eat a strawberry...