On Saturday, Oct. 27, the Cornell Folk Song Society is bringing a fresh new voice from the Midwest to Ithaca. Rising singer-songwriter Ellis will present a concert of songs that touch the heart. Known for her vibrant and open-hearted nature and her contagious sense of humor, Ellis' music is described as joyful, unpretentious modern folk with a slight hint of country inspired by her southern roots.
Ellis is a bold voice for change who doesn't shy away from controversial topics, yet the songs she sings are written with great empathy for her fellow human beings. She knows how to laugh and does so, freely. Her performances are a joy because she enjoys herself so thoroughly. Ellis says that her song writing springs from an attempt to understand life.
"It's so natural to be living life - so ordinary, and yet so strange," she says. "I guess I get philosophical about why we're here, what our purpose is, and the ordinariness of being happy. I'm curious about the human experience - what is the seed of being happy. Other times I just sing about what is happening. I can write about a particular experience and really purify it."
This remarkably prolific songwriter began her career in high school, performing and recording her first album at age 16. Ellis got her start singing her own songs at open mics - and she quickly dropped her often-mispronounced last name, Bergeron.
"Now I look back and say 'Wow!' but then it seemed so natural," Ellis says. "In my new high school I became known as a songwriter person. That identity seemed natural, it didn't seem crazy brave at the time."
Music, particularly country music, was a big part of her family life as a young child in Texas. She wrote her first song when she was just 14.
"A friend killed himself. It was so shocking," she says. "I felt confused, wondering what I could have done. I had been given a keyboard for Christmas. Dealing with the loss, I just poured out my heart trying to process the feelings. It was a way to express and honor that."
Ellis is coming to Cornell with the support of student fans. CFSS President Sophia Smith-Savedoff heard Ellis at the Night Eagle in Binghamton. "We were just blown away by Ellis, and talked all the way home about how we wanted to bring her to Ithaca, but weren't sure if we could because she was young and new," says Smith-Savedoff. "Then I just blurted it out to the CFSS listserve, saying how amazing she was and that maybe we should go for it."
"We lobbied to trust Sophia's enthusiasm," says long time CFSS member Margaret Shepard. "We supported her choice on principle. Too often, in the past, CFSS hasn't followed through on performer suggestions from student members. It wasn't tough to persuade the rest of the board that Ellis would be a good way to break out of old ways."
Now in her twenties, Ellis' songwriting rises to every occasion and has earned her many honors. Since 2000, she has toured full time and has independently sold more than 30,000 copies of her five records. A new recording is set to be released next February. She was a headliner at the National Womens Music Festival in 2006 and was voted "Most Wanted to Return" at the 2006 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.
When asked whether there's any difference between singing for a women's music audience or for a folk audience, Ellis responded, "I think it's the same. There's a certain power, an extended commonality in being present with mainly women. It's so great to be part of community. I find at folk festivals that it's a similar thing. It's more about creating community that anything. It's exciting to realize that music is something that brings people together. I've had so much support from the women's community for the past 10 years. I'm proud to be in the category of 'Women's Music,' but these songs are not just songs for women. My music isn't just about being gay/lesbian. It's for people of all cultural perspectives and heritage. It's about community."
Ellis will perform for the Cornell Folk Song Society Concert at 8pm, Saturday, Oct. 27 in 165 McGraw Hall on the Cornell Arts Quad. Tickets are $15 advance/$17 at door, with rebates for members, seniors, and children. For more info, 607-564-1998.
Unpretentious joy (2007)