Singer-songwriter from Minneapolis long on lyricism
- By Rick Farrant, Arts/entertainment editor
Ellis spent her formative years in Liberty, Texas, lonely and tiptoeing around an abusive stepfather. "It was verbal, nothing physical," she says, "but he was a cruel character. He was very tormented, and he took it out on all of us. "He was all about disciplining, but it was really over-the-top kind of stuff. In many respects, the coping mechanism I had was to be as quiet and small as possible. Just kind of fit around everybody else's needs."
Thankfully, she says, her mother divorced her stepfather, and mother and daughter moved to Minneapolis when Ellis was 16. And that's when the unique musical flower that was inside the fragile teen-ager bloomed lovely and bright. She wrote songs with a passionate fury and today she is one of the hottest singer/songwriters in Minneapolis - and on her way to becoming a sought-after act in clubs around the country, largely on the strength of street buzz.
Save for a lovable propensity to pepper her language with the generation-appropriate word "totally," she is unequivocally a lyrical marvel, spilling out crisp, intensely intimate songs that are at once beautiful and haunting. Some critics have compared her to Ani DiFranco and Edie Brickell. But comparisons are inevitably shallow attempts to capture the essence of a person. Ellis (what she goes by) needs no comparisons. Her voice is a lullaby on a summer evening breeze, her lyrics a refreshing departure from today's packaged pop.
Listen to her poetic expression of the human condition in "Broken" off her latest independent-label CD, "Tigers Above, Tigers Below" (Rubberneck Records): "It's all right, it's OK, you have time to run/It's all right, it's OK, you'll come back when you are done. . . . Take yourself as you are/The foolish child, the hungry student/The traveler wandering too far/It's so good that you can do this/And you know you have a place/To come home to, you know you do/It's all right to come back broken/And you know I love you."
Embracing her sexuality
The love she speaks of is for a woman. For Ellis is, in fact, a lesbian - and proud of it. But you'll never hear her preaching in an off-putting way. She even possesses a sense of humor about the subject, which makes her seem all the more adorable. The sad fact, though, is that while the message of her music and the appeal of personality should be universal, many of her bookings have been at clubs that cater largely to homosexuals. Ellis says she has a plan to bring wider exposure to her music: Seeking more gigs at folk festivals - and letting her talent and sincerity win over even the skeptical. Or worse, the prejudiced.
"I actually did a festival in Port Angeles, Wash., and I seriously had one fan in the audience," she says in a phone interview. "I felt a little bit intimidated, I kind of held back my sexuality a little, but everybody loved me. I totally won over the crowd. "The next day, I totally had them on my side. The emcee introduced me wrong and they (the crowd) totally corrected me. When I played the second show, I had a group of hardcore fans and I'm like, 'Oh my God, this is how this festival stuff works.' I can be myself and have other people recognize that I have something to offer them, even if they're not like me."
Another recent visitor to Fort Wayne, singer-songwriter Rachael Davis, has found similar success on the festival circuit. Shortly after her performance at the Toast & Jam this year, she won the prestigious Troubador Award at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Ellis, now 27, appears headed for similar acclaim, and as time goes on she'll likely be less apt to hold back her sexuality. For it was her sexuality that propelled her on her solo musical journey.
She was in a band called Bobby Llama that won the Sam Goody "Best Unsigned Band in America" contest in 2000. Record companies came calling with high praise and deals.
Until . . .
Until executives said they wanted Ellis to be more feminine in a more socially traditional way. They asked: "Is she going to appeal to guys? Is she going to be sexy in ways that women are considered sexy to men?" Ellis would have none of it. "All of that kind of leaned on me," she says, "and of course I rebelled. I pushed up against that. I wasn't going to wear dresses and I cut my hair even shorter." She also left the band. In her own way, she says, she is indeed feminine - and alternately masculine: "I feel like I'm a good blend of the feminine and masculine, and I'm just really trying to honor both sides of myself."
She is, she says, feminine because she is "someone who is open with their emotions . . . (and) when I make a decision I look at all the angles and take some time with that . . . (and) I really want to live in a world in ways that aren't going to hurt others." She is masculine in that "I want to be really strong and I want to take care of the person I'm with and I want to be a provider in the relationships I'm in . . . (and) in the way I allow myself to express myself - sometimes anger and being in touch with that. In our society, we tend to teach women to suppress their emotions, because it's not submissive, which is the way women are taught to be."
Open. She's always trying to be open with her thoughts. Listen to her ever-present journey of self-discovery and openness in "Liberty": "I've been searching for answers/Look into what I find/I read things about the Buddha/Things I understand sometimes/It's hard not to take personal/Everything that comes to mind/I feel like a fish trying to fly/It all comes down to this/I run away from pain/I've got to turn and face it someday."
A lantern in the dark
It's not a snap, she says, being so honest. It makes her feel uncomfortably vulnerable sometimes, especially because she's still working everything out. But she can fathom no other way. "I'm still learning to take the walls down, to be strong in who I am. But I feel like it is really natural for me to be open and that that's a part of my personality. "In order to touch someone," she says, "you also have to give them some love." In one of her songs, she writes about exploring dark corners. For her, being open is her lantern.
"I think the biggest thing for me is how to love myself. How to just really be myself and just accept that. To understand all the ways that I run away from myself. The imperfections. I try to be self-aware of how I'm affecting the world and how I'm walking in the world. When you open yourself up, inevitably you come up against things that are not so pretty . . . but I think that it's really important for me to embrace that as part of the process." Part of the process of a unique flower blooming. On her own terms. "If I never do break the surface of whatever would be called success in the mainstream world, I'm going to be well-supported in my career. At some point, I really will be making money and be OK. You can be different. You can be a different kind of change-maker."