Ellis, may not be a name you recognize, but she is a folk veteran of sorts. The decorated songwriter who made her start early on in the folk circuit, is a native of Texas who migrated north to MN as a teenager. Now with the release of her ninth album, The Guest House, she shines as she reflects on all of life’s trials and triumphs. Her distinctive voice is a little bit Dolly in tone and phrasing, and little Eva Cassidy in style and feeling. At times The Guest House is reminiscent of 90’s era country and pop. Ellis’s vocals are sweet, yet solid. She paints dreamy visuals; her songs are much like an old photo album full of Polaroids that have darkened on the corners.
One of those photos is of a sea captain. “Songs on the Sea” lets guitars set the rhythm, the finger picking bright and clear. They mimic the sound of the ocean, waves lapping against the side of a boat. The story of the sea captain would be the perfect accompaniment to an animated short, one of those with watercolor and simple single line drawings.
“Driving in This Storm” is easily my favorite track, and not just because it features breaker of a lyric, “there is more than meets the eye but how do I tell that to my own brain, to my broken heart, bigger every time it falls apart”. It could have just as easily been a Lisa Loeb or a Natalie Merchant jam circa 1995 with the building chord progression and bouncy strumming pattern. It captures perfectly the feeling of a post break-up drive in the rain (because those kinds of drives never happen in the sun).
The title track “The Guest House” was inspired by a Rumi poem of the same name. It’s built on the idea that being human is being a guest house, where you’re the host of many emotions and events, every day new guests. The song encourages hope as Ellis sings “pain is not a sign that everything is going wrong” something that’s easy to forget when one event is causing great emotional stress.
As the album progresses things get more serious and somber. The bluntness of “I’m on Fire” might be where Ellis shows the most vulnerability. She cops to many unpleasant, yet human behaviors and questions whether or not she can overcome them. The song does a country style 180 two-thirds of the way through where the analogy of “fire” turns around. It’s a beautifully constructed song where Ellis is at her most raw.
The final song on the album, “Moab in November,” is an evening campfire jam. Again Ellis recalls that 90’s pop feel with the tempo and personality of the guitars. Almost makes you wonder when Edwin McCain is going to jump in with the harmony on the chorus. She ends it like a country song though, finishing with a final line that brings it all together.
The Guest House is one of those albums that works both as an event or the accessory to one. It will go well as the soundtrack to your garden party, to an early morning coffee on the porch or reflective walk through nature. Ellis embraces all of life’s lessons and insists on ingesting and growing from them. She shares her experiences through vivid storytelling, creating pictures many can relate to. She empathizes with and acknowledges losses without letting them define her or bring her down. She feels pain but remains hopeful in the face of self-doubt. In a world of broken hearts she understands they have to break to know love. At the end of the day it’s all about accepting these experiences as guests in our house and becoming better from what they left behind.
Sarah Osterbauer is the SouthernMinn Scene music columnist. She’s a music critic and loves to meet the people who make the city’s heart beat (and sometimes break). Follow her on twitter @SarahOwrites.
Ellis' 'Guest House' is a throwback in all the right places (2016)