"I feel like now more than ever, fans are wanting to hear music from women" In conversation with Lindsay Ell
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After a slightly tricky start - me pressing the wrong button getting my phone out of my pocket and hanging up on her - Lindsay Ell turned out to be one of the most gracious and fascinating chats I've had. Our wide ranging discussion went from working with Kristian Bush on her debut album, The Project, to playing festivals, a mutual love of John Mayer, and the rise of women in country music.
Sorry, hi. I pressed the wrong button, I was getting the phone out of my pocket.
It’s totally fine. It’s nice to speak with you Max.
It’s great to speak to you. How are you doing? And are you enjoying London?
I’m doing wonderful. And absolutely, I love coming to London. We’ve had a great couple of days so far.
You played a few shows in short space of time at C2C this year, is it physically hard work playing that many shows in quite a short period of time?
Sometimes. But yes, touring is definitely a good crash course for sure. I remember a couple of years ago I had a single coming out, and I played for twenty-four hours straight. I was in downtown Nashville on Broadway and I played for twenty-four hours. I stopped maybe every five minutes every hour just to have a sip of water, and then I kept going. And that’s very taxing. So five shows, we’ve got this.
So talking about Nashville, what’s your first memory and your first experience of Nashville the first time you were there?
When I first came to Nashville, I remember walking off the plane with a guitar on my back. I had one person’s name on a piece of paper and that’s it. And I’m from Canada originally, and so coming to Nashville was the place that I always dreamed of going when I was a little girl, and it was sort of like “all right, I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I’m just going to figure it out. If there is ever a good time now is as good as any.” And so I just loved it. I felt so at home instantly because people are so friendly. And now I’ve been living in Nashville for eight years.
Moving to Nashville from Canada, was that quite a culture shock?
You know, Calgary in Canada is sort of the country music Mecca in Canada. It’s a lot like Houston, because we have a big rodeo and a big country music festival. So it’s a big music town as well as a big hockey town. And so there were a lot of things that reminded me of Calgary when I moved to Nashville. Nashville is definitely the country music Mecca. It’s where all the record labels and a lot of the artists live. So it’s a wonderful place to call home. And it was actually pretty easy to get settled.
Has Nashville changed much in the time you’ve been there?
I feel like Nashville has changed a lot. The statistic right now is a hundred people are moving to Nashville every single day. And so it’s growing. Cranes are sort of an aspect of the Nashville skyline at the moment. There’s always construction, there are so many new condo buildings going up. The traffic is getting worse as well. But it’s great that so many people are wanting to move to Nashville and wanting to visit and see what’s going on there. And it’s such a wonderful community for songwriters and for musicians. The songwriters that are in Nashville are some of the best in the world. I feel really lucky it call it my home. You’re surrounded by the greats.
And how involved do you get in that songwriting community?
You know, I never really did much co-writing before I moved to Nashville. But it’s sort of the way of life here. You have these songwriters, they’re sometimes called “lunchbox songwriters”, because you go to work every day and pack your lunch with you and you go to write songs. From ten o’ clock in the morning to three in the afternoon, you are writing a song. And sometimes you walk into a room and two, three, four, five hours later, you walk out. And you didn’t walk in with a song, and now you have finished a song. And so co-writing is a lot of the community and the mentality in Nashville. I still write a lot by myself.
But I have, yes, fallen in love with the art of co-writing. It’s amazing when I can write a song idea, and instead of finishing it by myself, which I can do, I can take that little piece of a song I’ve started writing, and bring it into a co-write with one or two other writers. And three brains can work on finishing the same thing instead of one brain. And I always think that three brains are probably better than one.
I suppose it brings a different dynamic, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. A new dynamic, different perspectives. Sometimes you’ll have writers who are more well-versed in lyric writing, or sometimes you’ll have writers who are more well-versed in melody or track making. And so really having the right three people in a room can be just an electric combination.
While we're on the topic of songwriting, I was reading you and Kristian [Bush, of Sugarland] wrote 'Wildfire' in fifteen minutes or something in the studio?
We did. It was one of the most exciting songs I’ve ever been a part of. We knew we were missing at least one song for the record, and Kristian and I had been playing songs that we had written, other songs we had heard, for each other. And we just couldn’t find the exact right thing that we were looking for. And so the band is getting ready first thing in the morning in the studio. The drummer starts playing this groove, you know, sort of this drumbeat. And Kristian and I look at each other and we’re like “that’s what we need. That’s it.”
And so I grab my guitar. And the two of us run into the side room of the studio. And fifteen minutes later come out with 'Wildfire' and we recorded it on the spot. It was the closest to being the Foo Fighters that I’ve ever been to in my life! You always hear stories of rock bands and they rent out a studio for months and they write and record the record all in the same spot. And so much of the Nashville team doesn’t work like that as much anymore. And so it was just so exciting to be able to write a song on the spot and record it immediately.
It sounds crazy that you can come out with a song as good as 'Wildfire' in qurter of an hour. Because that’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.
Thank you. 'Wildfire' is also one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s how we start our live show most nights and so it’s definitely one of my favourite moments.
You’re obviously doing a lot of interviews. Is there a particular song that people want to ask you about more than any of the others on the record?
You know, 'Wildfire' for sure has been one that has come up a lot. 'Waiting On You' is the song that started the whole process of the record. It was the first song that when Kristian and I were in a room listening through a bunch of my song demos that I’d just finished writing. That was the song where he looked at me and said “this is where we start.” It has a little bit rock, a little bit of blues, a little bit of country. Different kinds of genres. But when it came to making my record, it was like, “okay, where do we start?” And 'Waiting On You' was the song that to me had the perfect mix of all three.
So I’m so excited that that’s the single right now, and fans have fallen in love with that. As well as 'Castle' is one of my favourite tracks. I just feel that it talks about something that I feel very, very strongly about. I remember the day we wrote it. I just wanted to write a song that really centred on how as society, we can forget what’s important really easily these days. And we get into buying bigger houses and faster cars, and getting cooler hairdos, that sometimes we lose sight of what’s important. And 'Castle' is just written on, you know, it’s good to take a step back and really think about how much we have, and how we have people that we love in our lives, and how we just wake up and do what we love for a living, and how… it’s about not taking that stuff for granted.
That’s one of the other things about the record for me, there are some songs on there about heartbreak and things. But it’s quite a positive record. It’s quite upbeat, right? Was that a conscious thing you wanted to do?
Yeah. You know, I love listening to music that makes me feel better. And makes me feel happy. And really, writing this record has been the most vulnerable I’ve ever been for a songwriter, and the of making this record was a really happy time of my life, you know? I was in love, I was getting to work with a producer that I’d wanted to work with for a long, long time and finally making music that I felt was exactly who I was. And so it is a happy record. I was so happy making it, that I wanted fans to be able to feel that when they listen to it.
So are there any songs on there that you don’t get to talk about very often that you think are a bit underrated gems on the record?
Absolutely. There’s a song called 'Space' that I was very nervous to record. And Kristian was one of the people who was like to me, “we really need to record this song.” And I just feel. And Kristian sat me down and said “Lindsay, I know a lot of people look at you as a guitar player.” Because I play all the lead guitar on my record, and guitar is a huge part of who I am. But he’s like “I look at you first and foremost as a singer. And you’re an amazing singer. And we need to showcase that.” And it was the first time that somebody had really sat me down and said it in that way. That it had that much of an impact was wow.
Yeah, I guess I do look at myself as a writer, a guitar player, and a studio engineer. You know, all of these things, I’m such a music nerd that I love doing all of it. Sometimes I forget the fact that I’m a singer and I love singing and that’s where I started my whole passion and love for music when I was three years old when I was sitting around in the house. And so recording 'Space' was a very special song, just because of that fact. It was sort of like reignited confidence in myself. And because I feel like I became a better singer, I’d become a better guitar player. And really a better musician through recording the project.
I’m glad you mentioned 'Space'. Because I’d written down four songs that I was going to ask you about and that was the third. I think 'Space' is a really great song. You mentioned singing, writing and being a guitarist, which one of those three things is where you feel most comfortable?
You know, playing guitar helps me express the message that I want fans to hear, in different ways that I think you can’t always convey in lyrics. Music is the universal language and we can touch so many people who don’t even know English sometimes through music. And so playing guitar, especially electric guitar, I think really helps me communicate that sometimes. I feel fortunate that I can sing songs, I can write lyrics and sing those lyrics, and then I can also play guitar. And in those guitar solos as a part of songs on my record, I can further convey that message. So if I had to choose one it would be really hard. It’s like trying to choose your favourite child. But guitar is just, I’m so passionate about it, it’s just a soft spot in my heart, you know.
I will say that some of my favourite artists that I listen to, it’s not necessarily the fact that they have the most amazing voice in the world. Some of my favourite artists are guitar players. Funny, I know. Probably shocking. A shocking fact! But the way they play guitar, the way they sing their songs and the way their write their songs, it’s when all of those three things come together that makes them some of my favourite artists. And so I really hope that the package of how I sing, how I write, how I write, how I play comes together that fans will want to check out the music.
And John Mayer is one of your favourite artists, right?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, when we were just starting to talk about the record Kristian sat me down and said “Lindsay, what’s your favourite record of all time?” And I said “well, the record I listen to probably the most is Continuum by John Mayer. It’s my favourite. I love every song on it.” And he said “okay, perfect. I want you to go record the whole thing.” And I looked at him blankly and I was like “but what do you mean?” And he said “your rules are you have two weeks, you need to play all the instruments on it, and you need to do it by yourself at your studio at the label. I want you to record the whole record.” And so I said “okay.”
So I cleared my schedule for two weeks, and from 8am till 3am I worked around the clock trying to get the thing done. And I recorded the whole Continuum record. And I handed it in to Kristian after the two week deadline. And I said “I have learned so much about myself. About the way John plays guitar, about the way I play guitar. And I finally know what I want my record to sound like.” And it was amazing, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard a producer ask an artist to do, was take music that you love listening to, recreate it in your own voice, and listen to that coming back through the speakers. And it was like a religious experience.
It sounds quite simple, and also slightly a ridiculous suggestion. But you understood and wanted to do it, right?
Yes, I know. I thought he was half crazy. And I was like “I don’t know why you’re asking me to do this, but I trust you enough that will do it.” And it turned out to be one of the most brilliant things. It really gave us this sound, and sort of this starting off point of sonically how I wanted The Project to sound.
[At this point we chatted about whether Lindsay's version of Continuum would ever be released. And it has been since we spoke.]
In country music gender imbalance and gender inequality has been quite a hot topic for a while now. I was wondering if you thought that any of the stuff that’s happening in Hollywood, whether any of that do you think will have an impact on Nashville and mainstream country radio?
Oh, absolutely. There definitely is a gender imbalance when you look at, even just the charts. And really, I think in any industry, there can be generally a gender imbalance. I feel that in country music specifically when you look at the number of females being played on country radio, that even though the ratios aren’t even at the moment, I feel like it’s a great time to be a female artist right now, recording music and making music. I feel like the music industry is cyclical, like any industry. I feel like it’s time for the ladies right now.
But I feel very proud to be a woman artist and a woman songwriter. And I feel like now more than ever, fans are wanting to hear music from women, and the songs that women artists are writing right now are in a more honest and vulnerable place, which brings that bar higher. And with that higher expectation comes better quality music. I just feel that those ratios are going to be evened out. It’s a slow process for sure, but I feel we’re in the right direction.
Do you think country music has a bigger problem with this than other genres of music? Or do you think it’s everywhere, it’s just been a focal point in country music recently?
I think it has been a focal point in country music, because I do feel that the situation is a little bit worse in country music. When you look at the pop charts, those ratios of female to male artists are a lot more even. You know, in the top thirty for instance, you see ratios of females to males being played on radio, being more even. But it’s not that way in country music at all. And so hence why I think it’s been in the news a lot, and hence why it seems certain playlists feature a lot of women, and the focus on women has just been so wonderful. It’s been so wonderful to see that effort. And certain people taking a stance, being like “we want fans to hear these female artists. This is music that should be heard.” And I am all about the movement as well. In fact I even have hats that say “Girl Power” on them. Because I’m just all about females feeling like they can speak their voice and stand strong in their beliefs, and want fans to hear their music.
One final question, I promise this is the last one. You mentioned it briefly earlier, but in your Twitter profile you call yourself a “music nerd.”
Yes! I’m making fun of myself a little bit, because I love to record music, I love to write music. I call myself a guitar nerd sometimes because I like to study different guitar pedals and guitar amps and gear. When I have an off day, when I’m home for a few hours, I’ll spend my time in the studio just recording music. I’m sort of a workaholic. Just because I love working so much. And so, it’s through I feel like I’m a bit of a music nerd, because it’s all I want to do. I feel so grateful that I can wake up and do what I love every day. And I never really want to stop.
Lindsay's record, The Project, is available now, as is her "second" album, The Continuum Project. You can buy both, or stream from all decent services. Streams from Tidal are below.
For more information on Lindsay visit her website, follow her on Twitter, like her on Facebook, or see what she's up to on Instagram.