FOLLOWING A RUN OF DATES WITH JOHN SMITH LAST YEAR, CANADIAN SONGWRITER DENNIS ELLSWORTH RETURNS TO THE UK IN JUNE WITH NEW ALBUM HAZY SUNSHINE.
His third solo record, released 9th June, blends vibrant ‘East Coast folk’ with shades of classic Americana, roots and country. The album was recorded in five days – and wine-filled nights – at a studio outside Kingston, Ontario, and produced by Josh Finlayson.
Dwelling on the necessity of remaining positive, Ellsworth’s HAZY SUNSHINE is a great record fuelled by a peculiarly intoxicating kind of dark optimism. In this new interview with The Mouth Magazine the songwriter discusses the themes of his new album…
WHEN I TALKED WITH JOHN SMITH LAST YEAR, JUST AFTER HIS ALBUM GREAT LAKES WAS RELEASED, HE CREDITED YOU WITH BEING AN IMPORTANT PART OF BEING ABLE TO GET THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK… IS CREATIVE COLLABORATION IMPORTANT?
Until I met John collaboration really wasn’t that important to me. Since then I’ve co-written with Josh Finlayson (who produced HAZY SUNSHINE) and Andy Maize of the Canadian group Skydiggers, I’ve co-written a little with my buddy Leeroy Stagger and I’ve taken part in two Songwriters Association Of Canada writers workshops where all the work is by collaboration. I’m a confident and quick writer, so I don’t rely on it; but when I do collaborate I find the experience very rewarding. In that regard, it’s given me a few songs that have a special quality to them. Not everyone may hear it, but I know it’s there and that’s important to me. In my experience, co-writing has been fruitful in product and friendship and I have a few lined up for later this year. Short answer: it wasn’t important, but it is now.
YOU’RE A TRAINED CHEF – HOW DOES MUSIC DIFFER FROM COOKING? WHAT’S THE RECIPE FOR A GOOD SONG?
They’re definitely different but they are both rooted in creativity. I am trained as a chef and I’ve had plenty of fun working in that field but since abandoning it to go full steam into music, I have never been happier. There is a stress level to cooking for money that didn’t fit well with me. Music is not only my true passion but more my speed. A good recipe for a song: a beautiful melody, a story or poetic lyric, a hook, a groove and your presentation.
A TERM OFTEN APPLIED TO YOUR MUSIC IS ‘AMERICANA’… BUT YOU’RE CANADIAN – SO SHOULD WE THINK OF A NEW TERM? DOES THE TERM ‘AMERICANA’ SUIT YOU ANYWAY?
I don’t mind the Americana label. Canadiana seems like a stretch to me… Americana is broad but it speaks to the roots and history. I employ techniques in my writing that could put me in folk, soul, pop, country, blues… but if you put em all together Americana kind of covers it.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MUSIC?
My answer is easy. I am a songwriter. I try not to get into describing my sound because if you listen from record to record, you can find a common thread – but the sounds have changed. I’m not trying to sound like anything in particular and I stay open to the idea of taking songs away from the normal place they may fit or fall in any given collection of work. Sometimes you need to do that and it sticks out, but only because it makes it harder for folks to fit you in a box. I’m not intentionally trying to evade that. It comes down to the song and what it needs, not how doing one thing or another will pigeon hole you or tarnish an understanding of what I’m perceived to be as a writer or artist.
HAZY SUNSHINE WAS RECORDED “IN FIVE DAYS AND WINE -FILLED NIGHTS”… RED OR WHITE?
Red! Lots of Italian and Spanish with a nice dose of California Cab in there, too.
IN THE STUDIO, WAS THERE MUCH JAMMING / DEVELOPING THE SONGS OR TRYING DIFFERENT ARRANGEMENTS OUT?
We did develop the songs as we went. We gave ourselves about three hours per song. We’d start around the drums where I’d teach everyone the song, and we’d make choices about arrangement and who would take the lead. We had three lead players – piano, violin and electric guitar. If the band had questions they were all addressed while we sat around the drums. If the band needed notes, they made ’em there, and then we’d split up into our respective spaces and start rehearsing so we could get used to vibe in the headphones. After about thirty minutes of rehearsal that way, we would hit record and start firing off takes. We’d do three or four and then listen. Sometimes we needed to address things, but other times we could tell we nailed it. So we’d just move on to the next tune. It’s fun to work that way because it doesn’t give you chance to mangle a song with too much thought. It gives the spirit of the session license to guide you and it gives the band chance to feel like we’re all working from the same place.
DO YOU LET THE MOOD GUIDE YOU – OR ARE YOU VERY PRECISE ABOUT HOW YOU WANT THINGS DONE?
The mood is a big part of it… I love reaching that point in a session where the folks you have chosen to make music with justify their inclusion. It’s beautiful. I have yet to hire someone who didn’t make it beautiful… I am precise about what I want, but I’m willing to bend quite a lot when what we get is better than what I want….
… AND WHEN YOU PLAY LIVE IS IT LIKE THAT TOO?
It’s not really the same. With a band, rehearsal and study trumps it. I really like applying it to recording because it allows for creativity on the spot, but once a song is recorded I like to try and match the vibe and parts in a live setting. Solo is different, as I have had to adapt certain songs to being played completely solo. Over time and repeated playing songs do evolve and I guess in some respect that is the same spirit at play, but on the other end of the process.
I PARTICULARLY LIKED THE TRACKS IF I FIND THE TRUTH AND HAZY SUNSHINE, BOTH HAVE A DARKNESS ABOUT THEM. ARE YOU A NATURALLY UPBEAT OR DOWNBEAT PERSON?
I’m naturally upbeat with dark thoughts. Dark optimism. I really love music that makes you feel that darkness. I don’t like to live that way though. It’s a place I can tap into – but I try to only go there in music. Obviously the world can bring you down, but as I grow older, I’m more about just wanting to keep inner peace and happiness… Not like a hippy though… Ha ha. I love hippies.
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY ON LIFE?
Be you and be well. Don’t forget your path. Where you’ve been and where you’re heading.
WHAT OR WHO ARE YOUR BIGGEST LIFE INFLUENCES?
I’m inspired by feeling. I’m inspired by land. Spirit. Good and evil. My family and friends. I take inspiration from reality and dreamland alike. I’m inspired by activity, determination, perseverance, love and fear…
… AND WHAT ABOUT MUSICALLY?
Musically, the list is massive… I study when I listen. I binge on things. I’m influenced by all of it. When I write, I pull in things from all over the place. I find music to be so crucial to life that it influences me on so many levels, not just my own creativity. Passion is intense… Some of my favourite songwriters, artists and producers would be Hoagy Carmichael, Joe Meek, John Phillips, Harry Nilsson, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Lonnie Johnson, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Merle Haggard, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, Kris Kristofferson, Fred Neil, Bill Evans, Daniel Lanois, Roy Orbison, (all of) The Beatles, Ryan Adams, Jackson Browne, The Jayhawks, Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, Coxsone Dodd, Delroy Wilson, Wilco, Joni Mitchell, Glenn Gould, Eddie Hinton, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan…. and the list goes on forever…
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AFTER THIS ALBUM AND UK TOUR?
I spent the winter making a tour only record. So that will be at shows starting in Canada at the end of June. I’m making a proper follow up to HAZY SUNSHINE in the fall down in Athens, Georgia, USA. I made my last record – DUSK DREAMS – down there with David Barbe producing and pulling together the players from his arsenal… I had such a beautiful time doing that the last time, that we’re going to do it all again… Round two. And that will likely come out sometime around June 2015.
IT’S BEEN A WHILE SINCE THE SONGS ON HAZY SUNSHINE WERE RECORDED… PRESUMABLY YOU HAVE MORE MATERIAL WAITING IN THE WINGS?
I have enough songs written for that next record as it is, but I am going to spend the month of July relaxing in Prince Edward Island, Canada (my home), writing another record worth of stuff to add to the pile. I usually like to go to the studio with three records worth of songs so we can get the best ten or twelve for the release. So I need more stuff. Some fresh stuff. I haven’t been able to write lately because I have been so busy but I have set aside a month to dig into that… and to just slow down and spend time with my wife. It’s nice to be busy, but I really am looking forward to a brief slow down…
Download HAZY SUNSHINE from iTunes, here.