Lindsay Ell is enjoying a rare day off at home in Nashville. “It feels like I’ve been on the road six out of seven days,” she says. But Ell’s not complaining. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter loves touring. Every morning, she rolls out of bed and follows her passion. “I’ve prayed of being this tired ever since I was a little girl! I get to live my dream and tour with acts I dreamed of playing with, growing up.”
Since the release of The Project last August, the Calgary native, now based in Music City, has piled up the accolades. From the moment this debut dropped, it flew up the charts. The 12-song collection hit No.1 on the iTunes Country albums chart, No. 2 on the iTunes All Genres albums chart, and earned a No. 1 position on the Nielsen Soundscan Current Country Albums Chart in the U.S. High-profile U.S. TV appearances followed, including The Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!
With the help of producer Kristian Bush (of Sugarland), Ell has found her sweet spot. As she writes in the liner notes, “I wanted to call this album The Project because that’s exactly what it was. I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m a different singer, different guitar player, and different artist. I’ve finally found my voice.”
When asked if she ever imagined such rapid success, Ell remains humble. “I wanted my fans to fall in love with the songs like I did,” she says. “But I had no idea it would debut at No. 1. It all still feels surreal.”
“Castle,” co-written with Abbey Cone and Josh Kerr, is one of many highlights on the critically acclaimed album. The song is a metaphor for Ell’s philosophy of staying grounded no matter what success comes her way. In the chorus, she sings, “And even if we had a house up on a hill/ I bet we’d want a castle.”
“It’s so easy, regardless of where we are in society, to think we never have enough, or we’re not cool enough, etc.,” says Ell. “We all get caught up in this cycle, but it’s not where our hearts and minds should be focused; it’s not reality. That song is about keeping things in perspective, and being grateful for what we have, and the lives we get to live everyday.”
Easy advice to take to heart, but how does the artist – as she stockpiles No.1 singles and her star rises – live this philosophy? “My fans,” she says. “I have such a close relationship to them and they keep my reality in check.” Ell is a self-confessed social media fanatic – spending an average of five hours a day on her various online accounts. “I talk to my fans, and see how my shows and songs influence their lives, and that keeps everything in check.”
All 12 tracks on The Project are either co-writes, or written by other artists. The album is a powerful collection of personal songs with simple, universal messages of love and hope. Before moving to Nashville eight years ago, Ell admits she’d never collaborated on writing a song. Now, co-writes are the norm. The first single, “Waiting on You,” was a Top 5 Canadian Country radio hit. The bluesy, country-rock song is the one that kick-started The Project sessions; it was a co-write with Adam Hambrick and Andrew DeRoberts. “Champagne,” a co-write with Walker Hayes, is another of Ell’s favourites, because it forced her to step outside her comfort zone.
“It was a great experience for me to have as a writer to learn there are no rules,” she says. “You can be fearless when you’re writing; there’s always an editing step later. I was with Walker and asked him: ‘Can we rhyme feel with Jessica Biel?’ and he said: ‘Of course you can!’ That was a good writing lesson.”
Ell’s music lessons – formal and informal – started young. By six she was playing the piano, and by eight she was learning guitar licks, honing her chops by following her father to country-bluegrass camps. These days, just like one of Ell’s early mentors sang, Ell is certainly takin’ care of business. Fifteen years ago, as a 13-year-old, she met Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Randy Bachman.
Says Ell, “Randy heard a demo I’d made of Jann Arden cover songs and Tommy Emmanuel guitar instrumentals, and said, ‘She sounds like a young female Chet Atkins; I need to meet her.’” A writing session between Bachman and Ell was arranged, and the Guess Who co-founder became the budding songwriter’s biggest fan. “He got me into blues, jazz, and rock, and that gave me a whole new vocabulary for my music that I hadn’t tapped into yet,” says Ell.
Today, the pair still keeps in touch. Bachman taught Ell one other important life lesson: never lose sight of why you chose this career. “Randy told me that this life I’ve chosen will be an emotional rollercoaster, and that I always need to remember why I love doing what I’m doing, and that will keep me grounded,” says Ell. “That’s great advice, that I still think about every day.”
ELL’S TOP SONGWRITING TIPS
1) Honesty is the key. “That is the No. 1 rule; it’s also a rule to never break. The more vulnerable you can be as a songwriter, the better the song usually is… The more real I can be, the better I believe the song is.”
2) Write every single day. “Whether it’s a title or just two lines. The voice memo app in my phone is embarrassing, but it’s filled with little tidbits, crazy ideas of me singing as I’m walking in an airport, or lying in bed half asleep… I try to write something every day and capture ideas as they come.”
3) There are no rules! “The minute I say, ‘It’s got to be done like this,’ tomorrow I’ll wake up and break my own rule!”
Those dream acts include Brad Paisley (with whom Ell is currently touring); Sugarland (who are re-uniting and taking her on the road this summer); and Keith Urban (Ell joins the four-time Grammy winner for the second leg of his Canadian Graffiti U World Tour in September 2018).
RE-RECORDING HER FAVOURITE ALBUM
Before recording The Project, producer Kristian Bush gave Ell an assignment she couldn’t refuse. “So many people have influenced me, so I didn’t know where to begin, or go next, with my music,” says Ell. “In our first meeting, Kristian… asked me what my favourite record of all time was, and I told him: John Mayer’s Continuum. He said, ‘Perfect! I want you to go record the whole thing. These are the only rules: you have two weeks; you need to play all the instruments; and you need to do it at the studio.’ For 14 days, I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. trying to get this done… I learned so much about Mayer, and how he played guitar, and how I played guitar, and how I wanted my next record to sound. The gears just clicked.” After two weeks in the studio, she handed the assignment to Bush. “I told him, ‘I finally know how I want my record to sound!’” Ell has decided to release her version of Continuum, so her fans can hear her homework. It’ll be out later this year.