A talk with Matt Ellis about his new record, "Births, Deaths & Marriages"
Venice, CA-based musician, Matt Ellis, has been on my radar since last spring when he contacted me and gave me a copy of his fourth and current album, Births, Deaths & Marriages. Rooted in Americana and folk-rock, the record was self-produced by the artist and features eleven new tracks that are threaded with a melancholy that is presented so gracefully that the mood of the record inspires pensive thought without weighing the music down.
Ellis cut his vocals and acoustic guitar tracks live with drummer, Branden Harper in a Venice Beach loft. The laid back recording environment suited the songs and Ellis, perfectly. The pair found themselves free from the pressures of modern studios and decided to work alone, building each song from the ground up, sometimes capturing and keeping a song played in full for the first time.
Ellis incorporated many special guests, including returning guest, Greg Leisz (Joni Mitchell, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris), who added his haunting signature pedal steel, lap steel & Banjo to four tracks while Tim Young (Beck, Daniel Johnston) channeled the desert through his Telecaster on five of them. Calexico’s Nick Luca added further electric guitars, piano and Fender Rhodes while his band mate Jacob Valenzuela rounded out two songs with trumpet. Merry Clayton (Best known for her vocals on The Rolling Stones hit “Gimme Shelter”) lent her incredible range to the gospel-inspired track, “Ghosts” – a definite highlight of this new set of songs. The lead single, "Heart Of Mine", was featured on Andrew Zimmerns' "Appetite For Life" and received an Honorable Mention in the International Songwriting Competition in the Americana category.
Recently, I had the opportunity to find out a little more about Matt Ellis, the music he makes, and what inspires him.
I know you are originally from Australia...have you lived in other places and what led you on the long trip to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I was born in Sydney, Australia. My family moved around different parts of Australia and New Zealand when I was growing up, then to Hong Kong where I did the majority of my high school and started playing music. I'd travelled to the States several times growing up and always felt comfortable here. In 2000, I released my first solo album after my band split up, and headed to the States in 2001, playing shows in L.A. and NYC with a fiddle player. After releasing my second album back home, and promoting it there for a while, I felt my next step was to return to America and pick up where I'd left off. That tour took me around the East Coast, through Canada and back down the West Coast to L.A. where I set up camp and never left.
How long have you been playing music and who did you learn from? Do you have musicians in your family?
Music skipped a generation in my family actually. My Czech/English Grandfather taught Violin and Guitar and both he and my Grandmother played piano. My parents put both my older brother and sister into piano and guitar classes which they dropped, so I think they'd given up trying by the time I was old enough.
I started singing in High School when I was 14. I was a skater and heavily influenced by punk rock through to the Stones. A friend had recently picked up the guitar and wanted to start a band so I stepped in on vocals. I soon became addicted to writing and performing and haven't stopped since. I didn't really pick up the guitar until I was about 17 though. We'd moved back to Australia and I needed to keep writing, so it was kind of forced onto me.
I'm pretty much self taught. I'd buy chord books and watch other players, stealing what I could. Probably my biggest learning curve was time spent hanging out in Sunburst Music, a guitar store in Coogee Beach, Sydney. I'd hang out until closing time and try and sit in on jams with the owner, Doug Clarke, and his mates. He kind of took me under his wing, so I'd return to the shop most evenings with a six pack and a few of us would grab different guitars off the walls, listen to old records and talk about the roots of rock & roll. I'd highly recommend dropping in if you're ever in Sydney!
There are lots of guests credited on your new record, Births, Deaths and Marriages. Who are the core members of the band and how did you find each other?
I've been incredibly fortunate with the guests I've had play on all my records, especially since moving here. Shortly after arriving, a mutual friend put me in touch with Branden Harper, a drummer that'd spent time in Austin, Seattle and L.A. on the live circuit and in studios. We ended up working on both Tell The People and Births, Deaths & Marriages together, reaching out to a lot of his contacts in the process.
My core band I have now actually came together afterBirths, Deaths & Marriageswas recored, although my guitarist, Josh Norton, played all the electric bass on the album and lead guitar on "So Many Lied" and my drummer, Fernando Sanchez, added percussion. This line-up has been together since 2010 with Josh, Fern and Tim Walker on pedal Steel, Cecil Campanaro on Bass and my wife Vavine also sings with us. We all pretty much met through mutual friends and other bands around the L.A. music scene and have stuck together since.
photo credit: Jessica Dascher/Rockstars & Babies
As you mentioned, your lovely wife, Vavine Tahapehi is a member of your band—did you meet over music?
Vav's always sung, ever since I've known her, but never professionally. She grew up in the Maori culture, from New Zealand, and spent her childhood singing with different cultural groups in New Zealand and Australia. Shortly after she joined me in the U.S., we took off to Mexico for a couple of months, to decide if we'd stay on in L.A. and for me to finish writing Tell The People.We were living in this tiny town on the Gulf, in between two fishing villages, eating like kings and writing dozens of songs. One night it dawned on me that I'd written a duet, and asked her to demo the female part there and then. It sounded so good, I tricked her into recording it a few months later in the album sessions, and have been pulling her up on stage ever since. She's a true natural, and has added such a great dimension to the band.
What was the inspiration for Births Deaths and Marriages?
After I'd finished writing the title track, it dawned on me that the bulk of these new songs where all related. I'd been away from home for a long stretch, and was writing about the things in life that really matter, many events I was missing out on. I decided on keeping that as the album title and writing to that theme. Some songs are about our time in Mexico and here in L.A., but there's an underlying sense of mortality in most of them.
How is this record different from your previous records?
This is the first album which I've produced by myself and really called all the shots. I had a clear vision in mind and pulled out all the stops to get the sound I could hear in my head. Like Tell The People, the majority of lead vocals, acoustic guitar and drums were played live in one room together, although this time we set up in a loft with minimal gear and left in even more of the good stuff, like sirens, barking dogs and shifting tempos.
The packaging for your new CD is handmade and includes lots of mementos and miniature copies of your hand-written lyric sheets. That combined with the visually excellent music videos you make, leads me to think that you’re also a visual artist. Is that the case? What sort of things inspire you visually?
The visual side of things has always been important to me. I started drawing at a young age and studied art and graphic design after school, so yes, there is a link there. Lots of things inspire me visually, from classic old band posters to great photography.I've always loved the way writers like Tom Waits create such visual images with their songs too, inspiring both senses. There are so many image tumblrs online these days, it isn't hard to find inspiration any hour of the day wherever you are, but here in Venice Beach, you really only have to walk about a block in any direction!
You put on a great show and I know you’ve shared the stage with people/bands such as Calexico, Devotchka and Richard Buckner. What is your favorite part of playing a live show?
Playing any show with the current line-up is always such a pleasure. And, when you're lucky enough to play festivals with artists and bands you look up to, getting to connect with their audience is incredible. That live energy never gets old and that will always bring me back for more.
You’ve toured several countries and have been through several cities in the US. Where have you found the audience most receptive?
I've been lucky to develop a close connection with Tucson over the past few years and it remains one of our favorite places to play. There and Austin, Texas, any night of the week, are definitely up there on the list. We also played a series of shows at our beloved Cinema Bar here in L.A. through the Summer which were definite highlights. Packing that place with friends, new and old, always sets the scene for a great night.
Births, Deaths and Marriages is categorized as ‘Americana’ or ‘Folk’— Is that how you would describe your music? who are some of the artists that inspire you in these genres or other genres?
Americana is probably the best description for Births, Deaths & Marriages. It's a genre that gives a little breathing room, encompassing everything from acoustic music through to rock, as long as it has a little twang. It's the musical family where I find the majority of influences these days too. Everyone from Dylan to Neil Young and Tom Waits, through to Old Crow, My Morning Jacket, Wilco and singer/songwriters like Ray Lamontagne and AA Bondy.
I still love a lot of the tunes I grew up on too, like The Ramones, The Stooges, Lou Reed, R.E.M. and even some early Cure.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm currently writing and planning ahead for the next album. I'd like to release a single early next year to keep the ball rolling, but we'll just have to see what eventuates. I've also started producing an album for Blue Eyed Son, a singer/songwriter based in Venice, with a swag of great tunes. We recently recorded drums, guitars and vocals and plan to finish up early in the new year.
Do you have any upcoming shows or news you want to share with the readers?
I have two acoustic shows planned for December, here in LA. Wed, Dec 7th I'm at The Standard in Hollywood at 7:30pm in The Cactus Room, and the following night I'm playing with Geronimo Getty and Brian Whelan at 1642 in Echo Park. Both really intimate shows to farewell 2011.
For more information, please visit: http://mattellis.com
"Heart Of Mine" is the lead track off Matt Ellis' brand new album Births, Deaths & Marriages and the video was directed by Ellis:
photo at top: Jessica Dascher/Rockstars & Babies