Kate Ellis at Nashville Meets London
Kate Ellis released her first album, Carve Me Out, nearly a year ago since when its deserved initial acclaim has broadened steadily. Part of the album’s appeal is that it transcends the usual musical classifications as Ellis weaves strands of folk, country, blues into her own brand of Americana. What does comes across throughout all the songs is her deep honesty in conveying a range of emotions with a voice that multiplies those feelings.
Though coming straight from the heart there is an element of mystery about her songs that made me want to find out more about what lay behind them. I had that opportunity when I met Kate and Andy Hobsbawm, her closest collaborator on the album in terms of writing and playing.
Kate Ellis was born in Louisiana, her father was American and mother English, they moved to New York and she now lives in London. What a sweep of potential influences that all must have offered, but where did your musical life start? “It all started with my dad. He was an architect and professor of architecture and architectural history but throughout his life he loved music. His record collection was diverse but at its core lay Pete Seeger, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan among others. Growing up I loved all those records, not the stuff my peers listened to. This was my music too and what moved me”.
So how did you get from Dad’s music to Kate’s music? “I didn’t start as a musician. I studied art history then went to law school but the resulting reality was less satisfying. I knew I wasn’t in the right career but wasn’t sure what would be so I took a guitar course. As I learned to play I started writing, and haven’t really stopped since.”
But that didn’t lead to immediate recoding though? “That’s where Andy came in. We met in New York where he was working. He’d been in a band…” Enter Andy, “We bonded over The Indigo Girls. I loved their rootsy sound and introduced Kate to them. She played me some of her songs which we demo’d and then I took her to a friend’s studio where we recorded them.We thought these sounded great, and definitely worth doing more””. Back to Kate, “we played some gigs in New York then because of Andy’s work, we moved to London. That proved harder than I’d anticipated and what with work and family, any thoughts of going full steam ahead towards a record were off”.
What got you back into the studio? Andy, “Writing together soon revealed how complementary we are musically. Kate is very organic whereas I have a rather more deliberate intent”. They continued to experiment but how did this collection of songs become an album?
Andy summed up, “it may not have looked a body of work but the songs definitely represented a thread of emotions. What bookended the period was Kate’s mum’s passing, the very painful emotions of which are in the song, ‘Carve Me Out’. Then we made the record”.
Turning back to Kate and the songs that are on the album, how do you manage to convey such deep emotion? “I don’t ever start writing unless something deeply moves me. I ask, why am I writing? To connect viscerally.” “Yes, music is a kind of transmission system” added Andy before handing back to Kate,”I love it that my music is out there and people respond to it by being moved too”.
Since you cross several musical boundaries do you feel restricted by the today’s labels? “No, I’m not doing this to release a ring of commercial pop hits”. Before we go, what would you say to someone coming tonight who hasn’t heard your music? “I believe in writing a really good song. I care about emotional truth, if something has meaning to me then I want to convey that to the listener. I’m not going to write something just to sound cool”. Andy concluded, “there’s no artifice here, these songs are genuinely honest, but we aren’t zigging when everyone else is zagging just to be different, that’s how we are”.
And that’s exactly what they did. Kate and Andy with their violin player Joseph Paxton, played their set with the emotional honesty both had spoken about that definitely created a bond with their audience. The venue was slightly unusual. The show was part of a series called ‘Nashville Meets London’ that featured more mainstream country artists. The room was kitted out for live music but it was still a pizza restaurant doing its normal business so artists played surrounded by an audience munching on their quattro stagiones. The sound engineer did an excellent job.
Carve Me Out was pretty much the setlist starting with ‘Don’t Lie to Me’. Perhaps intentional, its country feel, brisk pace and lyric allowed Ellis to tip her hat towards the event organisers. A few songs later the fluidity of her style showed she covers all corners of Americana. Single, ‘I Believe’ came next. Kate sang, “I believe no-one’s ever seen what I can see”, in her beautifully clear voice, with perhaps a hint of her Louisiana roots, with Andy’s delicate vocal accompaniment.
The pace slowed further while the emotional barometer rose steadily in the other direction with ‘One You Love the Most’ as Kate asked the aching question, “why do we hurt the ones we love the most?”
Kate introduced a new song, ‘Can’t Not’ that continued her emotional purity. From a live perspective it was a chance to see Paxton grapple skilfully with his other instrument, the melodica. Via a tube at one end and keyboard at the other he made a lovely sound to complement the song. ‘Night Before the Dawn’ evoked perfectly the stillness of the dark that presented no distraction to the song’s flow of emotion and love. The audience was rapt.
Kate and Andy’s teamwork is evident live as well as in writing and recording. Between songs they chatted to the audience and to each other with a calmness that kind of stitched the songs together. ‘Paper, Scissors, Rock’ picked up the pace while introducing some very interesting imagery ‘“you were paper, I was rock”.
There was one cover. Kate gave a clue earlier in a comment about heavy metal. An unlikely genre for this evening but via Johnny Cash, they performed a version of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ that made you wish the floor would open up and just take you away.
They closed their set with ‘Carve Me Out’, an amazingly lucid expression of grief and loss that Kate wrote on the passing of her mother a few years ago. The brief gap between the song’s end and the loud applause just showed how deep those sentiments had resonated around the audience.
Whether seeking stardom or not, Kate Ellis and those around her writing songs, making records and performing deserve wider recognition. On the strength of tonight that can’t be far off so we eagerly await the second album.
And finally, below is a link to a series of short videos Kate made to introduce her favourite records from her dad’s collection. Most, if not all, should be familiar to readers of No Depression but it’s a perfect reminder of why we all love this music.