How Heartbreak + Hustle Shaped Lindsay Ell’s Breakout
"I'm as tired as I dreamed of being," the "Criminal" singer says smiling, with no break for irony or sarcasm. It's 9AM on an early July day and already she's performed three songs (three takes each), posed or strutted for a few Taste of Country RISERS promotional videos and conducted a separate interview for Taste of Country Nights, a syndicated radio show.
From here it's a songwriting appointment, maybe the gym and another flight to ... well, who can keep track?
Take a Dramamine for motion sickness before following the peripatetic on Instagram. She pinballs between coasts and continents several times most weeks (Fun fact: flight crews frequently recognize her!), often taking day trips to London or her home province in Canada for a concert, media engagement, or — gasp! — day off.
After nearly a decade in Nashville, it's paying off. The Project topped Billboard's Best Country Albums of 2017 list, and "Criminal" just became Ell's first Top 20 radio hit in America and first No. 1 in Canada. Double Canadian Country Music Association Awards nominations got the best of her emotions recently. So much is said about her partnership with Kristian Bush and how John Mayer's Continuum inspired her that the miles she's logged get overlooked. She's relentless.
"I feel like through going through heartbreak in my personal life, I am a lot more fearless about what I do musically."
It's tempting to look for cracks. Surely somewhere, late at night in a two-star hotel room or at the lost baggage counter in some nowhere American city, she jumps down that self-pity hole, right?
"This past year has been anything beyond what I could imagine," Ell — who will open for Sugarland and Keith Urban to close the year — says, oozing the kind of sincerity you want from your favorite artist.
"I’ve always been a hard worker. I was a nerd in school growing up. I played guitar in my bedroom and I studied and that’s all I did," the Calgary native says, crediting her dad — an engineer — for her honing her focus. "I graduated a year early because I just wanted to get out of high school so I could go play shows on the road. So I sped through grade 10 in like five months."
"I love the grind of it. If I do go on vacation, about three days into it I go crazy."
There's a cost, one Ell has paid before. Her schedule and love affair with the guitar has lost her several relationships, she told Taste of Country in November 2015. There's little doubt it helped kill a high-profile relationship with radio host Bobby Bones. The couple will admit the scrutiny and externally-implied conflicts of interest broke them, but even that has a silver lining.
"I feel like through going through heartbreak in my personal life, I am a lot more fearless about what I do musically," Ell says.
Work can be an addiction for her. "It's interesting to watch artists that I'm very luck to tour with and that I look up to as role models. Some of them you see have very full lives and they have kids and families and they take vacations and they figure it out," she says, "And then there are some artists that I look up to and they're living in their stride and doing the thing and playing shows and they don't have that other side of life ... and it terrifies me."
A Grammy Award could slow the hustle, she admits, possibly joking. A No. 1 song might help, too, but that will need to wait at least one more single ("Champagne" is slated to be the third single from The Project).
The conversation turns to what makes her angry and who makes her laugh. She reveals she loves The Office and will strike like a hungry tiger if someone goes after a member of her team. Then, Ell is asked about her biggest fears, and in answering ties together two ends of her personality: It's where the hustle meets the heart, where the very feminine emotions and desires expressed in so many of her recents songs meets the often-cold, masculinity of electric guitar. Ell's slow, tireless ride to this point has either been helped or hindered by her refusal to just be one thing. Her mechanical willingness to do all of the little things is why she was chosen as the second Taste of Country RISER of 2018.
"I'm afraid of spiders and snakes and disappointment," she admits. And then, just like that, she's packing up, hoisting a cello-sized guitar pack onto her back and moving onto the next interview, the next song, the next flight and the next live show.
Lindsay Ell Has Never Performed "Criminal" Like This!