Lindsay Ell’s Terrifying, Simplifying, Gratifying Journey to ‘The Project’
Lindsay Ell is 60 percent excited, and 40 percent terrified of releasing The Project, her new studio album. "It is the album I’ve always wanted to make but more so it’s the album I didn’t know I could make," she says during a visit to the Taste of Country studio.
Opinions aside, anyone who has heard the 12-song, country-blues mix can be excused for needing a hand to lift a dropped jaw. This is not the Lindsay Ell we've known in Nashville for a half-decade. Ell hears her new self too, but more so, she feels it.
"I think it was through recording The Project that I feel like I’ve become a different singer, a different player, a different songwriter, just a different artist all together," she says, curled up on a love seat that swallows her small figure. She may be a guitar hero on stage, but in person, the 28-year-old is petite and polite.
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The first thing Ell's debut album on Stoney Creek Record does is find balance between sensitive songwriting and masculine musicianship. As a sport, guitar playing is macho, muscular, often over-the-top and rarely delicate. Beautiful curves clad with six, taut iron threads produce a sound best compared to a scream when the player is doing it right. There are certainly exceptions, but it's rare you find them on the biggest country music stages, like Brad Paisley's Weekend Warrior Tour, which Ell is opening this summer and fall.
Mentally, Ell says that juxtaposition held her back. Being a skilled musician and wanting to show that off slowed an open heart and reigned in her songwriting. Skip ahead to "Space" to hear the most extreme example of a song the native Canadian admits scared her to death. She told producer Kristian Bush she couldn't sing it, and after he coaxed her into a slow, aching vocal performance, he told her he only wants her to sing like that.
"Are you out there with the stars, all alone / Is there someone in your arms, I don't know / You said that you need it, I said that I'd wait / But baby I hate this space," she cries out, voice breaking at the final chorus. It's a catharsis two minutes coming. Or is it five years coming?
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"He’s like a mad scientist," Ell says of Bush. "I really feel like he has helped me figure out who I am. That’s why I call the record The Project because I feel like it’s been a science project of me discovering really my voice and how I want to sound."
Earlier this year Bush told Taste of Country how their relationship began with a homework assignment. John Mayer's Continuum album is one of Ell's favorites, so the Sugarland star gave her two weeks to record it. All of it. Alone. When you compare that album with The Project, you'll find a thread of simple arrangements dominated by vulnerability. Though Ell's guitar playing is more sensitive, and less garish.
"I learned so much about the way John Mayer plays guitar and about how I play guitar and most importantly how I love to hear a band in the studio," she says, adding her voice to a one-of-a-kind story. "Instead of putting 25 instruments on a song, I learned that I love five."
The best songs on The Project burst with color and emotion. "Champagne" is a love song reminiscent of Amy Winehouse that features this line: "You make me feel, like Jessica Biel / Stepping out of the stretch, diamonds hugging my neck."
"Mint" is similarly modern, but the production of this album is forever pulling it back to something traditional, if not in the country music world then certainly in the blues scope. It's a project that defies genre — think Sheryl Crow meets Bonnie Raitt.
Waiting songs bookend the album, with the single "Waiting on You" starting and the melancholy "Worth the Wait" closing it. Travis Meadows co-wrote the latter with her — he's the guy you go to when you need to explore the dark regions of the heart.
"I feel like for a time there I forgot the reason I love to play music," Ell says, speaking of the frustration with her personal and professional life she was living at the time. "I just feel like once we found the groove, we just let it all out.”
Ell released her debut U.S. single "Trippin' on Us" in 2013 and has yet to crack the Top 40. "Waiting on You" is not guaranteed to break that streak, and it remains unclear how a controversy surrounding her personal life will affect the song's success at radio. In many ways, that's not important. She's still anxiously watching and hoping for her first "hit," but with newfound confidence and a style that is unique, Ell is satisfied with her work of art as a finished project.
"A year ago I wouldn’t have written these songs. I wouldn’t have put together this record," she says. Self-worth that's independent of other people's opinions and expectations is always worth the wait.
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