Read an interview with Grahamstown Festival newspaper Cue reporter Matthew de Klerk:
Songs that speak to the heart
Sunday, 01 July 2012 14:010
Someday when my ship comes in/ Someday when I stop struggling/ I will take you far away / Hang on, baby, one more day.
With a voice that sends goose bumps down your arms and a style reminiscent of Tracy Chapman, singer-songwriter John Ellis deserves your attention. Sorrowful and yet infinitely hopeful, his soulful crooning touches the broken parts of your heart, revealing a soft, emotive side, unexpected from such a rugged appearance.
Ellis’s arrival at Festival followed the recent release of his album, Rural. Recorded in Knysna with drummer Barry van Zyl, of Johnny Clegg fame, he has travelled a long way from his earlier, angrier work. “For my last album (Come out Fighting), I had a lot to be angry about, but I’ve moved to a much more mellow sound,” he said.
It took only three days to finish, but a staggering eight months to re-master and perfect. This bare-bones album’s Dylan-esque leanings draw heavily on his Canadian hero, Ron Sexsmith, with Paul Simon’s focus on the power and purity of lyrics.
“The industry today is very concerned with technology. I wanted to get away from that, and really centre on the rare process of crafting pure, simple songs that speak to people,” said Ellis, the former leader of the band Tree63.
Ellis’s move to a solo act revealed his undeniable talent and lyrical prowess. “Being in a band is like being in an arranged marriage,” he said. “It can work for a while, but it’s only so long before you pine for individual freedom.”
This shift to a solo career has not been easy. “My advice to anyone trying to get into the music scene would be ‘steel yourself’. It’s a cut-throat zoo,” he said.
With a heavier focus on popular culture and television, Ellis said that a lot of great talent tends to get lost in the Fringe fluff. “These days, raw talent can be a cursed blessing, especially when business and art bump heads,” he said.
A father of three, Ellis joked that he wants all of his children to be lawyers one day.