ENTERTAINMENT AFRICA INTERVIEW
It's been a couple of years since former lead-singer of Contemporary Christian rock outfit Tree63, John Ellis, left the band and the US to pursue his solo career back home in South Africa. He seems to have adjusted well into his new career direction, what with his first album 'Come Out Fighting' earning him a SAMA nomination and his second album, 'Rural' on its way.
So before we get to your album release, let's talk a little about your experiences in America and why did you decide to leave Tree63 and America?
I reached the end of the line creatively with Tree63. I had a very specific agenda with that band and we achieved more than I hoped for, so it was time to move on. We made a really good last record and then I moved my family back to SA at the end of 2007. Time for a break, a rest and a new start.
How would you describe your own personal sound after leaving the band?
I've had to work at a few things to figure out what my artistic identity might be like independent of the band. I wrote, sang, played and produced with Tree63, so how could I be anything other than 'John Ellis' as a solo artist? My two solo albums have been exploratory, looking for my voice.
'Rural' was recorded live over a period of three days at 'Peace of Eden' in Knysna, describe the process of putting the album together?
The songs were all ready and I actually demo'd the whole album, plus five or six extra songs, in a single evening at Guy Buttery's house in Umhlanga months before we finally got to Knysna. The modus operandi going into 'Peace of Eden' was to set up a few mics and capture actual spontaneous performances of the songs, rather than self-consciously 'produce' a record.
What is some of the subject matter you address and tackle?
The oldest song on 'Rural' is 'Never Had A Winter', dating back to 2006. The songs are largely confessional diary entries, but there's a lot of playing with language and idioms and musical influences, a decent amount of wishful thinking and the requisite bravado as well. I finally had a chance to record some legitimate blues poetry, and there’s a spontaneous piece of music called 'Back Of Beyond' on there which didn’t exist going into the sessions. There’s some 'how dare they?' outrage too, have to have that.
How much of a departure is it from the sound of 'Come Out Fighting'?
A complete departure. 'Come Out Fighting' was an angry rock 'n roll record, but it ended on a questing note, and that's where 'Rural' takes off. It’s focused around an acoustic guitar: wood, strings, words - that's the core.
Was it a difficult transition at all?
Not at all. I'm a songwriter first and foremost. The form is incidental, to a large degree. In a way, 'Come Out Fighting' was also a singer-songwriter record, just with electric guitars. This is closer to the core of what I really am as an artist - crafting words around melodies.
Why did you call it 'Rural'?
Stripped-down, simplified, basic, close to the earth.
And how long have you been working on it?
Some of the songs, like 'Rights All Wrong' and 'Come Home', were written even before 'Come Out Fighting' was recorded. It’s been five or six years in gestation.
How do you get ready for a live show or recording?
Tea, cigarettes, OCD-tuning of guitars, then you sort of wander infront of a mic and wait for magic to happen.
What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
Being able to play guitar and sing something you've written and communicate to people is a highlight every time, whether it's to two people or 100 000.
What do you hope people will get out of the album?
How do you feel about the label "Christan Rock"?
One of the devil’s better ideas.
When’s your next gig?
I’m launching 'Rural' across the country, starting with a Durban launch on the 7 September.
Date Posted : 30 Aug 2012