13 Nov 2012 Comments 0




Life & StyleNov 12 2012 10:48AM

Singing solo for supper

Singing solo for supper

HOME IS AFRICA: John Ellis has travelled globally but is passionate about SA and books, beers and life.


Mpho Mashego


So tell us who is John Ellis?

John Ellis is a restless native, a Durban-born whitey who has travelled the world playing guitar and who can’t resist calling Africa home. He is a passionate citizen of South Africa who insists that the miracle of 1994 should benefit everyone and that the colour of his skin does not preclude him from singing protest songs about the state of modern South African society.He is a part-time lecturer in English literature, communication, politics and academic literacy, an avid but miserable student of tsotsi-taal, and is absolutely obsessed with books. He also likes beer.


Do you get annoyed being called ‘the guy from Tree63’?

That’s fine, that’s who I was for a time and for better or for worse, that’s how people remember me. It’s always the same when a front-person leaves a band; for a while, the band identity is stronger than the individual one. Tree63 achieved so much, both locally and internationally, I have a lot to be proud of. As time goes by, people are getting to know me as “that guy who looks like Matthew Booth”.


What sets you apart

Tree63 had a very rigid agenda. As a solo artist, a singer-songwriter, I get to try on a lot of clothes that never fitted me before. I’ve done a big rock record, and now I have an acoustic record out. I’ve just released a very pop-orientated song called “Get You” through Sony, and I have an ambient soundscape album in the pipeline. There are no rules and it’s very liberating. The only trick is convincing people who buy music to come on the journey with me.


Who is your biggest influence in music and who inspires you?

There can never really be one single influence in creativity. As a nine year old, my life was changed by Elvis. Then I discovered The Beatles, then The Rolling Stones. Later it was U2 and a whole host of great ’80s pop. I also loved ’80s hair metal. I also have an ongoing love affair with maskandi and mbaqanga. I’m mostly drawn to singer-songwriters, like Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, Neil Finn, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young and Ron Sexsmith. But then again, you can’t leave out Tears For Fears. Or The Who. Or The Kinks.


Do you ever miss being part of a group? Why?

Sometimes. It’s a real privilege to be in a group, sharing experiences with like-minded individuals, sharing the rigours of the road and navigating all the bullshit of the music industry with people who know you and keep you focused. Then again, when you’re on your own, there’s no one to argue with and you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission. Swings and roundabouts.


When can we expect your album?

I have two solo albums out at the moment. The most recent one is my acoustic one called Rural, which came out earlier this year. I recorded it in Knysna with Johnny Clegg’s drummer, Barry van Zyl. The music industry has changed fundamentally from what it was even 10 years ago, and even things like albums are a bit old-fashioned now, but I’ll still make them! Why not?


What are you busy with other than music?

Music’s my thing. Apart from writing, recording and performing my own material as a solo artist, I also do a lot of session-work as a guitar player and I produce other people’s records as well. I love lecturing, but music takes up a lot of time, and it’s hard to commit to a formal academic programme when you’re on a plane all the time. I spend whatever spare time I have raising three small kids, scouring bookshops for good deals, staring vacantly at the Indian Ocean and trying to remember the Zulu word for bald.





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