Before she could get down to the business of working on a record, singer-guitarist Lindsay Ell was given an odd assignment and a set of rules by her new producer, Kristian Bush. The Sugarland co-founder instructed the Alberta, Canada, native to isolate herself and re-record her favorite album on her own, as an exercise in understanding how the songs work and what elements she preferred to hear in a production. The album she chose was John Mayer's Continuum, and the process proved to be just the lesson she needed to complete her own project on her own terms.
"On my iTunes playlist, it is like at the top of that flippin' list," Ell says of Mayer's 2006 LP. "But I learned so much about that record, dissecting Pino Palladino bass parts and I'm like, 'Oh, that's what it does.' And it's different when you need to record something compared to when you're just listening to it."
Ell's debut EP Worth the Wait was released via Stoney Creek Records on March 24th, following a series of standalone singles like "Trippin' on Us" and "Shut Me Up" that barely missed the Top 40 in the U.S. The six-song collection stretches her sonic boundaries, building on the guitar-driven country-pop of her earlier work with newfound vulnerability and confidence. With fuller productions like "Waiting on You" and "Criminal," she recalls the tough, hook-filled early work of Sheryl Crow, while the aching ballad "Space" refocuses attention on her voice with a raw, emotional performance. The EP's title track and a choice Mayer cover offer something totally different – gorgeous, delicate renderings of songs as Ell imagined them through her solo experimentation.
Rolling Stone Country sat with Ell and Bush to discuss their working relationship, as well the mind-expanding process of recording Worth the Wait.
There wasn't much advance warning for the release of Worth the Wait. What was your experience like putting it together, Lindsay?
Lindsay Ell: Ever since I was a little girl I've been playing music and I've never released a record up until this moment. And so I feel like part of this record has been 16-plus years in the making and part of it has been in the past 8 months since Kristian Bush has walked into my life. Just the exercises he had me go through, and the questions he would ask me from the beginning of this process, taught me so much about myself. I feel like I'm a different woman. I feel like I play guitar differently. I feel like I sing differently. I feel like I walk differently. I'm just a whole new Lindsay, and yet more myself than I've ever felt.
You two are technically on the same label under Broken Bow Records. What were the initial meetings like when you were talking about working together?
Ell: I remember the first meeting we had – just the two of us talking about music – and three hours later I'm calling my manager being like, "Can I have Kristian Bush in my life every single day?" I feel like it's a therapeutic experience like, talking through songs I've written, being like, "Ok, Lindsay, if you were to put these three songs on a record, they'd fit great, but this one doesn't fit with those." And I'm just like, I've never gone through a process like this. It makes sense, but nobody's ever, ever asked me those questions before.
What questions was he asking and how did it open up your thinking?
Ell: One of the first things he asked me was, "What's your favorite record? What do you like to listen to?" I go through my influences list. And I'm like, "My favorite record would be Continuum by John Mayer." And he's like, "Ok, I want you to go record the whole record." And I sat there blankly and I was like, "Record the whole record?" Meanwhile I'm on the road playing shows. And he's like, "Yeah, I want you to record the whole record, but the only rules are you need to sit in your office—
Kristian Bush: [You] can't be at home.
Ell: —using a computer and you need to play all the instruments.
Bush: You gotta do it all by yourself.
Ell: Whatever you wanna do.
Bush: Another rule was you could change any melody, you could change any lyric, you could change any key, anything you want. This is not an exercise in painting a Van Gogh.
Why can't you record it at home?
Bush: You will do things in private and sing in private and make choices in private that you wouldn't make if you were observed. It's like singing in the shower: you will go for it. It's human nature. But the problem is, as artists, we have this weird relationship with the world around us where we need people to help us and to tell us what we're doing and whether it's any good. But we're too scared to go past a certain point. It's like a speed limit.
Ell: It was like performer brain to creative brain and they're different spaces. When [I'm] in front of even my own mother, [I'm] in performance brain and it's like I have to perform even though she's seen me play this song a hundred times – compared to when I'm with my laptop by myself, I can make any mistake I want. So I cleared my schedule for two weeks and sat in that little room 8 am to 3 am and just grinded it out. At the end of two weeks, I handed him the "Continuum Project," as I called it. And I was like, "I am speechless. I've learned so much about myself. I've learned so much about how I loved to hear a band recorded in the studio." Sometimes I'm like, "Yeah, let's put 18 instruments on a song!" [But now] I'm like, "I really only like five on a song – really, that's all it needs." And there's a magic spot in that space. He smiled and he was like, "Well, now it's time to do that with your own music."
Did your cover of John Mayer's "Stop This Train" come out of those sessions?
Ell: Yeah, it's the complete raw version. It's as imperfect as imperfect could be. But there's just a humanness in that, and it was part of my journey of getting here and it was just such a part of this discovery process, of me figuring out my sound and what I want to say and how I want to say it and really discovering the reason why I love doing this so flippin' much when before, I kind of lost sight of that.
What kind of changes did you notice in your artistry as you were reimagining John Mayer, then recording your original music?
Ell: Another part of this whole process that the brilliant Kristian Bush suggested was we should put a list of record rules together. One of the rules is we don't talk about the rules, so we're breaking that one right now!
Bush: There's a little bit of Fight Club that's going on.
Ell: Don't talk about the rules!
Bush: We developed rules for her album. One of them is that all songs that will be submitted will be demoed only through the same way that she created Continuum, so that we can hear them through that lens. There's no go into the studio with a bunch of people and send me a demo of something. No, forget that. You do it. I just want to hear you play it. I want to hear you sing it. I want to hear you dream it. And then we'll go from there.
Ell: It helped me just forget the fear I had, really, about recording and having to be so great and having to be this thing that I put in my head as what I was expected to be. All of a sudden I was playing guitar parts that didn't even make sense but they sounded great, and they felt like they should. Listening back to my demo I was like, "What was that? I don't even know what I did. I need to go figure out what I did!" So just living in that vulnerable space helps you step out of your comfort zone as an artist. I think that's where the magic lives.
There's a loose narrative in the EP's track sequencing. You're waiting on love. You fall in love. You fall out. You dust yourself off and carry on. How did that take shape?
Ell: I really think we stumbled on it ... It's the progression of a relationship – of wanting love, of finding love, of deciding when love is not right, of letting go of love when it's ok to give yourself permission to be like, "I need to move on from this, and having hope that you're gonna find love again."
The title track was a surprise, since it's mostly just your voice and a few different guitar parts. What did you hear in that one?
Ell: Recording the demo in my little office as per the record rules, I created that track. And we actually went in the studio and re-recorded it with the band—
Bush: We cut that song a bunch of times.
Ell: —and it was awesome, but there was something that just didn't touch the magic of the little demo I made. So we're like, "That version has to be on the record, with my out-of-tune guitars and my out-of-time guitars." There's something to it.
Bush: That's the lesson. That's the whole lesson of what you're doing.
Ell: Music doesn't need to be perfect.
Bush: It doesn't need to be perfect, but you'll know when it's right.
Lindsay, do you feel like you have a better sense of how you want to structure an album, having worked with Kristian?
Ell: A hundred percent. I will never record a song the same way for the rest of my life. I will never make an album the same way for the rest of my life. And hopefully we will make many, many albums together.
Bush: Hopefully we make lots more!
Ell: I was always looking for that three minutes or that six-song EP or that body of work that somebody could ask me, "Ok, who is Lindsay Ell?" and I could be like, "Here, listen to these three minutes and this is who I am." And I feel like I have that. I know I have that.