When Lindsay Ell first began work on her debut album The Project with her producer Kristian Bush, the Sugarland star had an unusual assignment for her: to re-record her favorite album, John Mayer's Continuum, start-to-finish. Years later, what began as homework is now an official studio release from the Canadian singer, songwriter, and guitarist, re-titled The Continuum Project.
"A year and a half before my own record even came out, we were sitting down for one of our first music meetings and [Bush] was like, ‘Lindsay, what’s your favorite record of all time?’" Ell tells Rolling Stone Country. "And I was like, ‘Well, the album I listen the most to front to back is Continuum by John Mayer.’ He was like, ‘Perfect. I want you to record the whole thing.' I sort of looked at him blankly."
Bush had a few rules for Ell: she had to play all of the instruments, would record the tracks herself, and had to have a finished album in-hand in two weeks. Not one to balk at a challenge, Ell, one of the most skilled young guitarists playing today, cleared her schedule, working in the studio at her record label, Stoney Creek Records, from "8 a.m. until 2 a.m." for 14 straight days.
"I knew that record so well," she says. "I could sing you the guitar solos on it. But when you need to take something and learn every part, dissect Pino Palladino’s bass parts, Steve Jordan’s drum parts, let alone John Mayer’s solos, and then recreate them in your own voice, it takes things to a deeper level. It was a little mini master class on an album for me."
Mayer released Continuum, his third album, in 2006, to critical acclaim, winning Best Pop Vocal Album at the 49th Grammy Awards the following year. With its singles "Waiting on the World to Change" and "Gravity," the album marked the beginning of Mayer's transition from acoustic pop to blues and rock. With the musical contributions of Palladino, Jordan and Charlie Hunter, among others, it gave Ell no shortage of challenging and complex material.
When she began The Continuum Project, Ell sought to pay homage to Mayer's original tracks while adding a bit of her own flavor. To do that, she devised something of a formula for getting one of Mayer's compositions from her ears to tape. Beginning by programming drums (which Bush eventually muted from the final mix), she'd then lay down rhythm guitars, bass, and organ ("Sometimes you don’t really hear what the organ’s doing, but it gives the track this glue," she says.). She'd then track lead and background vocals, saving lead guitar for last.
"The solos and the lead parts are the icing on the cake to me," she says. "They say what is unsaid in the lyrics. By having the vocal done, I feel like I can properly approach a guitar solo."
A standout track on Ell's version of Continuum is "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)," a moody, guitar-forward meditation on non-committal love. It also served as a reference point for Ell when she began work on The Project.
"There’s a quality in the guitar, not to get all guitar nerd on you, with filters and auto-wah and different effects that I felt I really tapped into on ‘Castle,’" she says. "I sonically and stylistically learned that headspace so well that it was familiar. ‘Castle’ is a completely different song, but it was familiar to produce that song in that way."
Though it wasn't her own material, Ell credits her work on The Continuum Project as integral to finding her own voice as an artist, explaining that zeroing in on a work she felt so passionately about gave her the time and the space to consider how her own writing and recording processes compared to those she'd encountered during her previous eight years of trying to make it as an artist in Nashville.
"It was a great learning experience to show me, one, if a song is good enough it doesn’t need 28 things on top of it," she says. "And two, sometimes peeling back the layers and really showing yourself and the vulnerability of where the music started from is where the magic is. That helped me get a great mindset to go into the studio to record my own record."
Following their work together on The Continuum Project, Ell and Bush recorded The Project, her first proper full-length album. The Project's second single "Criminal" has been a breakout success for Ell, scoring a number one on the Canada Country chart and managing to crack the top 20 of the notoriously female-unfriendly Country Airplay chart in the United States.
Now that The Continuum Project is out, Ell is squarely focused on moving forward with her own music. She'll hit the road with Sugarland this summer, joining up with Keith Urban on his Graffiti U World Tour in the fall. She'll throw a Mayer song or two into her live sets, but she's grateful to have reached a point in her career where her own songs can speak just as loudly for themselves.
"It’s the coolest feeling to be able to play shows and to slowly see more people in the audience know the words to ‘Criminal’ and sing along with it. It’s a feeling unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s so amazing to see a crowd sing lyrics that you’ve written. Nothing tops that high to me."