Brighton-based musician and songwriter Ellie Ford will release her second full-length album in May, Light.Repeated., and to celebrate the arrival of her sophomore record, she will be holding a special in-store performance at Brighton’s Resident on Monday 13th May at 6.30pm.
In his review of Ellie Ford’s debut album, another Brightonsfinest journalist used the word ‘remarkable’. It’s not a word we throw around – but it happens that the album launch invites the same description. The band played through the album in its entirety, and there’s no doubt that it’s one of the more fascinating pieces to come out of Brighton’s alternative scene in a good while. For the night, they gave Bleach a personality all of its own in an atmospheric, takeover-style concert.
Tonight Ellie Ford is launching her début album The Other Sun at Bleach and I’m gutted not to be able to make it to the show, although I’m sure one of my colleagues will be there to appreciate the evening and I have to admit I’m a little jealous. I’ve been listening to the album all week and it’s a captivating piece of work, full of rich instrumentation, skilfully performed with precision and led by Ford’s soulful vocal, which is full of grace and poise. From the opening notes of ‘The Sweet Life’, played on the distinctive Wurlitzer electric piano sound that has always reminded me of Bill Withers, you enter into another world. It’s a carefully constructed place, everything is delicately arranged and there’s an over-whelming melancholy mood that completely envelops you. The album suspends you, like a leaf dancing in spring breezes caught between the changing temperatures, pulled in every direction but surrendering to none. The songs float along on spidery grooves, sparse or fluttery and feathery, rather than pinned down with a solid backbone. The space this creates allows the classic folk and blues instruments found here plenty of room to manoeuvre, and they do so expertly. The additional male harmonies on the chorus of ‘Sweet Life’ make it sound like a lost track from Gomez’s debut album – the vibe is all there, a soulful, bluesy concoction, warming as a welcome hug. As we move towards the outro there’s a very Beatlesy descending pattern hidden just beneath the surface. Next ‘The Only One’ establishes itself with a sweet electric guitar motif; it sounds like the sort of song Jeff Buckley would have loved to cover, in his early days, when he recorded Live At Sin E, had it been written at the time. This track keeps it simple, just that guitar (which is deeper and grittier than you might expect) and Ellie’s sweet voice expressing the beautifully melancholic mood.
Ellie Ford is a harpist, so the Joanna Newsom comparison is hard to resist, especially on a tune like ‘How Do You Know’. Here the harp comes to the fore and there are other Newsom-like devices at play: little clarinet flourishes, excellent off-beat percussion, a dense arrangement and a melody that wanders around the words in interesting ways. Sure, it reminds me of Newsom, but whether she’s a big influence or not you’d be a fool to deny that this song is a real achievement. It gets through so much in five and a half minutes and truly all of it is great. There’s a particularly moving moment when the violin comes in after about three minutes and it just sounds amazing. ‘Old Best’ continues to showcase the harp and voice; Ellie sinks down to some pretty deep notes, near the bottom of her range and it sounds so intimate, like she is there whispering in your ear. The drumming on this track is fantastic too, combined with those floating harp arpeggios, full of mysterious suspensions, there are moments where this almost sounds like Japanese classical music.
‘Homebound’ has a major but melancholic chord pattern that sows bittersweet seeds in your soul and waters them with melody. There’s an Americana spirit to this tune, it’s intoxicating and curious how such yearning can be so comforting. Then there’s ‘July’, the first single from the album which has a real propulsion to it, from the rhythm of the electric guitar to the expressive drumming, it has more momentum than most of the album, but doesn’t lack for beautiful melodic flourishes – that flute is perfect! When things strip down to just guitars again we get to hear some exceptional violin playing, the fiddler has incredible tone and it’s been expertly captured. ‘Reprise’ is an interesting interlude, with its epic strings, harp and clarinet it sounds like a cinematic score from some Celtic-themed movie, it stands out as quite distinct from the rest of the material on the album, and not just from the lack of vocal. The treatment is different, favouring the strings, and it shows off a skill for composition which led me to think it wouldn’t be too surprising if Ford found future work in the film industry.
‘My Bird Won’t Sing’ is another track that strips things down to just voice and one instrument, this time it’s an acoustic guitar, but it takes a while to realise that. The guitar has a dynamic arrangement, it pushes and pulls, it fills the space with complex finger-picking and empties it out with simple two note chords, taking you on a journey that never gets tired. ‘Ten Times’ has a really interesting double tracking sound on the vocal – the audio geek in me zones into it, a voice following the main melody but with a slightly different tone and placed in the distance. This track builds nicely to crescendo with harmony voices but relies throughout mostly on the harp and electric piano to carry the song – it’s great how they shift which instrument takes the focus from track to track. It’s rare to hear a band of five musicians giving each other so much room, and the result is excellent dynamics. Whenever they decide to fill the space and all play up it is all the more effective for the space they’ve left empty before it.
The album closes with two of the best numbers, ‘Don’t Tell Me Where You’re Going’ has the sort of soft-soulful vibe of Norah Jones, it’s easy going and breezy, and there’s a great deep guitar lick I could imagine sitting in a Roy Orbison song. When the wind instruments and strings back up the melody I find the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I would have expected them to leave us with an even sparser song, but I’m pleasantly surprised by ‘Blackout’ with its close prairie harmonies and excellent percussion. The drums remind me of Mitchell Froom’s production on the first couple of Ron Sexsmith albums, with drums tuned up to a really high pitch. The pattern and melodies are very familiar, this is classic folk, blues, roots, Americana – whatever you want to call it, it’s great. There seems to be a well deserved buzz building around Ellie and her talented bandmates, I first encountered her as the ‘E’ in KATE – a band of four song-writers who pitched their skills and songs together. That band didn’t go the distance but it’s fantastic to get my hands on this record and hear all of that talent realised so perfectly on such a mature and cohesive first record. Here’s hoping it is the first of many!
Ellie Ford’s been on the scene for a while now. The band performs in all kinds of formats, but are instantly recognisable, being one of the only bands in Brighton to incorporate a harp. Hearing the news that an album is imminent, with a launch in late April, we got in touch to get the rundown on the band’s progress, plans, and the scoop on the album.
What’s the band set up now vs. what it used to be?
At the moment there are five of us, and I used to play in a band a couple of years ago with Andy, the violin player. So I guess that was the very first incarnation of the band, although back then we were called Kate, and there were four of us, and we all wrote the songs. Since then we’ve all done our own thing, but Andy and I have played together for a long time. At the moment, the band is complete, in that I don’t feel like we need to add anymore to it, however, it would be really great to have brass players. Although if we go down that road, I’d like to have an entire orchestra! But yeah, as a band it is quite self sufficient, because we’ve got drums, clarinet, violin, keys, guitar, and we all kind of play other stuff as well. I play harp, guitar, and I can play piano. Andy plays mandolin and violin, so it switches around quite a lot. We’ve been doing this sort of flexible band set up for a couple of years now.
Why do you call the group Ellie Ford?
I guess it’s because I started off this project by myself so all the songs and everything started off as a solo project, and it was just easy to call it my name. I never really thought about it, it just happened and it stuck. I have thought about changing it since we made the album. Now we’re putting it out, you know, does that make me a complete egomaniac? It’s true that now we play as more of a band than ever, everyone’s involved and it’s more of a group thing.
So, although you’re called Ellie Ford, you operate more as a band now. Is that reflected in your songwriting?
I will write the songs and bring them to the band, and then they sort of write and contribute their parts and we do all that stuff together, and that no doubt changes the song. Generally the structure stays the same, but putting all the other parts on the songs, in a way that’s what makes it what it is. Putting creative drum parts in is so fun, and Freddie’s so good at doing that, he’s such a good player, he’s really musical the way he plays – I really like it. We’ve started to do a bit of writing together, so maybe that will happen in the future.
How does the harp fit in with the songwriting, and is it quite a dominant instrument?
Yeah, usually, I sort of split my writing between harp and guitar. Normally it forms the base of the song, and I think it sets the rhythm of the piece as well – you can be really rhythmic with it. It’s so big and there’s so much opportunity for change, that writing on it helps lead the song into all its different sections. You know, if you suddenly break from a strong rhythmical bit on the harp to some lovely arpeggios, then that shifts it into a different world. So it sort of lays out the foundations and you stick everything else on top.
So how does one take up the harp? Where can you even buy a harp?
There is a shop in Brighton that sells harps actually. I bought it from a company called Pilgrim Harps. If you’re interested in playing they’ll do a sort of loan, I paid a certain amount per month for a small harp and rented it for a year or so. I say small but it’s quite big, maybe a meter off the floor. So I basically sat in my room and learnt: I taught myself and watched videos, and then I just started writing stuff. I wanted more on the lower octave, so I needed a bigger harp to get that range. I love that massive resonance of the bass strings, I really liked doing more simple stuff like big chords. I played a concert harp at an open day they had, I’d never even seen one, but I played it and thought ‘Oh my God I have to have this.’
Does it concern you that having a harp in your band might alienate you from some mainstream music circles? You don’t often hear a harp on Radio 1.
I don’t really know. The thing is, we’re just doing it; It’s not for Radio 1, it’s not for Radio 2 or whatever, it’s for itself. I’ve never been the sort of person who thinks, ‘I’d like to do it like this, so it can go on that.’ It’s not that I don’t think about it, but what’s the point in making something just so Radio 1 will like it? Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but it is what it is. I guess it is a bit different and it is something people pick up on. It’s an amazing instrument, but I try to not let it all be about its novelty.
How do you find the right kind of events for a harp-led band in Brighton?
In Brighton there’s a sort of scene, there’s definitely a few promoters and venues where you can go and play, and people will be quiet and they will listen. So I run a few gigs with friends and put them on because we want to play or whatever, but generally if someone asks us to play a gig, we can usually gauge it by the venue whether it’s going to be right or not. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in churches and things round here and there’s a lot of good venues, like the Komedia and The Latest Music Bar and stuff like that. You can guarantee that if you’re not playing completely awful music people will give you a chance.
Well let’s talk about new releases. You have an album coming out?
Yes, it’s coming out at the end of April. I have one solo EP out that I did a couple years ago. Since then I’ve been writing this one and recording it, and yeah, it’s very exciting that it’s coming out!
What ambitions do you have for your future releases, and do you plan to do collaborations?
I’m a bit of a musical loner sometimes with writing, so I find collaborations a bit difficult, but with the right person it could be great. In terms of future releases, album two is underway already, now that album one is all recorded.
So if you could collaborate with anyone, alive or dead, anyone, who would it be?
That’s a good question. I don’t know about one specific person, but I would like to collaborate with an entire orchestra. So maybe my collaboration would be with someone who writes the arrangement for an orchestra. I imagine almost having it as two sides of the stage, the entire orchestra on one side, facing just me on the other. Yeah, I’d love that.
What’s the DJing about? You recently played a set at the Wainwright Sisters’ gig. Is that something you do often?
I admit that I didn’t really know how to do that role, as no, it’s not a regular occurrence in my life. It was kind of fun to put some songs together and play music that I like though. There were a couple of people who came up and went, ‘what are you playing?’ so that was nice. I played three sets, in the beginning some more kind of quiet folky stuff, and then I tried to build it up towards the end. So I played some Timber Timbre, Natalie Prass, some Simon and Garfunkel, a bit of Bonobo: quite a range actually but mainly just music that I like. No records though, so I am a bit of a cheat DJ.
Do you or any other members of the band have any side projects going on?
Well, like I mentioned, Andy has his solo project, Andrew Stuart Buttle, and we play together sometimes. Harry, our guitarist, is in another band, he plays with Joe McCarty who’s another really good Brighton songwriter. So yeah, a few bands and stuff going on. Freddie, our drummer has a side project called Hot Moth. They are just starting out but they’re really good. I just sort of play loads of harp.
Are you playing any festivals this year?
Ermmm, to be confirmed!
Do you ever think about multi-media events or any projects that would take you away from the conventional gig?
Yeah, I’ve thought about it loads actually. I would love to try to incorporate some other media into my music. Music and visuals go so well together, and they’re so powerful when you combine them. Also interpretive dance can be really great with music. I played at a cinema once, it was an old cinema and they still had the projector and big screen and everything, so I got them to project the live feed from the International Space Station’s visual of earth while I was playing, because I’m obsessed with physics and space. It was so cool, obviously I couldn’t see it but I could feel it, and it was good. So yeah, I’d like to think about doing that, but I don’t know how it would work or what form it would be in.
If you could perform anywhere, not just in Brighton, where would it be?
Royal Albert Hall, that would be really fun.
And if you were given free reign with an unlimited budget, what would you do?
What, with my life? Hawaii. In terms of music, I guess I have a free reign anyway because I have my own mind, but the unlimited budget would be absolutely brilliant. I would spend a lot of time in a really good rehearsal studio with my band and just play. One of our biggest obstacles right now is we don’t have enough time to just sit in a room with everybody not at work, with no time limits, and just play and write. Obviously we’d do that in Hawaii or something. Also I’d go exploring, being out in nature is good for you and for inspiration I think.