Jeff Ellis is poised for a breakout
First they came from across the pond. England, more precisely. In the 1990s, it was Seattle, Wash. Could the next generation of bands claim Huntington as home?
The talent’s certainly here, says singer-songwriter Jeff Ellis. Ellis just released his latest LP, “The Forgetting Place,” March 23 amid a flurry of local shows during his two-week leave from a final tour in Iraq.
Following his own Mountain Stage appearance from a February recording, Ellis is poised to become the next big breakout star from the Mountain State. Prior to that, he won the 2008 Mountain Stage NewSong Contest, one of the premier showcases of emerging performing songwriters in the North America.
If that next leap comes, plan on Ellis bringing West Virginia along with him, possibly in a giant catapult.
Graffiti: So you’ve recently returned from Iraq. Tell us what’s been going on since you’ve been back.
Ellis: Yea, I got back Thursday (March 19) around noon and it’s pretty much been non-stop since then. My family got together for lunch in Charleston immediately after I got off the plane. I spent Thursday going around trying to catch up with people. I stopped by Route 60 … and saw the guys that work there. Then I just kind of went from gathering to gathering. A lot of my friends knew I was coming in so we met up in a place in Barboursville and ended up at the American Legion doing karaoke.
Since then, Friday and Saturday was all business. I had several interviews and shows at Border’s and Empire Books. Then we had rehearsals with the band and getting ready for the run of shows this week. It’s been non-stop, just trying to get as much squeezed into two weeks as I can.
Graffiti: When you return in four months from your last tour, are you going to pursue the musical career full-time basis?
Ellis: Definitely. That’s been the goal from the start. I’ll just have to see how the record goes. If I make enough money to get by, then yea. But if not, I’ll go back to juggling school and part-time work and playing some shows four or five nights a week.
Either way’s good for me. I like doing it that way because between school and work and trying to tough things out, I come up with a lot more things to write about.
Graffiti: What’s your plan for that? Are you going to play more shows in West Virginia and try to slowly build your fan base outside of the region, do some national tours?
Ellis: I definitely would like to do the national touring. We’ve kind of hit our peak in West Virginia. Between the different bands I’ve been, I’ve played West Virginia for almost 15 years. At this point, we always win over one or two more, but I think we’ve kind of peaked.
The NewSong hookup has definitely helped me get out of town. Last year alone I got to go down to Georgia and play Eddie’s Attic, to New York a couple of times and Wilmington, N.C. I think the goal is, at least, my understanding of it, is to focus on doing an east coast tour, maybe a couple of runs. We’re definitely looking for somebody I could go out with, maybe a bigger band.
How that all turns out, we’ll see when the time comes, but that’s definitely on the table.
Graffiti: What’s the reaction been like so far when you’ve gone outside of the region, like to Georgia or New York?
Ellis: The Georgia and New York shows went great. Both shows were solo gigs and I was the opening act. I played with Garret Morris, who’s actually form Huntington. It was a packed house. We got a recording of the show, which I may or may not release later on. I’ve released a couple tracks on myspace and had some positive reaction to it.
So far it seems like people are digging the materials outside the Tri-State. So far the reviews have been positive. (March 23) was actually the CD release, but I don’t know how much that means till we get out and start playing.
Graffiti: You’ve quite the array of West Virginia artists collaborating with you on this one. I know you’ve been in the scene for a while. Are these just people you’ve met along the way?
Ellis: Yes. I started working with Bud (Carroll) back in 2006 when I did the “Front Seat for the End of the World” record. That record and my first, “The Enemy,” I was just coming out of Guinness Clarke’s Wine and I was stubborn and wanted to make it the way I wanted to make it. As I started nearing the end of the record, I realized I’m a songwriter and I’m just not as proficient on some instruments as I’d like to be. Bud is one of the few people I’ve met who can do everything. He can pick up any instrument and play and he can sing.
Russ Fox, who was engineering and producing for me at the time, asked Bud to come in and lay down a couple tracks. Bud and I got really tight and now he’s the executive producer on the new record. He played on everything. He helped get the band together to come in and record. A lot of it stems from him and Russ and we did the “Covering the Distance” album I had the Southern Souls come in with a couple of guys I played with in Guinness Clarke’s Wine and we all hit it off and became great friends. Now it’s more fun than anything. We’ll get together and jam because we want to play together.
Graffiti: Tell me a little about some of the inspiration behind the new album. I read that it’s a little bit more of you in it. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Ellis: If you go back to the “Front Seat” record a lot of those were specific thoughts that I went in with the intention of making an album. All the songs I was writing when I was in the Middle East last time kind of had a similar vibe in that they fell into two categories. Whether that be the more political stuff, which became “Front Seat,” or family and West Virginia stuff, which became “Covering the Distance.” So I was pretty much emptied out.
I had a couple of songs left but at that point what I was writing was going to be the next album. I was trying to write a lot of character-driven songs and I was so caught up with what was going on with me at the time with my relationship, it always kept seeping in. All these characters I kept writing about were these down-and-out guys who had one-shred of hope left.
At the end of it I’m looking at all these songs and pieces of them and wondering what makes it work. It was evident all these guys are like me. Down-and-out guys like me on that last shred of hope. That’s how it came together.
Graffiti: You know one of the things I admire about the West Virginia music scene is that it’s a tight knit community built around that sentiment of everyone helping each other get to the next level. It seems you feel that way too.
Ellis: That’s the only way to do it. I’ve been to some places where it was just so cutthroat. Bands hate each other and won’t stay and watch each other’s sets.
It’s not like that here. It seems everybody has a mutual appreciation, whether you’re a heavy metal band or a folk band or whatever. People still come out and show you respect.
I was sitting in the Java Joint and reading … the piece on Bud Carroll in Graffiti and he touched on something about this possibly being the new Omaha, Neb., like with the Saddle Creek thing. I agree with that completely.
There are so many bands and so much talent here now and with Bud starting his own recording studio … I can see it happening. I think there’s a booming scene and the talent here is probably better than anywhere else at the moment.
I just wish there was a way to catapult that over the mountains so the rest of the world could hear it. But it’s coming, especially with all these guys playing Mountain Stage now.
Contact Justin at email@example.com