The years between 16 and 18 are always significant, but for ELEANOR NELLY they have proved life-changing. When Bido Lito! first sat down with Eleanor in 2016, the local singer-songwriter had just been named one of LIMF Academy’s Most Ready artists. Now, she is signed to a management deal with Decca Records and, with the upcoming release of her new EP, the incredible pace of the past two years shows no sign of slowing. People Like Us confirms that Eleanor Nelly is in it for the long run.
Meeting up with Eleanor during a brief period of down time, I start by asking her to summarise the past two years. She describes leaving school – “the biggest relief of my life” – and the excitement of being signed with a bubbly energy that I come to realise is something of a signature of hers. Her highlights from this whirlwind period include writing music in Nashville, supporting Rhys Lewis on her first tour and recording in Abbey Road Studios. It’s an impressive résumé, one that could threaten to overwhelm your average 18-year-old, though she is quick to reassure me. “I’ve definitely grown up and found my feet, both in music and outside of music. It’s been hard, but also the most magical experience.” Eleanor is evidently hardworking and, while in awe of her success, she is far from overwhelmed. “It’s just been crazy,” is a phrase that Eleanor repeats throughout our conversation, but only a fool would think she couldn’t keep up.
Eleanor began gigging around Liverpool at the age of 13, and she credits the city’s supportive music scene as instrumental to her success. “No one ever held me back and said, ‘Oh you’re a bit too young.’ Perhaps I was just too persistent; I knew I was getting into that venue no matter what, and that I would play.” Persistence clearly pays off. At 18, Eleanor’s voice is remarkably mature and confident; this is surely in part because she began playing live at a young age. Surprisingly, Eleanor tells me that she had only had six guitar lessons when she started gigging. “Everyone would be like, ‘Try this,’ so I learned from older musicians.” This speaks volumes about her ability to throw herself into and learn from every opportunity. Eleanor’s affection for Liverpool extends to her music taste, which includes local band Shamona and singer Thom Moorcroft. Particular favourites are The Hummingbirds, who she has written music with and supported at the O2 Academy, giving a refreshing outlook of an artist that remains so invested in local musicians: “The music scene has changed a lot since I first started gigging but I always know it’s like a second home to me.”
In 2015, Eleanor was named One To Watch by LIMF Academy; the following year, she was one of their Most Ready artists. “It finally felt like people were taking me seriously,” she tells me of her reaction to the accolades. “I wasn’t just some kid with funny hair who played a guitar that was too big for me.” It would certainly be hard not to take Eleanor seriously once you hear her voice, but it is a credit to the LIMF Academy programme for recognising her talent. Eleanor praises LIMF for giving young musicians in the city a platform: “It’s so good to get them into the public eye in Liverpool, because we’re all so supportive.”
The Academy experience itself is something that she thinks will stay with her for a long time, and she’s keen to give credit to the programme for giving her direction when she needed it most. “Being a part of the masterclass sessions and getting the mentoring has been a massive help in me finding my feet, and working out what route I want to take. You learn things from industry professionals, from their experiences, that you probably couldn’t learn anywhere else.”
“Whether that’s exposure, the experience, the mentoring and masterclasses, or the feedback,” she continues, clearly grateful for both the advice and opportunities afforded to her through the Academy.
Her performance with the Philharmonic Youth Company at Liverpool International Music Festival in 2016 remains “the most surreal experience of my life and forever my favourite memory.” That show, where she worked alongside the composer Katie Chatburn to perform three songs with the Phil’s Youth Orchestra, showed not only her immense capability in a live setting, but an ability to be unfazed by performing on such a high-profile stage. It also showed Eleanor’s maturity when facing a new challenge, and stood her in good stead for what was to follow over the next couple of years, once the doors to the Decca Family had been thrown open.
As well as her maturity, one of the first things people comment on with Eleanor is her enthusiasm, whether seeing her perform or meeting her away from the stage. Her personality is effervescent and infectious, and you can see her love for music flowing into everything she does. But it’s more than just an outlet for her, and has helped her through difficult times as well as been there to express the good. “Music is important to me because it dragged me out of a really dark place when I was younger,” she admits. “It [music] helped me get away from… bad situations, and whatever else the kids were doing at school. Music saved me from God knows what.”
As expected, Eleanor’s music has matured over the past two years since her school days, as the experiences she has been subjected to have shaped her as an artist. “I think my music has grown with me; it’s developed and matured as I have.” People Like Us places Eleanor firmly alongside today’s indie singer-songwriters, who are forging a distinctly modern sound that borrows from classic country, folk and blues. Eleanor’s voice has also matured and is deceptively rich and warm; it is a softer, more effortless iteration of her early self, and reminds me of Kate Stables from This Is The Kit or Louisa Roach from Liverpool’s She Drew The Gun. Vocals take centre stage on this EP, and are complemented by simple, catchy riffs on guitar or piano. Gone is the tendency to move wildly between musical genres, which suited her early gigging days but would perhaps have appeared disjointed on an EP. Eleanor laughs when I bring this up with her. “I’m not as extreme as I used to be because I’ve got people monitoring it; I used to go from playing AC/DC to, like, Joni Mitchell.”
This is not to say that her new EP lacks variety, and Eleanor is keen to stress that it has “something for everyone”. People Like Us is no less experimental than her older music, just more refined. Front Row is the first song Eleanor has written for piano and it’s less country, more acoustic pop; the simple backing chords accentuate the power of her voice, and the song feels more emotional than others. By contrast, the title track People Like Us is an upbeat, bluesy number that reminds me slightly of Jeff Buckley. This track is also the most interesting lyrically and best proves her self-declared role as a ‘storyteller’. Choke is one of Eleanor’s favourites from the EP, and mine too. Her voice effortlessly climbs and falls, and the chorus remains with you long after the song finishes. All of her tracks achieve that perfect balance between being innovative and catchy.
Eleanor tells me that she wrote Polaroid, the first track on her EP, in Nashville. Immediately it’s clear that we have arrived at her favourite discussion topic. The song describes the perfect stillness depicted in a Polaroid picture. For Eleanor, this picture is Nashville: “I remember looking out of the window in Nashville and what I was seeing was the song.” Eleanor has been dreaming of a visit to the city since she was a child obsessed with country musicians and Texas radio stations. She is evidently still in awe that her dream came true, and her eyes light up as she describes the trip. “When I finally got there, I was like ‘Yeh, this is what I’ve been listening to on the radio, this is what I’ve been dreaming of’.” She tells me that Nashville was “just lovely, it was warm like Liverpool.” Both cities are famous for having a welcoming musical scene, and have produced some outstanding musicians. Eleanor agrees “It was just so musically inclined. Every single bar on all the streets had a live band playing.” She talks of meeting welcoming musicians who helped her “write some of the most amazing songs I’ve ever written”. ‘Look around here at this place,’ she sings in Polaroid, a tribute to how Nashville has influenced her music.
People Like Us was produced entirely by Cam Blackwood (who has previously worked with George Ezra, London Grammar and Florence And The Machine), and Eleanor has had the opportunity to work with a number of highly successful songwriters over the past two years. I ask what it felt like working with Sacha Skarbek, who co-wrote Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball and James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful. “He had worked with all these amazing people and then he just had little me in his studio writing. It was surreal,” she exclaims. “I was like, ‘Why are you writing with me of all people?’” It’s a question that is obvious to her listeners: at just 18, Eleanor has a voice and a work ethic to rival most mainstream pop stars. She may be humble, but she does not pause to wonder at her success. “I’ve got to snatch all the opportunities up and get everything I can from these people that I’ve always looked up to.” It’s the same determination that helped her secure gigs at just 13, and it is bound to take her even further.
When I ask Eleanor where she imagines it all going, she is quick to answer: “No idea.” She hopes that Decca Records will become a long-term family for her to grow into, but is aware that “things like that can end in the blink of an eye”. Eleanor takes nothing for granted; a simple, 20-minute conversation convinces me that she will make the most of this opportunity. The only certainty in her future is that she will keep singing: “I wanna be making music for the rest of my life.” If People Like Us is anything to go by, I certainly hope she will too.
Polaroid, the first single from the People Like Us EP, is released on 7th March.