As the people of Penny Lane go about their lives, hunkering down through the sheets of sleet on an unforgiving day in early March, NICK ELLIS watches from a nearby coffee shop. The people and the day, time and motion, lives being lived, each passing person a character in someone’s story, somewhere and at some time.
This is a writer and performer with a hungry fascination for such lives, and he seeks out and hones in on the everyday and the extraordinary to create the characters for his songs, taking their stories, their idiosyncrasies, and weaving them through his own brand of folk pop. Meeting Ellis to talk of his experiences and discuss his music is truly enlightening, in the fullest sense of the word. His search for gaining an understanding of himself is fed and nurtured by his curiosity and capacity for gaining an understanding of the experiences of those who surround him.
After 10 years as a member of well-loved and respected Liverpool band The Maybes?, he now finds himself learning to appreciate again the lack of the confines that being a central part of such an intense set up can bring. “I felt like everything we’d done with The Maybes? came to a natural point of combustion, you know,” Ellis tells me. “We lived in each other’s pockets, rehearsing five days a week, gigs, record companies, all that. We wanted to stay independent, which meant we did everything ourselves – but everything’s got a longevity, a shelf life, and I think we’d just done what we set out to do and there wasn’t, I don’t think, anywhere left to go with it. It was a long time, 10 years, and it was full on. I think we just got sick of each other by the end. After all that, after having all that control, all those demands on me, it was nice to be able to step out of it and be just doing my own thing.”
For Ellis at that point, a period of reflection, and even introspection was as deserved as it was necessary. So, armed with nothing but his guitar and a keen curiosity, he took to the road, and for a whole summer busked his way around Europe, sleeping rough, re-learning his craft, and in many ways, re-learning himself. “I just needed to get out of here, get away, for a number of reasons,” he recounts. “It was a few months on my own, not knowing where I was going next or how I was going to get there. It was a testing ground. I wanted to learn what I was about to become. And I found the soul of man. People wanted to help, wanted to know, wanted to get you from A to B. I can’t really describe it, but basically, people just wanted to see that I was OK. I found that in every country, the soul of man. Communication was the same all over, and the music connected us. Always the music.”
In Ellis’ mind, key to that connection is what he calls “the thread”, the links that bind together the music of the city, the ripples that form and shape the art of a city such as Liverpool, constantly changing, evolving and delivering new thoughts, new ideas. It’s partly, he feels, fed by the river. Liverpool’s port status, outward facing, and always inwardly welcoming.
“Like Hamburg, Stockholm, like San Sebastian: it’s a port mentality, the vibe of a port town. It’s a life force,” Ellis affirms, clearly showing how it’s something he is passionate about. “Every morning and every evening, it comes in and goes out. It brings in, and carries away. Constantly. Nothing stops it. It brings air, water, people, ideas, cultures, whatever, but it never stops. Liverpool’s always been a transient sailor town. People come, some stay, some leave, but they all play their part. It’s a strong force, and we’re all connected to it, whether we realise it or not. It’s got a lot to do with the music, because it brings so much in. It brings sounds and thoughts, a light, a shimmer, a colour.”
The ideas and shapes of songs that began their journey during his months in Europe, and before, are now fully realised, and about to be released on Mellowtone Records as Ellis’ new eight-track Grace And Danger EP, which he recorded in the old Crown Court room at St George’s Hall. An imposing and historical space by design and intent, with impressive grandiose acoustics, the room gives the sound of the EP an almost reverent feel, which demands the closer attention of the listener. A period of time that found Ellis enjoying his privacy, his time away from the high exposure of being in a band, was brought to a natural conclusion when Dave McTague of Mellowtone persuaded him to begin performing again when curating the live music for the Winter Arts Market at St. George’s Hall in 2014, and this was when Ellis discovered the capabilities of this most unique space. The history of the room fits with the dual ideas of the title, the grace, and the danger.
“I wanted to create a listening experience, not just a group of songs, and I just knew that for these songs, that sound, and that interpretation of the sound could come from that space, that particular room,” Ellis explains.
The EP is packed full of Ellis’ well-observed characterisations, the contemporary themes of urban folk, and life in the city: from the girl in Electric Blue High Heels, who just wants to get a cab home, to one man’s thoughts on his own surroundings in A Walk Through The City. It is a more than accomplished piece of work, strong and confident in its own skin, and presents Ellis in the light of someone finally accepting and enjoying his solitary status, and the control that method of working can provide. It’s as though he’s found a comfortable balance between his will to expose and develop his own thought, his own ideas, and to balance that with the need for collaboration when it comes to production and design values.
In discussion with Nick Ellis, and on listening to Grace And Danger, there is an overriding feeling of contentment. Perhaps, in fact, a sense of contentment that the artist himself didn’t even know he was seeking. A sense of comfort, maybe?
“Contentment, yeah. It’s an interesting question, a good point,” he answers, after again giving himself time to mull the point over. “The answer is in the thread. That contentment I seem to have found in these tunes – this record, or adventure – has come about through the weaving of its own thread, into each new patch of experience, each story, character or fragment of history.” Clearly, the support and influence of friends – the people who would appreciate the work, and would work to bring it to a greater audience – is also key. A support network.
“Well, the first signs of that contentment lay in the room. The Courtroom itself seemed to be just right for me as a person, a songwriter, trying to put across a clear oration, or a guitar player inspired by its sound,” Ellis agrees. “This was the first patch in the quilt. And the second was Dave [McTague, Mellowtone], who basically was just my mate who had the same vibe as me about what the room seemed to do for the songs. After these initial feelings of contentment, the songs have seemed to guide themselves into this path, out of my hands.”
And so, Nick Ellis is comfortable with this new-found comfort. Happy to be happy with this new thread, this new breath of air, and lightening of spirit, and the shining of this new light on an ever-changing career.
“At present, I just feel contented about watching this narrative play out in front of me. The record has now taken on a life of its own, as they usually should, once recorded. I mean, in the sense that it’s now property of someone else’s imagination,” says Ellis. He then pauses, looking into space while he considers his final thought. “My contentment comes from experiencing other people experience it.”
Grace And Danger is released on 20th April 2016 via Mellowtone Records.