So we made our way into 2018 with a buzzy and (mildly) politically charge interview with former Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean. Hopefully you enjoyed and weren't one of the three people to partake in uninformed banality in the comments section. That was all well and good, but let's get back to what many (see: possibly eight people) would consider to be Now/It's' bread and butter - music interviews. This week, we're fortunate enough to talk to Daniel Ellsworth, of Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes. He's a long-time fixture in Nashville's every-burgeoning pop music scene, and his band, The Great Lakes, have returned from a year of general under the radar-ing and have an album to show for it. The kicker though, is that this new album comes in three parts, with Chapter One dropping next week, January 19th. In our conversation, Ellsworth shares a brief history of the band before diving headfirst and indulging the writer in a fascinating conversation about how an independent artist operates and propels themselves further in an otherwise seemingly unnavigable industry. If the interview piques your interest, and you'd like to experience more Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes lore, the band plays Sunday, January 14th, at 3rd & Lindsley.
Now/It's met with Daniel Ellsworth at his home in the Woodbine neighborhood of Nashville.
Daniel - We just did a bunch of renovations - this used to be a dirt floor basement, and we just kind of moved stuff down here. Eventually it’ll be a studio with walls and all that, but for now, this is how we make it work.
N/I - That’s awesome. So how long did it take for you to get the non-dirt floors going?
Daniel - [Laughs] It was a long time. It was - between this and everything else we were doing on the house - it was probably three months straight of construction, with five months total of finally figuring it out.
N/I - And how long have you been in this house?
Daniel - We bought this house in 2009. We’ve been here for a while. It’s always been great and liveable. The upstairs used to be a separate apartment - it’s a finished attic - but it was a separate apartment with its own entrance, and we rented it out for forever. Then, when we did renovations, we changed it up, moved our bedroom up there, took off the back deck and put in a screened in porch instead.
N/I - So you’re like a regular HGTV show.
Daniel - [Laughs] Yeah. I had nothing to do with all that other than dealing with contractors [laughs].
N/I - Sure. So how long have you been in Nashville?
Daniel - 2004… 2005? Yeah. I moved down for school and then stuck around.
N/I - That’s nice. And then [Daniel Ellsworth &] The Great Lakes have been around since 2010 or so?
Daniel - Roughly. Our first record…. 2010 is kind of when things started to form. It was when I was shifting from whatever solo thing I was doing to…..
N/I - It went from being a nebulous idea to a more formed thought?
Daniel - A more formed thing, yeah. We made a record in 2011 that came out at the very end of that year. It came out then, but we didn’t start touring on that record until 2012. So somewhere in there. 2012 was when we started touring as a band.
N/I - That’s fair. So how’s it feel to be back in the swing of things? Because it’s been what? Two-ish years?
Daniel - Yeah, two-ish.
N/I - Granted, you’ve obviously been doing stuff in between releases.
Daniel - Right. We did an EP in 2016, and then did some touring and festival stuff that year. And at the end of 2016, all through 2017, we were making this record. We weren’t on the road nearly as much, and we wanted to take the time to record the record.
N/I - Okay. And did you record the record in LA?
Daniel - We recorded it here, two blocks from…. Well, two blocks from this house, there’s a guy named Kyle Andrews - he’s an artist, but also a great producer - and he built this brand new studio that’s in his house, and we made almost the whole thing there. We did a little bit at Blackbird.
N/I - Well I don’t know where I got the idea that it was recorded in Los Angeles, then. I guess running through your socials, it looked like you were in Los Angeles for a minute. I definitely just assumed it was for some sort of recording trip.
Daniel - Yeah. Our publishing company and our licensing company is out there, so we get out there a good bit.
N/I - That’s fair.
Daniel - I don’t know. I think the next record, I’d like to do somewhere else?
N/I - Why is that?
Daniel - Just to change it up. As in another city.
N/I - Oh, sure. I wasn’t thinking that the next [Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes] record was going to be a full blues record or anything like that.
Daniel - [Laughs]
N/I - But I’d imagine a change of scenery would probably be nice at some point - you’ve been in Nashville for a while now, and I’m sure you’ve had other experiences recording other places, but as far as a full-length….
Daniel - Full-length record, we’ve always recorded those in Nashville. Mostly because it makes sense. Most of the band lives here….
N/I - It’s easy, it’s most accessible.
Daniel - Plus, Kyle’s studio is one or two blocks from here, and he and I work together on a lot of stuff. I can just walk over there. It’s an ideal situation.
N/I - So I know [DE & TGL’s single] “Control” is going to be on the first EP…. So it’s staggered, right?
Daniel - Yeah.
N/I - Is it half and half?
Daniel - No.
N/I - Part One, Part Two? What’s the story behind that?
Daniel - Yeah. Part One, Part Two, and the the third is the full thing. There are a couple of reasons to why we did. Partially because that’s just how we recorded the record. We made it in chunks over the course of a year, so we arrived at presenting it one way. The other thing was, being an independent band, the longer we can roll something out, the more….
N/I - It’s content - not to be super buzzword-y….
Daniel - Yeah….
N/I - But at the same time, there’s something there for someone to interact with, or something for the sake of sustainability of attention.
Daniel - Totally. It’s a weird time, because everyone in the band is an album guy. We made a record and we want to put it out, but the way that people are consuming music is way different, and it’s rapidly changing. Whether we like it or not, it’s one song at a time.
N/I - It’s a la carte listening.
Daniel - Right. And to me…. Even sitting down with publishing people and being like Look, at the end of the day, the record’s going to come out.
N/I - And this is the publishing company to you guys? Or is it you guys to the publishing company?
Daniel - This is them to us. They’re the best. They have ideas and new things, open to bouncing said ideas, which is a great thing. For me, it was kind of like, “Okay…. Yeah, it’s okay for us not to be so precious about.” Yes, it’s this thing that we worked on and that envisioned as this twelve song thing, but at the end of the day, however people find the music doesn’t matter, we just want them to listen. We’re not so hard-headed that we’re going to say “No! We’re putting the whole record out and if nothing comes of it, nothing comes of it.” We’d like to have it move. Plus, it’s a time where people are experimenting with how they put out records, or music, or whatever concept of an album they have.
N/I - Right. That’s interesting, because I talked to the guys in Airpark….
Daniel - Oh yeah! Michael and Ben?
N/I - Yep. Michael and Ben. They did a similar thing last year, basically book-ending the year with two EPs. It serves as an album together. It’s not literally an album in the sense that you’re releasing stuff, but the two EPs result in roughly 8 to 9 songs, and then you have an album’s worth of music there. So that’s interesting to me when you say the publishing people were the ones pushing to split it up.
Daniel - It was a combination of discussions, for sure.
N/I - And you guys were open to it. Like you said, you weren’t telling them how ridiculous they were while kicking and screaming to arrive at the final decision.
Daniel - No. It always boils down to being our decision when we put stuff out, but that was just one of the people we talked to when figuring out how we wanted to do this thing. It was a lot of “Do we want to hold onto this until we find a record label to put it out? Do we want to just put it out, or put it out in pieces?” Also, for us, doing it one at a time - one track at a time and then packaging them up into these little EPs - it gives us time to create music videos and do different things along the way. We’re trying to come up with unique little things in terms of content for these songs. Sometimes we have a little bit of a budget to make a music video, and sometimes we don’t, so we try and figure out how we could do it for free. So it gives you that time to be creative and try and do different things….
N/I - Which is always good.
Daniel - Which has been a great thing.
N/I - Whereas, if you put it out altogether at once, I’d imagine there’d be a little more of a one-track mind of having these three songs that might serve as singles, or are single-worthy, but if you have it split in two, there’s a little more leeway. There’s more to play with, which is what it sounds like you guys are experiencing.
Daniel - Yeah, and it’s also a little bit of “Why not?” so we try it.
N/I - Exactly. It’s like you said, it’s still a new realm of which no one has figured out how you appeal to the singles nature of how people listen to music. I’ll admit, when a new album comes out from someone that I like, or someone that I’ve heard about, I’ll go the first thirty seconds of each song - even though I like to listen to albums front to back, as well - but now it’s less of listening front to back for the next thirty to forty minutes, and more of listening to the first thirty seconds of each song, and if it doesn’t catch me, I’ll move on. And a lot of times, that’s a massive disservice.
Daniel - Sure.
N/I - But I try to steer myself away from that.
Daniel - Totally. I think music fans - like hardcore people who are really album people, they’re going to do that. People will still do it that way. Like for me, now, I use something like a Spotify as a discovery tool, saying “Okay, what am I going to find today?” And maybe I’ll listen to a couple songs and then think, “Okay, I’m digging this, now I’m going to go out and buy the vinyl.”
N/I - I’m the same way.
Daniel - Because I want to sit down with the artwork. It’s old school, but I love examining the artwork.
N/I - Well there’s something to be said about looking at the paneling and everything.
Daniel - Absolutely! But that’s also something that needs to be understood - we are the rare cases. That is not happening everywhere, and definitely not how people consume music.
N/I - Exactly. In our circles - and I’m kind of clumping musicians and media people together - it’s hard to not get swept up in the vinyl “resurgence,” so to speak. Those are very heavy air quotes, by the way. It is at a high - not an all-time high - but for twenty, thirty years, it just kind of disappeared. Now, it’s back and it’s very much en vogue. If you’ve been around for a while and have had consistent traction and you’re releasing something that doesn’t come with a physical vinyl record, it’s kind of confusing. People are prone to think, “What’s going on here?” And then there’s Urban Outfitters….
Daniel - Target! I was there the other week, and at the front of Target, Taylor Swift’s vinyl was front and center. I was like, “This is so weird.”
N/I - And then there’s Barnes & Noble. That’s a company on the brink of going out of business, and they just introduced vinyl sales. But anyway, it’s interesting that within that circle, vinyl is a big thing, and people will go out and buy, but most people will just listen whatever is promoted under new releases. Like that new Justin Timberlake song….
Daniel - “Filthy.”
N/I - And that’s a whole different conversation that is altogether just as, if not more so confusing.
Daniel - Yes! It most certainly is.
N/I - You can’t tell what the approach is. In a way, [Justin Timberlake] kind of ties into that original thought. It seems like he might be attempting to cash in on the mindset of the people like you or me that would buy a record from…. Let’s say Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver. You’ll buy it and won’t question it. But so anyway, it seems like the Justin Timberlake thing leans into that aesthethic….
Daniel - Oh, with what he’s doing? The woods thing?
N/I - It’s weird… And I realize, I’m starting to talk ahead of myself before I consider what the actual tie-in is, but…. Everyone’s still trying to figure stuff out. That’s what the core thought is, and it doesn’t matter if you’re brand new or you’re Justin Timberlake.
Daniel - Absolutely.
N/I - And Justin Timberlake can afford to look into vinyl sales, which are at a relative high, and it could potentially turn into millions in revenue for him. But not everyone can have the luxury of millions of dollars in vinyl sales.
Daniel - Yeah. It’s a weird time. I think any major shift in the music industry - and now it’s happening faster - but it happens every couple of years, or so. Vinyl to cassette, cassette to CD’s, CD’s to iTunes, iTunes to streaming. This stuff happens and there’s good and bad. You can lament the past and be like “Well man, I wish people would listen to the whole thing. What about the album people? What about going to the store, buying the CD, and listening to the whole thing, and loving the record, and deep cut track seven? What about that?” And sure, that sucks that that has kind of gone away - there are still people that do that - but it’s kind of gone away to an extent. Or you can embrace and adapt, and understand that this is the way things are going and this is the way people are consuming music. You just have to decide where you want to sit. Would I personally love if it was still an album world, and that was the “thing?” Sure! But it’s not, and that’s not going to make me not create music any more.
N/I - Exactly. It sounds like…. Well actually, you guys are obviously very receptive to that. And you have to be, in a certain capacity. You want people to listen to the music, and the crux of the problem is whether or not it matters to you desperately whether or not they listen one way versus another. With all that in mind, since you guys are splitting the album up into pieces before the full thing comes out, is there a difference between the two? Not in a sonic sense, but perhaps tonally, or spiritually?
Daniel - A little bit. Maybe somewhat. It’s basically the order that we made things. So this Chapter One is a few of the first tracks that we did, and the next one is a few of the next batch of tracks we did. So Chapter Two will definitely have a slightly different vibe to it. Maybe slightly darker, weirder than the Chapter One songs.
N/I - And “Control” is on Chapter One?
Daniel - “Control” will be on that one, right.
N/I - And that’s more of a “let loose” or be unafraid, or unafraid to be your truest self.
Daniel - Exactly.
N/I - So when you say “darker,” it’s not somber, right?
Daniel - Not somber. Everything - except for what I think will end up being the last track on the record - everything is pretty upbeat. I guess darker in the sense that everything in Chapter One is major key and then some of the stuff - like two of the songs are minor key….
N/I - So from more of a structural standpoint?
Daniel - Yeah. They’re still kind of big expensive pop songs, but at least two of them are a little bit weirder, I guess. In terms of arrangement and stuff like that.
N/I - So am I safe to assume that you’re doing the majority of the lyrical writing?
Daniel - Yeah. We write as a band, musically. It happens different ways, but usually, I come up with a skeleton idea of what might be just a chorus, or just a verse. So we start with that and then tear it down and rebuild it. I’ll bring it to the guys, and musically we write it together. But it’s not always this way, but for this record, we wrote everything. Melody and song would be done, and then I wrote lyrics. I would listen back to iPhone demos of us playing them live and the stream of consciousness of “What am I saying?” and then I would pull from that and use that as a jumping off point and wind up where I’m thinking, “Alright, I guess that’s what this song is about.” [Laughs]
N/I - That’s fair. So you take that and then you go to Kyle [Andrews], then what do the songs become? Do Kyle take the songs and further tweak things by saying “Do this, instead of that?”
Daniel - In this case, that’s definitely something that we wanted to with this record. That’s something that with every previous record, we had been under time constraints, just due to studio costs, and things like that. So we had to have the songs arranged ahead of time, thinking that this is how we wanted them, or least how we thought we wanted them. You’d lay it all down and then it was “Okay, this is what it is.” There’s something to that, but this time we decided that we wanted to take more time with it. A lot of the time, we would leave them unfinished, or we’d have questions about arrangement ideas, or what we were thinking of doing. So that’s a lot of what we’d do with Kyle. We’d tell him “Here’s what we have of this song, but we’re not really sure about this, but we like this,” and then he would play it down and listen. Then he’d suggest switches and then we’d do that until we landed on something that felt right.
N/I - Alright. So it sounds like it’s about as collaborative as it could get all the way through.
Daniel - Yeah. It was definitely a co-production effort with Kyle being that outside producer ear that you trust implicitly because you’re fans of everything he does [laughs].
N/I - That’s always good. So with the previous releases, I’m sure it was amply as collaborative, but like you said, there was a time constraint - was that something you actively sought out with these upcoming releases? Or was it just worked out that way when touring schedules let off and then you know you have a window of opportunity.
Daniel - No. It was something we definitely sought out.
N/I - How do you arrive at the point where you begin to actively seek it out?
Daniel - I think a lot of things contribute to it. The band… We switched up a bunch of people that we were working with, so there were a lot of shifts happening, and it just felt like the right timing for us, having done two records and an EP, and constantly being on the road, so it became a “What if we stepped back, and were really intentional about focusing on making a record and taking our time with it?” So it was an intentional thing of wanting to do it differently than we did it before. The way we made our previous record and EP, we loved the process. It was amazing. We were producing it, and Vance Powell was recording and engineering it, and mixing it. So there was collaboration in that sense, just that with sounds, he’s very open to trying new things. But it was faster. There’s no question that at some point, we’ll go back and work with Vance again, because it was amazing. But we just wanted to try something else.
N/I - Well it arrived with a sea change. Like you said, there were a lot of things that were changing, shifting, so it was probably top of the brain to try something new.
Daniel - Right. That’s kind of been our motto the past year and a half. Let’s just try it. There’s no “wrong way” of doing things right now.