Karyn Ellis is an acoustic folk-pop singer/songwriter from Ontario, Canada. With tradeyourtalent she speaks about words and melody slipping into place, the emotional challenges of being an artist and why happy is hardest to bring across in a song.
When is a song special to you?
I get a skin-tingling sensation, and I know I am experiencing something that is bigger than me, bigger than the song. It is visceral and at the same time intangible. On one song it will be the particular way the drums are played, another song it is the expressiveness of the vocalist, often it is well written lyrics that set off a chain-reaction in my creative spirit… I get a kind of echoing, like when you drop a pebble in a barrel. The waves that form are like the music that resonates in me. I find melodies start to bubble up in me after I hear a great band or wonderful piece of music.
I am far more inspired by emotional authenticity than technical mastery. I am willing to forgive an out-of-tune voice if they are genuine and letting the musical spirit flow through them. Technically fabulous, but flat performances… *yawn*. I mean, I can appreciate all the dedication and work that goes into it, but most of the time I'd rather do crossword puzzles. Lyrics are especially important to me, the wrong words (ie cliches, shallow or negative concepts, unnatural phrasing) can throw me out of an otherwise fantastic song. The right words, on the other hand… wowsa! I love creative juxtapositions, turns of phrases and unique viewpoints. Tickles my brain! The people who make me tingle are the ones who are solid in their craft and open emotionally. I like the frailty and the risk that a person takes when they are playing from a deep, open place.
In terms of my own process of recognizing a "special" song when writing, there is usually a period of word wrangling that happens, and I think "How wretched! This isn't going anywhere!" Then suddenly words & melody will slip into place like the song has always been there waiting for me to discover it. I love that feeling.
Which artists have inspired you?
There's amazing alternative music scene happening in Canada right now…
Off the top of my head some artists I admire: David Newberry, Kim Beggs, Trish Robb, Tanya Davis, Christine Fellows, Evalyn Parry, Hey Rosetta, Dan Mangan, Emma-Lee.
Has it been difficult getting to where you are now?
In some ways it has not been difficult at all. What I mean is, I feel like I really didn't have a choice in the matter of being an artist. It is true I spent years muddling around waiting tables, singing telegrams, selling Christmas trees, stocking a needle exchange, anything to avoid making music… but in spite of all my efforts, the universe kept throwing me back into art by sending well-timed invitations to record and perform, or touching feedback from someone who heard my music somewhere (requests such as this invitation to be interviewed by your blog are deeply nourishing.) And every time the money burden has been too much and I have a plan to "quit for good", some sort of cheque has shown up in the mail to keep me afloat long enough to keep doing what I do for a little longer.
But let's be honest here, there is also a big yes to the question.
Let's start with the emotional challenges of being an artist: every day I struggle with the question of meaning: why do art? Does it matter, my one little world view that things could be so much better? What possible ripple can my tiny pebble make in this crazy, overwhelming world?
When I first started playing music publicly; I did a lot of busking on the streets. It upped my singing-loud chops, and it also inured me against indifference… or so I thought. I remember one time a guy walking by me on the street as I was singing my heart out. He yelled at me to "get a job"; he was menacing and his words stung. His comment brought up for me the damage I had sustained over the years: the idea that art didn't matter, that larger society didn't see art (and by association, me) as relevant.
I wonder if that attitude has changed much? It does seem that with the interconnectivity of the internet, respect for the arts among certain demographics has increased. And yet we continue to see funding slashed and declines in attendance at cultural events. In order to keep working I often have to remind myself that it IS a real job… an artist works to absorb and synthesize the world around them into a piece of music (or canvas, or whatever their particular field is) that can speak to the events/emotional landscape of the day. To affect change and social growth. Being open all the time to the world like that, it's painful. Even so-called light songs require letting things in if you want to make good work that resonates.
I sometimes let my heart break over other people's opinions (or worse, indifference) about my work. Intellectually I know not everyone needs to dig what I'm doing, but it tugs at my desire to be loved by everyone. My little approval seeker gets very clingy at those times, and I start to feel like I'm working in a vacuum. It also happens when I feel jealous (and then guilty) about fellow artists receiving opportunities over me for awards, events, grants etc. That being passed over sometimes happens is no surprise, since there are few opportunities and so many wonderful, talented artists out there. But the facts don't soothe me when I'm feeling sorry for myself. This is true even when things are going well for me… it is a barometer of my emotional, not reality, state.
It's also a yes from an administrative point of view because the reality of being an artist in today's creativity climate is that I end up wearing an awful lot of hats at any given point in time. I am manager, booker, publicist, graphic designer, web manager, sales rep, accountant, cheerleader… all in effort so that on occasion I get to be artist! The basic practicalities of being an "entrepreneur" (rrrrrrrrolll those r's, darrrrlings): dealing with money, being organized… I confess these are not things I have much talent for! Alas, a lot of creative drain goes into the simple running of things.
I also wonder sometimes if I am being suckered financially, since the burdens of making records and touring often weighs me down. Terrible economics: just when I'm getting into recording bigger production albums that serve my music better, CD sales are down. Well, at least Visa loves me!
Mind you, it beats the old Record Company model that only a few "discovered" can make it as an artist. There is so much more direct connection between artists and audience now that make it possible to eke out a profession in the creative arts. Over time, too, it has gotten easier for me as people have stepped in to help me out with some of these jobs, and I am freed up to spend more time with the music itself.
Oh my oh my, one might wonder why I do art at all with all this baggage weighing me down? That is a whole other essay, but I have figured out one thing: I continue doing art for the same reason flowers press their petals into the sun. It makes me feel whole.
What emotions- are hardest to bring across in a song for you?
Happy is hard!
The first place I go when I sit down to write is the minor chord, and my lyrics naturally resonate with sadness -- judging by my many break up and longing songs! Yes, I definitely gravitate towards melancholy. The funny thing is that I am a pretty happy gal offstage. I look at the world through the philosophical lens, yes, but every morning I am genuinely delighted to open my eyes and curious to see what the day brings. However, I find it quite challenging to express those positive emotions in my songs. I have it in my head that if I go too "happy", I will come off sounding cliche or worse… chirpy! Ugh!!
Having said that, I made it a goal on my last album to at least *try* to be a bit more chipper in my melodies and lyrics than on previous albums. There are still plenty o' sad songs on the record, though some of the lyrical doozies (I'm thinking of "Low" in particular here) are disguised in upbeat, cheerful tunes. But this record marks the first time that one can describe some of my songs, like "Little Grey Sparrow" as downright joyful!
It also impresses me when I hear other artists write eloquent political and real world event songs. I personally don't have much of a gift for that sort of thing; my attempts have bordered on preachy… or boring. Instead I tend to write metaphorically/emotionally about those sorts of issues. Maybe that's one of the reasons I write so much melancholy… because it is a beautiful, sad world out there.
If you could give advice to young artists with just a couple of lyrics, what would you sing to them?
Wherever you roam, no matter how wide --
Wherever you go, remember you'll be fine!
So fly! Little sparrow.
Fly! Little teacup.
Fly! Little arrow.
Heart's an archer, points you to the marrow.
I think as an artist it is essential to remind yourself that just as migratory birds are born knowing where home is, so do you. Artists do well to follow that internal compass; it takes you where you need to go. A reminder to myself as well: trust in that.
For more on Karyn Ellis visit: