Lindsay Ell is a bit distracted. She is glancing down at the dark hardwood floors of her home office in Nashville. She isn’t checking her connection or trying to make sure the camera is framed just right for the zoom call. She’s checking on her newest addition, a nine-pound, Pomeranian-Chihuahua puppy.
“Do you wanna see her?” she giggles, as she scoops up the tiny fluffball. Ell says she and her bandmates jumped in a car and drove the 1,064 mile round-trip to New Orleans to adopt this dog. She has named the pup Hendrix - a nod not only to one of the most virtuoso guitar players of all time, but the perfect name also for a dog belonging to a powerhouse player like Ell. She admits she has wanted a Pomeranian since she was a child, but her gruelling tour schedule in the past didn’t allow for a companion.
In 2019, Ell played 235 shows, spending 280 days away from home. It was a frenetic year, but one she was used to. In 2020, the pace was more like a crawl. She says she is thankful to have had the year she didn’t know she needed. It allowed her to be at home. It allowed her to get a dog. It also allowed her to tell her story of sexual abuse and rape trauma to the public for the first time. Through her song 'Make You', Ell was able to find the immense courage to express the turmoil and indignity she had felt, creating a song of healing and empowerment for others that have suffered. Ell also started the Make You Movement with the help of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, supporting at-risk youths and survivors of rape and abuse.
August saw the release of her sophomore album, Heart Theory, from where 'Make You' is taken. It also produced her second no.1 hit on Canadian Country radio, ‘Want Me Back’. Now, she is allowing herself space to enjoy the time at home. Wearing a yellow beanie and cuddling Hendrix in her lap, Ell is smiling as we start to reflect on the music that put her on the path to Nashville. Talking about her favorite artists and albums is clearly Ell’s happy place.
I would have to start with Continuum by John Mayer. When I was working on my first album, The Project, my producer at the time, Kristian Bush (Sugarland), had me record my favorite record. He said, “Lindsay, what's your favorite record?” I said Continuum. It’s perfect. I know every guitar solo. I could sing it to you right now. He was like, “Great. I want you to go in the studio, record it front to back, play all the instruments. You have two weeks. Go!” That process was such a learning experience in the most beautiful way, because I could really understand why I loved that record so much. From taking apart every little piece of it, every instrument and learning every drum fill, learning the way he would play certain things on the guitar. John invited me backstage at his Nashville concert and wanted to personally tell me that he thought it was really cool and he was so honored that I recorded the whole record, he had never had anybody do that before and that he thought I was super talented. So that was awesome.
That album is so massive for me. I was probably in my early teens when I really fell in love with it. It’s the way Sheryl was so free with her song-writing. As a woman in the spotlight, it's a difficult thing to be confident, sexy, meaningful, have a message and just try to be all those things at the same time. Sheryl just does it so effortlessly. She's always just been so cool to me. She is like, “This is who I am, this is my music. I'm not afraid to be different. If you like it. Great.” The first time I heard that record, I was just like, “this is amazing”. There's just a vibe to it that is just so inspiring to me.
This album is so musical and yet has so many songs that are generational hits. They just have had such an impact on me as a musician, and as a songwriter. Anytime I listen to an artist, specifically songwriters, who know how to mesh playing an instrument while crafting something contemporary, are super relatable. It just fascinates my brain! That's what I want to focus on. I mean, that record has ‘Sir Duke’ on it. It has ‘I Wish’ and ‘Isn't She Lovely’. You're just like, wait, what? That's all on one record. How can that be?
Talk about a record. My goodness. ‘You've Got a Friend’, ‘Natural Woman’, ‘So Far Away’, ‘I Feel the Earth Move’, ‘It’s Too Late’. Carole King is such a brilliant writer. Again, to be a woman and to figure out how to be sexy and meaningful and confident at the same time, it's a difficult code to crack. She's just so inspiring to me. It definitely changed my life. You know, ‘Natural Woman’ as a song, to hear Aretha [Franklin] take that and make it into a whole other thing. Shania Twain inspired me to want to commit my life to music, but then when I heard Aretha sing ‘Natural Woman’, God bless! I thought, ‘Ok, let’s learn how to sing. Let's learn how to actually sing like that.’
Finally, I’m going to say Bonnie Raitt, Luck of the Draw. ‘I Can't Make You Love Me’ is honestly, one of my favorite songs ever written. It's just so life-changing to me. The first time I heard her sing it on stage, I remember just instantly having tears running down my face. To be able to connect with people on that level and write a song that's that honest and vulnerable is something that I strive to do. I'm going to say that song first, but everything from Bonnie Raitt is so inspiring to me. You know, every single time I perform, I really want to be able to touch people that way, and communicate to them in that way. We're all fighting different battles, but we're all really in the midst of the same war. We're all connected.
Lindsay Ell's latest album 'Heart Theory is out now via This Is Hit / Stoney Creek Records.
Photography by Jeremy Cowart.