Ellis dropped her last name, Bergeron, because no one could pronounce it. (Photo by Allesandro de Soges)
I stumbled across two new artists recently. One, thanks to the good folks at Café Paradiso, Meret and Steve Giacomini, and the other, thanks to Scott Puffer, “Lo-Fi” deejay at KRUU-FM. The first is a formidable folk salad singer/songwriter from Minneapolis via Texas; the second, a San Franciscan poke solid Iggy Pop band that hooked up in Amsterdam.
First things first. Ellis is booked at CSPS/Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids on Friday, February 8 (hats off to Mel Andringa and F. John Herbert for being alive), and Saturday, February 9, at Cafe Paradiso in Fairfield. Turns out my friend in arms, Steve Cooperman, known as Mr. Can Do to those in the k(Now), orchestrated the connect in Fairfield. His buddy Ember Swift turned him on to Ellis.
When Ellis’s management company sent her latest CD to me at the grassroots community radio station I manage, I played it on my show, Planet Erstwild, and fell head over “heals”’ for her sixth release, Break the Spell. The acoustic guitarwork is elegant and eloquent, the lyrics, incisive yet expansive, glowing like a fireside hearth, with rhythms definitive and striking. I hear elements of Shawn Colvin and Ani DiFranco.
First glance at the CD, I saw what appears to be a striking guy. I’m not sure if it’s the pants, the open collar shirt, the sure gaze, or the Beatles haircut, but my semi-challenged heterosexuality breathed a sigh of relief when I Googled Ellis’s website and realize I could have my Kate and Edith, too, as it were, to quote a dear friend of mine.
Turns out she dropped her last name because people had a hard time pronouncing it (Bergeron). Hey, I’ve been in a tossing-out-the-unessentials mode myself lately, so I definitely capiche. The first track is “How Would It Be” and the opening stanza sends me over Judy Garland’s rainbow:
How would it be if everything that you thought you knew
Was turned upside down opposite from your point of view
How would you feel if the ground was really the sky
And all of this time you’ve been walking
When you could have been flying
By all accounts, Ellis is a bonafide rising star in the folk scene. I see her as a centered lyrical Vesuvius. A top 10 finalist in the 2007 Telluride Troubadour Songwriting Contest, she’s opened for the likes of Patty Larkin, Richard Shindell, Cheryl Wheeler, and Todd Snider, among others. Her music has been described as a journey of self-discovery and awakening. Sounds like a slam dunkin’ donut whole for the Fairfield neck of woods.
She was 16 when she moved from Texas to Minneapolis, where she began performing her own songs at open mics, eventually joining a high school rock band. The industrious One set up her own record label, putting out her first solo CD, Soft Day, in 1996. In 2000, she began touring full time. As an independent, Ellis has sold more than 30,000 copies of her previous five CDs. Not too shabby.
Though performing more than 130 dates nationally each year, she retains a devoted fan base in Minneapolis where she’s been voted Best Musician for five consecutive years and named Best Musical Artist last year by readers of the Minnesota Women’s Press.
All I know is she definitely makes a great record, builds a mean song, wields a wicked acoustic guitar, sings fluently with an unpretentious conviction that transcends ego as much as it elevates it. Her blue eyes could brand a steer from across the room, and I mean that in the best sense, and she employs an architectural economy of scale in her songwriting that is anything but simplex, something that reaches its zenith in the song “Red Light” off her latest release.
We are made from a grain of sand
And we don’t know why we’re all spinning
Almost a meditative haiku in essence, her interpersonal, spiritual, soulful, unsentimental, direct lyrics make me wonder if Ellis doesn’t have a Buddhist bent. I read Break the Spell’s liner notes and notice she thanks the “steadfast community at the Common Ground Meditation Center, thank you for holding a space of mindfulness and compassion.” Chalk up one bull’s-eye for intuition, grasshopper.
As I’m writing this piece, Steve Cooperman pops ’round and informs me that prior to launching her solo career, Ellis was in a band Steve absolutely loves called Bobby Llama. Formed in the fall of 1994 by students attending St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, the school is home to one of the nation’s leading undergraduate music programs. Bobby Llama released their self-produced/self-titled debut CD in early 1997. I love the horny funk cut “Balance.” The record is a romper room of eclectic musical styles and exuberance. There is a distinct whiff of Alanis Morissette in the seams of this early stuff, but what fun and how wonderfully all over the place in an integrated way.
By contrast, her latest record has gorgeous, sophisticated, just the right subtle touch accompaniment. And you know what? Both ways rock. I guess what I’m saying is I like my eggs over easy and hard-boiled, if you know what I mean. So pull up a chair, grab a napkin, and lick your lips. This is one folk salad that will leave you sated.
One little disclaimer. My mom’s name was Violet and one of my nicknames for her was Ultraviolet, so they had me from the get go, name-association alone. The title of their latest release, Heroin Geek the Movie, gave me slight pause. But right off the bat, the raw rock edges felt like a happy paper cut on the top floor of an Empire State mood swing. Nice progressions, smart lyrics, melodies with teeth, octave vocal lines: “No chicken or the egg debate . . . I’m a heroin geek.” TV tray chic. Great guitars. Tight arrangements with unshaved armpits. Second song is a cherry cover of Morrissey’s “How Soon is Now.” “You shut your mouth . . . I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does.”
Ultraviolet Eye began when singer/guitarist Jeff Charreaux and bassist/piccoloist Roy Appleman were hanging out in Amsterdam. According to legend, they came up with their band name while playing Lou Reed and Hank Williams songs in the train station. Works for me.
Charreaux and Appleman set up Californium Records in San Francisco and self-released two Ultraviolet Eye EPs. Demolition/Munster, a label in Madrid, Spain, released a third EP. Ultraviolet Eye play the West Coast, recording with different drummers—including Victor Indrizzo (Beck, Liz Phair) and Ty Dennis (The Doors of the 21st Century). I just love the song titles on Heroin Geek: “100 Million Stupid Excuses,” “Girl with a Bruise,” “Dysfunctional Families,” “Godzilla,” “Courtney Love Song,” and “Breakaway Republic of Lowenstein.” Not to mention their wonderful cover of “Smoke on the Water” in German. I love the way is starts: “Rauch on the vasser.”
All I can say is Bill friggin vie Gates, baby. Achtung.