In his third recording outing, Ernest Ellis has taken a couple of dramatic turns both sonically and lyrically. After a year-long hiatus he returned to the studio with Russell Webster from Shining Bird as co-producer. The result of their endeavours is the smashing record Cold Desire, a perfect blend of driving synth-bass, electronic keys, brooding, honest vocals and harmonica. Wait, harmonica?
“It was more of an accident, really,” Ellis explains. “When we put it on this record and tracked it, it sort of popped its head right through and gave [the album] a guiding voice. There’s a lot of space in the instrumentation and then when you throw a harmonica or a saxophone in, these shrill instruments, they really have time to shine through.”
It works surprisingly well, too, with Ellis keen to retain the more organic elements of his sound and put them alongside the synthetic elements. Acoustic guitar, harmonica, piano and saxophone both complement and stand out at times around other production features. Undoubtedly working with Webster has expanded Ellis’ sound, but he’s grown as a songwriter in terms of his vocal and lyrical content as well, taking on a much more honest approach to his writing.
“When I hear a lot of songs now, the tendency in my writing and the tendency in a lot of writing is to shirk what’s honest for what you think is poetic, because it fits the way the melody goes and so on. In a lot of cases, when I listen to my old stuff, I can see why it works – the poetry and sound – but I’m not actually saying anything. The lyric is an oblique reference to something [but] I can’t remember what it was. On this record, with these songs, I thought, ‘Fuck that, I want to say something.’”
An unexpected side effect was finding more confidence in his delivery – an easy thing to do because “if [the lyrics] have personal resonance your delivery is better. My vocal delivery just felt a lot better because I was a lot more connected to these songs. You feel honest about it and you feel like you’re actually saying something.”
A lack of honesty in songwriting is something Ellis sees far too much of in the music world. I mention how frustrating it is to hear songwriters cite Crowded House or Paul Kelly as influences, then write shallow lyrics. “Let’s be honest: it doesn’t say anything,” agrees Ellis. “There’s nothing to that; it’s a sweet melody and there’s a place for that, that’s fine. When it’s trying to be passed off like you’re a student of Paul Kelly? Don’t give me that shit! People cite Lou Reed as an influence probably having heard ‘Perfect Day’ and never having dug into Berlin or Coney Island Baby.” Ellis also cites The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard and Nick Cave as songwriters who have spent “years and years refining how they write songs” and laments that perhaps that type of artisanry is dying out. “[Or] maybe that’s not true,” he laughs.
Ellis is wary of sounding like a wanker (he doesn’t, trust me), but it’s clear he’s reached a point of honesty with his songwriting and doesn’t want to turn back, difficult though it may be.
“It’s easier to write songs where you fall back on clichО and you fall away from being dead set personal. Lyrically, there are caches that you fall into. It may be a lot more challenging to write songs the honest way because it’s harder to find the poetry in honesty, but I wanted to really face up to that fact, and I think it made me a lot better writer. In the past I would get to the turn in a song and think, ‘This sounds good, I’m going to put that in there,’ but a lot of the time it doesn’t say anything.”
Cold Desire is full of evidence of Ellis’ new direction. The track ‘Shine Like Me’ is infectious and closes with Ellis sounding like Beck singing through a megaphone. ‘Black Wire’ parts one and two are sweeter, smoother and arguably sexier tracks. Opener ‘Clean Machine’ has a Kavinsky beat and channels Cave in full swagger mode – with the addition of that harmonica. They are songs exemplary of a writer who has hit confidence, with lyrics that don’t shy away from confession. “In my time of loving / I wanted too many things to happen,” Ellis sings on ‘Black Wire 1’.
Apart from the harmonica, there’s plenty of saxophone to provide Cold Desire a bit of sexy sleaze. But not too much – Ellis and Webster resisted the temptation to overdo it. “I wanted the main element to be the vocal and a driving melody,” says the singer. “It was a matter of striking a balance, not putting in too much sax but enough to bring the sleaze aesthetic quality I wanted on the record.”
Now the album is all finished and released to the masses, Ellis and Webster aren’t just content with their work in the studio. With Webster appearing as part of Shining Bird, they’re co-headlining a short tour through NSW and Victoria – and don’t expect to hear any contrived lyrics or unimpassioned vocals from either.