We take a look at the career of Australian singer-songwriter Matt Ellis, who from his base in Venice Beach, California shares some insights on the LA scene and the recording of his fourth solo album, Births, Deaths and Marriages
You have just completed your fourth solo album, Births Deaths and Marriages. With this new recording, what did you hope for?
What I hoped for was a live, natural-sounding set of songs that made the listener feel like they were in the room, and I think I got it! With any new album, you’re always trying to stretch yourself further, try new things and make it better than your last. This time I had the title early on in the writing process and a clear theme to write to. The results ended up being extremely personal songs, so I wanted the production to support that intimacy. We decided to record in a relaxed environment, so we moved out of the traditional studio setting to concentrate on the performances, then had a great engineer mix it.
On Births Deaths and Marriages you surrounded yourself with some legendary players. What was it like working with returning guest Greg Leisz and the vocal great Merry Clayton?
Incredible to say the least. Both are masters of their craft and brought amazing experience and character to the record.
I was extremely lucky to have Greg play on Tell The People (my third album) where he added so many layers to the songs. This time around we left even more space for him, sometimes just giving him a track with Acoustic, Drums & Vocals to play with. Last time we recorded with a full band live and he came in towards the end and overdubbed. This time around we knew he was going to be a part of the album, so we could plan for it, making sure he was a greater part of the whole sound.
With Ghosts, I knew I needed something to take the song up a level once the Chorus came around. I’d been hearing a lot of Gospel music on a recent trip down South and realized that would be the perfect thing, adding to the haunting nature of the track too. The question was, who could pull that off? We were weeks away from mixing and I still hadn’t found anyone when Josh, my guitar player, mentioned that Merry Clayton still lived in LA, so I started to seek out a contact for her. I figured I had nothing to lose, so shot off an email to her manager, which lead to several phone calls and finally the session. The last session of the album actually.
How much freedom did you allow these players to influence the sound of the record?
You have to remember I wanted the musicians I approached because of their signature sounds, so I was looking for their influence.
Greg had heard rough demos and had a few ideas, so we’d just record straight off the bat, capturing everything. Generally by the second take, he had loads of great parts down, so we’d listen back and I’d point out some high points and stuff I liked. We’d run maybe one or two more takes and it was in the bag.
I knew where I wanted Merry to come in and the atmosphere I wanted to create on “Ghosts”, but it was her idea to do it with three-part harmony. We grabbed each Chorus a few times and then we ran a few more takes where I asked her to ad-lib, which is where we got all that great stuff on the outro.
Has working with such notable people been helpful in opening doors?
I guess in some ways. I know I’d like to hear most records Greg Leisz or Nels Cline had played on, but at the end of the day no one will listen to a song, let alone a whole album if the material doesn’t cut it.
Your songs are great and the record sounds beautiful. Could you briefly describe the recording process and what it was like to mix with Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Neko Case, Iron & Wine)?
The plan was to always record it ourselves then get someone great to mix it, making it a loose and live feeling album that sounds great sonically. I began recording the album with drummer, Branden Harper, who also played on the last record. Branden engineered the first sessions, miking up his loft here in Venice where we cut all the Drums, Acoustic & Lead Vocals live. We layered on Bass, Pedal Steel, some Electric Guitars and Accordion etc in the following weeks. Additional sessions were held in a couple of small studios around LA with J.D. Narro engineering, adding Keys, a few more Guitars, Group Vocals and Percussion etc, rounding out the rest of the album.
During the months of recording I found myself traveling to Tucson, Arizona often, playing shows and seeing friends. I soon learnt that Tucson was home to WaveLab, the Studio that had produced the majority of my favorite albums from the past few years. I contacted Craig Schumacher soon after, the owner and producer/engineer behind those records. He liked what he heard, so I booked a few days to mix two tracks, to see how we worked together. The combination was spot on. He knew exactly what I was after and was always up for trying something different. I’m already looking forward to working with him again.
Your latest video is a cracker and placed third in the music video category in the International Songwriting Competition. How cute is that dog Banjo? Aren’t you afraid he’ll become the star?
He’s already the star! We’d only had Banjo, our rescued terrier-mutt, for six months before we shot that video. We came up with the idea watching him hang with his Bulldog mate, Lyle, in our yard around the fire pit. The original idea was actually just the two dogs! Luckily I didn’t have to play animal wrangler too much, that was left to his mum, V (who also sings on the album).
I recently saw your video on the country music program CMC on Foxtel. Does this mean country/roots-inspired Births, Deaths and Marriages will force a move from Venice Beach to Nashville?
It still makes a lot of sense for me to be based in L.A., but I look forward to checking out Nashville this year hopefully. We’ll have to see what the receptions like!
Matt, you have been living in the US for a few years now, what prompted the move?
I moved to L.A. for my writing as much as the business side of things. I’d come out to the States several times, promoting my first two solo albums, and I was encouraged to stay. I figured I could bust my guts back home or try it on out here, and hopefully reach a wider audience. I was feeling a little stale and ready for a different outlook and new experiences for my writing also, so it was a win/win next step.
You’re living in Venice Beach, California. What is it about this part of L.A. that inspires your creativity?
It’s funny because the thing that got me into music in the first place was skateboarding. I’d read the skate mags after a days skating and end up going straight to the album and gig reviews at the back. The whole scene I was being inspired by then was right here in Venice, the home of skating and a lot of the punk bands I grew up on. It’s a little different now, but still has a lot of character, kind of like Kings Cross mixed with Bondi Beach! I can’t say the place doesn’t still inspire me, but it’s more about a great quality of life, a retreat from the freeways, that keeps me here these days.
Do you have a US-based music attorney? There is an urban myth that a US-based music business lawyer can act as a deal maker or an agent of sorts. What’s been your experience?
I don’t have one, specific attorney. The big attorneys normally come knocking once a huge amount of dough is changing hands. It’s true though, Lawyers open many doors in this town, often acting as the first point of call, introducing artists to Managers, A&R and Publishing.
Do you have a US booking agent? Do you need one to get gigs? Are major LA showcase venues associated with specific agencies? Is there still a “pay to play” mentality at venues in LA?
I’ve just signed with a new contract with an agency servicing all the Colleges around the US. They book club shows also, but the College Circuit is their speciality. There are plenty of gigs going around, but you don’t need an Agent to book one. The pay to play thing still exists in certain venues, but it seems to be dying out. It’s like anywhere though, venue owners need to sell booze and food in some cases. Bring in a crowd and you’ll be asked back.
You recently had your song Too Many Days placed in the hit TV show Brothers & Sisters. Can you share with us the process of making that happen?
I’ve signed with several Music Placement Agencies in L.A., all with contacts at the Production Companies and Networks. Tracks get submitted when they match the show’s criteria, and once in a while the shoe fits. It’s true what they say though, TV is the new radio. Every time that Episode airs I get a spike in sales and Too Many Days is normally #1 on my iTunes Chart.
In terms of publishing, do you handle your own publishing? Do you have a US sub-publisher or perhaps a licensing agent looking to get your music placed in US television and movies?
I own all my publishing, but yes, I do have Agents helping me place songs in Film & TV etc. American writers on ASCAP or BMI (performing rights organizations) are required to register a publishing company, but APRA writers aren’t required to.
You have played a number of festivals in California, Arizona and Texas. How does the festival experience compare to those you’ve played in Australia?
Every festival is unique, but there really aren’t too many differences with the scale of festivals I’m playing out here just yet. It’s not until you get to the Coachellas and Lollapaloozas where you see the crowds get monstrous!
Your music is available on iTunes. Can you share with us the process of getting distribution via iTunes?
There are loads of companies offering online distribution these days. I signed up with CD Baby years ago and haven’t looked back since.
They can get you on any site you need including iTunes. They also take physical stock, making CDs available to customers around the globe via online orders, all for a pretty small cut. Tune Core is another online distributor gaining popularity.
While in the US you have played showcase gigs at SXSW music industry conference in Austin, Texas. Can you share some of those experiences with us? What are some of the benefits of showcasing at SXSW?
SXSW is an interesting beast. It used to be the event where young bands would showcase in search of a record deal. Now it’s more of a stage for labels to parade their newly signed artists. You can’t deny the potential in the air down there though, and the networking is next to none. I’ve met great contacts there year after year, including managers and labels and recently benefited from blogs and music supervisors catching sets.
Recently you were picked up by a leading booker for the US college gig circuit. What will that mean for your career?
Basically more time on the road, which is great news. It’s one thing heading out on a club tour, hoping to make enough at each gig for gas, to make it to the next, but the College shows come with guarantees. The other great benefit is, of course, the audience. Who wouldn’t want to play in front of a room full of college kids looking to let off some steam!
What are some of the challenges you can share with Australian artists trying to live and work in the US? What advice would you give other Aussie artists about to get on the plane?
The trickiest thing is, of course, a permanent Visa. You need to have accumulated a decent amount of press and documented reviews to prove your case. I encourage every artist to come and check it out though. You can secure gigs online in advance and perform under a temporary visa pretty easily before you make the commitment. It definitely isn’t a fast track to success though. While there might be more opportunities for bands out here, there are definitely more bands out here going after those opportunities.