By Brian Ives
Lindsay Ell is making big noise with her breakout single “By the Way,” which pokes fun at some of the tropes of country music, addressing characters as “Mr. Cowboy Boots,” “Mr. Baseball Cap” and “Mr. Pickup Truck.”
In person, Ell’s sweet demeanor belies those biting lyrics, not to mention her fiery guitar playing. And there’s a reason for the blues-rock edge to her playing: she learned from Randy Bachman (he of Bachman Turner Overdrive and Guess Who fame), and she’s jammed with the great Buddy Guy, as well as the also-great Keith Urban.
When was the last time you went toe-to-toe and string-to-string with a bona fide American legend, “Mr. Cowboy Boots?”
Ms. Ell spoke about all of this and more in a wide-ranging interview with Radio.com.
Tell me about your single, “By the Way.”
“By the Way” was a song we wrote actually two years ago. I had just got out of a breakup, and eventually I had reached that point where I was not gonna let this boy have an effect on me anymore. And I remember growing up, listening to Shania [Twain] and the Dixie Chicks, and there were all of these empowering women who wrote such strong songs for females, and they inspired me so much.
So I walked into the [writing] room and I was like, I wanna write one of those songs for younger girls growing up now, or even younger boys, and I wanna be a role model for them. So that’s sort of where the idea came from, and three hours later we walked out with “By the Way.”
Is it a true story? Did the guy stand you up?
It’s a true story. Obviously, the idioms that you use sometimes when you’re songwriting make things sound more colorful, but it is definitely a true story. All of the characters in “By the Way” are real characters.
Whenever a woman – or a man – writes songs like that, lots of people claim that it was written about them. Have you had people making that claim yet?
I haven’t yet. The individual hasn’t come to me yet, but I’m never the type of person who can’t stay friends with ex-boyfriends or whatever. I’ve had amazing boyfriends in my life, and I’ve been single for the past little while, but yeah, I stay friends with them for sure. We’re all human beings at the end of the day.
But when your songs are about an ex-, it might make it harder to be friends…
I guess so. You think of Taylor Swift’s songwriting, and she definitely wasn’t even afraid [of that]. It becomes more real for the writer, definitely for the artist if you’ve written the song, and more real for the fans, too: you sing it with more conviction, and they can hear that. They feel like, “You know what? I felt that too. She has been in that same position that I’ve been in.”
You make references to “Mr. Cowboy Boots,” you describe a guy in tight blue jeans, “Mr. Pickup Truck,” it’s very much flipping the script on some of the idioms that male country singers have been singing about in recent years.
Very much so. With my favorite songwriters, you can read a lyric and obviously kind of get what’s going on. But it’s even smarter, to my mind, when you can pick up on some of those little underlying messages that a writer’s trying to get across. And so whenever I’m writing a song, I always try to put a few in there so people will get the song, get the concept, but people who are actually listening to the lyrics are like, “Hey, wait a minute. Is she trying to say something else here?” So yeah, there are definitely a few [of those] in there.
I recently interviewed Cam…
Awesome. She’s a sweetheart. I love that woman.
In recent years, there’s definitely been some voiced frustration at the fact that women didn’t seem to be getting as much airtime on the radio. Did that make it more fun to poke fun at “Mr. Baseball Hat”?
I think the scales of country radio are evening out right now, just because female singers are singing and writing great music. The caliber of everything female artists are doing right now has just gotten to a whole new level. So I think that’s why we’re seeing this resurgence of females in country music and seeing the “Next Women of Country” tours and all of these things that are [saying] “Hey, yeah, let’s look at all these girls who are writing great music.”
So I don’t necessarily wanna poke fun at it because of that, but it’s more just talking about everything that a girl goes through in relationships. And sometimes there are those stereotypes, and you can’t judge a book by its cover… But sometimes you can.
A lot of country artists play guitar, but there aren’t that many who are great lead guitarists; there’s Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and you, and maybe a few others.
I’m still surprised that there aren’t more women who are lead guitar players, let alone lead guitar players in country music. So I’m really excited that I can sort of help lead that movement and show that girls can play guitars too, and anytime I’m asked to come up and play guitar, whether it’s getting to jam with Buddy Guy or if one day I can jump up there with Brad, yeah, it’s a huge honor.
Have you ever played with Keith Urban?
I have. I’ve gotten to open up a few shows with him, and I actually got to share the stage with him in my hometown, Calgary. Keith is another one who’s just like so real and such a great human being. What a good dude. So yeah, we sang “We Were Us” and I was two feet away from Keith Urban trading licks with him onstage. It was surreal.
Back to your playing: you’re seen playing lead in your music video. Obviously it’s important to you to point out that it’s you playing those solos.
Well, absolutely. I’m so thankful right now, I’m working with a producer, Ben Glover, and he’s embraced just who I am as a musician. I was able to play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjos, mandolins, and so it’s important to me to be a part of my record.
If I’m not playing guitar on my record, it’s like: what’s the point of making a record? It’s just like John Mayer or Keith Urban, we can write songs, we can sing songs, we can perform them onstage, but when you can also play guitar, that’s a whole other voice. That’s a whole other way of connecting with an audience, and if that piece of the puzzle’s not there, it’s not a full piece of pie. So to speak [laughs].
I remember at the height of John Mayer’s fame, he was being chased around by paparazzi, and was sort of being seen as a celebrity, but as he said, they could never take away his ability to play guitar. As long as Buddy Guy and B.B. King want to jam with him, he’s good.
It’s so true, and we were fortunate enough to play a few shows with Buddy Guy [watch her jam with Buddy Guy here], and I will never forget the feeling of watching him every night. He’s a 70-something year-old man, and he picks up a guitar and turns into a five-year-old boy in a second. And just to see that charisma, that look on his face… as musicians that’s something that you have for the rest of your life. And I always joke that my boyfriend sleeps next to me every night, has six strings and a mahogany body, is always with me and we get along beautifully, and yeah. That’s always a part of me.
Talk about learning guitar from Randy Bachman.
I met Randy when I was 13 years old, and my dad and mom were such big fans of [his bands] the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive, so I definitely knew his music, I knew who he was. And I remember the first time he came to our house, my mom was freaking out, because here’s Randy Bachman, somebody they’ve listened to since they were young. And he was coming to our house for a writing session, so my mom was running around trying to keep everything clean.
And he pulls up to our house in a limo, and so she was almost ready to lose it, and walks up to the front door with his wife, and he was wearing sweatpants and running shoes and comes into the house, put his feet up on the coffee table, grabs a guitar, and he was like, “Hey, let’s write a song.”
And Randy’s awesome. He became like another dad to me growing up, really, and he taught me so much about songwriting and recording. And we would just be hanging out in the studio; he’d be playing these jazz chords up and down the neck, and I’d just sit there with my jaw dropped, being like “Randy, what is that?”
He was the one who really got me into Clapton and Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the age of 13, he opened up my mind to a whole new vocabulary.
How did you meet him?
I met him through a songwriting buddy of mine at the time. I had a demo CD of little cover songs and guitar instrumentals, and so he sent it to Randy. And Randy listened to it and he’s like, “This sounds like a young, female Chet Atkins. I need to meet this girl.” And yeah, so we got together for a few writing sessions after that and he’s like, “Lindsay, I’m your biggest fan. Let’s do whatever you need to do.”
And so to this day we still keep in touch. We wrote a couple months ago. Yeah, he’s a great one.
Has he ever joined you onstage?
He hasn’t! I’ve joined him onstage a couple of times, but definitely gonna have to reverse that. But he is so busy. He still travels all around the world playing music festivals in Sweden opening up for Aerosmith, and it’s just like, you gotta give it to him.
How different is country music and blues music?
Blues is really the basis a lot of different genres. It started rock music. There are even elements of blues in pop music. So the fact that that’s really my musical foundation, it’s huge in country. The worlds fuse together really well. You look at artists like John Mayer and Keith Urban, they fuse those worlds beautifully.
And I play guitar a lot bluesier than anything else, but the fact that I can write a country song and then play a blues guitar solo, it just opens up so many different doors, so many different doors even for fans who may wanna check out my music or come see us play live. And we can go into “Purple Haze” and nobody thinks anything of it. And so it’s fun, it just gives the band and I a bigger arsenal and toolshed to pull from when we’re doing a show.
I think that classic rock is a huge influence on country; I’d say that the Eagles are one of the biggest influences on country music today.
If you listen to the music, and even sonically, there’s just so many instruments that cross over. My dad listened to the Eagles non-stop growing up, so my brother and I were just so well versed, and we got to see the last reunion tour that they did. And talk about a band who’s been doing this for so long.
And that time in rock music, it was still lyrics that said something, which country focuses on so much. If your lyrics don’t make sense in country, then you’re gonna run into some problems probably. But yeah, they had so many songs that told a story and had a message and could really connect with their audience, and so I think you are seeing that now in country. We’re bringing a lot of those instruments over, and so there’s a lot of similarities, for sure.
So tell me about your upcoming music.
So we’re working on a brand new EP. It’s gonna be out in a couple months. And I’m really excited about a song called “Criminal.” These are songs from my life over the past few years, and this is the first time I’m officially releasing a record or getting the opportunity to release a record.
My first car growing up was a 15-passenger band van, and I would just drive it across the country playing for three hours every night learning how to perform onstage. So I feel like the release of this EP has been like the past 16 years of my life, ever since I was doing this when I was 10 years old, building up to it. So I’m really, really excited to get to release something.
Tell me about “Criminal.”
“Criminal” is a song I wrote about, sometimes people will walk into your life, and you don’t really know where they came from or how they came at the time they did, but you’re just so grateful for it. You’re like, “Thank you, God, for putting his human being in my life right now.” Sometimes this life has a funny way of knowing what you need right then and there, and surrounding you with people.
So a particular boy walked into my life at a particular time, and what do we do, but write songs about it? So I wrote a song called “Criminal.” But it’s a good criminal. People will get it for sure. It’s a really happy criminal song.
Is it easier to write after a breakup or during the relationship?
I think it’s easiest to write when you’re in the transition, whether you’re in the transition going up into something great, or you’re in the transition going down saying goodbye to somebody. But there’s just so many feelings, like you feel like you’re on a roller coaster every day, and that is like the perfect time to be a songwriter. You’re just feeling so many emotions, and that’s my favorite time to write. That’s where I feel like crazy ideas come from, and I’m like yeah, actually, that’s kind of cool.
It seems like you’ve been motivated to do this for a long time; was it hard to relate to other kids your age?
I’ve always been really motivated. I’ve always really never taken “no” as an answer, and it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. And sometimes I still don’t know how I’m gonna make this happen, but I know I’m gonna make it happen.
Everybody’s on their own path. I never wanted to release music in Canada before I moved down to the States, because I felt like I still needed to find my voice and musical headspace, [which I did by] hanging out in L.A. and Nashville and New York and working with all these crazy, talented people.
And so I feel like it’s definitely a process. And being able to appreciate the process makes you stronger, and you have more gratitude for everything that goes on. And I remember Sheryl Crow sang backup for Michael Jackson, and it took her a good 10 years to actually release her solo album. So everybody’s on a different schedule.
So it’s so important to me to just have a community around you. And that’s the great thing about Nashville: everybody sort of helps everybody out and wants everyone to win. So it’s a great community to be a part of, and you just keep working every single day. Eventually that piece of spaghetti is going to stick. You just keep throwing it, and eventually one is gonna stick.
Are there any other songs that you can talk about?
There’s a song that I wrote by myself, actually, called “Eyes Off You” that I’m really excited about, and another one called “Put Me In It,” “Somebody in Love” and I feel like all of the songs that are gonna make it on the EP really represent what I wanna say right now. And as far as next single, we’ll see which ones make the cut.
I’ll actually talk about the last song on the EP. It’s called “All Alright,” and it’s something I wrote with Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz, they’re seasoned songwriters in town.
It’s just about kinda what we were talking about, sometimes things don’t work out how you plan, and you gotta make the best of the situation ’cause sometimes even greener grass than what you were thinking about is behind you, and you didn’t even look there yet. And so regardless of what direction life throws you in, everything’s gonna be all right.
When you’re new in town, how do you get time in with those guys to write song?
When I first moved to town, I knew one person: I had the name on a piece of paper. I had that, and a guitar on my back when I walked off the plane. And I was like, “Well, if you’re gonna do it, Lindsay, then this is the time to do it.” And then by just word of mouth and friends of friends you get to meet one songwriter, and another songwriter, and another songwriter.
So the best way to meet people and meet the songwriters in town is just being you and doing what you do, and eventually one of those hit songwriters is gonna hear your name. And if you have somebody reach out to their people, then they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, I heard about her.” So you need to book a session out four months in advance.
What was your first day like, when you first moved to Nashville.
Well, at first I went back and forth. My parents weren’t really well off growing up, and I was serving in a restaurant while going to school while playing shows on the weekend. And so I would serve tables and play gigs to make enough money to buy a plane ticket to come down to Nashville and write songs for two weeks and go back up to Canada to serve tables and play gigs to buy another plane ticket to come down. And I did that for about a year and a half, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.
And so finally it came to that point where I was spending so much money on airline tickets that, with the amount of money I was making, it just didn’t make sense. So yeah, eventually when I reached that point I rented the tiniest little half-duplex in Green Hills outside of Nashville, and I was sharing it with this other girl. And I remember the kitchen was just big enough for you to walk in it and walk out of it.
And I had an amazing roommate for the first few years I was living in town, but a lot of my roommates would be on the road, so whenever they came home they would be sleeping a lot, because we all need to catch up on sleep whenever we can. But I remember taking my ’89 Nissan Altima and driving it to Target parking lots to practice, because I couldn’t practice at home because I made noise playing guitar.
So I would drive to Target parking lots and just park there for hours and play in the backseat of my car. And so finally, I was very, very grateful the day that I could actually sit in my living room and be like, “Okay, this can happen now.”
So everyone you were living with was kind of doing the same thing.
It’s cool, you know, in Nashville if you’re not in the music industry you’re probably dating somebody who’s in the music industry or tied to it somehow, so everybody does have a really good understanding of it, which is why I think I felt so at home, because we kind of talk the same language.
Did you play the Bluebird?
I remember trying to go to one of the first Bluebird open mics. It was one of those first few trips to Nashville when I was still doing two weeks in Calgary and two weeks in Nashville.
And I stood in that long, long, long line to go to the open mic, with probably a hundred other musicians. And everybody’s awesome, that’s the thing; everybody’s so talented. And you’re all waiting there, and you show up probably five hours early, and you’re waiting down the long sidewalk, and I didn’t even make it in the first time because they only let a certain amount of people in.
So I remember getting a Bluebird ticket, and then if you bring that ticket back the next time, then you get to jump the line. And so I actually still have that ticket to this day, because they only have open mic on Mondays I think. So I just kept it as sort of a token.
But I’ve gotten to play the Bluebird a few times since then, and it is one of my favorite venues to play in Nashville, because it’s all about the songwriters, and people listen. And you can invite three other friends, and instead of having a stage, a lot of times they’ll set up in the middle of the room. And so you’re looking, like the writers are looking at each other in sort of a square, and then everybody either looks at your back or the other side of the circle.
Have you played there now that people may know the words to your songs?
I have. And I’ll say it’s a crazy, crazy feeling when you can look out in the audience singing along to lyrics that you’ve written. It’s definitely a pinch-me moment. But yeah, it’s cool to see slowly the process, and to earn that. I guess that’s a weird way to say it, but it just means more.
So when you play shows opening for someone else, do the audiences know your songs?
It’s been really neat to see the audiences learn “By the Way” now and sing along to it. And I gotta give it to country music fans, they’re unlike any other fans, because they will fall in love with an artist or a single and then go seek out other music, even if it’s not on Spotify or iTunes or whatever. They’ll go and YouTube songs just to learn more of your music.
We were on tour in Europe with The Band Perry, and I’ll never forget this. There were a group of girls who came to about eight or nine shows on the tour. And they went to my YouTube page—I had no music commercially available at that point. But they went on YouTube and learned all the words to all my songs and would show up hours early to come to the show every night so they could be in front row center.
And so through my whole set they’d be singing along to the whole thing, and it was just a real pure indication of why we do what we do and a reminder of that passion that fans have.
Have people covered your songs on YouTube?
Yes, which is crazy! It’s so crazy. I cover artists every week and post little videos, and so the fact that I had other artists wanting to do that with my songs, it just feels weird in an amazing way.
My friends and I always say that if you’re walking down Broadway and you hear somebody in the honky-tonks singing your song, you know you’ve made it. ‘Cause we’ve had a lot of friends, Cam being a good example, and Dan + Shay, you walk down Broadway and you hear people singing their songs.
So you mentioned working on an EP, I’m guessing that you have an LP in the works as well.
The timeline is we hope to have this EP out in the next few months. This summer we have tons of festivals that we’re playing, which I’m really, really excited about, as well as getting to play our own shows, and then talking about some tours in the fall that I’m really excited about. And then I hope that we can have a full record out by fall.
So the album will be out this year?
It’ll be out in 2016 if I have anything to say about it. I, of course, don’t get to make all my own decisions these days. But I have an amazing team, and they feel like my family, so hopefully we can definitely get to do some more music.
You went to college for music, you are probably more savvy than the average artist. You know what’s going on in the business.
I’m definitely not right a hundred percent of the time, but I love to be hands-on with it. I’ve managed myself, I’ve been my own agent, I’ve had to do my own publicity, I’ve just had to do all of these jobs before, so I have a greater appreciation for now people on my team having to do it.
And yeah, nobody’s gonna work as hard for you as you will work for yourself. Nobody. And so if I don’t at least keep my brain on it a little bit, then I think it’s doing everybody a disservice. So yeah, I’m definitely hands-on.
A publicist can’t b.s. you, I guess.
But on the flip side, I will be the first to say, “Hey, this is your world, not my world,” so I can definitely respect that for sure. But I feel like I have a little bit more understanding of what they do and how hard their job is.
Do you have any collaborations coming out, with other artists?
Now we’re talking! That’s what I wanna do, yeah! You know, the fact that I can play guitar, at least in my imaginative mind, it opens up so many doors. And yeah, I wanna collaborate with so many different artists, so many different artists outside of country even, just because I think it’s cool for fans to see other genres collaborating. And you see it on so many award shows. So yeah, hopefully lots of that stuff, remixes and tribute albums and soundtracks, yeah. I’m into it all.