As day jobs go, one could do a lot worse than composer. Classically trained at Yale, Ellis Ludwig-Leone spends much of his time writing music for institutions including the New York City Ballet. By night, he’s the principal songwriter and ostensible leader of San Fermin, whose indie-inclined chamber pop has earned a steady following and critical acclaim for more than a decade. Next month, the will release Arms, a rawer, more immediate album dealing with – among other topics – art and the end of relationships. Ludwig-Leone joined us to discuss the two sides of his songwriting life. Transcript available here.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 0:12
during the pandemic, my bandmate, Alan and I got a studio here in Brooklyn. And over the last few years we've been, we built it out. And we also have a record label that is based out of here. So my days are this sort of weird potpourri of, you know, studio and label stuff, listening to, you know, label submissions, and talking about that kind of stuff with our label manager, CN. But then I do a lot of, you know, I'm always always writing that's my main, my main job. So like, I don't know, yesterday, I was spent half the day making scores for this musical that I'm working on, and then the other half listening to submissions for next year for the record label. So kind of every day is a little different
Brian Heater 1:00
as listening to an interview that you did a few years ago, and you refer to the composition as a day job. It's funny because I sheer coincidence. I'm reading the Philip Glass book that came out a couple of years ago. Yeah, have you read that?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 1:13
I haven't. But I'm pretty familiar with his life story.
Brian Heater 1:16
One of the things that I found hopeful in the book is that he was doing he was doing like day job day jobs until he was like 41, driving cabs, putting up drywall, things like that. As far as day jobs go, you've got a pretty good one.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 1:31
Yeah, it's, uh, I mean, you know, I had, briefly I was really lucky with how it started. Because I think for my, maybe my junior and senior years of college, I was working while I was a student, I was working as a musical assistant for Nico Meili, who actually was the musical assistant for felt glass for a while. So it's kind of a small, or, you know, easy Connection there. But and so I was doing kind of two jobs at once being a student and kind of coming into the city when I could do run recording sessions and hacking my way through, you know, various making parts for things and, you know, just running sessions for him. And then I did that for him for about a year after graduation. And then in a very sort of, like, old fashioned way, sand for me and got picked up for a record deal, like off of our first show. So I kind of never had quite that, that, you know, putting up the drywall phase. And I feel like I'm, I'm doing a, I'm doing a delayed version of that now, doing all this sort of stuff with record label, and studio maintenance, and all these things that are much more like, you know, they have a kind of a set schedule. That's
Brian Heater 2:38
also a pretty good day job to have is having to listen to artists all day.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 2:44
It's really nice. And it puts you in this different mindset. I mean, one of the reasons that we did the label was that I just felt like I was getting sort of like siloed, and isolated as a musician. And that seemed sort of counterintuitive to the whole point of making music, which is a social event and you know, something that you share with people, it's about connecting. And I just felt like on tour, I was just me and my bandmates, and against the world. And I didn't actually love that feeling because it felt so isolated. And so actually, one of the nice things now is on the label side is just, you know, being connected to a larger web of people and, and having a reason to really actively engage with other people and, and root for other musicians.
Brian Heater 3:28
It's funny to describe being in a band as solitary, I guess, you know, relative to these other connections, but it is, it's certainly a theme that runs through a lot of what you do, I mean, one with the bands. At certain points, the band has been, you know, double digits. The band has been three to four ska bands in size.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 3:51
I like measuring things in ska bands.
Brian Heater 3:54
It's an unpopular unit of measurement and 22 labels mission statement also seems to be entirely collaborative, in a sense as well.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 4:03
Yeah, yeah. I think partly because of my experience as a composer, which is, I feel like I can being a composer for contemporary classical ensembles. And, you know, orchestras and whatever, there's this really weird divide between the writing process the generation of the of the material, and then the performance that is, sometimes there's years between when you write it and when it happens. And there's this kind of artificial thing going on. There's even a weird power dynamic, where you come in to say, you give an orchestra your score, and there's this on the one hand, you're sort of the dictator on the other hand, they're giving you 35 minutes during the rehearsal. It's just a weird thing. And so I don't love that dynamic of separation. It doesn't feel right, and it never did. And so, the label I think, is kind of my way to actively push against that kind of the siloing of musicians and to actively promote the sort of cross collaborative community. What form
Brian Heater 5:11
does that take, though? You know, in terms of the actual label, and what does collaboration look like?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 5:17
It depends. I mean, during the, during the pandemic, you know, like, one of the projects we did was Sanford, Maine did this collaborative EP, and it was like six tracks with just friends of ours and musicians that I admire. And that was, you know, as many people's experience during the pandemic, that was very, it was collaborative while being distanced. So like there was, you know, that was that was a Dropbox album, you know, there's a lot of, like, Hey, check this out. That was your postal service record? That's exactly right. Yeah. And, and, you know, so that's, that was, that's kind of one way. But now that things are more or less back to normal. We have this recording studio in the front of the building here. And every day, there's someone new in there. And, you know, usually it's just, they're doing their thing they're working with Alan, you know, our singer, who's also He's a producer. And as his day job, he produces albums. And so sometimes they're doing that sometimes it's someone recording something for me, a lot of times, it's just people in there doing their own thing. There's just something nice that comes from popping your head in saying, hey, you know, kind of listening, that I find, I when I was writing in my basement for eight years, I was not getting that. And so I would find myself in these much more sort of like isolated kind of holes, whereas now I feel more connected to what's what's going on around me. What
Brian Heater 6:39
does it take in 2023 to launch a record label? I know, I know, like you're working with orchard, which is pretty good as far as distributors go, but I don't even know. You know, aside from some familiar names, I don't know what what do you record labels do these days? Is that a fair question?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 6:56
That's a very fair question. Well, you know, I have to say, I've never really wanted to be on the record label side of the exchange, right. Like I've had, you know, our first couple of records came out with downtown. And then we worked with Interscope, and then we were with Sony. And so I've done the major label thing. And, you know, a lot of really wonderful people in those spaces, a lot of people who listen to music and care, and you're, you know, they've brought you in for a reason. But I always felt like there was this real, you sort of show up in this conference room. And I remember I went into, I went into the meeting with Sony, this is maybe three or four years ago, and they said, Who's your audience? And I was like, I don't know, you tell me. And they said, well, it's your job to pick. Exactly. And from, and then someone sort of raised their hand and said, Well, I think it's six figure hipsters, and I was like, Oh, God, there's like, there's this kind of weird, weird sort of corporate speak that happens. You know, in those spaces that I really didn't, I just don't feel like it's very connected to my feeling of what I'm actually doing. So to answer your question on what labels do, I think like, what I want ours to do is just to kind of be transparent, and to be as little of a presence as possible, in that way, with artists basically, you know, because we have a studio, better company studios that we run here, like, it's more, we're trying to be a resource. So we're saying, hey, you know, you have a record, great, come make it here. Like, that's awesome. We love that if you want to work with me, as an arranger, or what, or whatever you want to work with Alan as a producer, that's great. If not, that's also great. And then you know, and then we'll, we'll sort of Shepherd it out into the world. And what that looks like, is basically hiring a really amazing Australian Label Label manager named cn, who, you know, she's our, sort of our everything, and she, she has this sort of relationship with the distributor, and then she kind of, basically is a storyteller to them. She says, Hey, this is why you should care about this project that we just signed. Here is the story of them. And you know, and here's the, here's the music. But that part, I'm much less involved with, probably for the better for everyone. I
Brian Heater 9:15
can't get over the phrase six figure hipsters. I mean, it makes it makes sense. It's obvious. It's obvious, like on the face of it, what that means. And it really is, it's kind of like the, you know, the 20s version of yuppie, basically, yeah, it
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 9:31
is that it really set a weird tone for that whole meeting. I gotta say, because I was, you know, looking around the room trying to say like, Okay, who here is the six feet, your hips are what, you know, what does that mean? And also, I don't know, I it's, it's never nice to feel kind of pushed into a particular pigeonholed. Yeah, yeah.
Brian Heater 9:51
I mean, some of my best friends are six figured hipsters, so I, you know, many terrible things about this. So what was the I guess what was the impulse to self release this time out?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 10:06
Well, because we have this label now. And so we're, you know, we've been working on it for the last three years, it was really our pandemic project. Because we were on the tour of San Fran. So we were signed in 2012, we started put out our first record in 13. And we basically were on the road from 13 to 19. And I was sort of just, you know, I was just juggling between tours, I was writing, you know, music for ensembles, and things like that, and ballets, and then I was just that was my life for six years solid was tour tour tour, album cycle. And then like pieces in between, you know, and when the pandemic hit, I mean, it was horrible for so many reasons. But one thing that was kind of nice about it, I suppose in a weird way, it was just that Alan and I had a moment to be like, Okay, what is it that we want to do? Now? You know, we've been, we've been killing ourselves physically, I mean, my, my back problems, like, you know, probably more emotional problems than I then I wish to, to talk about it. Exactly. You know, and like, yeah, that's going on tour is this sort of, like extended adolescence in a lot of ways, right, or you're sort of running away from something, or running to something, but also running away from it. And anyway, you know, so we, when we decided to make the label, you know, I thought maybe in five years, it'd be nice for this to be a place that has enough sort of resources and connections for us to put a Sanford mean, album out through it. And then we really lucked out with some some of the people that we hired, we have, you know, two employees here. And then we have the whole orchard team, which is like, you know, 30 people that we work with there. And so, Alan, and I had a conversation about it about a year ago, after I had written this record, this new one, and he was like, we would be crazy not to put it out through our own label here, like, you know, it's we have, we have everything we need. And also, you know, why not own the masters. So
Brian Heater 12:08
I don't want to get like, you know, too, in the weeds with the industry stuff. But looking, looking at the band's album, so the first two on downtown and then Interscope, and then Sony, were the were the were the were the Interscope and Sony Records, or was this it was a Sony record, like a one record,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 12:26
or one record deal. Yeah, yeah, basically. So our first deal was, with downtown records. And that deal actually basically took us all the way through that Interscope deal. And for people who are interested in, you know, music, music industry, biz stuff, basically the it looked like a, like a two album deal. And then it sort of ended up being secretly a three album deal where, where we were putting our second album out, and the label downtown called us and said, Hey, we want your, we want an option for your third. And the implication was, if we don't get that we're not going to prioritize this release. The we're extorted a little bit there. It sounds like Yeah, I mean, you know, I have to say, you know, on the, on the, on this scale of artists who have had bad experiences with labels, I count myself very lucky. And honestly, they took a chance on us like, you know, Josh Deutsch, who, who ran downtown, you know, he came to a show one show of us at pianos, where there was 15 of us on stage and Oh, at
Brian Heater 13:23
piano, so that's like that. That was I'm sorry, I keep going back to the Scott. No, but there was that old. There's that old onion headline that it was ska band out numbers, audience. Pianos is not a large space.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 13:36
No, it's very small. And we had I mean, I had an orchestral bass drum on that stage, it was so silly. And you know, and I have to give Josh credit, like he came, he saw that show, which, by all accounts was, you know, chaotic. And also, there was a long distance between that and being a touring band, and he took a chance on it. So, you know, I was I think there was a little bit of a gentle you know, extortion as you say, like, on that run, but honestly, I'm not I don't hold any, it's, it's, I wouldn't have a career if it hadn't taken a swing on us. So but anyway, you know, through that whole process, and then and then we've we've the first time we actually got to sign a deal. It was with Sony after that first one. And that was just like a one off deal with them where, you know, they had already made the record and then they came in and sort of bought it
Brian Heater 14:32
you only wanted a one album deal though. It sounds like so you had the freedom to do whatever you wanted with the next
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 14:37
one. Yeah. And actually during that process, the you know, the orchard is owned by Sony and that's how we were connected to the orchard and that's how we have our our own little label there. So it's there's a lot to say about the music industry. It's a pretty wack wacky, like fucked up place to be honest. And there's a lot of really bad stuff in it, but I am in a slightly better place now about all of it feeling like a little, it's nice to have a little more
Brian Heater 15:10
autonomy. Again, just looking at this the release date for I think the second part was the end of March 2020. Is that right?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 15:20
Yeah. Oh my god, what a bad, bad time to put a record out.
Brian Heater 15:27
I mean, I'm sure you had tours planned. And how did that all
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 15:30
go? Yeah, it was all canceled, as you can imagine. You know, even putting that out. It was what it was like, end of March 2020 was when the second half of our last album the cormorant came out and yeah, I mean, I remember even like, posting about it, I felt like I was apologizing. It was like, hope this email finds you well. That kind of like, in this our time of need, here comes eight songs that you don't need kind of thing.
Brian Heater 15:56
I'm sure that you had a similar experience. I mean, like I, I was dealing with other health problems and a lot of other stuff at the same time. And I know that for me music played a big part in keeping me sane.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 16:09
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, I mean, there was talk about a phrase that really cuts you down to size, the, you know, the, or, when everyone was talking about essential workers, which is, you know, it was really like, it was really illuminating, like, wow, yeah, there are people who society needs like, truly needs. And then there's like, me and all my friends who are just, you know, the frosting on the cake. And I thought that it was very centering to be like, okay, or, I should say, grounding, to realize what a privilege it is to be a musician. And that everything else has to be working in order for us to, you know, do what we do. But at the same time, I did think over the course of the pandemic, it was nice to remember that. Yeah, that, that the arts are kind of like a really, it's a thing that matters to a lot of people. And there was a real call for live music again, and I don't know, it was just I don't, I don't take any of it for granted anymore.
Brian Heater 17:07
The essential worker thing, I think, for me, what it really put into perspective is how poorly we treat specifically the people that we're now that we're like, you know, there was a period, so we're both in New York, there was that time, you know, like seven o'clock every night where people would go and applaud, which, you know, nice, right. But like, Is that helping? I don't know, maybe
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 17:30
that's the that's the like, you know, that's the Spotify royalties of of actually showing appreciation.
Brian Heater 17:39
And that God, that's, that's gonna get real bad
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 17:42
next year. Yeah.
Brian Heater 17:44
I assume you're above that, what that threshold but like, really telling something, like two thirds of their catalogue to go fuck themselves, basically.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 17:55
Yeah, it's, um, it's not a model that I understand. Yeah.
Brian Heater 17:59
I mean, I understand it. I understand him from the standpoint that it makes Spotify a lot of money. But, and if they can get away with it, but yeah, yeah, that's right. For sure. Again, obviously, you you enjoy your your day jobs. But if you if you really wanted to just pursue the band full time, like, I don't know that that's something that you could even do at the level that you're
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 18:22
at. Yeah, it's all it's interesting, because basically, the version of that, that that works is, oh tour for 200 days a year, or 180 days a year, which we kind of did through like, 15 1617. And it was really bad. Like it was I mean, there was some of the best years of my life, but everyone in the band, I think, could attest that, you know, I mean, yeah, I think 2015 We probably played 120 shows, and we, you know, did a big opening thing, doing stadiums opening with all j, we did three headline tours. You know, we did three nights at Bowery ballroom, it was like a success of the Year by all metrics except for financial, where, you know, we basically, you know, we're playing every night and feeling great about it. And then at the end of the year, I think the band members like I mean, no one made money at all, like, people were really in the read from that whole thing. And, yeah, so it's really I think being a musician in this day and age, unless you're above a pretty, pretty high threshold has to do with versatility and you know, having sort of multiple ways to to make it work. And honestly, it's, it's, it's a constant balancing act.
Brian Heater 19:35
So is there like a pragmatic reason behind slay scaling down to the relatively small number of eight people? relatively
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 19:43
small? Yeah, I mean, basically, that was really a long time ago, you know, so we did the in 2013. When I recorded the first album, there was 20 something musicians on it. And then when we did that show up pianos, I think there was maybe 13 or 14. And then when I wanted to Josh judge's office downtown. He said, like, hey, we don't sign acts that don't tour, you know, you need a tour, which is not something I was even thinking about. I was thinking about it as like a, you know, an album and art project, like just a thing that I wanted to do. And so at that point, I kind of took a look at the scores and thought, what what can we get rid of here and got it down to the still, I would say, extremely unmanageable number of eight people. But, you know, it was that that was sustainable. If we you know, if we played a lot of shows it
Brian Heater 20:34
worked. What does touring look like for the band these days? Yeah, well, we're about to so
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 20:38
we have a tour happening in starting in March and ending in June.
Brian Heater 20:42
That's a pretty good run. Yeah, yeah, there's
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 20:45
some it's some often ons now, because people have gotten a little, you know, we're in our mid 30s. And I think people don't want to kill themselves quite in the same way. So we take a couple of weeks here, and
Brian Heater 20:54
then day jobs, and you know, and families and all that stuff. Yeah, exactly.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 20:59
And, you know, there's a couple Yeah, we are guitarists, you know, both have kids and all that. So. Yeah, so we, you know, we all pile on a sprinter. And we, you know, we go from place to place. I mean, I think the thing that is so crazy about it is that, you know, for one hour a day, when you're on stage, you feel like, better than anything. I mean, I really think that performing with a band of people who you love, you know, it feels like religion, it's like, it's like, it's like, the most connected that I've felt to people is being on stage. And then for 23 hours a day, you feel like, you know, it's like a bad day, wait, and LaGuardia, you know, it's like, you know, waiting, waiting for hours and eating junk and that kind of thing.
Brian Heater 21:47
Props to LaGuardia people, because it's actually a nice airport. Now. That's really one of the worst of that country. And it's pretty nice. Now, yes, that's true, actually. What does it mean to conceptualize a band as an art project?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 22:01
Well, you know, so my, my background of is, is that I mean, I have always had, like, in high school, I had rock bands that I played in, and then I played classical piano. And then when I went to college, I had a rock band I played in and then I was I studied composition. And so I always had these sort of, like, two streams of what I do, my my family are all visual artists. They're all from, like, the art world. And so I always kind of thought of them as sort of different. And then. And I think there's, there's a lot, there was a little bit of an idea of like, they're sort of going for different things, like there was, you know, when I was in bands in high school, and in college, I was, you know, it was about playing battle the bands and like having having fun, there was a certain social currency to it. And it was just fun to do. Whereas the classical music, I just, I love notes, like, I love pushing notes around, I love creating these sort of networks of meanings. You know, that this sort of syntax is like these languages that you that you create as a composer. And that feels really exciting. I mean, it's like a sudoku that never ends in the best possible way. And so I had always sort of thought of those two things as separate. And when I did the first send, for me an album, it was the first time that I figured out how to sort of combine those two things. And realize actually, like, it's like, if you're starting a restaurant, you know, it's, it's like you want the restaurant, if you're the, you're the head chef, you want it to, you want the restaurant to show, you know, some kind of a, whatever your whatever your history is, like, whatever, wherever you come from, whatever your your, and I kind of come from these two different places, and I figured out how to kind of combine those. But it's, you know, it's led to some funny situations where, you know, I'm, you know, we're doing shows playing with orchestras and stuff like that, and then then you suddenly are on the stage at Lollapalooza, and you're trying to convince, you know, the kids in the back of the crowd who are, you know, wasted that they should stay and listen to your, you know, your your music, so those are just very different audiences. And so you have to kind of toggle your brain a little bit,
Brian Heater 24:11
but not just a dichotomy between the composition and the band, but almost a dichotomy within the band itself. Yeah,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 24:18
totally. And you know, and within from from song to song, I think that we've had over the years, we've had both one of the nice things and also one of the difficult things about this band has been that no one you don't quite know what you're gonna get from place from song to song, there's, you know, on our first album, or our third album, or whatever, you know, there's like, I mean, just just to take the first album, since that was the sort of the, we were talking about, like, there's, you know, we had the song sunset, which was like, XM radio and had a whole sort of like radio thing and, and then, like, half the tracks are interludes, but just, you know, new music, string writing, and I think that people who don't know the band very well are like, what the hell's going on? So over the years, as my career has kind of opened up, I think I've gotten a little bit. I'm happier to kind of find each, you know, put each thing in its right place. And sort of not. Every album doesn't have to contain everything, it can be a little bit more focused. You were shoehorning
Brian Heater 25:18
things in a bit, because it was something that you knew you could do is something you knew you're
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 25:23
good at. Yeah, there's, I mean, you know, there's probably some ego in that, I think, like I was, you know, there was a little like fancy footwork, kind of vibes and those early albums where it was like, I'm not just a rocker i Yeah, hey, Mom, look at me, you know, and I don't sing right, which I think is a really important, strange distinction for us, between us and other bands is like, there's not I mean, I heard you talking to Kristin Hersh, who I love and she was talking about how songwriters are always pregnant, right? There's like this, this kind of like this idea of that you're always sort of, like, have the story that you need to tell, but you're literally singing it. But composers, I think there's a little bit of a different thing where you turn on the tap, you know, and you sort of fill up the glass and then you turn off the tap, and you can kind of think about it differently. And I am squarely in between those two, because I can do both things. But when I'm songwriting, it takes a lot more out of me emotionally. And so I have to kind of like, set this the time, sort of separate for those for those when I'm going to write an album, I'm like, Okay, here we go. Like the next two months are gonna suck. And I really have to sort of like, delve down into what's actually going on in my, in my, my emotional world
Brian Heater 26:39
seems to be more of the case on this record, perhaps than any other one before it.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 26:43
Yeah, well, you know, breakups, man are tough.
Brian Heater 26:47
For sure. And you know, you had to in quick succession, which really, yeah, makes it hard to process, both of them.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 26:56
I think I was a real unreliable narrator for a little while, you know, I, I don't know, I guess I hadn't really had that experience of such intense self doubt about what was actually happening. Like, what my what? Like, because I could just convince myself from day to day of just vastly different realities.
Brian Heater 27:18
In terms of who you were in the relationship.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 27:20
Yeah. Or what what was happening in my life. Like, if it was a good thing, if it was a bad thing, if I was kind of flying off the handle, or if I was actually growing, it was probably some combination of both right. But it was a real reminder of, honestly, I mean, I think the takeaway from the whole thing was gratitude for the community of people around me who, you know, who I leaned on in ways that I, you know, think back on it, I'm like, Jesus, I hope, I hope, you know, I can only be so lucky to have friends like that for my life. And one of them, of course, is Alan who's the singer of the band, and he produced this album and got that guy, he, he really, he stepped up during a difficult time,
Brian Heater 28:07
in terms of helping you get your thoughts together, or helping you actually, like, make art from these horrible things. Yes.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 28:15
And yes, and I mean, it was, he was really, he brought some humor to the whole thing, too. You know, I was having like, almost sort of, like, kind of, like dissociative episodes. And, and then, you know, I was, like, I remember came in one day to the studio. And I was like, you know, I finally felt joy for the first time ever yesterday, and he just like, literally laughed for five minutes at me, you know, he was like, you stupid idiot. You know, and I think there's something there's something funny about someone going through it, where it's like, it both feels really real and melodramatic. And also, you know, literally everyone goes through this all the time. I mean, the, you know, the dude at your bodega, or the dude on the corner, or the person that you you know, wherever you get your coffee from, like, maybe they're going through that today. And I think there's kind of a a sort of a humor and a reality to the fact that both it feels like this kind of end of the world mental health crisis. And also, it's like, hey, you know, you know what, you know, what everyone goes through all the time is this kind of upheaval, and growth, growth. And, you know, if that take away from anything from the whole thing, it was gratitude for the people around me. And also, life is constantly throwing you curveballs and you just have to be able to grow with it. It is
Brian Heater 29:33
both the most personal thing that happens to you and the most universal at the same time.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 29:40
Yeah. Yeah, totally. And I think that was the takeaway for this one, where it was like, hey, you know, I went through a very relatable couple, you know, a few months or half a year, whatever, and maybe don't worry about dressing it up too much. Just Just try to be a good observer of it and put that Add into words that are relatable for people and, you know, let that do the talking.
Brian Heater 30:05
It's also funny thing in life that sometimes the best advice you can get from somebody is somebody who knows you really well telling you that you're a dumbass. Like, how useful. Yeah, you know that your heads up your own ass or that, you know, you're, you know that you have like no, no real context for this thing as you're going through it. Totally.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 30:27
I mean, there's nothing worse than like a self important. You know, like, I think it's, it's so easy to get caught up in the sort of narrative of your own nonsense. And like, I think a really important part of a good friend is someone who can kind of just undercut it and say, hey, you know, you know, this is, uh, I'm, I'm sorry that you're having a tough time. I'm glad that you're growing. And also, I'm laughing at you. It's like, kind of nice, actually.
Brian Heater 30:55
You said you're having like, a, I don't know exactly what phrase you use, but almost like borderline dissociative episodes, like, how does that feel? Like, how did that manifest itself,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 31:04
I just, you know, I, I'm, I, without making it to anything more than it was I just think I, you know, I would just be sitting at my computer and suddenly feel like, everything, just like would go sort of shiny and weird. You know, or would just have these sort of moments of like, feeling like, really, really light. And, you know, I think that that's, I mean, I've, I've dealt with anxiety for my whole life. So, you know, it couldn't have been, it couldn't have been a helpful thing at that point. But I think also, there's just, there are so many little markers all around you that are kind of surreal, that you have a hard time, you know, finding handholds, right, like, going back to my apartment, and exactly half of everything is gone, you know, half the books of the shelf are gone, you know, and the couch is gone, and stuff like that. And so there's this kind of dream, like logic that seems to kind of kick in during that time. Where, you know, you just you feel like you have half the handholds that you normally do on a day to day basis.
Brian Heater 32:04
It's a good way of putting it. And I guess the, the context that's important here is that the two of you were living together and that it was what, like a 10 year long relationship. So it, it was Yeah, I mean, it feels surreal, because all of a sudden, like your life is markedly different.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 32:20
Yeah, and you know, and I, I've always had a tough time. I guess I don't I'm not the kind of songwriter generally who wants to take something directly from my life and just pop it on the page. This sort of like, diary, kind of like, there are people who are just so good at that, like, you know, the Liz fares are the, honestly the Kristin Hirsch's are the you know that I mean, there's just so many people who can do that. Really well. But like, I think my diary entries are really embarrassing, probably. So I just don't, I've always over the course of my career have filtered through filters through characters or literary references or films. And and I, you know, and I, with this album, I wasn't, I didn't want to do I didn't want it to feel confessional in that way. Either. But I but I didn't want to be adding artifice to something that felt raw. So it just a big part of the experience was working with Alan and with Claire, our other singer, and basically saying, like, Hey, here's this thing, you know, and then finding the section of the Venn diagram where, you know, my, like, lived, whatever my experience was, kind of overlapped with something that they could find their way into. And that, you know, I think that during that process, there was a lot of negotiation, probably for the better.
Brian Heater 33:50
So it's really, in a sense, it's about it's important for them to find their emotional Connection to the songs that you're writing. Yeah, they
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 34:00
have to because, you know, I think especially in my in this in this particular genre, the sort of like song, indie, sort of whatever songwriter world, so much of the way that people interact with it is, it's like, you know, if you listen to a, you know, if you listen to a Soufiane song, it's like, he's talking to you, you know, it's like, if you it's, it's, it's doesn't have that kind of remove that, like the classical world has, where, you know, you go see when, you know, a Shostakovich, you know, Pisa but as he's not sitting in the room with you, you know,
Brian Heater 34:31
or it's Bach and it's somebody from hundreds of years ago. Exactly.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 34:35
Yeah. Right. So So I think that but I'm, I my impulse to write has always been to bring people in closer to me. You know, I think like, I often feel kind of lonely. I have kind of a you know, it's a it's a constant companion for me and the process of Bringing people into my experience that Connection of writing, and then having the, the Connection between the writing and the performing. That's like, you know, amazing that's like where the magic happens, and where I feel really connected. And so for this kind of writing, it has to feel like it's coming from Alan, or it's coming from Claire. Because if it doesn't, it's like, first of all, I failed as a songwriter. And second of all, I think people just don't buy it, you know? It's just, it's just, it's got to be personal.
Brian Heater 35:36
What's that negotiation process? Like?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 35:38
Very complicated, or I should say, textured. You know? Yeah, layered. Yeah. You know, Alan and I, we've been, Alan and I, we've been doing this since we were 15, or 16. And in every sort of iteration, like, he used to write songs that I would produce when when we were teenagers. And then, and then I wrote songs that you know, and now I write songs that he produces. And, you know, so we've had this kind of long, collaborative relationship that and we're also amuse my best friend. So we have these, these kind of this kind of lived, shared biography, almost like oh, yeah, like that time that we were wherever on tour, but also that time that we played in a basketball camp when we were 15. Like, you know, there's just this sort of, and so I think he's pretty good at sniffing out where it doesn't feel. Real, I think he's really good at seeing when I'm trying to get too in my head about it or fancy with it. And he's really good at undercutting that, and then he's all about simpler language. And he's about sort of like delivering the the, you know, the kind of the punch you in the gut line, but in a way that feels plain, rather than highfalutin. And that's really, really helpful for me, particularly. And, you know, and I think he's also thinking about how is he going to perform it. And I think that's where his, you know, the sort of the character of his songs comes from because we have this shared section of our Venn diagram. But then also, there's a whole part of me that I think he doesn't really relate to, or want to, you know, saying. And so that's where Claire comes in. And, you know, and that's a, you know, she, she comes from a much more like, she comes from a theatre background, she understands how to take a text and find her way into it. And also, I think, generally, the songs that I've written for the female voice channel a little bit more of that anxiety and a little more of this sort of panic fight or flight thing that I have dealt with for a lot of my life. And she's really good at finding her way into that. I think she can relate the
Brian Heater 38:08
thing that struck me the first time I heard his voice is how much he reminds me of Bill Callahan. I don't know if that's like totally something you heard a lot, but
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 38:17
it does. Oh, yeah. He's, I mean, love. Yeah.
Brian Heater 38:21
I mean, there's something about his voice and the way he sings that, that is, or like David Berman, or, you know, but But it's, it's very raw. And it's and it's and it's very immediate.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 38:32
Yeah. And, you know, he's, I mean, Bill Callahan is a great example. I, I mean, I feel like whether or not he's trying to sound that way, there's something about that voice that is reassuring and kind of caretaking almost like there's a kind of a kind of a it'll pass kind of feeling to a lot of that. And, you know, Alan, I think he's very comfortable in that role, both in his life and in as a singer. And so generally, the songs that I end up writing for Allen take on a little bit of that character,
Brian Heater 39:06
it's clear in during the writing process, who is going to sing them ultimately, up until
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 39:11
this album? Yeah, I always was, like, very in for the first few. I was like, really, you know, delineated with it where I would, you know, I write everything out as a score, or at least historically I have. And so I would come in to the recording sessions, like in, you know, in the studio, and I would have it notated. I mean, Alan doesn't really read music. And so the vocal stuff would be a little bit like we would kind of figure it out in the room a little more, but oh, yeah, like it was very, almost like sort of operatic in terms of the back and forth. But this album, you know, the challenge that that he set for me, which I really enjoyed was write everything at the piano. Don't think about arrangements. Don't think about album order, like treat each song like it's its own thing. And, and let's figure out who thinks that later. And that was like a really new for me it's liberating
Brian Heater 40:05
in a sense of not, you know somebody who again, this is something that we share, but it's somebody with a lot of anxiety of not having to worry about that and just letting the music do its thing, what it needs to do at that point in the process.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 40:20
Yeah, yeah, totally. You know, I actually think that the thing that was the most liberating about it was, you know, as you know, I'm now 10 years into this. And when I was starting, I just felt like everything had to have everything in it, I felt this kind of operatic emotion. I mean, the first song I ever wrote for the band was like, you know, it had this big choir of singers, and also String Quartet and all this stuff. Because it just, you know, that's what it felt like. And now there's this kind of liberating feeling to have, like, there are just many ways to tell different kinds of stories. And, you know, like, I, earlier this year, I put out a classical album, where it was a singer in a string quartet, and we were doing these kind of haunted texts that I worked on with my friends, Karen, and Carrie, and, you know, that had a whole different thing. And then this album doesn't have to be that this album can be, you know, just talking about a shitty experience that I had, you know, and I think finding the right sort of places for the right kind of storytelling has been an interesting journey. Through, you know, through the last few years, yeah,
Brian Heater 41:30
it's also relatively stripped down, like sonically from past records, as well, you know, was that a conscious decision to have to find a way to make the songs more immediate?
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 41:43
Yeah, totally. It was, you know, I wasn't because I had been instructed to write the songs at the piano, and, you know, basically, like, if they worked with me singing and just a piano, then, you know, everything was gonna be better from there. So
Brian Heater 41:58
what do you mean, instructed? Because I, you know, I
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 42:01
was like, hey, you know, I want to write this album, Alan, I have all these thoughts. You know, like, talk to me about what we, you know, what, basically, I just was like, hey, you know, I'm gonna do this. And he said, you know, try this, try this thing. You know, let's try something different here. And I, yeah, Allen did, yeah. And it was really, really nice. Because in the past it kind of went the other way, where I would be like, Hey, this is what we're doing here. We're making a concept record about a ghost bird, you know? And he'd be like, Alright, man, I'll find my way into it. And whenever you say, yeah, like, alright, shit, I'll see you on stage kind of thing. And, and this was nice, because it's like, okay, like, this is gonna be obviously my experience and my words, but you know, he was steering the ship from this from the beginning a little bit. And that was, took a lot of trust. And, and in the process of doing that, yeah, I kept them much more stripped down, because I had to know, like, it just felt like that just felt right. And so I didn't even really, I mean, I made some horn charts. And I did some arrangement stuff. But it was like, you know, we recorded this in my studio here. And that was the first time that I've recorded an album where I didn't feel like I was on the clock financially as well. Right? So instead of it being, you know, we have four days to do this whole thing, or else we're gonna run out of money. It was like, alright, you know, Aki, our guitars Come on, in, like, Let's mess around with this, you know, and really traded on the fact that I've known these people for 10 years now. It's
Brian Heater 43:40
funny, you're describing this almost as process of kind of going backwards when it comes to the, to the day job thing. And it sounds to me like you've also kind of backed yourself into a far more traditional method of writing rock songs. Yeah,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 43:59
well, I hope it's a from a from a place of choice from a place of choice, rather than when
Brian Heater 44:05
I say backed it, I just mean that, you know, you like most people start simple and get more complicated and you've gone the other way. Yeah,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 44:13
you know, and, like, I think that there's actually there's something really rewarding about doing that, because it's, it's, you know, during the pandemic for for some extra money, Alan and I did this, like, songwriting thing where we, you know, talk to some of our fans about songwriters, like a class that we kind of, kind of did in in the process of doing that. I was shocked at how many opinions I had about just the craft of songwriting, which I had always sort of thought of as like that, you know, the way that I wrote songs was more sort of music first than it was about, you know, kind of the, the arrangements and the tapestry and the sort of toxic Kenny quality of of how things work together sonically. And then I was like, No, I actually really care about when the chorus hits, you know, I care about, you know what I care about bridges like, or I care about not caring about bridges, I actually don't like bridges, you know. And so I had all these sort of funny things that were sort of codified for me in the course of talking about it. And I thought, like, you know, there's something nice about taking the craft really seriously, and just trying to build a great house, you know, rather than be like, Oh, my house has all sorts of weird shit on it. So it was fun. Sounds like the
Brian Heater 45:38
process of I mean, it wasn't like a full on teaching job that you were teaching, in a sense was played an important role in the creation of this record.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 45:45
It certainly clarified some some stuff for me about songwriting. I think, where I go from here, it's an open question. And, you know, I've already thought a little bit about the next record. And I think that would be probably, you know, I wouldn't do the same record again, I think, you know, bring some things back in. And I think it's important as a songwriter, and as a composer, both to be constantly trying new things, you know, to be codifying your sound and to making sure that you have a really a unique voice, but at the same time, if you're just going to be in one place, like I think that's where's the fun in that? So, you know, we'll see where it goes. But this is a fun one to kind of, you know, nuts and bolts. How do you write a song? How do you observe a heartbreak? How do you try to, you know, do something that feels honest and not too melodramatic, even though, during a time, you're probably feeling kind of that way
Brian Heater 46:44
to how do you avoid than the navel gazing? And how do you avoid falling into the cliches that every single person who's written a breakup album falls into? Or do you have to embrace them? To a certain extent? Yeah,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 46:56
I mean, I think the thing I tried to keep in mind is because the experience of the of a listener is actually built into my writing, because I have to my first listeners are my singers, and they have to, like, like it and relate. I hope that there's a kind of a generosity built into how I write where, you know, even like, the lyrics that I'm setting, or the lyrics I'm writing, it's like, I want to make sure that they all feel that there's a certain kind of point of entry for them. And that they're not just like, here's what I had for lunch today, you know, I mean, there are great songwriters who do that, who just tell you what they had for lunch today. And you just believe them, because they sound amazing. And there's something very specific about the way they observe it. But the way I tried to stay out of the navel gazing thing, I think, is just by constantly constantly trying to find shared ground between me, my singers, and, you know, a sort of an imaginary audience who might be going through something similar, again, because
Brian Heater 48:02
I'm reading a Philip Glass book right now. And I highlighted something I can't find the exact quote, but he says something, something that's like, very obvious on the on the on the face of it when he says it, but that I hadn't considered that way. But to completely paraphrase him something along the lines of that art is about looking, and that music is about listening. Yeah. And really, yeah, and taking, and I guess, really considering, like, considering how its consumed is a big part of actually creating that work? Well,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 48:35
it's a, you know, it's a temporal time form, you have to, at the very least give three minutes of your life to listen to a song, you know. And then usually, if you're asking for them to listen to an album, it's, you know, 45 minutes, and if you're asking them to listen to an opera, it's three hours, you know, or whatever. So I think there's a awareness of that. That I always carry with me because there's nothing that I dislike more than something that doesn't know when to end musically. And so there's maybe yeah, I guess I just, that's a that communal aspect of like music making is what drives my whole thing and my whole desire to make it and so why, why get to you know, blinders, the navel gazing about it, if you're trying to bring people in and find shared ground
Brian Heater 49:32
pop music, versus a classical music or opera, pop music has built in. Generally this built in time limit to it. So it seems like it's easier to it's easier to know when to get out of it, because it's baked into the process, but perhaps it's a lot more difficult to convey all the things that you want to convey in a three minute song, Chris So, you know, as you said, a three hour opera. Yeah,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 50:02
I think maybe it's about scale. Right. Like, like, you know, if I'm going to extrapolate the lessons from making even this album, but a song doesn't have to say everything. You know, I mean that what does I think the Shostakovich quote or no, it's a molar quote, just like that. His symphony is like, a must contain everything is I think what he said, which is like, you know, cool, man, like, good on you. Good. He's good at that. Yeah, exactly. I mean, he really he's going for it. And, you know, I think when I was when I was a little bit more immature about what I was doing, I think I thought I felt that everything must contain everything. But actually, three minutes is a great period of time, to give like, one smart observation with maybe a little, you know, some kind of a little moment of, you know, whatever, like, Alan calls it the calf tattoo line, you know, it's like, the line that you really think about, and you remember. And, you know, and that's maybe actually, in something small like that there can contain the world that can contain a lot, I mean, songs there three minute songs that are some of the most important three minutes, you know, that you can give. But I think it's about it's more like poems, right? You're looking at one little thing, and you're seeing a lot in something small, as opposed to an opera, where you're trying to say a lot in something big, or maybe something simple and something big, you know, so my favorite operas are, are and theater pieces are things that, you know, you have this big sprawling story, and at the end, it's like, you know, there's maybe some, it all kind of crystallizes in some in some sort of beautiful little way,
Brian Heater 51:44
sick half Tatsu moment, because that's the you get the quote tattooed on your calf is at the idea.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 51:49
Yeah, it's the it's the one you're right. It's like, someone comes up to you after the show and shows you the line, and it's written, tattooed on their calf.
Brian Heater 51:56
I've not heard that. So I assume that's an albinism. Yeah, that was,
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 51:59
I mean, I think it's probably a, you know, we do have some pretty intense fans, I, I have seen a fair number of things like that. And so we were, I think, at one point, we're just talking about how crazy it is to, to see that, like a line that kind of was maybe tossed off, right, like, there's a line in one of our songs. In Methuselah, it's just like this line, I don't think of you and I'm missing you, which I remember writing. And I was like, that's not a good one, but I just gotta keep going. And then that line, kind of, you know, the context of it, it carried more weight for for within the song, and then I've seen that tattooed on on people. And it's, it's like, Wow, it's so weird to see a small, almost like throwaway thing, you know, become something that's very meaningful and very real to someone. So that's kind of nice. What's the feeling
Brian Heater 52:45
like the first time you see that somebody has tattooed words that you've written on their body? It's very
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 52:56
humbling is the wrong word, because that's such a silly word I find, but it's very grounding or something. It's like, Whoa, I think it gives you context, that these songs aren't yours anymore. And often, the person who gets the tattoo or who does their first dance to one of your songs, and they're at their wedding, what that song means to them doesn't, it's not what it meant to you. And actually, it doesn't matter. Like what it means to them is just as valid, and probably more so because they're the ones living the experience. And so I think there's actually a sort of a undercutting of ego in a way that's kind of nice, where you're like, Wow, this thing, it meant something to me, and then I let it go. And I hate you know, and now it means something totally different to you. So there's something cool about that, I think. And, you know, maybe a little bit embarrassing for me, where I'm like, Ah, shit, like, if I had come up with a better line, it'd be a better tattoo.
Brian Heater 53:50
This is something I talk to people about all the time, because it's something that I've like, been trying to get better about myself is accepting the compliment, and not having an impulse to say, like, oh, that's the one you like, that I've done much, but that's my worst thing. And like, all of a sudden, like, You're shitting on this thing that just meant so much to that person. And
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 54:12
I think, actually, the experience of performing probably also of you know, being in your role currently is like, you know, with having listeners, is actually really destructive to the ability to accept the compliment, right? Because you just stop trusting people pretty quickly. You know, I would feel, you know, after a year of touring, I was just like, Oh, I I used to really enjoy talking to people after the show. And now I just find myself feeling a little bit alienated because I don't, I'm not letting the nice thing sink in. Like I'm trying to read into the things that you say that are nice and make them bad and you just lose this kind of trust that anyone is saying anything real to you. And I think that that is hard to then come back to regular life and, you know, turn off. Yeah,
Brian Heater 55:04
I mean, and it gets back to what we were saying before that music is about listening. Yeah. Yeah, it's the person and how they interpret it and the fact that once it's in the world, it's not really yours anymore. Totally.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone 55:20
Yeah. And you know, and, and it shouldn't be it. I don't think that that's the role of recorded music. I think it's not the role of live music either. I think it's like if you're truly committed to the, to the community and to the or to the, I should say, if you're committed to the experience of connecting and sharing, then you have to share.