The Big Five Plus One
Steve Ellis doesn't seem to mind his day job as much as he resents the difficulties of finding the right musicians to work with. He will moan on at length about the trouble he's had putting together a band and a sound he's happy with, but you have to drag from him any clue about what his day-to-day life is like. To pay the rent on his Atlanta apartment he works as a plumber and tiler. "I'm a regular skilled laborer," he says.
At this point, South Florida must take his word for it. His magnificent debut album, Pleasures of the Past, a plunging assault on the intellect overflowing with lyrical bends and passionate rock instrumentation -- much of the latter wrapped around acoustic guitar -- won't be released until May. Though the 23-year-old's exposure so far is nil, the album alone is enough to convince listeners that the lofty musical aspirations he talks about are no pipe dream.
Ellis cites a handful of icons, the Big Five he calls them, singer-songwriters who simultaneously delight and challenge thoughtful listeners: Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen. "From a writer's perspective, whatever the hell that means," he says, "those people are on a plane by themselves."
Of those worthy idols, Springsteen is the most influential. "I'm from the middle of England," Ellis explains. "I came up medium, not wealthy or poor. I went to boarding school. Then I came to America in 1988 and went to the University of Pennsylvania, though I wasn't studying much. I came to this country because I'm a Springsteen fan. That's why I came to America."
In Philadelphia, Ellis performed solo acoustic for a time, and then put together a trio modeled after the Jam. "It was fun," he says. "I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work."
About a year ago, through a mutual acquaintance, he met Harvey Schwartz of Steam Records, the label that will soon issue Pleasures of the Past. Ellis says he didn't even have a formal demo, that the signing was a matter of timing and luck, a fluke. In July Steam sent Ellis to Daniel Lanois's Kingsway Studio in New Orleans to record under the aegis of producer Ed Roynesdal, noted for his work with Joe Jackson.
And now Ellis begins his first tour. "'Tour' is a rather generous description," says the singer. "Records are nice, but I want to get the live thing going. I might have to do the Miami show and the Tampa show acoustic, drive down on my own. I'm still searching for a drummer. There are so many mediocre bands, and I don't want to be part of one of them."
Not that Ellis is a musical snob. He says he intentionally avoided an effort to make a "perfect record," preferring instead something that sounds honest and real. "That triggered-drum shit and no wrong notes," he scoffs. "I tried to steer away from that. But I don't want to sound like an idiot, either. I'm not a great guitar player so it's easy for me to sound like an idiot." On Pleasures he sounds like anything but an idiot.
These aren't story songs, or love songs, and his sound is not some forced amalgamation of the Big Five. His voice retains some Britishness, but he's hardly Elvis Costello. What he does share with Elvis, and the rest of the Big Five, is the ability to craft lyrics that matter, lines such as, "Pretty people listen hard then turn away/Learning tricks they hope one day will pay for all their magazine dreams" or "The hearts of the many crush the hearts of the few/Tell me is it rock and roll when there's a thousand people dancing to your tune.... You say you're playing like the devil/And there's no one there to see."
All of Ellis's lyrics and song constructions are strong enough to do without the keyboard and other fleshing out found on the album, and some of the dazzling guitar work might be displayed at the Miami show courtesy of Natural Causes's Joel Schantz, who went to New Orleans during the sessions to add guitar lines to several songs on the album. The Causes share the bill this Sunday at Rose's, and Schantz is expected to join Ellis for a few tunes live. (Ellis reports that he and Schantz "spent many hours talking about Bruce" during recording.)
One achievement is the album's depth, the way no single song stands out. It's a beginning-to-end listen, leave the remote control on the coffee table. Even so, Ellis sees it as nothing more than a beginning. "I really don't have my shit together yet, a band and a sound I'm happy with," he explains. "There's plenty of room for improvement, which is where I should be."
And he could care less what critics or anyone else has to say about it. "If you send out a tape and every radio station says it sucks, does it? Not if you don't think so. This album, people have trouble, because there's some conformity, but it's really a bunch of songs that point in different directions. It's not massively original."
Maybe, maybe not. It is brilliant, and therefore its potential audience is limited. "Being a pop artist," he says, "is not my thing. I mean, 99 percent of the world's music is what comes on the radio. That 10,000 Maniacs shit. You have to work twice as hard and spend a lot longer. The real fans of people like Bruce are the ones you want to turn. If you write what I do and want to make a living, you have to turn those people A intelligent people. If you can get them on your side, you might have a chance."
If not pop stardom and fabulous riches, what then does Steve Ellis want a chance at? "I want to be good," he says flatly. "Not acclaimed. Just good. You don't get satisfaction from people telling you you're good. It's strange. You can't take too much from those who say good or bad things. What I really want, you know the song 'Thunder Road' by Springsteen? I want to write that before I die."
Steve Ellis performs at 11:00 p.m. Sunday at Rose's Bar, 754 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 532-0228. Admission is free.
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