North American singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell had her main introduction to Australian audiences at CMC Rocks Queensland last year, and made connections with Australian artists while she was here, including Amber Lawrence, who appeared on Ell’s 24-hour Instagram live event that launched Ell’s latest album, heart theory.
heart theory is an outstanding piece of work: a concept album that doesn’t sound as if it’s been wedged into a structure. It makes sense as a whole and the songs also work beautifully on their own. The artistry in it is evident without the album sounding laboured. Time and care have gone into it, with Ell saying, ‘I have been writing this record for the better part of the past three years. Albums take a long time to write and release. I’m very grateful for my incredible team and incredible band. I haven’t had an album out for three years. The minute I finished my last record I started writing towards this next one.
‘I was about halfway through writing this record that I realised, I’m writing these songs in the order of what I’m going through right now, of what I’m feeling. There’s this thing called the seven stages of grief. They are the process that you feel of every step along the way. All of the feelings broken down. And I thought, You know, it would be kind of cool to write this record in order of the seven stages of grief, because I’m writing these songs in the order of how I’m feeling them and how I’m going through this time. Wouldn’t it be cool to write from stage 1 being track 1, shock, then write it through shock, denial, anger, bargaining, all the way to the last stage, acceptance.
‘So when you listen to the record top to bottom you can slowly hear me unravel, slowly hear me go through all these emotions and process it, and slowly end up at the place of acceptance where you can look in the mirror and accept yourself for everything that you are and know that everything that has happened to you in this life has got you to this moment, and yet you can be grateful for all of those moments because you wouldn’t be the same without them.’
Some discipline was required to stay on that structure, though, because, Ell says, ‘as songwriters we write about what we experience in life and about things we’re going through, so there were definitely times where I wanted to write about other things. But I just thought it would be so cool to have a concept album that could be a road map if people are looking for support or they’re looking for empathy. This is me going through my journey and the road map of what I went through. Maybe it can inspire them to go through their own journey.’
After working through those stages of grief, the album does take a turn towards Ell being very hopeful – when asked if she feels that she has emerged into a different, hopeful stage, she says, ‘Yes, I really feel like I have. We go through moments like this throughout our lives multiple times, whether It’s moving on from a breakup or losing a job or losing a loved one or moving across the world. We go through constant moments of transformation. So I do feel that the past few years – specifically the past year is when I really felt like I’ve become a new person on the other side of it, I feel fully whole again, and I definitely feel like I’ve made that transition.’
As the narrator of these songs, Ell has a very clear sense of self, even in those early stages of grief. And, of course, sense of self is usually hard won. Ell says, ‘I feel like going through this whole album has been a lesson on stepping into my own inner power and reclaiming that, and truly feeling like I know who I am and I’m proud of who I am, and focusing on self-love, which is something that I think all of lose sight of sometimes when we’re navigating through the chaos of life or even going through moments like a global pandemic.
‘I just feel it’s a good thing to constantly remind ourselves how incredible and beautiful and beautifully broken we all are, but that’s what makes us who we are. It’s the juxtaposition of all the scars that we incur throughout life as well as the appreciation for them that gives us the humility and the gratitude to wake up every morning and be better from it.’
The song ‘make you’ very directly addresses some of those scars – it documents Ell’s experience of surviving sexual assault at 13, and was released as a single ahead of the album’s launch. Ell says it was the first time she’d ever talked about her story.
‘Three years ago I went to this place called Youth for Tomorrow,’ she says, ‘and they’re an organisation that deals with kids who are aged 12 to 18 and a lot of them have been victims of sex trafficking or rape. I went to the centre to help them launch their music programme, And I sat down in this conference room with 12 little girls and their stories were horrifying. I sat down and told them my story then listened to their stories, and they were things like “my parents sold me to sex traffickers when I was little”. Here’s this 12-year-old girl with so much light in her eyes and light in her heart and yet she has this heavy, heavy past.
‘And I left that campus that day knowing that if I didn’t talk about my story, if I didn’t tell my story right now, then I was losing the opportunity to help little girls or little boys like that. Or grown adults like that, because I feel like this happens far more than any of us want to admit in our society and in our communities.
‘So by talking about it, by raising a voice to it, by raising awareness to it, you take the first step to truly claiming that inner power. It’s normalising the shame that a lot of us survivors feel for a long time which prevents us from actually seeking help, or going to do the right thing around the situation. So much so that I was able to launch my own foundation, called the Make You Movement. We’re focusing on disenfranchised youth, specifically with survivors of sexual trauma and domestic abuse.
A different type of song on the album is ‘get oveR you’, in which the narrator commands someone to ‘get over you’. When asked if she’s ever had to tell herself to get over herself, Ell laughs and says, ‘Oh, absolutely! That’s half of why I wrote the song. Because I feel like when you’re trying to move past heartbreak in general, pretty much any heartbreak in your life, there’s that moment when both people need to get over themselves. It’s totally emotional, it’s incredibly taxing, and you go through this ebb and flow where one person wants the other person back, and then the other person wants that person back. There’s this back-and-forth of emotion that takes a little while to work out, usually. So I definitely said, “Get over yourself” to myself! Because I think that’s part of the process. It’s just natural.’
Ell has, of course, released this album at a time when it’s not possible for her to tour in support of it. She says when her band first heard it they Sid they couldn’t wait to get out and play it live – but who knows when that will be. However, ‘it’s been very powerful, the reaction even to the first few songs we’ve released,’ she says, ‘and I just feel so humbled by it, especially all the feedback from “make you”. I’ve had thousands of DMs from fans wanting to share their stories with me, saying, “This is the first time I’ve told anybody.” I do not do that lightly. I take that as a huge weight and know how much courage it took within my own self to get to that place. So the fact that fans are connecting to these songs and they’re feeling inspired to change themselves and find a deeper level of honesty with themselves, that just makes me so happy and so proud of this music.’
The album is a rich experience emotionally and lyrically, but it’s also a joy to listen to because it has been created so thoughtfully. While it may be years before Ell is able to play in Australia again, hopefully fans will instead play the album on repeat and let her know how much it means to them. In her vulnerability there is certainly strength and achievement, and they are gloriously clear on heart theory.