Lindsay Ell – Heart Theory – Photo by Jeremy Cowart
In a short period of time, Lindsay Ell has compiled a mind-blowing list of accomplishments. Lindsay’s last recording, “The Project” her first full-length album, debuted at No. 1 on the Country Album Sales Chart and was named Billboard’s Best Country Album of 2017. Over the course of her career, she has amassed more than 123 million on-demand streams to date. The Calgary-born singer is the current Academy of Country Music’s New Female Artist of the Year nominee and is also nominated for Music Event of the Year at the upcoming ACM Awards for “What Happens In A Small Town” (with Brantley Gilbert), for which she garnered her first No. 1 on U.S. country radio. Lindsay has also been nominated for two 2020 Canadian Country Music Awards, Female Artist of the Year and Interactive Artist or Group of the Year. Riding the crest of this wave you would expect her next record to be a rip-roaring affair filled with nuggets about romance, cheating and honky-tonk Saturday nights, but Lindsay’s new album “heart theory” is instead a very intimate and introspective work in which the singer opens up about her life.
“I’ve learned to care a little less about what everybody thinks,” Lindsay says, calling from her home in Nashville. “Before I was worrying about writing for radio, for fans, but now this is what I know, this is my journey. And the more honest I get, the more effective it is. The songs on the album take the listener along the path of the seven stages of grief, which are shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance. If my last record was called “The Project”, this one could be called “The Process”.”
The catalyst for the record was Lindsay’s participation in an organization that serves boys, girls and families of all ages whose lives are in crisis. While Lindsay initially went there to assist with the program, when she heard the stories being told by the participants she realized the need to relate her own experience about a trauma she suffered as a little girl, something she had never publicly talked about“The place is called Youth For Tomorrow, and it’s an organization that deals with kids who have gotten into the wrong situation growing up, or kids aged 12-18 who have been victims of sex trafficking and rape. I ended up in this conference room of girls and I heard all of their stories. I knew that if I didn’t tell my story I was holding back the opportunity of helping other people, because I feel like sexual abuse and sexual violence is something that happens in our society far more than we admit. As survivors, especially, if we don’t take the opportunity to stand up and talk about what we believe in and be a voice to truly help other people, I think it’s a missed opportunity.”
With the seed for the record now firmly planted, Lindsay began writing songs in the order of things she was going through in her life and she hit upon the idea of doing a concept album that would allow her to capture this progression. She is a self-confessed “nerd” when it comes to reading books about personal development and this unveiled to her the concept of the seven stages of grief.
“It’s basically a process that human beings need to go through and the feelings we need to feel in order to fully move through, accept and let go of these transformative times in our lives,” she says. “It took me three years to figure out how to write the songs and have the story come out not as a publicity stunt but as something that could really make a difference. I really felt that as I was analyzing my life through my seven stages, not necessarily one relationship but heartbreak in general. It caused me to deep dive into childhood, accept my past and accept the things that happened in my life that have made me into the woman I am today. I was just writing songs honestly from where I was at in my process, and after the fact, I realized that you could really see me get to a healthier place through the writing.”
Far from being a record of solely self-help psychology, however, “heart theory” is chock-full of catchy songs and great riffs that are just begging for radio play (and the song titles, a mix of upper and lower case letters, are designed to keep a writer on his toes). The lead single “wAnt me back” is a contagious number that Lindsay co-wrote with award-winning country star Kane Brown. Similarly, while “Hits me” deals with the aftermath of a breakup, the spiralling guitar and hand-clapping in the chorus are irresistible.
“The song lyrics basically have a message that say something, but they still are songs that make you want to dance,” she says. “I really wanted this record to be enjoyable for the listener and help make them dance in the kitchen or wherever they’re listening. But I also wanted to say something, something good and meaningful. It was my goal to have a lot of songs on this record with grooves, with those Motown, soul, rock and roll and blues elements that have influenced so much of who I am and my musical vocabulary.”
You can hear those influences on “good on you” which has a clever organ bit that makes it sound like one of those funky old Memphis tracks, and “The oTHEr side”, a jazzy number that could have been cut by Norah Jones. “get oveR you” sounds like an EDM track until Lindsay’s roaring guitar rips into the chorus, giving the song strong crossover potential for the pop charts.
“God, you’re preaching to the choir,” Lindsay laughs. “Bring it on. I’m so influenced by so many different genres and it really inspires me as a writer and a player to kind of stretch those areas live. My favourite artists, be it Sheryl Crow, John Mayer or Keith Urban, do that all the time in their shows and on their records. And it’s why and how an album can just sound so interesting. You can pull different influences but it still has the same thread. I never really try to say this is this genre. I just try to be me and hope that the music finds its way.”
“As far as my guitar playing goes, I do play all of the guitars on this album and we even had to finish recording guitars in quarantine. I got to work with Dan Huff on this record and I’m so grateful. He is one of the best guitar players/producers on the planet. He said that if I wasn’t playing guitar on my record then what was the point of making a record. It’s been such a good learning experience recording this album and I feel I’ve become a better guitar player and a better singer because of it.”
Lindsay co-wrote the songs with some of Nashville’s finest tunesmiths but rather than picking specific writers for the album’s various stages the singer said that the writing process was very organic. The only exception is the haunting ballad ‘make you’, which speaks directly to the singer’s childhood trauma, as Lindsay knew who she wanted as a co-writer from the get-go.
“I wanted Brandy Clark and I definitely called her up and asked if she would write that song and that story with me. It took her two seconds to say yes and thank me for having the courage to say this. That was the only song for which I sought someone out. For the others, I just know who I love to work with and I know who I look up to in this town, so we would just get together and write and see what came out. I am so appreciative of the songwriting community in Nashville. They’re truly amazing and so talented. I’m grateful for the fact that I was able to find a core group of writers to help do this record with me.”
The song “make you” was the inspiration for Lindsay’s “Make You Movement”, a charitable fund whose mission is to help organizations that support at-risk youth, domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors by providing funds on an as-needed basis. In addition to her work as a philanthropist and promoting her record through appearances on major networks, Lindsay is already busy writing a follow-up album in which she will take the listener a little further along with her on her journey.
“I think that as a songwriter, yes, what I write next will be part two,” she says. “How it will be connected to this we will see. The minute you finish a project you’re on to write the next, so there definitely will be a sequel to come.”
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