Ellen Cook is not one for conventions; her voicemail involves the phrase "jazz hands." The local singer's music is sweet and eccentric, and she brings a punk rock sensibility to most everything she does. In preparation for her set at the RFT Showcase on June 4th, we talked to her about her new recording, Dolly Parton and arson.
Kelsey Whipple: Your music is firmly focused on storytelling. Are there any topics that are off limits?
Ellen the Felon: I don't know. Lately, I've been trying to write songs that aren't storytelling, that are more get-down, good-time party music, and I find it very difficult. I can't separate myself from my music. As much as I love my music, a lot of the songs cover very heavy times in my life, and it's even hard for me to play some of my songs anymore because they remind me of things I've been through. They're so autobiographical. Recently I played "Rock and Roll All Nite" by Kiss, and it was so nice to play something that was just fun.
If you could start a genre just for your music, what would it be called?
It would be called "from the heart." The genre thing is so hard for me because I do cover so many styles, and I've been waiting for someone else to put a name on it, but ... it would be called "queen of darkness." No, that's stupid. OK, modern jazz cabaret.
What are you working on right now musically?
I'm trying to write a few new songs. I basically just went into the studio a couple weeks ago with my drummer, and we're trying to get that album done. I try to do dark-bright, dark-bright, dark-bright in my setlist. We recorded damn near thirteen songs, and I still have six more songs to go. It's still in the works, and I have a few guests coming into the studio for backing vocals. I'm working on my dark EP, my bright EP and my solo EP all at once.
What are you listening to during the recording process?
I've been listening a lot to Scout Niblett and Roger Miller. I've got some Dolly Parton in my CD player right now and a lot of local music.
What are the overarching goals of an Ellen the Felon show?
You'll laugh. You'll cry, and you'll get drunk. Or not. We'll pick you up; we'll take you back down. I like to just stay real, and I really get caught up in the moment of inspiring people. Some of the songs I write are so honest, and they mean the world to me. It's powerful. You'll probably dance a little, too.
You have a large tattoo of piano keys on your left leg. What's the story behind it? Do you have any other musical tattoos?
I just got another tattoo. Dave Hagerty [frontman of local band Fattback who died in a hit-and-run car accident] wrote a song that he started in Austin, Texas about his first girlfriend and when he met me, he finished it. The lyrics are, "Adventure will catch her by surprise and pull her toward the best parts of the city. Between, beneath, around all the hard, gray lines. No shame, no hate, no guilt, no pity." I really like it because it's inspiring, and I hope I'm always living by the moment. As far as the other tattoo goes, when I look at it, it's kind of funny because it's not realistic to any piano I've ever seen. I got it as a reminder that I had just lost my mom, and I've also lost Dave, and I run to my piano to play.
If you could collaborate with any musician on your new album, who would it be?
Trent Reznor. I'm just kind of a sucker for '90s grunge and stuff, and it's so dark. It's so dark! It would be fun to collaborate and see what we could do. Actually, it's between Trent and Voltaire and Dolly Parton and Amanda Palmer. If I could just get all of them in the room and drink some coffee, that would be great. But we might all kill each other.
If you took your name seriously and committed a felony, which would you commit?
There are so many I could commit. It's hard to choose one. I would probably set fire to a giant government building. It's something that I hate. It would probably be arson-related.
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