Five years have come and gone since Ernest Ellis dropped his last record. Between ‘Cold Desire’ and today, the New York City-based artist has kept busy with not only music but educational goals. That’s where this conversation started but as it unfolded, social media chatter and talk of his August 7th release, ‘Be The Pariah’ came to light in this east meets west coast conversation.
Kendra: The past five years for you have been quite busy. You made a huge move and took your education to new levels. All of that after dropping three pretty well-received albums. What sparked your interest in pursuing a Ph.D., and was the plan to always return to music after that?
Ernest Ellis: I wanted to do the Ph.D. because it afforded me more time to read and think about the things I’m interested in, instead of going out and getting a real job. I had a scholarship that paid me a little income, so I guess you could say it was my job, albeit one with a lot of flexibility and basically no supervision, and that suited me down to the ground.
I also thought I could maybe go forward and work at a uni if my writing/filmmaking/songwriting careers didn’t work out, but it turns out I’m not much of an academic, so that “plan b” has kind of gone down the tubes…I was still writing songs and other unrelated things while working on my dissertation, so I never really left making music. It was good to step back and take my sweet old time writing / shaping the songs though.
Kendra: How do you feel ‘Be The Pariah’ compares to your previous releases from a songwriter’s perspective?
Ernest Ellis: The songwriting is much stronger, particularly from a storytelling perspective. It’s night and day, really. That’s not to say I’m not happy with the songs I wrote in the past. I like some of them fine. It’s all just a never-ending process. I hope I can similarly say that the songs on the next record are much stronger than those on this one someday. But yeah, I’m happy with these songs in the sense that I think they have something to express that’s more or less unique to my subjective experience, and I manage to express it coherently. The kindest thing I can say about some of the things I’ve written in the past is that they’re impressionistic – there’s often not a lot of coherent storytelling there.
Kendra: We’re trained from pretty much birth to fit in somewhere, to find a tribe of sorts. This album celebrates the opposite, puts the loner in the spotlight as the hero. Was being on the outside of the norm something you had always done or was this a new found aspect of yourself that you accepted as you got older?
Ernest Ellis: I was always on the outside, particularly growing up, yes. I resented it for a long time and tried to just fit in, as most kids do. But that never tended to work so well. Looking back it seems ridiculous that I cared, but I did.
So yes, it’s something I’ve come to embrace as I’ve gotten older. I’m wary of cliques or groups or organizations with any sorts of codes-of-conduct. I’m wary of overly prescribed ways of doing things. Being on the “inside,” belonging somewhere, to some group of “like-minded individuals,” is, in my opinion, equivalent to the death of creativity. And it’s creativity that I’m interested in. For that, you have to be outside the tent looking in.
The loner is the hero, as far as heroism can go. And I don’t say that because I’m a loner myself. It’s the loner who has shaped knowledge, not the corporate executive. Taken in the vacuum that a song naturally is, do I think that the guy prowling around for quarters in a parking lot while talking to himself is more admirable and worthy of attention than the one inside the casino swallowing consumer culture whole? I do. Outside of some basic ethical guidelines (such as do not kill, for eg.), there’s nothing to be liked about normalizing culture; it’s tantamount to the death of the human spirit.
Kendra: On a broader scale, we’re all vying for attention daily via social media. Living for likes, and retweets. Do you feel like as a society we have lost the need to be not necessarily a loner or pariah, but the need to be alone with just our own thoughts?
Ernest Ellis: Do I feel like we’ve lost the need to be alone with our thoughts? I feel like you’re baiting me…No, I don’t think we’ve lost the need to be alone with our own thoughts, to think for ourselves, etc. I think social media has made it more difficult to be alone with our own thoughts. Maybe more problematic than that, I think it inhibits real social interaction. I know it’s hard with everything that’s going on, but I wish people would get out and be with each other more often IRL, as the kids say; showing my age.
That’s the kind of interaction I’m interested in, not the kind that comes via the all too premeditated and curated medium of the cell phone and its “social” platforms. I don’t have much, if anything, good to say about social media so I should probably just stop there. Let me just say, I get it for people who use it to help market their business or a book they’ve written, etc., but on the level of people just using it to post pictures of themselves under the phony auspices of “social networking.” I’m troubled by it.
In that case, it often just strikes me as a “narcissism enhancement” tool. More narcissism is the last thing we need right now. We’ll be talking about “social media” related afflictions and mental illnesses in a few years in the same dire and serious way we’ve been talking about those derived from things like hard-drug and cigarette addictions for years; and if we’re not talking about it like that, if we’re not seeing it as a serious problem, then we’ll have gone even further down the tubes as a society.
Kendra: Being in New York City, how do you feel all the events of 2020 have shaped your creativity and drive moving forward?
Ernest Ellis: Yeah, it’s been a weird and disturbing year to put it way too mildly. In terms of silver linings, I hope we can look back on 2020 and say it was progressive in some important ways too. I’m not sure the impact of this year has set in for me creatively just yet. I need more time to answer. If anything, I would say it’s given me lots more alone time to write, so there’s that.
Kendra: Usually, this is where I ask people what they have planned in the coming months but with the world in a strange place right now, plans aren’t as concrete as they typically are. You can go ahead and let us know what you have tentatively planned but can you also share a song that never fails to get you through when the world around you feels like a mess?
Ernest Ellis: Yeah, I was scheduled to direct my first feature film back in Aus in the late part of 2020, but with COVID it looks like that’s now going to be pushed back. It’s a bummer for me personally, but it’s hard to complain in light of what so many people are facing right now. A song? Here’s two: Burial’s “Come Down To Us” and Fiona Apple’s “On I Go.”