"I have been doing a lot of therapy..." - Country star Lindsay Ell talks her new album Heart Theory
Generally, when an artist confirms that they've created a concept album, what comes to mind is theatricality and pomposity, myths and legends, pinball wizards and multiple costume changes.
There are notable exceptions to the above, but, in almost every case, it's a chance for an artist to park the personal and assume a moniker. To play characters and live somebody's else life for a while.
But, for Canadian country star Lindsay Ell, not so much.
Her new album, Heart Theory, is very much a concept record, but it's also a deeply, deeply personal project.
The album tracks the seven stages of grief, a psychological framework first developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, with Ell working through shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression and acceptance across the 12-track record.
With the album now on shelves, we spoke to Ell about how this particularly personal album turned into a concept LP...
It’s a very strange time to be releasing a record, have you managed to enjoy the process at all?
"I definitely would’ve never chosen to do it this way, but in hindsight, the slowdown from the pandemic has given me the opportunity to really focus on releasing the record. Normally I’m on a plane every day and not at home and available, and because I’m able to give myself 100% to the process, I feel like we’ve been able to set up the album really well. And it’s been really fun! But I can’t wait to get back on the road to play these songs live."
Did you have a goal of how you wanted the album to move on from what you did on The Project?
"Every artist wants to push themselves to always be better, so that was definitely a goal. I’ve done a lot of work over the past three years getting to know myself better, and for this album, it was really important to me that I write from a super open and honest place. I went into this knowing that if I wanted listeners to connect with this album then I had to lay myself bare. So as a result, the songs on this record are not just stories, they are my story."
You did the album with Dann Huff, what did he give you as a producer?
"Working with Dann has been on my bucket list since I moved to Nashville. Getting to work with him was truly a dream come true. As a guitar player, I was nervous about working with him, because he’s a god when it comes to guitar and I was worried he wouldn’t think I stacked up. He was so gracious and encouraging and rather than making me feel inadequate he pulled the best out of me."
You've got some big-name collaborators on the record, can you talk us through who you worked with?
"I was so fortunate to get to work with some of the best songwriters in Nashville. My single 'Want Me Back' was co-written with Kane Brown, Lindsay Rimes and Matt McGinn. It’s Kane’s first outside cut and working with him on it was proof to me that his success is no accident. He’s so incredibly talented. I wrote two songs with the incomparable Brandy Clark. She’s easily one of the best songwriters in Nashville and she helped me give life to 'Make You', which is a song I’ve been trying to write for years, but needed a master who could handle the topic with care."
"Sexual assault is a difficult subject matter and I am so grateful that she helped me tell my story with dignity, grace and positivity. Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line was one of the writers on 'Hits Me'. That was my first time working with him and like Kane, beyond being a great artist, at his core, he’s an incredible songwriter. I also got to work with some of my songwriting idols like Laura Veltz, Nicolle Galyon, Kelly Archer and Jessie Jo Dillon. These ladies are at the top of the game in Nashville!"
The record explores the seven stages of grief. When did you settle on that concept? And how did you find working with a set narrative?
"I’ve been writing songs for this record for over three years, and in that time I went through a break-up, so naturally those emotions were going to work their way into my songwriting. I dug deep into all my past relationships and the process of getting over them and just started writing, and at a certain point noticed that my songs were naturally following those stages."
"I have been doing a lot of therapy. That probably played into the process through osmosis. Once I realised what I was doing, then I made a conscious choice to follow that muse and decided to make it a concept record. Thankfully I didn’t set out to do that, because I probably would’ve struggled to colour in the lines of an existing idea, so it was a blessing that it happened pretty naturally. That helped to not feel like I was forcing it."
Which song on the album took the longest to write?
"I'd say 'Make You' for sure. It’s been years in the making and I started and stopped it more times than I can count. But once Brandy Clark and I got down to it, we finally brought it to life in a few hours!"
And which came together most quickly?
"'ReadY to Love' came the quickest. Emotionally that song is where I am at personally, so it just flowed out. It was the last song we wrote, in fact, it was written the day before we went in to start tracking the record, and at that point, I was so open from baring my soul that it just poured out."
When did you settle on Heart Theory for the title? Were there any other titles in contention?
"I’ve joked that if my last record was called The Project that I should’ve called this one The Process! But after finishing the record the title came to mind and I couldn’t shake it. Looking back on my life and my study of music I was thinking so much about how theory has shaped me as an artist. And the process of making this record and working through my emotions these past few years has shaped me as a person. So I coined the learning process as “heart theory” and it stuck."
Are you able to make any live plans at the moment? Or are you looking towards 2021?
"I miss being on the road so bad and can’t wait to get back out and play these songs for everyone. We are keeping a close eye on things so that we are ready to jump as soon as things open back up – including international touring. At this point, it might be more realistic that I could tour in the UK, Europe and Australia before the US. Until then, we are looking for ways to connect with fans virtually."
How have you spent lockdown? Have you kept writing?
"We were in the process of recording when lockdown started, so I actually had to finish my album from home. Thank God for technology! I was able to record sessions and send them back and forth with Dann. After the record was finished we went right into planning the release and it’s made the time fly by. I can’t believe the release day is finally here! I have been doing some writing, which is a mix of socially distanced in-person writing and some virtually on Zoom."
"This pandemic has really opened us up to a new writing process, which is cool because I’m writing with people across the world and I’m not sure I would’ve done that otherwise. I will definitely be doing a lot of writing once all the crazy work for the album release is done."