Ernest Ellis: “There’s Something Pessimistic And Sleazy At My Core”

Having released two full-length albums in the span of just over a year, and experiencing frustration with the way his music was being received, Roland ‘Ernest’ Ellis, the nucleus of eponymous Sydney band Ernest Ellis, decided it was time to rest, re-evaluate, and simply drop out for a while.

The result of this recuperating period has been Cold Desire, the band’s third full-length effort. Written and recorded between co-producer Russell Webster‘s home studio in Austinmer and a studio in Berlin, the new album sees the band take on a rawer, honest, and more naked approach.

To find out how the new approach to writing and recording came about, and the impact its had on the band, its leader, and the new album, Music Feeds caught up with Roland ‘Ernest’ Ellis over email, who told us why he no longer feels the frustration that almost ended his music career.

Music Feeds: You’ve said that the idea behind Cold Desire was to make an album divested of any kind of aloofness. Did you find it difficult to adjust to this newfound honesty in your process?

Roland ‘Ernest’ Ellis: Good question. I did find it really tough. The tendency is to be oblique when it comes to songwriting because you think this makes things more poetic. But really what happens is that things often just turn into lyrical swill, and you look back on certain songs and think, what the hell was I talking about? So it’s much more difficult to be honest and still poetic, I think.

I was reading a thing the other day with Mark Kozelek where he was saying that he’s done with the metaphor in his songwriting, and the result of this is the new Sun Kil Moon album where everything is just straight-up narrative about things he’s doing/watching/surrounded by. And somehow he makes the mundane poetic by taking this straight approach, and I’d say that’s an incredibly hard thing to do.

I wouldn’t say I’ve gone nearly as far as Kozelek on my album, I still depend heavily on the metaphor, but it all feels like a more coherent, more honest approach this time around, and that was something I really had to work on and it’s something I’m really proud of when it comes to this record.

MF: What did the new, more open outlook bring about that would not have made it to the recording phase on previous albums? Were there topics or themes you previously wouldn’t have touched?

REE: No, I’ve always felt that everything is fair game. I guess the difference is the way I write about these things on this album. I’ve learned how to expose myself more honestly this time around I think. To sort of face up and look properly at myself I’d say. I’m an incredibly selfish songwriter.

It’s all me, my thoughts, my actions. I don’t really know how to write a topical song about what’s going on in the world or anything like that. I just know how to focus inward, and I think I’m getting a little bit better at that as time goes by.

Watch: Ernest Ellis – Black Wire

MF: You cited Coney Island Baby as the inspiration for Cold Desire. That’s traditionally thought of as Lou Reed’s “romance/love album.” What would you say is the overriding theme of Cold Desire?

REE: There’s a simplicity and straightforwardness to most of Lou’s records, but particularly Coney Island Baby in my opinion. And I took heaps of inspiration from his approach to CIB into making my record. Unfortunately the themes, “romance/love”, didn’t carry over on to my record too. I’d say the title of the record, Cold Desire, can be read into heaps when it comes to the themes of the album.

I find myself thinking pretty sadistic and self-centred things a lot of the time; and there’s something pessimistic and sleazy at my core, which, to my thinking, stems directly from how I go about life in the easiest city on the planet.

I think these thoughts more or less come through without sugar coating on this album. The trick is to tart them up with some beautiful instrumentation, which I have to give due credit to the other players on this record for providing––Mat Gardner, Russell Webster, Isaac Yeo, Michael Slater.

MF: How has the new approach to songwriting and recording translated into your live performances?

REE: Live show has never been better I don’t think. I’m enjoying singing these songs because I still understand them and connect with them lyrically, whereas before I’ve felt that I lost this relationship with my own songs at times, and that made it harder to get behind them live.

But our live show is mainly better these days because we’ve added a saxophone player — Michael Slater — to the lineup. Guy’s a genius, and he elevates the entire mood of the band and the room tenfold. Sax unites us. We can’t wait to do more shows.

MF: You wrote that before this album, you considered never making music again because of “bitter[ness] about how the Australian music industry worked.” Can you describe how, in your view, it does work?

REE: I realised pretty quickly that it was impossible for me to not make music. I love it too much and it just doesn’t seem like a viable choice. I guess I let a lot of external factors about how Ernest Ellis was being received get to me. I’d be thinking, this is fucked, our record’s heaps better than what’s getting heaps of press etc etc.

It all got me down. But in retrospect I think it was really dumb to let it do so. I can’t and never will be able to control whether Ernest Ellis’ music is supported really, so why bother getting the shits about it?

What has happened over the last few years is that I’ve let go of any bitterness and just re-focussed on my music cause that’s something I can control, and it’s something I find challenging and rewarding.

The industry here is a really small one, but I think it’s full of people earnestly doing their best. What I have to say about what a radio station should be playing or whatever doesn’t matter at all, it’d just a be a subjective response from some guy who’s not involved with the industry and its politics in any meaningful way.

I just like making records, that’s the only level I’m interested in being involved at these days, and if people want to play them or love them that’s great, if they don’t that’s fine too.

Watch: Ernest Ellis – Want For Anything

MF: What would you have done had you indeed left music? You’ve mentioned getting a PhD in New York, what would you have studied?

REE: Well as I said, I quickly figured out that leaving music wasn’t an option. But I’ll still be starting my PhD next year, probably a joint arrangement between Macquarie Uni here and one overseas (hopefully in NYC). Late 20th century American lit will be the focus.

MF: Cold Desire is a very textural record, with various twists and turns. What is it you’re hoping listeners get out of the experience of listening to it?

REE: I hope they listen to it as a full piece of work, it was made with this in mind. I don’t want to be too prescriptive in saying you need to get this or that from the album. Sounds simple but I just hope people enjoy it immensely; and that maybe it makes them really inspired or happy or sad.

It’s the peak of emotions in any direction that I’m always going for, you don’t want to be stuck in the lukewarm middle.

MF: What motivated the release of Black Wire as the album’s first single?

REE: Me being impulsive motivated the release of Black Wire. It was before I had a label in place or anything and I just posted it online after we finished recording it because I was super excited about the track. Was probably dumb in terms of milking the most out of it as a single, but hey.

Ernest Ellis’ third album, ‘Cold Desire’, is available now through Spunk Records.

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