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Ellen Doty: Goosebumps All Over

Kevin Press By

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When I first started writing, I was afraid to express myself fully, to write about things that were very personal to me. Collaboration helps me get to another level of being vulnerable... —Ellen Doty
Calgary's Ellen Doty drops her second LP March 2. Come Fall is a stripped-down collection of gorgeous jazz pop that features Doty on vocals, Davide Di Renzo on drums and Mark Lalama on piano.

The absence of bass, horns and all the rest was an inspired choice. Doty, whose crystal-clear voice must be heard to be believed, talked with me about how he album became a trio project, opening for Gregory Porter and working with songwriting partners Justin Rutledge, Andy Stochansky and others.

All About Jazz: Did you work in person with the other songwriters?

Ellen Doty: I did. All of the co-writing sessions were done in person. I always prefer to do it that way. It helps us connect more. I like learning from other people's processes too—seeing how they work and how they create.

AAJ: What did you learn on this album?

ED: Each session brought its own lessons. Justin Rutledge was great in teaching me how to be more lyrically abstract. He's great at his craft; helping create a scene for people to imagine in their minds. He taught me how to do that. It's something I can carry forward.

AAJ: You two have a similar vibe.

ED: My drummer and producer Davide was the one that recommended that we work together because he thought stylistically we'd fit well together. And it ended up being so.

AAJ: How did you end up recording a trio?

ED: That wasn't the original thought. We were in the studio doing demos with a full band, five of us. We finished a session about 10 pm or so. Davide and I were thinking that it just didn't sound quite right. The players were incredible, amazing musicians. It was just that the music didn't have the feeling we were looking for.

We really wanted to leave space to portray the stories and the feelings on this album. It was Davide's suggestion to try sitting down, just the three of us—voice, piano and drums. We started jamming and we were all like "oh, this is amazing." I had goosebumps all over. That was it right there—just really letting the songs speak for themselves. I feel my voice sounds really free in that too.

AAJ: Your voice has a beautifully clear evenness to it, which is accentuated by the instrumentation.

ED: I think my voice has quite a soft quality. Sometimes in studio settings, I've found that putting a lot of layers on things or having a lot of instruments there, I don't think my voice comes through as clearly. So, this was a really nice realization for me. Sometimes it's comforting to have all those things supporting you, but other times there's more strength in stripping things away.

AAJ: How does that translate live?

ED: We are rehearsing right now in Toronto It's really easy because it's the same instrumentation that I'm going to be touring with and performing this album with. So it's an easy translation. But it's strange to get used to leaving things very simple. It's our tendency to want to play more in a live setting. We have to fight the urge and keep the music as we wanted it when we created it—keep that feeling and sense of space. I think that's what makes the music powerful.

AAJ: What was it like to open for Gregory Porter?

ED: It was an amazing opportunity to be in front of a big audience, but also an amazing opportunity to meet and hear that band live. Gregory's obviously an incredible singer and performer. The band is great too. I've actually been writing with Gregory's drummer Emanuel Harrold—just sending things back and forth. He really enjoyed my music and wanted to work together. So perhaps we'll have something coming out at some point together.

AAJ: Collaboration is a bit of a theme here.

ED: When I first started writing, I was afraid to express myself fully, to write about things that were very personal to me. Collaboration helps me get to another level of being vulnerable because I have to sit in a room with someone that I probably just met and talk to them about a story from my life, or something that I really think is pressing or important that I want to put into song. To be able to just show up and do that with people, helps me bring more vulnerability to my music.

AAJ: I would have thought working with others would make that more challenging.

ED: It's interesting. Every writing session is different. But I think one thing that you can probably hear in my music is that I have a lot of different influences. From soul and pop, to jazz, to many other things. Collaborating with people from other genres and coming together to create something together for me is quite special. I've learned how to express how I want things to sound, but also let it be organic too. Sometimes the form that the songs are written in, I end up rearranging them a bit to fit my own personal musical style. But I think a good song can be rearranged in many ways.

AAJ: What do you look for in a songwriting partner?

ED: I've really been looking for songwriters that I admire because for me that's something that I want to continue to improve. Being able to learn from some of the great songwriters of Canada and elsewhere has been a really important part of my growth.
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