INTERVIEW

Yale graduate Ellis Ludwig-Leone is a young composer with grand ambitions.

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1997, aged 7, Ellis Ludwig-Leone accompanied his father to the local library to be signed up to play some sports. Old man in-line, he did what every other kid had done that day – he took a wander over to a nearby piano, an instrument he’d never seen before. Then he did something that no other kid had done – he played it. So the answer to my question, ‘have you always been naturally gifted when it comes to music’, is, ‘yes, yes I have!’.

Ellis, now 23 and based in Brooklyn, where he’s lived for the last two years, is not the kind of guy to say that. Instead, he hastens to flag: “I’m not sure how much of my dad’s story is accurate, there, and I think those sorts of stories become self-fulfilling prophesies. Like, if Mozart hadn’t become Mozart, no one would really care that he was writing symphonies when he was 5. But yeah,” he concedes, “I was always adept at the piano.”

The son of two visual artists, Ellis Ludwig-Leone grew up in Berkley, southern Massachusetts, a small, rural town between Boston and Cape Cod. The family had relocated there for their art, enabling the parents of the household to convert a deserted dairy barn into their own art studio. “I used to be quite good at art, myself,” say Ellis, “but there’s something crucial about music, and there’s a centre of attention thing to it – like, you’re making a sound, so people have to pay attention to you.”

He says his first musical memory is “being really amused by The Beatles,” particularly ‘Abbey Road’ and all of its avant pop segues, erudite callbacks and eccentric-but-studied orchestrations. It makes complete sense when listening to Ellis’s own music, created under the name San Fermin, recorded with the help of 22 musicians (within them a string quartet, a brass quartet, saxophone, guitar, drums, a few operatic sopranos, piano, keyboards, vibraphone and harmonium) and scaled down to a cast of 8 when on the road (“Large enough to get that expansive sound but small enough that it’s possible to fly places without selling all our worldly possessions”).

What would eventually become this band began some years ago at Ivy League University Yale, where Ellis studied Music Composition and where his sister currently follows in their parents’ footsteps studying Art. The idea was simple – “to write concert music that had influences from different places, and was something that people would actually want to come and see, rather than the stiff, classical concerts that kids wouldn’t go to.” Ellis and another fledgling composer set about recruiting 12 instrumentalists to perform their modern pieces to achieve the goal. The results weren’t mixed; they were good. Good enough for the group to travel a little, and for Ellis to realise that all he had learned studying Shubert and Handel could be successfully injected into the world of contemporary pop music.

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“In high school I was in rock bands,” he says. “I also studied classical piano, so I had a bit of that going on, but mainly I was in bands playing standard rock stuff, and then when I got to Yale I realised that there was a really strong program in classical, whereas there really wasn’t much happening on the band scene. I really got immersed in it and I felt like it would be good to learn a different way to put music together. I wasn’t particularly versed in classical music going in; I actually felt like an outsider going in, and really all the way through – there were all these conservatory kids that had done that from an early age, and I hadn’t. I’ve come full circle – I was a rock and pop person looking in at the classical thing, and now that I’m out of school I feel like I have more of a classical view point than my pop/rock contemporaries.”

‘San Fermin’ is an audacious take on chamber pop, released September via Downtown Records. It’s long, too (nearly an hour), and comes with a definite, literary concept – a conversation between a despondent man (performed by singer Allen Tate) and a cynical woman (Lucius singers Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe). Tate burrs his parts, which sombrely croon between the gothic, anti-heroics of Patrick Wolf and the warm baroque pop of Beirut. “There’s a mob at the door / I hear them / Calling for my head,” Tate purrs matter-of-fact on the opening ‘Renaissance!’, setting the unease early on, as a brassy fanfare rises and spirals over his pleads of ‘Please don’t wake me up / I’m waiting for your love’.

Our female lead, who more or less fronts every other song on the record, is more cheery in her delivery if not her message. ‘Crueler Kind’ and lead single ‘Sonsick’ do what Dirty Projectors daren’t three years ago, further exploring the chirruping RnB that ‘Stillness Is The Move’ so brilliantly hinted at. Both tracks are album highlights. ‘Crueler Kind’ overlaps lilywhite choral vocals and parping trumpets, a la Minnie Riperton’s ‘Les Fleur’; ‘Sonsick’ appears even more euphoric as the voices of Laessig and Wolfe gleefully entwine. Yet beneath Ellis’s triumphant, skillful arrangements, Girl X seems even more doomed than her would-be mate, first warning, “I wouldn’t worry / I’m not about to fall in love again”, then, “I’ll fall for you soon enough / I resolve to love / Now I know it’s just another fuck / Cos I’m old enough.

Ellis cultivated these difficult souls in the mountains of Alberta, Canada, where he locked himself away to write San Fermin’s debut album on graduating from Yale, but they were born before he’d arrived, dreamt up en route, some 30,000 feet above North America. Cruising on a vapour trail, Ellis mapped out the arc of the record from his cabin seat; a map he says he stuck to, featuring the number of male and female driven songs and interludes he’d originally planned for. “I wanted to write as much as possible,” he says, “so I wrote a song a day, and however finished it was I’d move on the following day. I wanted the whole thing to sound like it was coming from the same place, even if there were very different sounds to the songs.”

He’d been reading a lot, too, the works of 1920s American novelists, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway. “I used Hemingway as a starting point,” he says in reference to the author’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, “but I’d definitely hesitate to say that it was informative or that the record was inspired by it. It was more that the female character in that book was appropriately aloof for my own.

“It was a big breakthrough for me, though – realising that I could write from the point of view of characters that weren’t me but would channel certain things that I care about. A lot of the songs have literary references, and it allowed me write like they would talk, instead of writing everything altogether from my point of view, which would sound corny and awful.”

It’s a strange time, leaving university. You can do anything you want, but what and how? Ellis ploughed the thrill and the fright into ‘San Fermin’, and particularly his male protagonist. “The goal was to try to capture the moment in my life that was real and important,” he says, “this moment of being straight out of school, and what do you do now? There’s a constant theme with the male character of trying to find meaning and what the important things are.”

Yale had been good to Ellis, in spite of – or rather in light of – the college’s lack of indie rock. Luck had dealt him a roommate that was the principle violinist of The Philharmonia Orchestra. To hold such a position for the next four years, as Ellis’s friend did, you need to practice all day every day. To live with the guy, you have to listen to it. Ellis still calls him for advice today when arranging string parts, and the pair of them go through ideas on the phone, testing out what will and won’t work with live instruments. “I think it helps to be around string players all the time so you can then picture them doing what you’re asking them to play,” says Ellis.

“I came to that school with not much in the way of formal training, and what I picked up there was that there is lots of different ways to make a piece of music – everything can be questioned, and all of the decisions you make about your music should be made on purpose.”

Of course, if university teaches us anything, it’s to hustle, and Yale was no different in that regard, or perhaps Ellis Ludwig-Leone was simply more intuitive than his classmates. In his sophomore year he interned at a small record label, where he arranged to interview contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly for the company’s podcast. Muhly, whom many consider the natural heir to the throne of Philip Glass, is still just 31 and the man that all young composers aspire to be, so who better to bug for a job.

First Ellis sent Muhly “this terrifying piano piece, which featured people whispering”, entitled ‘Secrets’. Muhly’s response: “I like the piece but the name sounds like a lesbian strip club.”

“It was a snarky but pretty engaging thing to say,” says Ellis. “We stayed in touch and I pestered him until he gave me work to do.”

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Today, Ellis remains in Muhly’s inner circle of 4 or 5, where he intends to stay, assisting the composer for as long as possible. It’s a position worth a thousand diplomas, and one that has no doubt informed a recent collaboration with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo (the pair arranged a Hurricane Sandy-inspired piece together for Berlin Chamber Orchestra Solisenensemble Kaleidoskop), and his own ballet for Ballet Collective, premiering this month.

“[Nico] is so schooled and so confident and so great at every aspect of what he does that it’s always a pleasure working for him,” says Ellis. “You should be as informed and as confident and competent as possible in every facet of the thing that you’re doing. In the classical music world there’s certainly emphasis on the craft being done the right way [which isn’t always the case in indie or pop]. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I dashed [‘San Fermin’] off.”

Indeed, every aspect of Ellis’s debut album is considered, from the ‘Bar’’s vocal nod to his dad’s old copy of ‘Abbey Road’ (and album track ‘Because’, in particular), to recurring, forlorn phrases like “I can’t fall asleep in your arms” (‘Cassanova’, ‘The Count’), and the grandiosity that comes with 22 instruments colliding so beautifully. Yet perhaps it’s the name of Ellis’s project that’s most deeply rooted of all.

San Fermin is the festival held in Pamplona, Spain, more commonly known as The Running of The Bulls, where locals are chased through the narrow streets of the city by horned beasts for the sheer hell of it. It was little known to the English-speaking world until Earnest Hemmingway set one of his novels there – yes, The Sun Also Rises. At first, Ellis named an interlude after the event, then another, then his album, then his entire project. Most of all, it seemed fitting for what it is he’s trying to achieve with this ambitiously emotional record.

“I thought that what’s nice about [the festival] is that people put themselves in this life and death position, just to feel the thrill of it,” says Ellis, “and I think that’s a really attractive idea. In the record there’s this feeling that if you’re going to live something you might as well live it all the way up and try to feel it as much as possible.”

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