Since their inception in 2010, Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes have been forging the kinds of tunes you’d expect to hear from a band with their credentials. Their discography is full of well-written, well-produced gems that work just about anywhere: at CMJ, SXSW, and as background music on The Vampire Diaries and Sunday Night Football, if that tells you anything.
They’re accomplished, they’re dedicated, they’re whip-smart. They’ve managed to stand out among the vast ocean of bands in Nashville, and they’ve achieved all of their present success entirely on their own. Deer Head Music is owned and operated by the band.
We sat down with Daniel Ellsworth—someone we’ve known since we were both bumming around music school—recently to get a sense of where the band is and where they might be going. You can find out in person on Wednesday 1/27 at the Basement East in Nashville.
DANIEL ELLSWORTH: We just switched—for a long time two of the guys in the band have been with ASCAP and two have been with BMI. I’d been with ASCAP since the Belmont days—
BITTER EMPIRE: Yeah, same here.
DE: And it was fine, but we had BMI saying, “You should come over here, we’ll put you on festivals, we’ll help you book shows…” They’ve already talked about putting us on Austin City Limits this year, which would be cool. I know they have a stage there.
BE: You have an EP coming out, right?
DE: Yeah. We put out a track (“Always/Never”) in November and it did really well, which was unexpected just because we hadn’t done any publicity for it. We’re releasing another track in February, and then the EP comes out in March.
BE: What’s the rest of your plans for 2016?
DE: We’ll do a release show for the EP. We’re doing SXSW. We’ll do some touring but not too much since we’re going back into the studio at the end of this month to start on the next record. We’d like to have it out before the end of the year, but at the very least we’ll finish making it by then.
BE: And you have your own label, right?
DE: For us, it’s always been a necessity. It’s always made more sense to us to do things ourselves. Ideally, we’ll keep on doing that. It gives us the freedom to choose who we work with, as opposed to having other people decide that. We own the company together as a band, and the four of us already do the things a label would do.
BE: I hate to use a term like “market strategy”—but obviously you can’t just sit back and do two-year album cycles. Everything moves much more quickly now.
DE: Absolutely. I’m such an album person, everyone in the band is—it’s what we grew up on, but it’s not how people listen to music anymore. We were talking to Spotify, and they encouraged us to do something different. Because whether you release one song or twelve songs, from a digital standpoint, they’re both seen as one release. So we did that, we put out “Always/Never” and focused everything on that.
It wasn’t what we would have done instinctively, and it ended up being very successful, so it was a pleasant surprise.
BE: The album format isn’t going away. I see it as a good thing. It’s not for everyone, and I don’t mean that some artists are good at it and some artists are bad, but it’s a format that requires subtlety. And not every artist wants to deal with that. They shouldn’t have to. So now everybody can focus on what they do best. The people who want to continue dealing in nuance have a space where they can keep doing it. And everybody else should get out of the way.
DE: I think for us, doing albums is always going to be part of the deal. How we roll them out might be different.
BE: It seems like you’re in a good place with the support you’re getting from BMI, having your own label, and I know you’ve gotten some placements, those things add up.
DE: It adds up to having some flexibility to try different things. The only thing missing is the initial capital that a label can offer. Placements are good, getting attention through digital outlets is good, but after you pay yourselves enough to live on, there’s not much left.
BE: I don’t think it’s something people consider—I know it’s not—but the market has never been fair to artists. Now it’s even worse because not only is the old model gone—which wasn’t great, but at least it was consistent—there’s nothing to replace it. Artists are fronting all the risk.
DE: As an artist, you want someone to blame. Whether it’s Spotify, or whoever…could those things be better, could they improve? Yes. Will they? I hope so. But regardless, streaming is growing exponentially. We’re not going back to digital sales or CDs. I’m not saying we have to embrace it, but you have to figure out what to do about it. For me, I wanted to know more about Spotify, I wanted to get to know some people there. A lot of them are artists. They’re huge music lovers. And they’ll be the first to admit they don’t have the answers. They’re providing a service that people obviously want, and they’re trying to figure out how to make it work.
BE: And that would be enough to have to deal with. But there’s pressure from all sides. Artists aren’t getting compensated enough. Labels want streaming gone entirely. That’s absurd to me.
DE: Exactly. A lot of people in the industry are spending a lot of time and energy trying to fight something that clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a weird time to be an artist.
BE: More than ever, you really have to know what you want to do, and you have to be happy with just being able to make music and express yourself, because anything else is hard to come by.
DE: If you’re lucky enough to hit a point where you’re doing so well that everyone in the band is making some income, if and until you get there, you gotta be okay with the fact that you’ll be working a day job when you’re not on the road, or if you’re like me you’ll have to do session work or side projects.
BE: It’s unbelievable how hard you have to work. It’s another thing people don’t think about. The people I know here, the ones that are on the road, every time I talk to them they’re trying to learn how to play fiddle, or they’re learning how to sing backup, because they have to continually prove their worth. Or they won’t get the call next time.
At the same time, there are people still doing it, and succeeding. So there’s hope there.
DE: For sure.
BE: You’ve had some diverse musical experiences. Other than the desire to try something new, is there a common thread there? What are you drawn to?
DE: I think there’s a common thread. Everything I work on, it feels like another way of trying to write pop songs. The way we write as a four piece rock band, where everyone has input—we all have that same inclination to make really good pop. My side project is a little more blatant in that regard. It’s all electronic, but that’s another aspect of music that I enjoy, that I don’t get to do with the Great Lakes. I love what we do, but I also love working in that world. At the end of the day, I can listen to all of it and it all feels like pop music to me.
BE: What makes a good pop song? I don’t mean in an abstract way. For you specifically, what do you like about a really good song?
DE: For me, how the melody or the hook is approached—I want it to feel familiar, but also unique. That applies to the production, too. My favorite thing about the pop songs I like is almost always the production.
From a writing standpoint, what we do is try and take those familiar elements and add something, or change something—the chord structure, or…
BE: Now we’re starting to get philosophical…so what is the point of music? And what is your relationship, what role do you play in that?
DE: I think first and foremost in everything that I make, I try and make sure that I love every part of the process. When I’m trying to find a balance—there has to be a balance, unfortunately, you have to walk the line between art and commerce—but in that, for me, it’s making sure that I love the process. Every step from writing, to recording, to playing live.
BE: What are you listening to right now?
DE: 2015 was the year of Tame Impala. That record—to me it was an album, but the songs are poppy, but the production is interesting.
BE: I didn’t expect that kind of a record from them.
DE: Yeah. That was a big one for me. And this sounds silly, but Kendrick Lamar’s record…I think he’s leaps and bounds ahead of anybody else in rap. Though I will say, I’m interested to see what happens with Chance the Rapper. His SNL appearance blew my mind. The first independent artist to ever be on SNL. He’s unsigned, and he did two unreleased songs on the show. The only way you can hear those songs is by watching those performances.
When we made Kid Tiger, I was listening to a ton of hip-hop, and I think it influenced my approach, the way I thought about phrasing.
BE: Have you heard Bully?
BE: She’s (Alicia Bognanno) a badass. Do you know her backstory? She went to MTSU, then she interned at Electrical Audio in Chicago, and Steve Albini’s gone on record talking about what a great engineer she is. She engineers, mixes, produces, writes, plays, sings…
DE: To be that in tune with the music you’re making, I think that’s impressive. I’m also super excited for Natalie Prass, she’s a good friend and she’s had a really good year.
BE: I need someone from Nashville to make it every now and then. Because for every one of those, there’s a ton of bands that were great and should have made it and they’re just not around anymore.
DE: It’s hard.
BE: So much of it is out of their control.
DE: The people at Spotify know—a lot of them sold a lot of records in the 90’s, when you did 12 songs, put them on a CD, and if one of them did well on radio, you could sell a lot of records.
BE: Great for the bands that could pull that off, but as a fan it was a terrible time. I bought a lot of records that were garbage with a good single tacked on. That’s one of the things that have changed for the better. You can’t hide behind bad songs anymore.
DE: The good part about having a band is that we keep each other in check. The boundaries sort of define themselves. We avoid a lot of potential pitfalls that way. We’re not ever going to play with tracks. We’re not going to play to a metronome…not that those things are bad, we just know that’s how we’re going to do it.
BE: So you’re telling me you didn’t play “Waves” to a click?
BE: And that hang at the end, you guys nailed that together?
BE: That’s incredible.
DE: It’s the greatest feeling, when you’re doing something that far out and it works.