Musician ellen cherry is hard to pin down, both in terms of her sound and her busy schedule. The Emmy nominee for “We Are Baltimore,” took a break from all that to talk about her work and upcoming New Year’s Eve show at Cooldog Concert Series.
Musician ellen cherry is hard to pin down, both in terms of her sound and her busy schedule. The Emmy nominee for “We Are Baltimore,” which she wrote for a Fox affiliate in the city, also recently scored a shadow puppet piece, is planning a new CD in the new year and has been awarded multiple grants from the Maryland State Arts Council. She took a break from all that to talk to us about her work and upcoming New Year’s Eve show at Cooldog Concert Series.
Q Your sound is hard to pinpoint. How do you describe it?
A Years ago, someone said I played “spunky downer pop.” Then I went on a tour to Iowa and the columnist there added onto it: “spunky downer pop, for history buffs.” I loved that, because I was playing so many history songs that I had written for my 2005 album “Years.” However, this year, I changed the tag line to “spunky downer pop for smarty pants” because I think people hear the word history and get turned off. I want to draw people in and sneak in those history songs before they know what’s happening.
But the best way to describe the sound is that it’s lyrical, thoughtful and, my hope for the audience, meditative. I’ve worked hard to become a more skilled musician and as the years go by, my focus is on how well I can control my voice and my guitar style (and after this next album, my piano chops). But I also want to deliver an interesting thought to the audience — a chance to feel or hear something they haven’t before.
Q What musicians inspire you?
A I’m inspired by so many different genres. I grew up on a healthy diet of folk, rock, R&B and songwriters. My favorites were Paul Simon, Carol King, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Billy Joel. But I was also a big fan of ‘80s synth pop — I went to see Erasure a few times in concert, ha! I also had some classical training on piano, so when I’m in the car, I tend to listen to classical music. I’m preparing for another album that I’ll be working on in January, so I’ve been listening to a lot of songwriters, especially Joni Mitchell, and reading a lot to get myself in the mindset of really digging into my thoughts and finding creative ways to express them.
Q What will we hear when you play at Cooldog?
A The set at Cooldog will consist mostly of original material. I might throw in one Tom Waits cover. Mostly I’ll be playing songs from my most recent albums “heart like a lion” (2008) and “(New) Years” (2010) and songs that I’ve written since “(New) Years” came out this year. I’m excited to be playing for the Cooldog audience, and being able to ring in the new year doing what I love is a real gift!
Q You recently scored a shadow puppet show called “Allonzo’s Lullaby.” How did you get involved, and what was that experience like?
A I met Molly Ross, the head of Nana Projects, very randomly when we were both out in Wisconsin, a few years ago. She heard me perform my song “1933: To California” and realized that we would be great collaborators on this project she had been hoping to do for over a decade, which was telling the story of the wreck of the Haggenbeck-Wallace Circus Train in 1918. I was fascinated by the story and knew that we were going to create something really special. The experience was amazing. Molly is an amazing artist, with a great vision and she let me really run with the score. We (myself and my co-writer, Nick Sjostrom) would create a part of the piece, present it to them and then would make pieces of the shadow puppets to match. I can’t wait to work with her again and luckily, the show has been really well received and we have other invitations to perform it.
Q In 2009 you wrote “We are Baltimore,” which was nominated for an Emmy. What are the differences between writing with a marketing goal in mind and writing your own music?
A The Fox promotional campaign was a great experience. I learned so much about not having too much emotional attachment to the ideas I was presenting. It was a collaborative experience again, so I would write and present a few ideas and some of them stuck and worked and some of them flopped, but I couldn’t be emotional about it, because I wasn’t the producer of the segment. I was so proud of the final song version that they chose — I felt it was a really catchy song and the segment was so popular that it ran for over a year!
I don’t go through this process when I’m writing my own music. I let the melodies and lyrics float around and I get very attached to certain little phrases (which usually develop into the structure of the songs) and I’m also more fiercely protective my original work. I want people to fall in love with some songs, the way I have.