Not that there haven't been highly educated bands before, but Nashville-based Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes boasts a doctor (of folklore and ethnomusicology) among its ranks. That's guitarist Timon Lance. Frontman Ellsworth studied classical composition before graduating with a degree in jazz performance.
So how does that impact the high-energy indie-rock quartet? The band philosophizes, among themselves, about “music and the live show experience and how it relates to the listeners,” says Ellsworth. But don’t expect a Great Lakes show to be all cerebral. Instead, the band bounces enthusiastically through its repertoire of finely crafted, poppy, upbeat songs. Touring in support of last year’s Civilized Man (named among Amazon’s Best of 2011 and No. 18 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart), the band infuses even its softer songs with punchy rhythm.
“In a live setting, you want to keep people interested,” says Ellsworth. “We’re always thinking about how can we take the song that would normally be played one way and change what it feels like, change the beat even just a little bit, so it’s not just another folk song and not just another pop song.” He credits drummer Joel Wren with thinking outside of the box in that way.
Ellsworth also pushed boundaries, combining the influences from his childhood (his parents were into ‘60s folk, he performed in musical theater and studied piano while listening to hip-hop) into a collection of songs that nod to, at turns, honky-tonk, doo-wop and rockabilly.
That sprawling palette likely came in handy when Ellsworth was contacted by Jeremy Lister, a member of Street Corner Symphony, the second-place winners in season two of reality show The Sing-Off. Lister had been tasked by show producers to put together a group of his favorite musicians from Nashville “to see if they could sing a capella,” says Ellsworth. The resulting group, season three’s The Collective, included Ruby Amanfu and Sam Brooker of pop duo Sam & Ruby, among indie rockers and singer-songwriters. The Collective sang its way into eighth place, though Ellsworth admits that a capella performance “for me, was way out of the comfort zone.”
So, did he gain anything from the experience? “I’ve always wanted to be a band that includes a lot of harmonies and different voice parts. Especially on the newer stuff that we’re writing, there’s a lot of that going on,” Ellsworth says. “I definitely think about the arrangement of vocals more now.” That, and the Collective went on to record with Sing-Off judge Sara Bareilles on her EP Once Upon Another Time. Plus, Ellsworth got to know musician/pianist Ben Folds (another judge on the show) — an inspiration to the Great Lakes band leader (who writes and performs much of his own music on keyboard) as well as a fellow Nashville resident.
According to Ellsworth, “The general perception is that Nashville is still a country music town. It’s not anymore.” Though he always thought he’d leave after college (Ellsworth grew up in Minneapolis; the rest of the members of the Great Lakes are also from the Midwest, though they all met in Nashville), the musician has now been in music city for nearly a decade. “The whole community has grown up; the music scene has exploded,” he says.
Jack White and the Black Keys now call the Tennessee city home: “The rock scene here is alive and well,” says Ellsworth.
The Great Lakes is comfortable calling itself indie rock, but Ellsworth adds, “We don’t want to make music for a specific group of people who will love it until that genre is no longer cool.” By incorporating elements of classic rock, doo-wop and “things that have been around forever,” Ellsworth says the band attracts an extremely diverse crowd.
“To me, it’s encouraging that we see 18-year-olds who love what we do, and 50-year-olds, too,” he says.
The Great Lakes hope to be back in the studio next year and are currently writing songs for a follow up to Civilized. In comparison to that 2011 record, Ellsworth says the new album will head “more in the direction of ‘Bleeding Tongue’ and ‘Shoe Fits.’” Those two tracks, with their pop hooks and fresh-but-familiar sound, are radio-ready. The frontman says that the whole band gave input to those songs. “And the composition is very thought out and intentional.”
Going forward, it sounds like Ellsworth is ready to take even more risks. The future songs, he says are “going to be bigger, poppier and much more rock.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes
where: The Emerald Lounge
when: Friday, Aug. 24 (8:30 p.m. $5. Wash Hollow opens, Naren closes. http://www.emeraldlounge.com)