Interview: John Ellis

Jun 24 2010

As lead singer of popular South African band Tree63, John Ellis is no stranger to the music business. But now he is rediscovering himself as a solo singer with the launch of his new album 'Come Out Fighting'. We spoke to John to find out why he decided to go solo.

Most people will know you as the lead singer from Tree63, and now you're here as a solo singer. What happened?

After over 10 years of Tree63, I woke up one day and decided I’d had enough. I was the guitar player, singer and songwriter for Tree63, all rolled into one, and I didn’t feel like being in a band anymore. Whatever Tree63’s mission had been, it just didn’t feel necessary anymore. It took a long while for it to sink in that I could be some sort of solo artist.

Are Tree63 finished forever, or might you reform in the future?

I don’t see any reason to reform Tree63. There'd be no artistic merit in doing what's been done already. But if there's one word we like to use that makes God laugh, it's "never".

You recently stated that you feel more liberated as a solo singer and that you were locked in a 'stylistic ghetto' with Tree63. That must have been very frustrating for you as an artist?

Yes, it was. Increasingly, I felt (and still feel) that contemporary Christian music is a very limited and limiting genre of music. In fact, I don’t feel it should even be a genre of music in its own right. Rather than try and fight it, I realized how much more free I’d be to operate outside of it.

How is your new found freedom evident on the new album?

Lyrically, I’m exploring themes that had no place in Tree63’s world. I’m singing about South Africa and its politics, about depression and hope, there’s a lot of wry comedy and a fair bit of ranting there. Musically, a lot more passion, excitement and inventiveness than those last few Tree63 records.

Which is your favourite track off your new album and why?

Always a hard question to answer. I’d pick 'Government Song' as one of the strongest musical pieces I’ve produced, but then again so is 'Rebels'. I love the rock 'n roll of 'Rant', and the strumminess of 'The Unlucky One', 'Maybe (Just Maybe)' and 'Brace Yourself'. I think my personal journey over the last two or three years is really captured by 'Maybe (Just Maybe)'.

What's your song writing process?

Thumb-sucking, hand-wringing, ranting, raving, procrastination, sheer joy, mindless optimism, delusions of grandeur, shape-throwing, beard-stroking, guitar-smashing, family-ignoring, self-doubt, self-hatred, narcissism, self-congratulatory backslapping. Repeat.

What has been your career highlight so far?

Getting to plug an electric guitar into an amplifier and stand up on a stage with friends playing rock 'n roll. It's a privilege and it never gets old, ever.

What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians out there?

Study marketing, study social networking, and realize that you’re going into business. Talent is just not enough anymore. I hate myself for saying that, but that’s what I learned the hard way, and I wish I’d known 20 years ago.

You're stuck on an island, it's hot, you only have enough battery life left to listen to one song on your mp3 player. What track is it?

'Time Will Tell' by Bob Marley and The Wailers.

What does the next year hold for John Ellis?

Hopefully, playing my new songs live in front of people. Then, the Grammy’s, the Oscar’s, Parisienne catwalks, the French Riviera, Time magazine’s cover shoot, notoriety, scandal, retirement, comeback album. In that order. It’s going to be busy.

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