What’s in a character, and how do you build one? It’s hard, and perspectives differ. You could try and identify their raison d’etre through infinite mind-maps in prefab writer’s rooms or spend months exhaustively researching setting-appropriate turns of phrase on coffee-shop WiFi, but the result might still be trite and ersatz. I’d always been led to believe that “character-building” was as simple as being repeatedly pushed into a locker in Year 7 – the elusive silver-lined end-product of innumerable swirlies – but such experiences are thankfully entirely beyond the scope of this feature.
Enter Ellie Bleach and her darkly fabulous debut EP No Elegant Way To Sell Out, a tour-de-force of lounge-lizard pianos and Barrymore collars, and a place where character-building is all part of the gothic flair. In some of the best lyrics you’ll hear all year, each track casts a unique star in its lead role with a sense of desperation and loneliness held in common. There’s a palpable human honesty to their struggles and an engaging realism to be found in the soupy mundanity of their backdrops.
Who are these characters, then? Glad you asked. There’s the affluent but purposeless Young Professional from ‘Tupperware Party’, gracelessly elbowing his way into the life of a past love in the hope of reheating past happiness. We’re then introduced to the Entertainer in ‘Precious Feelings’, catching a glimpse of his hollow boredom and romantic resignation amid the stale air and patterned carpet of the cruise ship lounge. The Femme Fatale centre stage in ‘Doing Really Well Thanks’ takes us on a debauched whirlwind tour where anything is possible, and is coolly defensive of her hedonism. Then there’s the jealous Other Woman in ‘Something Wrong’, her paranoid romantic competitiveness reaching critical mass. We close on ‘Big Strong Man’ where the Genius, the softest softboi in all the land, is deconstructed piece by narcissistic piece.
Soft-rock and easy listening influences make up snug beds of sound for these narratives to lie in but you’re mistaken if you think this might belie some sense of sonic simplicity. There are plenty of surprises; examples include the sampled frenzied laughter that kicks off ‘Doing Really Well Thanks’ or the reverberant string flourishes and keyboard-smashing studded throughout ‘Something Wrong’. The blissful final minutes of ‘Big Strong Man’ deserve special mention, as the tension of the preceding few minutes gives way to an angelic chorus of backing vocals that soar upon a puffy white cloud of heavenly synth – a ship sailing into a future bettered by the absence of one more Terrible Man.
There’s a heady sense of theatre at some of the more grandiose moments, and for a second you might expect these five wayward misfits to emerge from stage right and take a bow when its all over. They’re not going to – I’m willing to bet they might all struggle to be in the same room and that’s just showbiz – but their mastermind definitely should. No Elegant Way To Sell Out is refreshing in its conceits, honest in its portraiture and cutting in its satire, and after this remarkable a debut we can’t wait to hear more.
How do you feel about the EP coming out?
Relieved that it’s finally out, because I finished recording it eight months ago. And then some of the songs have existed for years and have taken different forms, either when I’ve played it live or redone demos. It’s funny releasing recordings of something that you’ve been playing for ages because the majority of people are going to hear it as the recording. Whatever decisions you make on the recording, that’s how it will exist forever- and then most of the time when people see you live, they want you to be replicating the record which I think is quite bizarre. If any of them become smash hits and if I’ll be playing them for years I want to be able to do different arrangements of them.
You’re headlining at the Moth Cub on the 25th. How do you feel ahead of this show?
It’s probably my biggest headline show so far so I hope I fill it! I’m just excited to play the EP in full, once people have the references. The hardcore Ellie Bleach fans already know the songs because I’ve been playing them for a while. I’d love to live in a world where people discover you by seeing you live, but in terms of numbers most people are going to be listening to your recordings first.
And then you’re going to Belgium in November.
Yeah! I’ve actually never played abroad before, so that’s fun. It’s been weird working out the logistics, because I play with weighted keys to get that big piano sound – but that means, logistically, if you’re small like me without roadies, it’s really hard to travel. I think I‘m getting a piano sorted there, which feels kind of rockstar. And that’s also a good thing about playing just straight piano – I can just play it on any instrument, rather than having to have a specific guitar for that specific tone.
So the EP has these five characters, and some of them cut quite close to the bone – like some aspects of The Genius from the song ‘Big Strong Man‘ I found quite uncomfortable when remembering previous versions of myself –
Oh, “previous”, you say?
Hopefully. These characters are very well realised, they’re very well defined and distinct from each other. Where do you think your ability to create these characters comes from?
Initially, before I started doing music, I went to uni to study English Literature and did a lot of short story writing. I think people assume when you’re a lyricist you do more poetry, but I suck at poetry – I need the structured rhyme and meter of song lyrics. I mean, you can get poems like that but in the world of contemporary poetry you’d get laughed out the room if you use rhyming couplets a lot of the time – and I love a rhyme!
I was going through my old hard-drive recently –
Always a good start.
Yeah. I really freak out sometimes that I’ve lost all my files, so I went back to check if all my uni work was still there and I realised that the short stories I wrote back then are all very similar in tone and setting – a lot of strange lonely characters. It must have been something I’ve always wanted to create subconsciously.
Some of the songs are quite confessional I suppose, but feel like I’ve already done my confessing – being young now, you’ve already an adolescence of posting about all your deepest darkest embarrassing thoughts. I feel like I don’t need to tell anyone about how depressed I am anymore, I’ve been doing that for years! I guess I just wanted to do something a bit more interesting – a little bit escapist, but still rooted in the personal.
What struck me is how different each character is from each other. Which one’s your favourite?
I really like the Entertainer from ‘Precious Feelings’ because I think he’s the most self aware of them. He knows he’s being melodramatic and he knows that all that people really want him to do is play the hits and sing the corny cruise ship covers, and he wants to express himself but he knows that this isn’t the time and place. I feel like everyone in the arts feels like that, where you feel very self-indulgent for wanting to express yourself – we’re so hyper-aware of how our opinion is one in a sea of thousands. We’ve never been more aware of everyone else’s opinion so I feel like any artist constantly battles with that feeling of “but why does anyone care what I have to say?”, and that’s what the Entertainer is dealing with. He’s heartbroken but he knows these people don’t care – they’re here to have a nice time. I think that’s kind of fun.
I usually try and outsource an interview question to someone I’m living with or just sitting next to while I’m writing them. This one comes from my friend, who read your Spotify bio and noticed that you were taught how to play the piano by a “pet healer”. He really wanted to know how a pet healer is different from a vet.
Different from a vet because she had absolutely no medical expertise whatsoever. She called upon God to heal them.
So it was like a spiritual thing. People would be waiting with their pets to be healed while she was doing piano lessons. This was when I was a young child, so I just accepted it. Children aren’t cynics – I thought it was just a cool thing that she did. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that this woman was just having people and their pets come to her instead of the vet. She was doing piano teaching and pet healing as her two hustles, which I think is cool.
It’s a wonderful portfolio career.
She was ahead of her time.
The EP is inspired by 70s/80s easy listening and soft rock, and I wondered in what way you thought this was the best instrumental underpinning to tell the stories of these characters?
In the way we look back on rock music post-Beatles we have these ideas of what each decade represents. The 70s we think of as either super-innovative prog rock or arty stuff like Kate Bush, or we think of it almost the baseline of songwriting – inoffensive radio friendly ditties. Aside from the fact that I just really enjoy listening to that stuff anyway, I think it works really well as a backdrop for some more unusual storytelling outside of the traditional stark singer-songwriter style. I don’t feel like much of a guitarist, so if you’re going down the piano route it makes sense to draw on this pool of references. It’s funny that this music was considered pallettable, almost non-music or “muzak”. I find it really interesting that – his stuff gets deemed that and then using a distortion pedal means that you’re alternative.
Wearing suit trousers and talking instead of singing means you’re post-punk.
Yeah. Whereas I prefer to wear suit trousers and sing, beautifully.
I wanna record loads more stuff, because I’m sitting on all this material and every musician just wants to record. Deciding where, and how to move forward with that, and what kind of scope is achievable – can I get the orchestra I SO deserve? I’d like to make something a bit more sustained, maybe an album, but if another EP is what it takes for someone to give me money to make an album then so be it. I want to do loads more gigs and hopefully tour if I can because I love playing with the band.
The Magnificent Travelling Band.
Yeah, the Magnificent Travelling Band. Or the Bleach Boys.
More gigs, more stuff, until I’m dead in a ditch.
Words: Ed Hambly // Photos: Willow Shields (cover) & Jody Evans (body)
‘No Elegant Way To Sell Out’, the new EP from Ellie Bleach, is out now via Sad Club Records. Stream and purchase the track via Bandcamp.