Guitarist Lindsay Ell describes her debut album, The Project as what you get when you combine Sheryl Crow, John Mayer and Keith Urban into one musical blender, which isn’t all that hard to imagine.
While Ell’s vocal style is reminiscent of Crow’s, she’s toured extensively with Urban and even used Mayer’s album, Continuum as a starting point for recording the album. The result is a tasty collection of guitar wizardry, inspired songwriting and heartfelt emotion.
Produced by Grammy-winner Kristian Bush (Sugarland), The Project is also the first group of songs Ell’s recorded where she says she feels like herself. I recently spoke with Ell about The Project, songwriting, gear and more in this new interview.
What was it like working with Kristian Bush on The Project?
It was amazing to work with someone who’s already been the artist, songwriter and producer. He understands so many different sides. I called the record The Project because it actually felt like a science project in trying to discover my identity.
Tell me how you used John Mayer as a pre-requisite for this new album.
In one of our first meetings, Kristian asked me what my favorite record of all time was. After I told him Continuum by John Mayer he said, "Ok, perfect. I want you to go into the studio and record that whole album. The only rules are, you only have two weeks and you have to play all of the instruments yourself.” So, for the next 14 days I recorded Continuum.
In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing but had enough faith and trust in Kristian to know that there would always be a purpose behind it. After two weeks, I handed over the CD and told him how much I had learned about the way John played guitar, about how I play guitar and most importantly, how I'd love to hear a band recorded in the studio.
That's when he said, "Well, now it’s time for us to go in and record your album." It was a crazy thing but really laid the groundwork for us in finding the sound for The Project.
What’s your songwriting process like?
It depends. Every song is so different but the guitar is a huge part of who I am. I'm inspired a lot by a guitar riff or musical idea first and the rest of the song will usually grow from that.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from The Project, starting with “Waiting On You”
That was the track that started it all. It had a little blues, a little rock and roll and a lot of country. It was also the first song where I stepped out of my comfort zone. It was something new but Kristian never let me fear anything. He was always reminding me that it was the way I sang the song or the way I played the lick that was going to make the song great. We weren't going to shy away from it.
That song has been a part of my live show for a few years and really needed to go on this record. It's one that fans have really grown to love and I'm really happy that it made it on the album.
It's a moment I’ll never forget. It was our last day tracking and we had time to record just one more song. It's almost like you've almost finished the puzzle and can see what the last missing piece looks like. We knew what we needed but we didn’t really have it.
At the time, the band was in the studio and launched into this amazing drum groove. Kristian and I both looked at each other and said, "That’s what we need!" I grabbed my guitar and we walked into a side room and fifteen minutes later we walked out and recorded right on the spot. It was so exciting and so electric.
You recorded all the guitars on The Project. What was the process in finding the perfect tones?
Tom Tapley [engineer] is a guitar tone finding wizard. I remember at one point he brought in ten different guitar amps and we sat there for hours just plugging in different pedals and switching amps trying to find the right tone. Every song was so different that it was like a guitar player’s Candy Land [laughs]! Tom and Kristian were both patient in helping me find the perfect tone and solo and what the song needed to say.
You’ve been touring a lot with Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. What’s one of the things you’ve noticed about their soloing that you’ve been able to incorporate into your own playing?
I love how they’re able to focus when they solo while still being free. How they’re able to get into that one section of the song and whatever world they're playing in and then relaxing in that focus and playing whatever they feel. For me to play with Brad and Keith and watching them pull out licks from places I don't normally play, it forces me to go there too and rise up to that level.
The best advice I can give is to surround yourself with musicians who are better than you because it will make you so much better too.
What’s your current setup like these days?
I’ve been using 3rd Power amps all year. They’re awesome, hand-built amps made in Nashville. I’m also playing a lot of Fender Strats right now. I really love that single-coil tone. As far as pedals, it’s a changing moment every other day. I have a KTR which is the new version of the Klon. It’s the holy grail of my pedal board as well as the Timmy, which is an overdrive pedal that’s made in Nashville.
What excites you the most about The Project and this next phase of your career?
I'm so excited to play this new music live. It’s been amazing watching the fans to react to it. I’m so grateful and humble to hear people say how much they love the record as a whole and not just the single or one particular song. I'm so proud of this record. This is the first group of songs I’ve recorded that feels like me.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.