IN CONVERSATION WITH: Ellis May

Sophia Maj,a.k.a. Ellis May, just released the second single “Patterned Cloth”  of her new long-awaited new album “The Distance” which will be released beginning of April (the first single, titled as the album – “The Distance” – is also very worthy of attention). In “Patterned Cloth” the melody starts dreamy until the atmospherically interwoven, electrifying flow is filled with moments of a suffocated voice. Ellis May sings about the experience of loss. 

It is a cold Sunday in Copenhagen. Ellis May is warmly wrapped in a  winter coat when I met her to find out more about her new releases and songs. It is one of those days where the wind whistles around the streets and you can smell a scent of new snow in the air. We sit down in one of the pleasantly decorated coffee places in Frederiksberg. She is about to reveal memories of a fire that took away her childhood home, the inspiration for her new EP.  But read yourself what Sophia told us about Ellis May, The Distance, and the challenges of the creation process.

Good because Danish: When people introduce you they always mention your studies in sound design. How does it influence your project and music Ellis May?

Ellis May:  I am really happy about the opportunity to have studied sound design because even though I now see myself as an electronic musician I know myself as a storyteller and I like to expand the music in that direction. I internalized how to tell a story. With my project Ellis May I am more and more moving away from designing atmospheres, I am more and more interested in song-writing. The knowledge from my studies in sound design gives me confidence in producing my own music. I am able to use the programs to be able to edit material and to make my own puzzle out of the gathered material.  It is also helping a lot with the conversations that I have with collaborators. I really like to be a part of all the decisions that are being taken in the production process because making my own music should be very personal even though a song goes through different people as part of the process.

You already mentioned your talent for storytelling. Is there something you would not write about?

No, there is nothing I would not write about. It all depends on what I am inspired by. Of course, there are some things that are happening in my life right now that I can’t write about at the moment, but mainly because I do not understand them myself. I do not want my experiments to be my end product. My music is a space where I try to be generous about experiences and I do not really find a limit to that or the need to cover up anything.

You recently released “The Distance” song, which is about your childhood home burning down when you were younger. Is it a way to deal with the trauma?

It is a way of dealing with it but more in the sense of sharing the experience. I know specific feelings about loss and destruction related to a fire. Not many people do. The wildfires this summer throughout the world reminded me of my own experience and how horrible it is to lose a home. It was horrible! I am very fond of nature and I do think that we are risking a lot right now in the way we live and treat the environment, we cannot control destruction, the natural forces are stronger than we are. I had a strong urge to share how it affected me. I remember after the fire it was extremely difficult for me to express how I was feeling.  My family and I lost our whole identity. We lost everything we had. For me, it was extremely difficult to explain that to people. The EP was a second chance to share how I felt and elaborate on the experience.

The EP as well as your first release are called “The Distance”.

The song is called “The Distance” because first of all, I had to go back in my memory and dig out a lot of stuff. The fire is not something that I think about every day. The other reason is, besides my mother that lived in the house, the rest of us did not live there anymore.  We had moved away many years prior to that fire and we went back to celebrate Christmas. And we were distanced. I am a very spiritual person. When I look back at what happened I have that feeling we came back to that house to get my mum out. And to reconnect. She was all we managed to save. So there is something about travelling back and forth in time. The name of the song describes the distance to my home and my mum, the distance to my childhood and the distance from the time now and back to when the fire happened.

What topics does the EP tackle?

The EP is about reactions. About being face to face with this natural force of the fire, and having to react in the right way in order to survive it. About loss, and what you gain when you lose. The EP describes how something burns down and the ashes nurse the ground so that something new can flourish. There is a transcending aspect of fire.

What aspect of the EP surprised you the most?

I have been working a lot on bringing more movement into my music. I started mixing with Troels Damgaard Holm who knows me and my music very well. It was the first time that collaboration has been so rewarding. Working with someone who can actually look at what you are working on and elevate it to be exactly what it is that I wanted it to be. This teamwork has been really beautiful and surprising.

I wanted to create music with more physical movement. Music to move to. The EP is in some way a soundtrack to myself. I am a reserved person and in order to feel more like myself, I needed to have more physicality to get out of my shell and to get able to reach out more. My previous music has been rather challenging and I wanted it to be more something that everyone can just dive into, myself included.

And any challenges?

Yes, there was a challenge. When I started working on the new EP, I had a very busy and stressful year making a lot of sound and scores for films. It was hard for me to go back to creating my own music and get into the layers where all of this material was hidden because I was in a mode of efficiency. I had to come back to a generous state to make it as personal as I want it to be. I spend a week in a summer house by myself where I was forcing everything very efficiently and goal-oriented. I had 2 days left and everything just sounded like s***. I called my mother. She reminded me how music is spiritual for me. I had to dig deeper and forget all my goals to find what is within me. Of course, then it started to flow and my music sounded like I wanted it to sound. It was a lesson for me to just not be so controlling because I want to go deep and to me, that means more intuitive work and listening to my reactions instead of my thoughts and “good ideas”. When I control and overthink, it always ends horribly bad. I can easily ruin a nice song if I´m in that result mode. I only have a certain amount of time because I have a child who I want to spend all time in the world with. I had to accept that this is the time I have and these are the subjects that I want to write about and then work fast and reactive and not fear the outcome.

One has different roles in life being the mum and sound designer etc. How do you bring everything under one umbrella? 

I am not great at it. Family always comes first but the last 4 years I have had 3 careers going at once and now I do want to focus more on Ellis May. I have been so lucky and privileged these past years. I had no idea that people would take on my music like that. I could not have imagined being part of Eurosonic Noorderslaag and Roskilde Festival. I am so thankful to anybody who takes the time to engage in my music and to come to my concerts. I have a lot I want to give back to people that follow me and my music.

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