Interview: Charles Ellsworth on how honeysuckle can help heal a toxic sad boy

Credit: Dana English

How Brooklyn music can exorcise ghosts from Arizona and Salt Lake City.

If you are a regular reader of Americana UK, you may have noticed the review of Charles Ellsworth’s ‘Honeysuckle Summer’ record and the video features for the tracks ‘Trouble’ and ‘Blessed’. The album has been generating quite a bit of press this year in US based Americana media and reflects a new musical and personal maturity from Ellsworth who has used it as part of his therapy to deal with the trauma’s that life has thrown at him from the time he grew up in Arizona as part of the Mormon Church. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with him at home in Brooklyn, New York City, over zoom to discuss the impact of his family leaving The Mormon Church had on him when he was 16 following his father’s imprisonment and his own musical self-education, which includes the music of Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Jason Isbell, as well as pop-punk and indie rock. He also explains why making music is so important to him as a person and what it is like trying to make headway as an independent artist in the era of streaming and lockdowns, and the potential loneliness of being a Brooklyn-based americana artist. Finally, he explains what being a toxic bad boy is all about.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?

My parents got it, but it was fairly mild, and they were over it in a couple of weeks, and beyond that, we have managed to keep my house in New York free from it which is great because five of us live here.

There is a big difference between The White Mountains of Arizona and Brooklyn. Why was the move good for your career?

I was living in Salt Lake City for a long time, and I went to college there, and I was playing in different bands and playing folk music around the city. I then met a girl on an airplane who lived in Brooklyn, and we dated long distance for a while, and then decided to move out here to Brooklyn to see if we could make things work. It didn’t work out, but I really love New York City and I’m very glad I’m here, and I’ve been here six years.

What is the local music scene like, is it americana friendly?

The music scene is abundant, I will say that. There was just tons of music going on pre-COVID times, there were lots of musicians and lots of bands. However, trying to find your own niche, or a pocket like americana with its own bands has been a struggle for me. New York is my home and I play music as much as I can here, but I usually use it as a jumping-off point to play around the US as much as possible.

Your latest album is ‘Honeysuckle Summer’, where did the title come from?

It was just a pull from a line in a song that’s on it. We had a couple of working titles, and a lot of the record is about me digging myself out of this mental health issue, or depression, and these feelings of hopelessness and a continued cycle of where every few years I would fall into this rut. I was just really determined to break out of it, because you hit a wall and it is like I have to figure this out. It is like the definition of insanity, saying the same things over and over again but expecting different results. I just kept trying, I would end a tour and I would be in this really low place, and I would be drinking too much and just not feeling good about myself. I had to flip the script and change the narrative, and ‘Honeysuckle Summer’ and the song ‘Trouble’ are about changing the narrative and looking for the blossoms and looking for the flowers and stopping to smell them. Those little things are the building blocks to having strong mental health, it is about appreciating the smallest of things, that is what ‘Honeysuckle Summer’ is about. We are always striving for this place we as humans can’t really get to, it is about this feeling of longing, and it is realising that it is all happening at once. It can be summer all year round if you approach it correctly.

What was the Mormon influence on you growing up in Arizona, and how has it influenced you as an artist?

When I left the Mormon Church at 15 or 16 years old, I really started exploring a lot of ideas, and I resented the Mormon Church in many ways because of how sheltering it was and because I still had a lot of friends and family who were caught up in something that I don’t think is overall very beneficial. It can close a lot of people off from what this life has to offer, both with overall experiences and being open to people who are different from you or being open to a broader understanding of this life. The Mormon Church just answers all the big questions for you, and you just follow their rules and that is it. When I broke out of it, it was a benefit, but it was also overwhelming because you are facing this giant world with possibilities, and it is really easy to fall into chasing the wrong things like substance abuse to try and fill the void left by what The Church gave you such as community. ‘Miami, AZ’ on the record is about two kids who are faced with getting stuck in their hometown forever, or just running away to California and having an abortion and just getting on with their lives. The song is about empowerment and if religion is meant to be about love and this eternal father and God, and the Mormon Church teaches this, then why aren’t they concerned about individual love and the individual lives of people, and freedom of choice.

How big a decision was it as a 16-year-old to walk away from for family’s teachings?

My whole family left around the same time. My biological father went to prison when I was about 12 years old for child molestation and we tried to stay in the Mormon Church because we thought that was what was going to give us the community and the strength to make it through it. After years of being persecuted by people in The Church and being treated poorly because the patriarch of the family was no longer there. I was told from day one that I was now the man of the house, and so at even 12 years old, I was trying to help my mom get everyone ready for church on Sunday and get everyone out of the door. When I was about 15, we had a family meeting and my mom was like it is up to you guys, do you want to go to church anymore or not because I don’t care anymore. I was adamant that everyone kept going to church, because that was what was going to get us through it, and I really believed that. Within a year we had that meeting again and I had had some individual experiences with some people doing and treating me in ways I didn’t appreciate, and I had also made a lot of friends outside of The Church, and I was like I don’t want to go anymore and if you guys don’t want to go, we don’t have to. That is when we all walked away.

What music were you exposed to growing up?

We were raised on a steady diet of ‘80s rock, I mean REO Speedwagon and Kansas were my mom’s favourite bands, and my dad was really into Garth Brooks and George Strait. Besides that, and Top 40 music I never really had a whole lot of experience of music. When my dad went to prison, I discovered Led Zeppelin and that is when I decided I wanted to play the guitar. I rented ‘The Song Remains The Same’ from the movie shop down the street from my house, and I watched Jimmy Page playing the Les Paul with the violin bow and at the time it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, haha. From there I started discovering bands like Modest Mouse and Alkaline Trio who were more on the pop, punk rock indie side of things, and that really sucked me into a world of different music that I didn’t know existed. I’ve kind of been wandering around in that world ever since, and I started putting on shows in the halls in my high school because there was no music in my town. We would get bands from Phoenix or from California coming through on tour, and we would have these big shows with hundreds of kids in the Hallway. I always had to foster a music scene growing up because it didn’t really exist.

Did I read that you originally played bass guitar?

My band towards the end of high school was called Alaska And Me after the John Denver song, and I played bass in that band for a few years into college. We put out a couple of EPs and toured in the West Coast quite a bit and then like a lot of bands when we thought we were getting our break and go and play South By Southwest in 2009, we broke up two weeks before we were due to play, haha. It was certainly poor timing, I could see that, haha.

Credit: J. Allan Kelly
What has drawn you to americana now, have you changed, or are people taking a different view of you?

I think when I started playing solo music under my name Charles Ellsworth, I really wanted to get back to a more country sound. I was really burnt out on anything that was heavy or had any kind of screaming, haha, and I didn’t want to play pop punk or anything too pop because that is what my old bands had played. In the old band I helped write some of the songs, I was a co-writer, but I had never really just sat down and wrote songs of my own. I was the bass player in that band because I was the worst guitarist, haha. When that band broke up there was this real void in my life, and I realised what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I want to be playing music forever. Whether there will ever be any success behind it, who knows, but I got a telecaster after I sold my bass equipment, and to pay rent with what was left I bought a used telecaster, and just started writing songs on that, and they all just had a country flair to them because it was a telecaster or an acoustic guitar. I was listening to the Johnny Cash ‘Unearthed’ records a lot and that line about all you need is three chords and the truth with country music, that really spoke to me. I was like I don’t know how to do all these fancy things the singer in my old band did, I didn’t really believe in myself, but I was well I can tell the truth and play three chords. That was really freeing for me, and from there it has grown a lot, and with ‘Honeysuckle Summer’ I have really embraced a lot of the former styles of music I listen to, like the pop-punk and the rock’n’roll side of things. So. it has that country three chords and the truth at the base of it, but my producer Joe Rheinhart and my band, especially my rhythm section Jared Schapker and Blake Suben, came together and decided we should make the most fun record we could with these songs. A lot of the time I write songs that end up being sad, and if you try to speak truth to power it is not always the most fun, nobody can beat Joe Strummer, you know, haha.

I didn’t want to make another record that felt like it is hard to listen to, it might be really good, but it is hard to listen to because it is just so fucking sad, haha. I wanted to make a record that is really fun to listen to, where there is no fat and it is all killer and no filler. It has only eight songs, it is perfect for the streaming era. I think we have managed to do a really great job with it and I’m really proud of it. I have never felt this proud of something I have made before. I’ve loved everything I’ve made in the past, but I’ve never been like this before and the record doesn’t have to make a dollar because I’m so happy with it, it is a success to me and I’m so happy with it.

When and how did you record it?

About twenty-one months ago in Philadelphia at Headroom Studios with producer Joe Rheinhart, he plays with and produces the band Hopalong, and he has produced a number of pretty well-known indie artists. We went into the studio on March 9th, 2020, and by March 13th they had shut down New York City and Philadelphia. Joe walks in that morning, and there had been whispers of things going on for weeks, and I was like I’m leaving my phone in the control room while we are tracking and I only looked at my phone for 10 minutes a day because I didn’t want any distractions when we were in the studio. By day when they were shutting down New York and it was a case of are we going to be able to get back, what is really going on, and Joe was like, look, I’m supposed to close down but we are already all in the same bubble, and if we are all really careful and wash our hands a lot and everything, but we didn’t know about the masks back then, and if you guys are comfortable let’s finish the record. I was well that is what I’m here to do. I got fired from my job two weeks before we went into the studio, and I was let’s make this record. We stayed there eleven days, and I finished a lot of it in my bedroom during quarantine with all the time we had just been stuck in the apartment. I did a lot of the overdubs on guitar and backing vocals right here in my room because we just ran out of time in the studio.

How many songs did you take into the studio?

I had a list of about sixteen songs, and when I say songs, I mean a chorus and maybe a verse but not fully fleshed out, I probably had ten full songs and then six more different ideas. I took them all to the band a month before the studio, and we just started working through them and it was kind of a matter of this one is feeling really good because we only had so much time. The original drummer who was going to play on the record dropped off a month before we went into the studio, so we were trying to get Blake Suben on the same page as us. What it really turned into was what is really working between the three of us right now as we are practicing and getting ready for it, and we just leaned into those songs, and then in the background, while we were learning those songs, I was rushing to finish the rest. I think ‘White Cross On A Highway’ and ‘Trouble’ were just parts of songs, the same with ‘Blood In The Halls’ when we went to the studio those songs weren’t fully done, they were like I know what I want to do here but I hadn’t had time to sit down and work them because I had multiple jobs and everything. The jam at the end of ‘Laundromat’ where we switched to G Major and we were going between the fourths at the end and it just kind of fades out, that jam we wrote the day before we went into the studio. I was like I’d really like a bridge to go between these two songs because they are kind of in the same key, and we just started to play it and Jared Schapker starts playing that bass line and it just worked really well.  Within about twenty minutes that whole jam came out and I was like, cool, that is going on the record. It was like organised chaos which is how I tend to run my whole life, haha.

You have mentioned your band, how did you hook up with them?

I’ve worked in bars with Jared for the last few years and we met in a bar called Lavender Lake down in Gowanus, and he plays in a band called Grandpa Jack with some friends and they are more stoner rock type straight up rock’n’roll with some buzz and heaviness. We connected on soul and funk music of the ‘70s which is his favourite music as a bass player, so we talked about War and Funkadelic and stuff like that. Blake plays drums in a band called Dirty Bird, and when my friend Shaun told me he couldn’t play drums on the album anymore, just a month before we went to the studio, I just put out a thing on Instagram asking if anyone knew New York based drummers who had time to learn this new record and go into the studio with me to play them, haha. It is so funny when you are in a crisis and you think it is the end of the world, but within 48 hours it had all been figured out and Blake is a phenomenal drummer, and he has the best attitude. We got some really cool takes out of him, and it just worked out really well. We practise and we will be touring so it did work out for the best.

Where did the personal drive come from to produce the album?

I think it came from two things. Part of it is I’ve been doing this for a long time now kind of under the radar. I’ve put out a lot of music I’m really proud of but it has not got a ton of acclaim and recognition, and that used to really dig in me and bug me until I went through this mental breakdown that led to the writing of this record, and I had hit my rock bottom. I then had a choice, either I quit playing music now and give up on life and even kill myself, or I can re-approach this. I knew music is the only thing I want to do so quitting is not an option, so I can change my approach and stop weighing all of it in the dollar and cents and number of likes on social media. My number one goal is to make music I like making, and to have fun doing it, and to try and not hurt other people along the way. It is way better than swinging a hammer, it is the best job I’ve ever had even on the worst day, haha. That is what has really carried me through the past few years, I think, from that rock bottom on that drive from Seattle to Montana I had to make that choice, and it was like are you going to stick around and do this in a way that is not like you are constantly beating your head against a brick wall, let’s see if we can go round the wall.

Tell me about the record label Burro Borracho Records?

It is a new record label that my friend Martin started, and it is kind of our record label, and ‘Honeysuckle Summer’ is the first release on it. Mark is in Houston right now and he runs that out of  Texas, and running an americana label out of New York City doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, haha, particularly when an americana singer, me, in New York City doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense, haha.

As an independent artist, how are you dealing with the challenge of the streaming giants, and what is your view on streaming recorded music?

It depends on what day of the week it is, haha. My views change because as an independent artist it is really frustrating that the royalty rates and everything were negotiated by major labels in exchange for their back catalogue. I didn’t have any say in it, neither did any other independent artists and now we are being held to a standard and we are in the same pool as platinum-selling artists, their plays are worth the same as ours. That makes sense in a certain way, but their plays are worth more than ours because they are rated and get more plays. Being a musician is frustrating because we are living in an era where the monetary value of music is at its lowest point. The inherent value of music hasn’t changed, and if anything, it has gone up because of social media and increased video content, I mean music is just everywhere, but the monetary value of it is now so low. When you are starting out as an artist there is no way I could support myself from the little bit of money I make off gigs here in New York City, if I was just starting out streaming wouldn’t even be an option. What I am trying to say is that it feels frustrating, and it hamstrings the independent artist because getting from where you are making a dollar or two dollars a month from streaming per month to where you are making hundreds of dollars is a huge curve, and it is really hard to get there, and most bands break up before they get there.

I’m at a point where it is not making me a lot of money but I’m making income and I’m where I can see that this is doable. I think the streaming model is the best model moving forward, but I think there are better ways to cater to independent artists and help musicians in general. I don’t think that major labels that are worth whatever, and companies like Spotify and Apple Music that are worth millions of dollars should be determining what a stream is worth because the money is not real to them, the money is real to me. I think we are facing similar challenges as a society, the pandemic is a global prompt to how we have to rethink what we are going to do to take care of people. In a very strange way, the timing of the pandemic could be seen as perfect for change. I don’t want to be in any way insensitive, but we have issues like the income gap with wealth distribution being the worst it has ever been, we have global warming on the verge of passing the point of no return, and I think it is like western capitalist society, you need to rethink everything. It is not just the music industry, it needs changing yes, but we have to rethink how we exist as a species, or we will cease to exist as a species in any form of a sustainable way.

What did you mean by recovering toxic sad boy?

I’m not in any form of recovery or anything, but I think the point of recovery is it is ongoing. Toxic sad boy is like a lot of my early music was written from a place of she left me poor me, and it was all about heartbreak, but there is a toxic way to approach that and a non-toxic way. Part of this new record is about me getting therapy and trying to figure out what I am doing, what is wrong with my approach. I read Bell Hooks’ ‘The Will To Change’ in the last couple of years, and it really made me rethink my entire approach to being a man, masculinity, and how we exist in this society. When I grew up in a small town in Arizona I was in high school and I played on the baseball and football teams, I was a tough guy not showing emotion, and that is how you deal with shit, you just get angrier, and you hit the other guy harder. Introspection isn’t an option, and that has led to a lot of really poor decisions in my life and ill-treating other people as either commodities or expendable. I didn’t have the self-awareness that I may have been hurting other people, and I think that comes from toxic masculinity in a lot of ways. By saying I’m recovering from that I am trying to break that mold, and I’m not the only one trying to do this. The narrative is wrong, and just because the cultural narrative around this is this, doesn’t mean it is not wrong.

Who are your go-to songwriting heroes?

If we are talking just raw songs, it is Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, I have to mention Jason Isbell and Dolly Parton. I and my band used to play shows with Courtney Marie Andrews in Arizona a decade ago and she was probably a teenager at the time, and I remember hearing her voice for the first time and thinking holy shit that is the best voice I’ve ever heard. To see the success she has gotten through being one of the best songwriters around right now makes me so proud. I mean, I don’t even know if she remembers me at all. A lot of what I’ve tried to re-embrace on this record is like Jared’s band Hopalong, listening to their record and how they approach pop-punk in the raw version of pop music. How to take these things I was raised on and imbue it into my toxic sad boy with the way of spinning it with positivity. I wanted to be Van Zandt for most of my ‘20s, and once I got to an age when that was really tragic, and I really didn’t want to be there. I hit that wall, and it was like you can change courses now or keep doing what you are doing. I wanted to be able to climb a mountain at 5 a.m., rather than still being up from the night before.

How will you be touring, solo, or with a band?

It is a mix of both depending. Some of the places I have played a lot like Montana, Utah, Idaho, the American West, I tour with a band a lot, as well as in and around New York City. It depends on demand, and I don’t have an agent, I do all my own shows and sometimes it is just cheaper touring solo. Would I rather be touring with a band, every day, no doubt about it, and I would rather be playing the record the way it sounds, and I would rather be out there with my friends. You spend enough time alone on the road, and it can get really hard.

How disciplined are you with your songwriting, do you try to write regularly or is it simply a matter of when the muse visits?

As far as songwriting goes it is like a cycle for me. Right now, I’m putting out a record and doing press, and because part of the label is mine a lot of the promotion falls on my shoulders and that is like a regular 9 to 5 job. I’m always writing at the back of my mind, and I’ve got a list of ideas on a whiteboard of song ideas. I like to approach songs as a Sudoku puzzle where there aren’t any wrong answers, but you have to find the right ones. The song ‘Max & Geraldine’ came to me as a line and in twenty minutes I had written the whole song, but that very rarely happens, haha, it can take me six months to six years to write a song, haha. I’m just always working on stuff.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

My bass player Jared Schapker has a band with our friend Matt White called San Salvo which is an instrumental funk psychedelic type band, and they made an EP ‘Rarities’ in the quarantine and I’ve been listening to that. I’m not just saying that because they are my friends but because it is really cool, funky weird psychedelic music. They have trumpets and horns on it and they are all great musicians. I’ve been revisiting like Jake Miller and that is something I have on when I’m riding my bike around Brooklyn, or I am doing yoga in the morning. It is something with a nice flow to it. I’m not super-current, I get into a record three or four years after it comes out. Charlie Crockett is great, I’d been hearing whispers about him for years, and I know people really love him, but my nephew texted me the other day and he was like have you heard the Charlie Crockett song ‘I Can Help’ and it is great. I’ve also dug deeper into his back catalogue as well. If I like something, then I listen obsessively, like one album for three months, and then I will move on to the next thing.

What do your family think of ‘Honeysuckle Summer’?

My little brother, who lives with me, listened to it with the whole apartment when the test pressing came in and everyone was really supportive. It is a weird thing when you have been a struggling artist for as long as I have, you have been bugging everyone you know really well to be paying attention to what you are doing. I’ve been doing it for so long now that I don’t think my family and friends are burnt out with me, but my fanbase has grown to a point that I don’t have to bug them so much about it. We can just have our relationship as brothers, or mother and son, and I don’t have to be like listen to this thing. I try to be less forward with the people immediately around me because I don’t want to annoy people. Just because me playing my guitar is my favourite thing in the world doesn’t mean it has to be everyone else’s favourite thing, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I want to get over as soon as I can get a tour together. I’ve only been to London once and that was a layover at the airport. That is one thing COVID has really messed up because my favourite part of all this is playing music live. It doesn’t have to be in front of hundreds of people and I think I will be playing my music to even a handful of people forever.

Charles Ellsworth’s ‘Honeysuckle Summer’ is out now on Burro Borracho Records

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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