August Feature: Ellis
· Artist Features
UK’s rising star Ellis talks musical influence, his new EP, and going back to bass-ics
Growing up just outside of Birmingham, the second-largest city in the United Kingdom, Ellis Lawrie found himself fascinated by music from an early age. Learning his father’s bass guitar and leaning on the music he listened to for inspiration, he quickly became infatuated with the idea of live performance and, subsequently, writing music. Joining a punk band, Ellis was able to expand upon his aspirations to play music—but something was missing.
Ellis stepped away from the live punk scene to focus on his own production, going back to his contemporary funk and jazz roots for guidance as he developed his signature sound. Since then, Ellis has taken off as one of the brightest young stars in the electronic music scene. In his latest EP, Recollection Prospective, listeners not only get to hear Ellis’ funky musical influences, but are treated to a live bass performance from Ellis himself.
We caught up with Ellis for a quick word on his background, musical influences, and more! Check it out:
First off, how are you doing and how have you been during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I’m really good, thanks! This pandemic, I’ve been busier than usual. When the pandemic hit was the time that I was finishing the EP off, so I had a lot of time to knuckle down. That kind of circled into me having all the time in the world to perfect it, and that drove me a bit insane but it was good!
What was it like making your Monstercat debut (with “Feel That Way” and your new EP) during a time as strange and unprecedented as quarantine/COVID?
It’s been amazing to release it. People are going through rough times, they’re getting bored of being stuck at home, and music’s been a big part of, for me anyway, getting through that period. So I’m hoping that, delivering that body of work out to the Monstercat fanbase, that they can enjoy that too and it helps them get through the quarantine a bit!
What does a typical day in life look like for you?
It always varies. At the moment, I’m back here at my family home in Birmingham. Usually I’ll wake up and try to go for a walk outside in nature because getting some air is important, especially during this pandemic. Then I’ll probably go to Starbucks and grab a coffee or something, come back, have breakfast, and then maybe have a tea. I love a bit of tea. And then I’ll usually just start producing. If it’s a Monday, I’ll try and get all of the admin stuff out of the way first so I don’t have to worry about it while I’m producing. If there’s anything I need to do, I’ll do it first, and then usually just produce whatever I’m feeling.
What are your top five favourite kinds of tea?
There’s only one for me, really! I guess what you would call English Breakfast tea. Over here, it’s just tea. There’s different brands. There’s Twinings, PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea—the best one for me is PG Tips, for sure. At night I’ll try not to drink tea because it’s got a bit of caffeine in it, so I’ll go for a ginger tea or a chamomile tea to get into that chill mode.
Tell us a bit about your hometown and where you grew up!
So I grew up in a town called Bromsgrove, which is where I am now. It’s kind of in the midlands area just outside of Birmingham. It’s pretty quiet back here. There’s a lot of countryside, but it’s got that balance. Some countryside towns in the UK are really segregated and don’t really have much of a social life, but Bromsgrove has a really nice balance for me. It was a nice place to grow up for sure, and then I moved to London when I was 19. So a big change, because obviously there’s barely any countryside in the city.
What are some of your interests outside of music?
That’s a difficult question because music is my life, completely! I’m into mindfulness, which is a completely different thing to producing. But keeping a clear headspace, meditating, maybe a bit of yoga—I got into that during the pandemic. I’ve recently got really into badminton, actually! One of my housemates in London, when I was back there, he’s a really, really good badminton player. So he trained us so we could get some exercise in, because we sat in the house all day. And then we all just fell in love with it, playing it outside—which was tough when it was windy. That was good fun. And then, usually, I try to see my mates as much as possible. My family.
The style of your music is very unique, and clearly draws influences from a variety of different sources.
Your talent as a producer is noteworthy. Did you study music in school, or was it self-taught?
I’d say it was mostly self-taught. I started picking up music when I was young. I’ve always been a massive music lover, full stop, and I got into a band first. I was really interested in the live side and being like a “rock star” or whatever you want to call it. I wanted to be able to write as well, which I found difficult in the band, being a bass player, because it’s not really a lead instrument. I wanted to write stuff around my basslines, and the only way that I could do that at the time was with Logic or GarageBand, so I taught myself a lot on YouTube. How to do the basics. And then you get carried away and you end up learning most of your craft online. When I was properly into production, I did go to a performing arts college, which was only for two years and it was a music technology course. A lot of it was about the really in-depth technical side of things. A little bit about producing and mixing, but you’d learn, literally, how to take apart electronic things that you’d find in a studio and fix them on a circuit board, or you’d learn how to set up a live drum kit. At the time, I was like ‘I don’t want to learn this’ but it is useful. It is useful stuff. I’d say the musical part is 100% self-taught.
When you were in the band and wanted to split off to write your own music, what was it that you wanted to write: music that you composed yourself or lyrics that you had topics in mind for?
For me, at the time, definitely just the instrumental stuff. I’ve been interested in lyrics but for me it’s more like when I hear chords and a really nice bassline or a sick drum groove, that catches my attention much more, and I really wanted to learn how to do all of that. When I was in the band, I also wanted to learn how to write with the band as well, which the lead singer and the guitarist were writing most of the songs, really, and I would write the basslines, the drummer would write his drum parts, and I wanted to contribute more and I think that’s when I got into production, because I was like ‘maybe I can learn how to understand these chords that way rather than playing them on a guitar.’
What made you pick up the bass in the beginning?
It was kind of an accident, really! I remember watching someone on TV, I can’t remember who it was, and they were in a band. I heard that they played guitar and I was like ‘I want to be like them. I’m going to go learn guitar now.’ And I was like ‘oh, my dad’s got a guitar in the house somewhere,’ and I went to get it and sit at the computer. Searched on YouTube “How to play guitar for beginners.” I sat there and I was looking down at my bass like ‘why have they only got four strings? Why has this guy got six strings and I’ve got four,’ and then my dad was like ‘that’s a bass.’ My dad played a bit of bass when he was younger, so he taught me the basics. He kind of just rode like that. And then I fell in love with bass, completely. It was something that I fell in love with by accident.
Has playing the bass helped you become a better producer?
Yeah, definitely the musicality side of things. Understanding what notes work straight away when you go into a MIDI window in Logic. I can understand if you went into that for the first time and knew nothing about music it would be very difficult. Having an understanding about scales, keys, even chords and notes and what actually works together or what doesn’t was really a massive step forward—that was at the beginning.
For me, [bass and drums] are two of the most important things that make a track sound tight. If those two are tied together, your track’s going to sound a lot more glued together. It just works better for me if you have a really solid drum and bass groove because they’re kind of the foundation. I’d definitely say that being a bass player has benefitted that, because it gives me a concept of rhythm as well as melody. It’s quite a rhythmic instrument.
What drove your switch from punk to funk?
It all kind of stemmed from the learning how to produce online, and then you hear a song on the radio—for me I’d heard a Calvin Harris tune or Martin Garrix “Animals” or something—and you’re like ‘hang on, that guy is a producer and he’s like 16. I kind of know how to produce. How did he make that?’ And then you kind of go into the depths of learning how EDM’s made and then you start trying to make it yourself, and then you discover all these other artists. For me, that’s how I fell into EDM.
The first electronic music I listened to was dubstep. I was obsessed with dubstep back in 2010-2011, which is actually when a lot of the songs I listened to were Monstercat songs, weirdly enough! Back in the day, I’d always be like ‘that sound sounds amazing, one day I’d love to try and do that.’ But it was always in my head, ‘one day, one day,’ and then, falling into production in the way that I did, it just kind of happened naturally!
How did you develop your style and sound into what we hear today?
I think it’s a very natural process. A lot of people ask me “how do you make a signature sound?” And 3-4 years ago, I would be asking people the same thing. Like how does this person come up with this style? It’s so fresh! For me, when I look back now, it’s just a pure combination of all of my influences merged together. Everything that I like all mixed into one. If I could take a bit of every genre that I love and just stick it together, that would be my sound. I love dark music, a little bit moody, not too happy… the chords definitely play a part in that. I’ve always loved listening out for basslines in songs, so I always try and have that element in there. The groove. I love good drums. It all just kind of blends together.
For the EP, it was all of those musical influences combined with all of my production influences. I love listening to up and coming producers and people that are really pushing the boundaries of electronic production. Where you can hear people like Bad Computer, Grant, Zedd, Grey – all of those guys, for me, have really intricate, clean production that really stands out from other people. And I think that’s also the technical side of things, like the mixing and the sound design, and then combining that with the musicality and the influences from all over the place.
Where do you start with a song and how does it develop?
It’s very random, to be fair. There’s not really any strict way that I’ll go about it. I’ll kind of fall into little rhythms. Maybe for a few months I’ll be really obsessed with starting songs with a sample or I’ll be really obsessed with starting songs with a bassline or chords. But, for example, “Don’t Say Ur Sorry” with Maribelle, I was screwing about on my acoustic guitar, which I can barely play, on my bed and then I was like ‘oh, this actually sounds really cool.’ I recorded it in on my phone and then I had this melody just pop into my head, sang it in on my phone as well, and I just chucked that all into Logic a few hours later, and I ended up even keeping the original voice note in there and not re-recording it. That all came very naturally, and then I would send that to Maribelle who then wrote the top line on that because I’m not really a great lyricist. For me, once I really hear a solid groove going, I can put some chords down. But, equally, I can just put some chords down and then build a groove behind it.
Nowadays, I usually like to create a rough vibe first. It happens really fast. I’ll chuck in the first drum sample I see, the first preset I see, and it will all kind of be a demo version first. And then, once I’ve got a vibe going, I’ll go in and I’ll really edit those sounds and change them and re-record them.
This month, you released your debut EP on Monstercat: Recollection Prospective
The EP’s title, Recollection Prospective, is incredibly unique, not to mention specific. Why choose this name and what does it mean?
It’s kind of funny because, at the time, I really had this idea in my head, as soon as I listened to all the tracks, that I’d kind of been like ‘yeah, these are going to be the EP tracks.’ The thing they all had in common was this nostalgia factor. This was when I started trying to bring as much musical chords, melody into my music as I could, and live instruments and stuff. That all really stems from my influences from the past. So, for me, it was very nostalgic but also really pushing the boundaries as much as I could, personally, on the production side, and really taking my time on each sound and getting it to sound almost as futuristic as possible but not to the point where it was like crazy future. And that’s when I was like ‘it is futuristic and it’s nostalgic,’ which then I was like okay “Future Nostalgia.” And then literally a few weeks later Dua Lipa drops an album called Future Nostalgia, and I’m like ‘right… okay, I’ve got to completely change this name.’ I sat in the kitchen with my housemate, Sam, and me and him were just bouncing off each other different alterations or versions of the name “Future Nostalgia.” In the end we settled on Recollection Prospective, as in recollection, looking backwards at the past influences of mine, and prospective, looking forwards in terms of the production.
Where did you draw inspiration from when writing Recollection Prospective?
I listened to a lot of trip hop, which is not a genre that a lot of people listen to or maybe they listen to it passively without knowing that it’s trip hop. It’s this wave that started in the early 2000s, like late 90s. [...][Trip hop] takes loads of influences from jazz and soul and it’s very, very musical but also very easy to listen to in a way. The chord progressions from that especially are what really catch my attention.
I heard a song probably five years ago when I was really starting to produce from an EDM producer and it really gave me a spark of nostalgia and I was like ‘where on Earth have I heard this before?’ I actually played it to my dad and he was like this is definitely taking influence from this group called Zero 7. He played me them again and I’d listened to that my whole childhood without taking much notice of it. So definitely Zero 7 was a big influence. Also just a load of disco. I love disco, I love funk, all that Chic and Bernard Edwards sort of stuff. Production-wise, I’m always influenced by people like Zedd, Grey… so many different producers these days that I’m like ‘wow, that’s incredible, how did you make that sound?’ It’s really just taking two worlds and trying to fuse them together.
Was writing for this EP different from how you usually write music?
Yeah, it was. For example the intro track, “Caught in the Rays,” that was completely written and produced in lockdown. The other tracks were actually written before, like “Don’t Say Ur Sorry” was written probably a year ago now. “Unfold” was written in October last year and then we finished writing it in March, right before we hit the pandemic. “Brand New Phone” was written in Norway in October, too. “Speak Français” was written in Estonia in March last year. But, obviously, there was different writing that came to fruition in the middle of lockdown too. The majority of the writing was done in studio sessions surrounded by different people.
You’re definitely not shy to work with other artists and that is very clear in your EP! You collaborate with Maribelle, NOËP, Pasha and Tamzene, on the tracks in this EP. How did you meet them?
All different, completely different for all of them. Maribelle, I came across her music online and I just said to my manager ‘I really like her voice. I’ve got this track, should we send it to her?’ And she was like ‘yeah.’ [Maribelle] came back very quickly with a top line on top of that, and then me and her went back and forth. She’s based in Australia so we never met. Never called or anything. It was all over text, which is a weird way to work for sure! It just kind of happened like that for “Don't Say Ur Sorry”.
“Speak Français” [...] there was a writing camp with a label called Future House Music in Estonia after I played a show over there. We all kind of got placed together. I was put in the studio with NOËP and I was like ‘this is going to be interesting.’ And it really did come out as an interesting product! We finished that online over text.
“Brand New Phone” was written in Norway. I went to Norway for a trip in October last year to just write with as many people as possible, and I wrote with some incredible artists over there. I remember I had a session with this one guy and his same team were like “We’ve also got this artist called Pasha. Would Ellis want to hop in a session with him as well?” I listened to him and at that time was when I was really listening to that type of music: a lot of slow, funk, disco—and all of his stuff was like that! I was like ‘this is perfect, I definitely want to get in a session with him.’ That one, again, happened very, very quickly. We wrote the whole thing in-studio in a few hours. One thing we didn’t get for that was a middle eight, so actually in lockdown as well, my housemate, Sam—he’s really good at writing lyrics and stuff as well, he wrote the lyrics on “Caught in the Rays”—he helped write the middle eight section for that with me.
“Caught in the Rays” was written literally in lockdown. Sam wrote the lyrics, I kind of had the melody idea in my head.