To Start Anew, ellis Went Back to Her Basics

Linnea Siggelkow discusses growing up in a religious home without secular music, the preciousness of workshopping demos, and how tensions with her old label inspired her to go independent on her sophomore album, no place that feels like.

Music Features Ellis
To Start Anew, ellis Went Back to Her Basics

Linnea Siggelkow, who writes music as ellis (say her initials, L.S., fast), doesn’t know where her home is. The singer-songwriter has called Hamilton, a post-industrial edge city on Lake Ontario’s western shore, her home for much of her adult life, but the woman who spent her girlhood moving across four Canadian provinces is still trying to put roots down. “I never set out with specific intention to write an album,” she explains, “but when I put these songs together, I realized they’re rooted in people and places in contrast to this unsettled feeling. It made so much sense to me.” As her family moved from the Plains Provinces to Ontario when she was approaching high school, Siggelkow learned to associate memories with houses and cities, giving each geography a psychological file cabinet to delineate between pasts. Memories distant and recent, undergirded with a sense of geographical and temporal uprootedness, make up the stirring, diaristic songs ellis will release on no place that feels like, her independently released return-to-form.

Before she was ellis, Siggelkow was a classical pianist, taking her first lessons at four years old and spending her childhood under the eyes of adjudicators. Her parents were devout Christians who banned secular music from their home for the first decade of Siggelkow’s childhood—but they had an undying love for worship rock, which exposed her to sonic palettes far beyond her etudes. She played in a worship band at church and learned about how music can muster emotions beyond comprehension: “I look back now and it’s, like, manipulative! I played the synth pads and the director would look at me to say ‘the synth needs to come in here, because this is when the Holy Spirit will arrive.’” While you might be hard-pressed to find direct references to any gospel in ellis’ songs today, she has a command over emotion and resonance in her pensive songwriting that’s not unlike that of claire rousay or Ethel Cain, people who know the sway that worship music can have over an audience. But it was Avril Lavigne, one of the first secular musicians with whom she resonated in middle school, who inspired Siggelkow to save her babysitting money and put it towards a Squier Strat.

It wasn’t until Siggelkow’s mid-20s, though, that she started venturing out as a performer—first with a band she and her best friend formed, and together they played Best Coast-inspired fuzzy, surfy rock. She set herself in Toronto, the massive hub around which her life had been oriented for a decade, but as an ordinarily shy person who isn’t one to perform lightly, it was hard to get a foothold in such a cacophonous, at-times competitive city of that scale. She didn’t have to go far to find a tight music scene in Hamilton, a place with its own thriving ecosystem and easy access to Toronto for big gigs or Buffalo, New York for stateside shows. Siggelkow played one Toronto gig as ellis before the move, where the name eventually bloomed into a decidedly dream pop project with emo undertones. It makes perfect sense: Teenage Siggelkow loved Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance, and after ingratiating herself with the nebulous world of mid-2010s indie, ellis brought the finest of both together in one. That’s what makes for such stark, resonant music that isn’t too far removed from narrative songwriters like Nicole Dollanganger or poet-violinist Infinity Crush.

“Decidedly dream pop” is the best description of the first ellis release, the fuzz EP, a buzz-garnering, self-released collection of six songs that feel like soft-grunge Mazzy Star. “I wanted my vocals quite dark and buried. It was part of a grungier aesthetic I wanted to lean into, but I also just wasn’t ready to have my vocals at the front of the mix,” Siggelkow explains. “People came up to me after that like, ‘Oh you must really love Slowdive.’ I’d never listened to them before!” As someone so drawn to emotional music, ellis has consistently upped the gooey pathos on each album while placing her vocals closer and closer to the front of the mix. The contours of her emotions—melancholy, yearning, contemplative, even angry—are entirely unavoidable. Her debut full-length, 2020’s born again, approximates a midpoint between her EP and the clear-as-day sad rock on her newest album.

Regarding born again, Siggelkow doesn’t really mince words. The process, the rollout, the reception, her conflicted place as someone trying to negotiate with the music industry—all of it left a bad taste in her mouth. For the album, she signed with a label, the legendary Fat Possum Records, with whom she constantly fought on all things creative, from the personnel to the cover, and, after a disappointing release mere weeks into a pandemic that stretches on, they cut ties with each other. “I was crying in the studio every day,” Siggelkow explains of her experience pumping out songs in New York with a label-selected producer. “I didn’t feel totally good about the release, and in the months leading up to it, I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. I was green and wanted to prove that I deserved to be there.” She recounts this arduous experience on “what i know now,” the second single on no place that feels like, and of the most propulsive, confident songs she’s ever released.

On the day of its drop, “what i know now” inspired whispers between anyone with indie business literacy; between shade at Siggelkow’s ex-label’s C-suite demographics and responses to a particular review of born again, the song didn’t leave much up to the imagination. “I never intended to release the song, but my manager encouraged me to, and I’m really glad I did. I didn’t mean for things to get shady, but I was feeling a lot and needed to process it,” she explains. And while the clap-back at a reviewer’s comments reads like disinterest in upholding solidarity during music criticism’s unspooling, Siggelkow just wanted to get her commentary out there and close the book on that chapter. Given the promise of no place that feels like, there’s reason to feel optimistic that it’s closed for good.

“[no place that feels like] is an evolution, but it’s also a full-circle moment,” Siggelkow says. “I have the confidence I didn’t have back when I released the fuzz to put my vocals front and center like that, but I have the same low expectations I had back then and the support of my friends. It’s honestly been so rewarding.” Where born again occupied an interstitial space between clarity and obscurity, everything ellis has done recently has been painfully clear: Just over a year after the album came out, she self-released an EP, nothing is sacred anymore, and its centerpiece song, “what if love isn’t enough,” offered a chilling transparency that made the project feel bolder and unhindered. On no place that feels like, songs like “obliterate me” and “taurine” have a similar, transfixing shine, full to the gills with emotion in truest ellis form. Her piano skills are on full display on “prelude,” a haunting instrumental track placed wisely in the latter half as a moment of respite before the force of “home.”

Most importantly, though, Siggelkow made no place that feels like her way. She produced her previous EP with her Hamiltonian friend, Charlie Spencer, and found that experience so refreshing that she reached out to him again for this record. Spencer is a character in his own right; he endorses lighting the same incense in the studio every day to train your brain to recognize a scent that will spark and nurture creative energy. Where Siggelkow felt like there were opportunities to take risks, she leapt for them. Take “it’ll be alright,” the album’s third single, for example: The song remained in a state of incompletion for a long, long time. Originally, Siggelkow wrote it as a ballad in 6/8 time, but nothing was working quite right. Serendipitously, her friend Derek Hoffman, a professional songwriter in the Canadian pop ecosystem, offered to workshop with her. “Historically, I’ve been really protective of my songs,” she says. “I demo it as far as I can with programmed drums, guitar, synths, and vocals until I am ready to record it properly. I was very nervous to workshop something unfinished with him.” Hoffman suggested bringing the song into 4/4 time and “letting it rock,” which ignited an explosion of creativity that brought the song to completion that very night.

Siggelkow also stepped out of her comfort zone to craft the album’s visuals. “I don’t love making music videos—some people came from theater and this is truly their bag—I’m not that guy. I’m not totally excited to be on camera,” she says. However, with the help of her friend Justin Singer (who’s helped bring Chastity’s songs to life on video), she came up with ideas for videos that would flow into each other, all depicting her winding search for a home she so deeply covets. “At the end of ‘obliterate me,’ I’m in a car; then, in the beginning of ‘what i know now,’ I get out of that car. At the end of ‘what i know now,’ I approach a house, then in the beginning of ‘it’ll be alright,’ i’m in that house, in my best friend’s creepy attic bedroom,” she furthers. The last video, “home,” completes the cycle with a sequence that reinforces the idea that, even if these songs depict wildly different moments in Siggelkow’s life, they’re all connected by emotion, all gesturing towards her search for roots—both physically and metaphorically.

Even if Siggelkow is still searching for home, it sounds like she’s found something as close to it as young adulthood allows: a cadre of fellow artists who share her vision, people with the tools to help you bring her art to life, an audience that’s ready to receive. The pursuit of physical and psychic rootedness is ever-evolving. Crucially, Siggelkow has embraced the ellis sound—vocal-forward and cold as a Great Lakes wind—and it sounds completely at ease on no place that feels like. Maybe we don’t know precisely where home is, or where it will ever be, but there’s something about being at home in a sound and in a practice that has a similarly relieving quality.

Watch the music video for “home” below.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Aquarium Drunkard, Bandcamp Daily, Slumber Mag and more. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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