About 2 weeks ago, before the holiday madness, I sat down with Ellen Cook at the host location of her wildly successful open mic night, Foam Coffee and Beer. The following is a transcript of our roughly half hour Q and A, in which Ellen talks a little about her sound and its roots, her projects of the moment, her thoughts on the local music scene, and the journey from Ellen Cook to Ellen the Felon.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
I think the first question I want to ask, I mean the first set of questions are about your music. If you had to describe your music to someone who had never heard it, what words would you use? How would you describe it?
Ellen- I’d probably say that it’s jazz, cabaret, rock… passionate sometimes comical. Tom Waits meets Fiona Apple maybe.
I’ve heard you do covers but I know that in your shows you do original music, so, in writing music, what do you, what subject matter do you tend to write about? What stories are worth telling to you?
Ellen- Everything. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve had a very crazy life at the young age of 26. And I’ve got songs about my first love you know and I also have some funny songs. Like I have a stalker song called “Oh Timothy” and that was inspired by a voicemail. And, you know, I lost my boyfriend last summer in a car accident so I’ve got a lot of songs about him. I mean, it’s all very honest. I don’t try too hard to go too deep. I just try to lay it out
So you lay it out, you lay out what it is. Do you tend to filter, you know, I feel like when I’m writing songs I say to myself “This is good. This isn’t as good. I’m going to work with this.” For you what separates a good song from a bad song—a song that you’re going to run with immediately from a song that needs more work or a song that might get tossed out?
Ellen- I like my songs to have a lot of depth to them. And I think once I feel comfortable playing it out is usually when I’m ready to make it an official song on the set list. And if I enjoy playing it. There’s some songs that I write and I’m like why did I even do that. And they have to be very dimensional—lot’s of changes.
You’ve already talked a little bit about this about your background, but what would you—just talk to me a little bit about what you would want people to know about your background and about just Ellen Cook, not so much Ellen the Felon.
Ellen- I’m a very fun person. I’ve got really great friends. I love St. Louis. I’m pretty ridiculous. I can be a little over the top at times—my dad calls me a diva, which I’m sure I am at times. Like I said, I’ve been through a lot. I was raised in University City and I went to Webster High School and I got expelled for some stuff. My first relationship was a really abusive relationship. I lost my mom last February. So I’ve been through—it’s just been up and down. But music has always been like the one constant in my entire life—the one thing that I know will always be there for me.
So how did Ellen Cook become Ellen the Felon?
Ellen- Back to the high school part. I got into some trouble when I was a kid and I spent a lot of time in juvy and institutions from probably 15 to 18. So, yeah, it became a nickname. And I just ran with it. It’s catchy. People actually remember it.
Musical Interests and Influences
So I wanted to talk a little bit about your influences and your interests and who you like, what you listen to and that type of thing. Sort of the “Who’s on your ipod?” question. Who are you listening to right now?
Ellen- I love The Dresden Dolls; I love Amanda Palmer, Fiona Apple. Let’s see Andrew Bird, Scout Niblet. And all the classics, like I grew up on a lot of Motown so definitely Diana Ross and Aretha, Stevie Wonder. Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Ani DiFranco, she’s a great writer. Roger Miller is one of my favorites too. My dad’s a truck driver so I get a lot of Roger Miller.
Roger Miller. Is that “On the Road Again”?
Ellen- Yeah. He wrote that song and he was also in Robin Hood, the cartoon. He was the rooster, the sheriff.
So, would you say—do you feel like your music is derivative of any of those artists?
Ellen- Yeah definitely. I’ve got a lot of soul—and yeah, definitely The Dresden Dolls I’m really inspired by them because it’s like cabaret and sometimes funny and dark, you know, it’s just great. Tom Waits for sure, I like his creepy quirkiness. And I like Ani’s writing. I think she’s just such a great lyricist and her voice and guitar is really good too. I can’t play guitar.
So, I’ve seen you do a lot of duets. And you have a real knack, I think for vocal harmony, I feel like. Who among all those people—or add some people in there—who would you just love to harmonize with—to do a duet with if you could?
Ellen- Probably—I don’t think I mentioned Dolly Parton, but if I could just meet her, maybe have some coffee, a glass of wine and just like pick her brain, that’d be great. And then, obviously to play with her. I did play with Amanda Palmer, she played the drums and I sang. That was probably the highlight of my entire life.
As far as—because you get to see a lot of local artists with just being out in the community but also running an open mic—who, what local artists are you into?
Ellen- I love Sleepy Kitty, they’re great. Old Lights, Middle Class Fashion, anything that Jim Malzone puts together is great. Tight Pants Syndrome. Paper Dolls. What else, there’s so much! I really like Magic City too. Warm Jets USA, they’re great. Mustard Rob. Pancake Master, he’s awesome; he’s hilarious too. Langen, of course—my facebook wife. She’s great. Irene Allen is—oh my God, her voice like… the last time I quit smoking, I wrote down three names on my hand and it was Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Irene Allen to stay motivated. Because you know sometimes, you hear somebody singing you’re like “Man, if only I quit smoking I could hit those notes like she does.” I feel like I’m forgetting so many—there are so many great bands here. St. Louis is just a great music city. Oh, Cassie Morgan, Beth Bombara, Celia, Firedog. Firedog, we’re great friends, we’ve collaborated before. There’s too many to name. I know I’m forgetting some. Fattback was great too—my late boyfriends band.
Open Mic @ Foam
So, just kind of keeping in that vein of local acts and that kind of thing, running the open mic here, you all hear a lot of up-and-comers and get to hear their tunes. Are you generally able to tell who has a lot of potential to make some waves in the area? And if so, what sets those acts apart?
Ellen- You know, I think stage presence is huge. You can definitely tell when someone is a more seasoned musician—someone that can like really hold themselves well on stage. Also, you know, the song writing. If the songwriting, lyrics, all of that definitely plays a part. I always say this, being a musician is like 30% talent and the rest is promoting yourself constantly, recording, working. You have to think about all the people who have made it that absolutely suck. It’s all work.
So you and Langen run what the River Front Times called the number 1 open mic in the area. How did you get to that level of popularity?
Ellen- We started in—we’ve only been doing this for about a year. And you know I think Langen and I just have really great chemistry on stage. We try to make it as fun as possible and we’re really open to everything. We have comedians and we have people who read monologues here you know and everything in between. We had an eleven piece band from Colorado come. It’s such an inviting atmosphere. And I feel like, as opposed to other open mics where everyone’s just getting wasted and like talking over the music, I feel like we actually have some really great listeners. I think that just Foam itself—it’s not quite a bar, it’s not quite a coffee house; it’s somewhere in between. That really lends to a better audience.
I want to kind of switch gears a little here in a second. I wanted to ask you this. This is just kind of a miscellaneous question. I wasn’t really able to put it with anything else. The show you guys did a couple of weekends ago, it was a Sunday, where the group came from Austin and there was a couple other groups. Part of the whole build up for that was that it was all front women—all female fronted bands. And I’ve seen you get really excited when my good friend Allie Vogler or other female singer/songwriters come in with their guitars and play and sing. Would you say that the whole girl-power aspect is something that’s important to you? And if so, why?
Ellen- It is important to me, definitely. I was talking to my friend, Catherine Kustelsky, she runs the Chippewa Chapel open mic sometimes too at El Lenador. She was telling me when she first hit the scene back in like the late 90s or whenever that there were no women. There were no chicks out there doing it, here in St. Louis at least. And she said that to see so many of us thriving and doing well is amazing. But like, in another way, I do get sick of female being a genre because it’s not a genre. I play jazz cabaret. I don’t play chick music. That can get a little… one time I played a show with three other chick bands. We had nothing in common. There was one chick that sounded like freaking horrible, techno, Evanescence stuff, and then there was like a folk country band… we didn’t sound anything alike. We were just put together because we’re chicks. It can get a little ridiculous at times.
Does that make it more difficult? Do you think it’s more difficult for women at this point? Is it like what Katherine was saying?
Ellen- Well no. She says the scene is easier to break into than it was when she started. No, I don’t think… in fact, I think sometimes people just pay attention because you are a chick. My friend Irene always says “You’re good, but you’re that much better because you’re a girl and most girls suck. (16.28)
Ellen the Felon and the Mattronome and the Business of Music
You talked about the importance of promoting—it being only 30% how good you are and the rest is work. I want to shift to talking about that and talking about where Ellen the Felon and the Mattronome or where Ellen the Felon in general goes from this point. So, if somebody googles Ellen the Felon, which I actually did, what will they find?
Ellen- Tons of videos, our website, RFT stuff, lots of press, pictures probably.
I want to talk a little bit about your band set up. It’s a two-person band. Is it you and the Mattronome against the world type of idea? How did you two get started playing together and are you looking for a guitarist or for other things, a saxophonist, that kind of thing?
Ellen- Matt and I actually have known each other since we were twelve, since the sixth grade and we started playing together I guess 08. It was just for this one show at the Way Out club which I still, we still, think was like our best show just because we were so pumped up for it. We practiced like all the time for that one show and we barely had like a 35 minute set together. And there was no one there. It was like the bands and like 3 people. Plus…you know, first a show at the Way Out kind of thing. I mean I’d been playing solo. Matt and I, we’re just great friends. People always think we’re dating but I would never touch him. He loves it when I say that.
Yeah, and next we’re finishing up our album, first debut like real album not like live performances or anything. And then we plan to hit the road. We want to play everywhere.
What’s the album going to be called?
Ellen- It’s called “Bang, Bang, Bang.”
Do you have a projected day for when you want to release it?
Ellen- We keep on—I wanted it to be done by October and now it’s going to be like February.
Is it, like the performances, going to be piano and drums or are there other musicians involved?
Ellen- My friend Abbie Hainz, good friend and violinist Abbie Hainz, will be coming in and we’re going to have some back up vocals for the title track “Bang, Bang, Bang.” And that’s about it.
This is kind of getting back toward that idea of work. As a working artist, are you self-contained? Do you do your booking and your promotion and all of that type of thing?
Ellen- Yes. At this point. We can’t afford, you know, to hire someone to do it. Yeah and at this point I guess we’ve made enough of a name for ourselves that we’re not even booking ourselves, I just get emails asking us to play.
At what point did that start?
Ellen- You know it’s been a little over a year that people ask us. We have to turn down a lot of shows. Because you don’t want to overbook yourself.
So how often are you playing at this point?
Ellen- At least every other week. Our next show is this Thursday at El Lenador for the A Very Burt Dax Christmas release. So yeah, I cannot wait… Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It’s four shows.
So you’ve come to a point where a lot of the booking comes to you but promoting is still probably a big part of what you do.
Ellen- Oh yeah, definitely. You don’t ever want to slow down on that.
What do you find to be the most useful promoting avenues like for yourself and the type of music you do?
Ellen- I think honestly word of mouth is the best way to get anybody. You just got to that the shows…don’t sell something that people aren’t gonna want. Make sure it’s a fun night. I think KDHX is great at promoting. It’s a great tool for St. Louis musicians. Facebook is alright. I mean, I feel like I get so many invites for everything everyday that it’s probably almost useless anymore, but I still do it, you know.
The Future of Ellen
So I want to ask a few questions about what’s next. You talked a little bit about the album, you talked a little bit about your upcoming shows. So what else is in the immediate future for Ellen the Felon and the Matronome?
Ellen- We want to shoot more music videos, like actual music videos.
I’ve seen the one down at City Museum.
Ellen- He did a great job on that.
Who did that?
Ellen- Bill Streeter, he did… he’s done a lot. He did Sleepy Kitty’s, The Blind Eyes, Pokey LaFarge, the Monads, Beth Bombara, Cassie Morgan, Irene. It was definitely an honor when he asked me to do one.
So, do you have…are you going to do the next one with him or do you have something set up otherwise?
Ellen- I really want to wait until it warms up a little bit and I want to get like 60 or 70 people to do like a flash mob music video. I think that’d be awesome.
So there’s that…
Ellen- Yeah, music videos, album, we just got a new web site. It’s ellenthefelon.net. We’re still working on it a little bit. Touring! Really just getting out of our comfort zone. We’ve got our cushy little thing here in St. Louis. I think we need to play to you know three people in a different town or whatever. And I think it will be a good bonding experience for Matt and I.
So, are you already thinking about where you want to go?
Ellen- I want to go everywhere. I want to go to Seattle, Portland, Boston, New York—anywhere in New York. I’ve been told that the east coast is perfect for us. I want to go to New Orleans, even Tennessee, Chicago, Kansas City, Austin.
Do you as an artist have anything like a five year plan or do you just kind of take things as they come or do you take things at smaller intervals than five years?
Ellen- We just kind of do it—we just take it as it comes, I guess. We definitely don’t want to be just a St. Louis band. We want to go beyond that. We were talking about that at practice last night.
How often do you guys practice?
Ellen- At least once a week sometimes twice. And it’s not just practice, it’s kind of like a meeting. We talk about our shows and catch up and stuff. We never practice too much.
So, just a couple more questions and I think we’re going to be done. I want to know, what would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?
Ellen- I don’t know. Probably be one of those mall walkers and just walk around in circles. I use to really be into painting. I’ve always been just the creative type. I’d love to design dresses…own my own bar, something like that. Something creative.
We’ve already talked a little bit about how the persona of Ellen the Felon coalesced. But, how does Ellen the Felon, as this creation for the stage or even as this ghost of the past, how does Ellen the Felon differ from Ellen Cook?
Ellen- I don’t know. I guess they’re pretty much the same… Ellen the Felon’s fancier, she drinks a lot more, she might get into a bar fight. And Ellen Cook has a sweeter side and might write a love song.
Ellen the Felon and the Mattronome will be performing at Plush (http://www.plushstl.com/) on Friday, January 13th. You can check her out, along with Langen Neubacher at Foam Coffee and Beer (http://foamstl.com/) as they open the show for their Open Mic Night every Wednesday starting at 9pm. Be sure to check out Ellen's website, http://www.ellenthefelon.net/, for more information.