Pittsburgh: Tinsley Ellis Interview by Monica Yasher

Posted on 12/17/2009 by Monica Yasher

“As far as popular culture, I’m on the outside looking in. As an artist, I’m on the outside looking out.“

It was just announced last week that Tinsley Ellis was nominated for a Blues Handy award for the Blues Rock Album of the Year! This would come as no surprise if you had a chance to speak with Tinsley. Tinsley enjoys the songwriting process and used all of his own songwriting efforts on his new release, "Speak No Evil". He has also been performing the songs live across the United States and claims that the live shows will sound as good as the record. I saw Tinsley, and he is right on target with that statement!

When I saw Tinsley at Moondogs in Pittsburgh in October, the room was full. The crowd was patiently waiting for Tinsley to attack the songs via his guitar and give them that southern feeling only Tinsley can offer. And, he gave the crowd just what they were looking for. All the while Tinsley is performing with his guitar, he is also feeling the words he has written. And, the crowd responded to Tinsley and his music with a very warm reception. Tinsley is a great performer and I’m sure the crowd will be back around the next time he comes to town. Until then, let’s see what Tinsley had to say.

Tinsley: Hello.

Monica: Hello Tinsley! This is Monica Yasher, how are you!

T: Hey Monica, how are you?

M: I’m all right! Where are you today?

T: I’m in Atlanta where I live.

M: Still home? I checked some things out and you have an aggressive tour schedule.

T: Yes. And I have interviews in prep for the tour.

M: I’m looking forward to speaking with you Tinsley. Maybe we should get started. You seem so busy! Let’s talk about your new CD. How is this the same or different than your past works?

T: It’s a continuation of what we have been doing on studio albums since the year 2000 in terms of writing almost all of the material, or as much of it as I can. I wrote this whole album, which is not the case on the last one, where I wrote most of it-but not all of it. We’ve found that it works best for us to do original music that is a statement of where we are at musically and where I’m at lyrically.

So it’s going to be…we are very excited about the music in, "Speak No Evil". I don’t think the long time fans of the band will be surprised at all in terms of the style of guitar driven blues rock as we have always done. But, hopefully we will add some new fans to our crowd.

M: So when you so where you are lyrically, I take it you have all new writing and not things sitting around for years that you felt would meet the needs of the CD’s theme today? So, where are you when you say, where I am lyrically? What do you regard to life...or in songwriting...what does that mean?

T: Yes. I think my songwriting is getting better all time. I’ve had my own recording studio for six years now and that’s really helped me out in songwriting and I’ve been able to really spend a lot of time on this particular album. We were able to choose from over fifty songs to whittle it down to twelve so that is something kind of new. Never have we had that much choice.

M: Do you record eighteen or twenty and then work down toward your twelve?

T: On this particular album. No. We whittled it down from the fifty to the twelve based on the demos. But, I have gone in, in the past and recorded eighteen songs and then picked the best twelve out of those.

M: In regard to the writing, do you write everyday? Do you do practice songs? Is that your songwriting technique or is every song a viable completed song?

T: I learned years ago that you can set time aside for songwriting and it just doesn’t work well. Songs come when they come. I could be driving down the road, and I have a telephone with a recorder in it, so...I find myself singing to my telephone. And, that replaces the hand held cassette I used for that purpose. Songs come when they come. I record them at my studio when I’m off-touring in Atlanta.

M: Acoustically?

T: No I play all the instruments.

M: Do you? Wow! So, you hear it all when it comes to you?

T: Yeah. I can hear it. And of course I’ll bring in the band to do the demos. They have their expertise and ideas on their individual instruments. I present the ideas to them as a band demo.

M; You haven’t been out on the road yet. But, when people hear you with this tour will they say, and I’m going to show my age here, he sounds just like his album!

T: Yeah. I think in terms of the new songs on, "Speak No Evil", it will sound just like the record. And, we will be doing a lot of songs on the previous CD, "Moment of Truth". We will be doing songs off of the Live album that we did in 2005 where we invited people to go to and tell us what songs they wanted to be on the LIVE album. That was kinda cool to involve the fans like that.

M: OK. What is your favorite part of being an artist? The writing, the touring, the recording? What’s your favorite part of it all?

T: Obviously, performing always comes first. A close second is the songwriting process where it’s just me and a song and I haven’t played it for anyone yet. It’s just a wonderful creative period. Because once you start playing it for people, everyone has ideas, which is good and necessary. But, I just love it when it’s just me and the song and I’m falling in love with it.

M: You fall in love with your songs? Wow.

T: fall in love with them and then people criticize them when you are working on them.

M: I have to agree with that. I wrote a song just for me once and someone else made a comment to change it all around to make it more commercial. That was one song that I just couldn’t do it, because I wrote it for me. It’s mine.

T: A lot of opinion out there. That’s fine too. But, when it’s me and the song in the studio it’s a fine time. Nobody has any say about it. But, my main love is to perform.

M: I can see that from your schedule, Tinsley, you are a busy man.

T: Very busy. That’s cool. It’s a good time when an album is new and you go out there and play the songs and have them appreciated, hopefully. A lot of good stuff happens when the album is new. A lot of stuff we are waiting for.

M: Let’s talk about some career things. You are a fabulous guitarist. If you could meet up with another guitarist in a room, who would you want that to be?

T: Eric Clapton.

M: Eric Clapton is your man, huh? Why? What do you want to learn from him?

T: I just love his music and if I had to narrow it down to one, he is it. All the different journeys he has taken in different styles of music with electric and acoustic, blues, psychedelic rock.

M: Did you meet him yet?

T: I almost met him a couple of times.

M: What about B.B. King? I see that B.B. impacted you. You have his guitar string still.

T: I have met him many times. I’ve opened for him and he is always so nice to me.

M: Is he?

T: Really a good guy. A great guy!

M: As much as B.B. impacted you, how do you feel you impact your audience? Or, do you have a story for me that you have done the same for someone?

T: Well it was a real honor when I met this kid. He was thirteen years old and he said he wanted to learn one of my songs and his parents brought him to my show. Backstage he seemed so interested in learning the chords to this song. I showed him some of the things to the tune. He then put out an album and recorded my song on it and that was nice because it was a different generation doing one of my songs. Then we watched the album sell one hundred thousand. Then we watched the album go gold. Then we watched the album go almost double platinum. That person was Jonny Lang.

M: I knew you were going to say his name once you started.

T: Naturally that was a big financial blessing for me and my family. But, to have someone from a different generation, someone who is a child pretty much thirteen- fourteen years old when he recorded it...he did a beautiful job on it. He used to be our opening act and now we are his opening act. He plays that song every time. I asked his manager does he play that song often or only when we open for him. His manager told me he plays that song at every concert. What an honor. What an honor.

M: I’m happy for you. You obviously impacted him and brought him along.

T: The trick is doing it a second time. I want to make sure it’s not a fluke. I pitched songs to the biggies, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, ZZ Top and many others. Haven’t had anyone bite just yet. The Jonny Lang thing come out of left field. Nobody anticipated that his "Lie to Me" album was going to sale like it did. You can try and try and try and I zig and they zag or it can just come together. The main thing is that we have songs out there that people can hear because Alligator Records sales an album everywhere they can sale a record so chances are that someone can hear it. That would be nice.

M: Do you think that by Jonny doing your song, in your mind, validated you a bit more as a songwriter?

T: It definitely got my attention. Right after that I got the recording equipment, and had it in my basement for a while and then I moved it into an office space so that I could do it anytime I wanted to, including four in the morning if need be. Yes, it got my attention and was a wake up call in many ways. I’ve had some other songs covered by people I really respect like Melvin Taylor and Michael Burkes. And the title song to my new album, "Speak No Evil", I wrote that one for Guitar Shorty. But, Alligator had me record it instead, so that was kind of cool. I wrote it for somebody else and low and behold I ended up doing it myself at the urging of Alligator Records and it ended up being the title song. Isn’t that sneaky?

M: No, that’s awesome! I’ve seen some songwriters perform the songs they wrote for major artists. There is something to be said for that songwriter performing their song. That songwriter will perform it totally different because it’s from their heart and it’s from the place where they were when they wrote it. It’s always so touching. It’s usually exceptional.

T: I know what you mean and I love it when songwriters become front people like Carole King. Carole King wrote all those hits and I loved her versions as much as the originals.

M: I rocked my kids to sleep with that song, 'You’ve Got a Friend'. It’s amazing how songs touch people. The power of five words or a few more words in a sentence can be very humbling. You have that wonderful guitar playing behind it. Let’s talk about that. Did you have your family’s backing in all of this?

T: No, they weren’t into it at ALL. They counseled against it at every opportunity.

But, when I got in the New York Times in the 1980’s all of a sudden it was a little better. That’s what it takes.

M: When you think about it when we grew up, music wasn’t thought to be a great career choice. You worked somewhere until you retired. Today music has so many more choices. So much you can do with it. I’m so glad you stuck with it!

T: At this juncture what else could I do? So…it’s too late to stop. I wonder if it’s easier or harder to do music.

M: What do you mean? Someone breaking in or where you are now?

T: Just doing a living at it. I wonder if it’s easier or harder because I’ve done it for so long. If somebody was starting now, it could be harder now than before. I’m grandfathered in. It’s tough. People are expecting free music on the internet and for those of us writing songs to make a living, it makes it tough.

M: Yeah it is.

T: But at the same token, there are more avenues for music, so maybe it evens out.

M: Somebody told me once that music will save the world.

T: Well...Maybe…(He laughs.)

M: I don’t know. (He laughs.)

T: That would set my expectations too high. I’m about entertaining people. Saving the world I will leave that to political and religious leaders. I would hope it would have done that already. We must be in a holding pattern. (We laugh.) I guess we have time.

M: Were you self taught or did you take lessons?

T: Self taught.

M: What would you recommend for the future artists of tomorrow?

T: Write your own material. Find your own voice. Learn to read music is well and fine. But, you have to put a feeling in people’s heart and I don’t think they teach you that at music school. I think they teach the mechanics of music. The nice mixture of the tune. I just think that writing songs, that helped me a lot. I always urge young bands to write their own material and find their own voice.

M: What do you think makes a good song?

T: A good song is something that you whistle at the water cooler at work. You just find yourself singing along to a song. It doesn’t have to be complicated. I like music that is simple and soulful. That puts me at 180 degrees from what most people like today. But, oh well. My favorite band is Booker T and the MG’s. They are a simple soulful band. I don’t like complicated music. As far as popular culture, I’m on the outside looking in. As an artist, I’m on the outside looking out.

M: That’s a line, I’m telling you. Anything you want to tell me?

T: Just thank you so much for your interest in the blues.

M: I wouldn’t be musically where I am without blues, and blues open mics, and my blues musician friends. I try to write country music. But, I wouldn’t be anywhere without the blues.

T: It’s the root of it all, isn’t it?

M: It is. You can sing the blues however you want. It’s how you are feeling and I would never sing the same song the same way twice.

T: You are right. The operative word is feeling. Feeling is what it’s all about.

M: I love the blues. And I look forward to actually meeting you.

T: See you tomorrow Monica.

M: Bye Tinsley.

T: Bye Monica.

You may also enjoy reading Tinsley's CD review by J. Blake: Tinsley Review

Thank you for reading American Blues News!

Copyright © 2009 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph Copyright © 2009 Maureen Ceidro. All Rights Reserved.

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