Lindsay Ell’s 2020 release heart theory explores the stages of grief. For it, she called on a lot of her friends to help craft 12 fantastic pop songs; folks like Tyler Hubbard or Florida-Georgia Line, Kane Brown, Adam Hambrick and Brandy Clark. “wAnt me back” was the collaboration with Brown (along with Matt McGinn and Lindsay Rimes), and it became her second number one song on country charts in her native Canada.
She has spent the pandemic working with charities and finding love and writing songs for an untitled followup. And now she’s ready to get back on the road. While a full tour can’t yet be mapped out, a few fortunate clubs in the South can be reached pretty easily. This weekend, she’ll visit two in Alabama: Zydeco in Birmingham on Friday and Sidetracks Music Hall in Huntsville on Saturday. She’ll also turn 32 while she’s in the Rocket City, and she assures that she is ready to celebrate her new year with Alabama.
We spoke about returning to live music, heart theory and about teaming up with the CMA Foundation to teach fourth graders some songwriting lessons.
You managed to find a great way to pass the time over the past year. You recently joined some fourth-grade Nashville music students via Zoom and helped them write a song. What was the experience like for you?
The CMA Foundation does so much for music education here–in Nashville, Tennessee and around the country. It was amazing to get to team up with them and be their arts ambassador for the past month and help create awareness for really great music education. In doing that, I was able to get online with a fourth-grade class and teach songwriting and they were just the sweetest kids! They were so smart, and it was really rewarding to be able to sit in on a lesson with them. I talked to the teachers beforehand, and I have so much respect for teachers–especially now–the things that they have had to do over the past year and the skills that they have to foster to get kids to even pay attention in a home environment online. I bow down to all teachers.
These kids were amazing! I didn’t know if I should give them assignments or if we should break them up into groups or if we should write one song together. And they said, “We should write one together!” I had no idea how it would go going into it, but it ended up being amazing and the kids had incredible ideas, and I was really wowed by them.
Nashville is home now, so I guess local schools are special to you.
I love everything that the CMA Foundation does, and I’ve been working with them for the past two years. I’ve been living in Nashville now for ten years, so yeah, I love helping local schools around the community. I’ve actually talked to some fans about doing it more across the country as we continue to navigate through the pandemic.
You played Marathon Music Works in Nashville last weekend. Was that your first show back? Have you been in other live audience settings since last year?
We’ve obviously done a lot of livestreams. We did an incredible livestream a few weeks ago. We were able to put over 200 members of our band and crew back to work for the week. We had a livestream where we were able to raise over $60,000 for band and crew members. We worked with a production company that puts together tours for Coldplay and Justin Timberlake and they built us a beautiful show. It was really fun to be able to do that. That felt like it was really the “first day back to work,” so to speak.
Last week, we played a couple of clubs–in Chattanooga and here at Marathon in Nashville. It was amazing to feel normal. We haven’t been able to feel that way for a year.
What was the atmosphere like from your side of the stage and from the audience’s side? Was their hesitance? Or did everyone just kind of dive back in like it was before?
If anything, everyone was taking really safe precautions. Everyone was at tables. Everyone wore masks. The health department was there making sure everyone followed protocols. I had a Covid line taped on the stage that I couldn’t cross, because they made sure that everyone on stage was 15 feet away from the first row. They were doing absolutely everything they could to make sure that everyone was safe. We can start to do some shows if they’re socially distanced. The venue was really happy with how everything went. Everyone kept their masks on and everyone was so polite. It was a huge relief to be able to go see live music again.
heart theory was fantastic. It explores the stages of grief and it’s a bit of a personal record. You did a lot of co-writes here with some fairly well known male country singers [Kane Brown, Tyler Hubbard, Adam Hambrick]. Were you concerned with them being able to help you tell your story the way that you wanted coming from a different perspective?
The great thing about living in a town like Nashville is that we have some of the best songwriters in the world here. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of artists as friends, and the cool thing about writing with other people is that you become comfortable with being vulnerable in writing your story into a song while still figuring out how to create something that may be played on the radio one day. I felt really grateful to write with some other artists. Brandy Clark was also on this record. Kane [Brown] and I have wanted to write together a lot. We’d always be backstage and say, “We should write together!” and it just never happened. We’re always so busy touring. But when I was writing the record, we were able to make it happen–with Tyler [Hubbard] and with Kane. I was really fortunate that I could help spotlight a few other artists.
And Adam [Hambrick], too.
Yes! I’ve been an Adam fan for years and years. We wrote a lot together on my last album. He’s so talented. Goodness gracious. His voice is ridiculous.
You made your Opry debut relatively young at 23 or 24. And you’ve been a fixture there since. What was that experience like through the pandemic? It definitely felt like it would have to be put on hold like everything else, but they found a way to fight through it and keep the music going.
It was an interesting thing to watch. It’s one of the most legendary and one of the most special stages to play in the city. I was really proud of them for how careful they were and how resilient they were. They helped navigate through this past year remarkably, and playing to an empty Opry house was quite the experience. [laughs] Slowly, more people were able to attend. It was nobody, then it was a few families and then it was 100 people. It was a smaller capacity, but the fact that they were able to keep making it happen online was really impressive.
Do you have plans for the summer beyond this little run of shows? Or is it day-by-day?
Definitely day-by-day. All of us are sort of crossing our fingers and holding onto the hopes that the summer can be somewhat normal.
Have you already begun writing the next record during the downtime? Or is that something you’re even thinking about yet?
I’ve definitely been writing like crazy, and I’m very excited about it. I launched my foundation last year; and I’ve been rescuing puppies. So life has been pretty busy!
You’re writing these songs while in a relationship, so I imagine that changes the way you write a song.
Yeah, that’s always an interesting thing to navigate. And it’s always interesting to look at a catalog and know that someone wrote this album during that part of their life or this one during this part of their life. It’s been kind of exciting to figure out what this next project is, and what it needs to say and what it needs to be.
Lindsay Ell returns to Birmingham on Friday at Zydeco. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 online or at the door.