“I’ve learned to care a little less about what everybody thinks,” says singer/songwriter/guitarist Lindsay Ell. “Following my gut instinct, truly saying what I want to say—that’s the magic, the elements that make you relatable and real. Before, I was worrying about writing for radio, for fans, but now this is what I know, this is my journey. And the more honest I get, the more effective it is.”
Her debut album on Stoney Creek Records, The Project, debuted at No. 1 on the Country Album Sales Chart and was named Billboard’s “Best Country Album of 2017. With it Ell truly made her presence felt spawning multiple singles and gaining widespread critical acclaim. The single “Criminal” became her first Top 20 hit in the US, as well as her first No.1 on the Canadian Country radio charts and the first female to do so in 10 years.
Most recently, she scored her first No. 1 with “What Happens in a Small Town,” her duet with Brantley Gilbert—making her the first Canadian artist to hit No. 1 in the US since Emerson Drive’s “Moments” in 2007, and the first Canadian woman to reach the top of the charts since Terri Clark with “I Just Wanna Be Mad” in 2003.
Ell also shared the stage with some of the biggest acts in the world touring with Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Sugarland. She has more than held her own in moments alongside such artists as Mellissa Etheridge, Billy Ray Cyrus, Robert Randolph, Billy Gibbons and other legends. She has made multiple appearances on the CMA Awards stage including playing with Carrie Underwood in addition to performing with distinguished Country group, Little Big Town, alongside other powerhouse female artists in one the biggest moments of the 2019 CMA Awards. She was also nominated in 2019 for Musical Event of the Year. Ell’s nominations do not stop there, she is a 2x 2020 ACM nominee for New Female Artist of the Year and Music Event of the Year.
Concurrently though, Ell was grappling with the real-life complexities that come with growing up, even as a rising star. “The past couple of years, I’ve been through a lot,” she says. “A public break-up, I turned 30, I’ve been through all of the stages of heartbreak and difficulties in life. And I came out the other side as a full human. There are moments when life just smacks you in the face and you need to do the work of figuring out what that means, how it changed you, and how to take full control of your life.”
The smoldering single “I Don’t Love You,” with its raw and beautiful video is the first taste of her upcoming album and gives a sense of this newfound gravity and ambition. “You know how there are different stages of grief?” she says. “This is the first stage. You’re still in denial, figuring out the reality of falling out of love with someone, and that it’s okay to miss things about them. It takes strength to be honest with yourself about feeling that.”
Lauded by Forbes magazine as “one of the most exciting and talented young artists in Country music,” the Calgary native learned to play guitar while traveling with her father to Country-Bluegrass camps as a young girl. Ell was championed by Randy Bachman (of Bachman Turner Overdrive and The Guess Who), who discovered her at the age of 13, and she was soon touring alongside the likes of Luke Bryan and Buddy Guy.
Following the Top Ten-charting EP, Worth the Wait, Ell’s breakthrough came with The Project, which was produced by Kristian Bush of Sugarland. She’s proud of what the record achieved, but points to the ways her life has changed since its release. “On The Project, I was happy and in love and writing about that,” she says, “but now I’m ready to talk about anger, depression, and the growth that comes from life experiences—that this is me. If that album was called The Project, this next one could be called The Process.”
She credits producer Dann Huff (two-time ACM Producer of the Year, who has worked with Taylor Swift, Thomas Rhett, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill, among many others) with this evolution in her music. “Working with Dann was a dream come true,” she says. “He came at the time I needed him to and gave me newfound confidence. He lets me do my thing and figures out how to bring the music to life—the good and the bad, with all the cuts, scrapes and bruises.”
Ell points to several of the new songs as examples of her evolution and sense of maturity. “There’s a song called ‘Make You’ that’s talking about something that happened to me as a little girl, something I never talked about,” she says. “Holding pieces of our story back means missing out on the opportunity to feel inspired, changed, drawn to make a difference. I got into this business to change people, to make them feel something. So it was important to me to get really honest and say that all of us have skeletons in the closet, but those things make us who we are.”
But this sense of purpose hasn’t come at the expense of the joy and soulfulness that characterizes Ell’s music. “I definitely kept the groove-soul aspects,” she says, singling out “Hits Me” as one of the funkier new recordings. “When I’m writing, I go back to Motown, Blues— that’s what inspires me. But we’ve extended it. It sounds more sophisticated, I took a step up in every direction, and I’m being pushed as a guitar player and a vocalist in new ways.”
While Ell has earned special recognition for her blistering guitar playing, she notes that she doesn’t want to be defined by any one dimension of her work. “I love being thought of as a guitar goddess,” she says, “but I don’t just want to be known as the girl guitar player. My favorite artists, like John Mayer and Keith Urban, are great players, but that’s not the only thing you think of. I think all the pieces of the puzzle come together to make an artist’s story unique, to really paint the picture. So, yes, this will be a huge guitar record, but that not what I want be the first thing that rings the bell when you listen.”
A major part of Ell’s success has come from her dedicated exposure to an international audience. She has performed on her own, with the C2C Festival, and as part of the CMA’s “Introducing Nashville” series in Europe and Asia (at one point playing in eight different countries in 32 days).
“I’ve loved doing so much international travel.” she says. “I always wanted to build my career beyond the borders of North America, so it’s incredible to go to New Zealand, Japan, Germany, places where they’re trying to figure out what I’m saying, but they’re so into it. They listen to the catalog, learn the songs, come to the show ready for the experience—they’re the perfect audience, they care so much.”
As Lindsay Ell gears up for a new album and continues to tour around the globe, she embraces this next chapter of her career. “You’re always scared of the infamous sophomore album,” she says, “but I’m so excited. I’ve done the work, I’ve found the right team, and I’m coming at it from a place of more strength and more honesty. I’m ready to do this, so bring it on.”