If you're going to hear William Lee Ellis perform at the Church of the Holy Communion Coffee House Concert Series Sunday, January 29th, you might want to take your passport. Ellis' latest sessions, for an upcoming album called God's Tattoos, expand his traditional folk-meets-blues style into an around-the-world experience.
"The album sounds like traveling to Buenos Aires via Marrakech," Ellis says, "but I don't think it's a 'world music' record." Nevertheless, Ellis has been to 45 countries -- Bali and Morocco are his favorites, he says, although he resided in Japan for years and spent his honeymoon on Easter Island -- and, he concedes, "I get around. The exotic is always on my agenda."
Since leaving his post as the music critic at The Commercial Appeal, Ellis has "gotten around" considerably. Last April, he performed at North Carolina's roots-oriented Merlefest alongside his father, bluegrass banjo master Tony Ellis. While in June, the duo joined banjoists Earl Scruggs and the wild-and-crazy Steve Martin for appearances at the New Yorker Festival and on Late Night with David Letterman.
Of his nearly decade-long run at the CA, Ellis says, "the paper was very good to me. I got some amazing experiences under my belt, and I met so many amazing people. I became friends with people like Sam Phillips, Paul Burlison, and Jim Dickinson. Guys who were heroes in my mind long before I moved to Memphis. I discovered that they were not only heroes but wonderful human beings as well. I also learned how to write. But it was time to move on. Now I get to be an unemployed musician, like a lot of other people."
Clearly Ellis relishes the challenge. He already has a State Department-sponsored tour to Belarus penciled in on his calendar for July, along with a teaching gig at Jorma Kaukonen's guitar camp, the Fur Peace Ranch. He's currently enrolled in a musical doctorate program at the University of Memphis. And sometime this summer, God's Tattoos will be released on Yellow Dog Records.
"It just came together really fast," Ellis says of the album. "I was hoping that [label owner] Mike Powers would want to make another record. I didn't realize he'd say, 'We've got a budget this time. Let's pick a producer.'"
There was only one person Ellis wanted to produce: Dickinson. "I wanted to make a weird, gospel, pop, bluesy, I-don't-know-what kind of record, and he was the only person who would get it," Ellis says.
After Ellis and Dickinson reduced a number of choices to 12 songs, they cut the album at Zebra Ranch, Dickinson's Coldwater, Mississippi, studio, in two weeks.
"Most of the stuff was recorded in two or three takes," Ellis recalls. "It was a lot of fun, even though I was sick the whole time. I couldn't sing, couldn't talk. I was running a fever, and I was real grumpy. In the end, it worked out fine."
Despite the fact that most locals know Ellis as a solo performer, he says that recording with bassist Amy LaVere and drummer Paul Taylor was an easy switch. "When I lived in Japan, I had a rock band," he says, "and as a duo, Paul and Amy created the perfect energy to bounce my material off of."
Nevertheless, God's Tattoos isn't a traditional "rock" album: Ellis stuck to his trademark instrument, the acoustic guitar, throughout the sessions, although he confesses to using a vibrato and distortion pedals for effect.
"I know the record scared the hell out of Mike Powers initially," Ellis notes with a laugh, "because he won't be able to market it to a blues audience. But I don't question how I write. I don't know if anyone gets it or not. Is this commercial? Is there an audience for this? I've been writing music for 30 years, and I don't ponder that."
On Sunday, January 29th, William Lee Ellis will open the Church of the Holy Communion's Coffee House Concerts Series' third season. His performance will start at 7 p.m. Advance tickets (available at High Point Coffee, Cat's Music's Union Avenue location, and Holy Communion) are $15; walk-up tickets are $20. For more information, go to CoffeeHouseConcerts.org or WilliamLeeEllis.com.