Saturday, September 18, 2010


Somebody, more than likely Elvis Costello, once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". A hotly contested opinion, the point is obvious: music criticism a pretty futile endeavor. Kind of like Richard Dawkins writing about religion, or Julius Malema saying, well, anything. The best response to critics is usually to ignore them. When it comes to criticism, however, all people involved in artistic creation have two things in common: we love a good review, and we hate a bad one.

So what was I to do when I came across a confusing review of "Come Out Fighting" in local SA rag Locally Whipped? Normally I'd cut it out and file it away with my accumulated press clippings (to 'ignore' in the future, of course), but this one made me think. Here's why.

Despite a strange assertion that "Own Way Home" has a very evident 'Nashville sound', the short review seems to be in favour of my record until the last sentence: "All in all, Ellis has made a great debut album and hopefully he won't get lost in the array of solo artists out there in South Africa." So far, so ok. Then, "If you like solid, feel good music, then give this a try but nothing extraordinary has been laid down on this album."

At the risk of sounding sour-grapey, here's my problem: if there's anything I've ever tried to steer clear of in my life as a songwriter, it's 'solid, feel-good music'. This is not a feel-good album. If anything, it's a feel-pissed-off-let's-do-something-about-it kind of record. Then, to go from 'great record' to 'nothing extraordinary' in a few words sounds like another reviewer wrote the end of it. A consistent opinion would have been nice. Most of all though, the words 'nothing extraordinary' made me think. Was I trying to make 'extraordinary' music? No. Am I trying to be an extraordinary artist? No. Is extraordinary even possible these days? How can you really compete with Lady GaGa in a meat dress? I don't think we'd even raise a bored eyebrow if Jacko came back from the dead and made a better album than Thriller and played all the London dates after all. We live in super-hyped, over-exposed, technologically-enhanced times, and nothing, and I mean nothing, surprises anymore. Tiger Woods? Oh well. Wayne Rooney? Yawn. Meat dress? Wow! Oh, it's just a dress...

I got a three-fingered review for my un-extraordinary, feel-good record. It's wise to ignore criticism, good and bad, but it's also nice to give a one-fingered response sometimes.

Post Script: "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk in order to provide articles for people who can't read." Frank Zappa

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Two things I'm really enjoying at the moment: playing music with my old friend Jon 'Scoop' Randall, and deconstructing my songs with acoustic instruments. I'm rehearsing the new material acoustically, for shows like White Mountain at the end of September, and the songs reveal new aspects of themselves in an acoustic setting. Even rockers like 'Rant'! Sidney Rash, a young Durban drummer, is extremely talented, and the combination of stripped-down drums and percussion, with a little double bass and acoustic guitar, make for an interesting new musical side-path.

Scoop and I have been friends for over 15 years. We started a fledgling Tree63 together with my brother Antony on drums, and Scoop went on to play on all the early Tree63 'hits' like Treasure and A Million Lights. He's a great bass player, but more recently he's come into his own as a talented studio engineer. He helped me demo four songs before I went into the recording process for 'Come Out Fighting', and we've had a great time in the last few years playing music together again.

So, all in all, a busy musical time, although I'm not playing live as nearly as much as I'd like to. trying to fix that, but it's a mystifyingly slow process. So in the meantime, I'll be bringing John Ellis and the Woodshed Ensemble to a coffee bar near you! Book us at!

Thanks for listening.