Listening to ellen cherry's
singing voice, you might be suddenly struck by the notion that you’d do something irrational to protect it. As an instrument, it’s unflashy and warm, coating a melody like honey on the back of a spoon—a kind of simple that doesn’t mean lack of complexity or nuance so much as invoking nearness, the sort of voice that can give comfort as much as deliver emotion and, of course, words that tell stories about their creator and the world in which she lives. (Or, very explicitly doesn’t live in, as that world being conveyed might be a century past; more on that later.) In any case, it has the ability to be closer than most of the voices you hear in pop music and beyond. And a few years back, it was forced out of service. The culprit was a bad throat infection.
The last song on cherry’s new record,
Please Don't Sell the Piano
, her first since 2010’s
, goes: “Here is a list of all I need: a Mayan road that shines in the heat/ some dust from an asteroid belt just to hold/ and the promise my voice won’t go old.” Perhaps that piano from the title is already implied. Without her voice, cherry was without a way to make songs (she’s a rhythm guitarist, not lead). So she turned to piano—or, rather, back to piano. It was the instrument she learned music on as a kid growing up in Texas, leaving it largely behind in favor of voice and guitar, the standard singer/songwriter palette, as she grew up as a musician and songwriter. And rather than guitar, it’s the central voice on the record, save for her actual voice, which thankfully returned in undamaged form.
As a personality, cherry is awesome—witty and as naturally interested (in you, the world, whatever) as she is interesting. An early-evening interview over sodas at a Hamilton bar stretches to hours with ease. Subjects range from the wilting and recursion of pop culture to Steve Martin to, naturally, the piano. “It’s wanting to have a second chance at the piano,” she says of her new and, potentially, future work. The new record, barely 20 minutes long, closes on an instrumental piece of solo piano. Called “Coda,” it’s slow and sad, tinged just so with pop gravity, but is pretty and alluring almost in spite of that. There’s a trace of murk to the song, maybe just the sound of a room, that aligns it well with the voice described above.
However simple and brief, it’s the sort of work that shows cherry reaching outward as a singer/songwriter, or even pushing out of the singer/songwriter mold. It’s a style of music, maligned by much of the indieground and increasingly sealed off from the pop universe, that’s come to occupy a sort of parallel universe to the varieties of music you’re more likely to hear at your local club or on the radio. There will always be college-bro songwriters to fill your local amphitheater, of course, but best not to conflate the two worlds. Cherry laments briefly her time on the college-show circuit—a lesser-known breadwinner for many an indie band—and disheartening student-union sets in front of kids more interested in playing on cell phones than in anything she had to offer. She also points out that colleges are generally already oversaturated with singer/songwriters.
Nonetheless, cherry’s carved out an impressive niche for herself as a musician. This weekend’s two-night record-release celebration isn’t hubris; the Baltimore ellen cherry following is more impressive than a great many things in the city’s buzzland. Earlier this year she did a month-long residency at suburban Washington, D.C.’s Strathmore. But outside her home region, she’s subscribed to what she calls a “bring your own venue” strategy. That means playing everywhere nontraditional. On one end of that spectrum find house shows, intimate gatherings of 20 or so rapt listeners in a living room; on the other, find local historical societies. Less so, find rock clubs or even coffeeshops.
“[It]’s a way to bring an audience where ordinarily it wouldn’t be,” cherry says. She also does occasional shows that combine with songwriting workshops. One of her songwriting talents is using perspectives, particularly from history. So, she teaches “about how to write songs from primary sources, historical documents, and old newspapers.”
As a strategy, “I’ve slowly adapted to it,” cherry says. “It’s kind of like a side door into some places you don’t think of as music venues.” And in doing so, she finds audiences that pay attention to music in a whole new way. Gone are the bars/clubs where, “there’s TVs on, telephones ringing, some people are paying attention and some people are just there to drink and socialize.” Though she’s quick to note she still enjoys a good bar show. It’s just that “I don’t want to force music on people that don’t want to listen. I like shows where people are just there to enjoy the performance.”
Cherry has been a full-time professional musician since 2004. She’s never had a publicist and never released a record on a label. In fact, she cops to not really knowing how that world works. She only got a booking agent last year. “I wanted to have control,” she says. “It’s seemed easier just to pay for [recording and manufacturing] myself, and just pay off the credit card. I have my own little label and I’ve done that for years. The idea of spending time . . . I don’t even know how that works. How do you court a label?”
The downside is she doesn’t get to take months off at a time to write and record new music. She is a
musician, and that can mean a lot of things, like crafting jingles or writing scores (she does work for the Nana Projects, a parade and puppet-show company). So, the six songs on
Please Don't Sell the Piano
took two years to flesh out, with the help of Baltimore country cornerstone Caleb Stine producing. Much of that time was just listening, she says, to her and Stine’s favorite songwriter albums: “He would bring one, I’d bring one. [We’d] remind ourselves of why we like the record.” Joni Mitchell’s
gets particular emphasis in our conversation.
“It’s a very lean living,” she says of the working-musician life. “I teach workshops, write jingles, do commercial work, and play shows. It’s a lot of little streams. I’m not a master marketer. If I spent more time marketing myself, I might make more money. But when I start to play that game, I start to feel very desperate about everything. Instead, I’m like,
Why don't I write another song?