'White Smoke And Pines'
It’s easy to get the impression that the youth of today are all going for the short cuts. The easy way to show business through talent and game shows. But that’s of course not true. Most of them have the same need to express themselves in a true and honest way as the youth of the generations before them.
Twenty-one year old Swedish singer-songwriter Ellen Sundberg wouldn’t even dream of participating in any of those shows. Ellen creates her music because she can and has that deep need to express herself. And we listen to Ellen because we need her and because she moves us.
Ellen Sundberg came to record label Rootsy two years ago with her music and her wonderful, raw talent. And this new, Israel Nash Gripka produced album 'White Smoke And Pines' proves that she’s here to stay. For a long time!
Ellen Sundberg’s first album 'Black Raven' was released in August 2013 and that was the beginning of a journey that young Ellen might have dreamt of, but surely didn’t expect to happen. 'Black Raven' and the first promotional tour got raving reviews and the response from the audience was overwhelming. Ellen Sundberg was not 'just another singer-songwriter'. Listening to her unique and intense expression made it impossible to be indifferent. She almost forced you to take a stand.
Among the first ones to embrace Ellen Sundberg and her music were older and more experienced musicians and songwriters. They immediately recognized the huge talent and the musical integrity. Her first tour outside Sweden was as support act for Israel Nash Gripka in Ireland. He and his band were knocked out by her. As the tour continued their musical understanding and friendship grew deeper. Once Israel Nash Gripka was back home in Texas, he reached out and asked - no, demanded - to produce Ellen’s next album.
Ellen has never really stopped touring since the release of 'Black Raven'. She has played the Americana Music Conference in Nashville and SXSW in Austin. In the Summer of 2014 she and her band acted as support and back up band for American phenomenon Doug Seegers. Together they did over sixty gigs. The tour and the televised documentary about Mr. Seegers and the tour, made Ellen Sundberg a household name in Sweden. And Ellen sure impressed Doug Seegers: ”I think Ellen is a magnificent talent for her age of only twenty-one. Her songs are totally original and incredibly soothing. It amazes me how a girl so young can be so gifted. Her music is a true blessing.”
Ellen Sundberg still lives in the tiny village of Bjärme in Jämtland, the Northern parts of Sweden. She no longer works at the local grocery.
Her albums: 'Black Raven' (also on vinyl LP); 'Headlights' (EP); 'White Smoke And Pines' (also on vinyl LP).
Early 2014, Ellen flew to Texas to spend some time at Israel Nash Gripka’s ranch, in Hill Country right outside Austin. The Grammy awarded engineer Ted Young (Rolling Stones, Kurt Vile) set up his recording equipment in Israel’s living room. Ellen brought a bunch of new, amazing songs and Israel called in his band. And the magic begun. 'White Smoke And Pines' was recorded live in the studio, as in: Israel’s living room. Even Ellen’s lead vocals were recorded live and that is highly unusual and very demanding.
Israel Nash Gripka is a strong personality and the band playing on the album is an extremely tight, road tested outfit. But still 'White Smoke And Pines' is very much Ellen Sundberg. Her songs don’t sound much like anything else really. They are all pretty much in the same pace and quite mesmerizing. In many of the songs the melodies are not that obvious. But there is a kind of hypnotic, suggestive and irresistible quality in the music. Before you know it you’re dragged into Ellen’s universe - the seemingly simple words turn into poetry and the melodies you didn’t even hear the first time are now catchy in their own, peculiar way. It’s not always the most comfortable place to be, but very rewarding. Once you get there, you don’t want to leave.
1. "What Is Life": Ellen's music is fascinating, that is what I already learned from her previous album 'Black Raven'. I am not a big fan of big hype Israel Nash Gripka, but who knows - this combination might work in his advantage? The opener is built on a meandering, intriguing and melancholic soundscape, asking the urgent existential question about life. The pedal steel blends wonderful with Ellen's vocals. A track that pulls you in.
2. "Four Times": This catchy song -it has melody and hooks and all- shows off Ellen's pop sensibility. Her singing style is one of a kind, as in hard to describe and compare. She basically moves around playfully, within a rather limited range, creating a lush sound. I like the acoustic guitar here, the well-placed samples and the backing vocals are very nice.
3. "Swedish Inland": If there is a theme on this album, it might be the dramatic change Ellen had to deal with, from being a country girl in North Sweden to being a touring musician with a demanding schedule. The songs remain in the midtempo altcountry vein, with some influences from the 80s and 90s, when various female folk and / or pop singers also carefully explored this genre.
4. "Headlights": An intimate enchanting ballad, with delicious acoustic guitar and pedal steel, based on a fine rhythm. The echoing backing vocals are also very pretty. I have to admit (again), that Ellen knows how to captivate her listeners, working up to the climax of the track.
5. "Yours And Mine": I noticed before, listening to Swedish singer-songwriters from the younger generation, that their English is quite flawless, especially the pronunciation. This is another pensive, whispering and hypnotizing track.
6. "Hollow": Just like "What Is Life" and "Headlights" this track takes us on a claustrophobic journey of young Ellen's inner life. Including all the doubts, the uncertainty and the search for an identity of her own. Quite spell binding, I have to say, especially when we come to the chaotic and confusing end.
7. "Thunder Man": This track points in a new darker direction, suddenly the sound is heavier and we can even sense some light metal and grunge influences. The pedal steel (played by Eric Swanson) stays watchful in the background, beautiful!
8. "Maze Of Shadows": This delicious acoustic folk ballad slowly builds into a crescendo: ”I'll be your shadow if you'll be my shadow / In the maze of shadows you belong to me.”
9. "Vägen är Lang (The Road Is Long)": Like many other young Scandinavian songwriters, Ellen writes her lyrics in English. The one exception on her album is this track, a seamless and perfectly natural mix of Swedish and English for a fine upbeat traditional country rocker, with the pedal steel doing its natural thing.
10. "White Smoke And Pines": To give you an impression of Ellen's beguiling poetry: "It's a hard found spot / Where we used to hang out / Sometimes when weather allowed / Patient wilderness by night." Or this part: "Stones do not grow old / And eternity is not for me / We fall asleep / And we wake up free." I admit, that Israel Nash Gripka and especially his band did a fine job here. My final conclusion: A remarkable album!
Ellen Sundberg says: "Music is fascinating. It is uniting. There's nothing more gratifying than finding people that hear exactly what you hear and feel what you feel in music. When music unites people, there are no boundaries. Age differences do not matter. Neither do different cultures or countries. You have to know what you want and you'll learn on the way, how to get there".
Israel Nash Gripka says: "Ellen is a lot like her songs. Songs that mark memories and life of a young songwriter experiencing the expansiveness of the world around her. Yet it all resounds with a regal maturity, as if she’s been doing it her whole life.“
Ted Young (Grammy awarded engineer) says: "My good friend Israel Nash Gripka told me about this wonderful Swedish artist that went on tour with them and what a blast they had making music on the road together. He told me he loved her music so much he wanted to make a record with her, and he needed my help with it. I’ve known Israel and worked with him for a long time now, and I know that when he gets an idea in his head that he’s right. We all got together down in Texas and brought Ellen into our circle of music and gave her an environment where she could express herself comfortably amongst friends. Because we all thought she was something special, a voice to be heard, someone to watch and to pay attention to. A young, raw, passionate, beautiful talent."
Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - April 14th, 2015.