After Years Of 'Waiting' It Out, Lindsay Ell Finds Her Artistic Voice
Ell's new country single owes a creative debt to Bobby Bones, Kristian Bush and John Mayer.
The waiting is the hardest part.
Tom Petty’s words of common-man wisdom are painfully familiar to singer-songwriter-guitarist Lindsay Ell. After several years of working in her native Canada, she has been in Nashville for eight years and signed to Stoney Creek for about five, with each of her three previous singles stalling in the 40s on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Appropriately, when Stoney Creek issued Ell’s EP on March 24, it was titled Worth the Wait. Just a few weeks later, another aptly titled track, "Waiting On You," was released to radio via PlayMPE on May 8, offering a more focused sound that encapsulates a huge sense of her influences.
“If I was given three minutes for somebody who’s never heard my name before, who’s never heard any of my music before, I’d want them to hear ‘Waiting On You,’ because it represents so much of who I am,” she says. “It’s a little bit of blues, it’s a little bit of a rock, and it’s a lot a bit of country, and yet it represents so many things that I’ve felt in my life — in my personal life and in my career.”
The waiting in her vocation is obvious. The waiting in her private life was coming to an apex a year ago this month. She began a relationship with WSIX Nashville personality Bobby Bones at the end of June 2016. She was part of his “Wonderful Women of Country” show at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheater on June 11, 2016, during the CMA Music Festival, and he was on her mind just a few days later when she headed out on tour. Songwriter Adam Hambrick (“How Not To,” “Somebody Else Will”) hit the road with her on the ole Music bus, and the two of them worked with her guitar player, songwriter Andrew DeRoberts (“The Weekend”), on a series of songs. “Waiting On You” was completed June 16 on the grounds at the Country Fest in Cadott, Wis., built around the frustration of bottling up emotions while pining for a still-uncertain future.
“I haven’t had that many boyfriends in my life,” says Ell. “I wait for the right thing, the thing that I really want. Until this relationship, I didn’t date somebody for years, so I was waiting for that to kind of figure itself out. And also, this is such a metaphor for my career. Things are worth the wait, but my goodness, it’s a hurry-up-and-wait business.”
With that in the background, they started writing a chorus that strung together pieces of nature and culture that had built-in relationships with a sense of anticipation: dry ground waiting on rain, a fast car waiting for a green light, a July sky waiting for a bottle rocket.
“We just looked around at things that need other things to be functional,” says Hambrick. “It was all colorful imagery to try and illustrate the point that you’re just kind of stuck there in limbo, not being quite as much of yourself as you would be if you had an idea about what was going on.”
That concept could follow a number of different emotional directions — anger, frustration, depression or urgency — but they traveled the most uplifting path.
“It wasn’t like a big dark cloud. It was more like, ‘Well, what are we doing?’ ” recalls Hambrick. “She poured out her soul, and we wrote this upbeat song with a little bit of attitude and a little bit of throwback that she could play guitar on.”
Once they had the tent poles for the chorus, including that “Waiting On You” title, they backed up to the opening verse, setting up the bubbly, singalong refrain with a grainy, conversational summation of the situation. Both that introductory first verse and the second one, in which she reassures the guy that she’s not trying to push a wedding on him, purposely set the singer up as a woman who can keep herself together.
“As a female songwriter, some of my role models, like Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, have a strength in their lyrics,” says Ell. “They can be vulnerable, just enough where you believe them and you know it’s real, but then they still keep that strength as a woman. I really wanted to be able to keep that stance.”
Kristian Bush — who had signed with Stoney Creek’s sister label, Wheelhouse, in February 2016 — was asked to produce Ell, and when he heard “Waiting On You” among more than a dozen potential songs, he felt it captured the most interesting parts of her musical personality. He asked her to name her favorite album: John Mayer’s Continuum, which features an appropriately titled opening track, “Waiting On the World to Change.” He then gave her an assignment: remake the entire album on her own, playing all the parts, in two weeks. She took up the challenge, working 18- and 19-hour days for two weeks to build a replica and discover all the nuances of that project.
“I’ve learned so much about my own guitar playing, about John Mayer’s guitar playing and most importantly, how I love to hear a band recorded in the studio,” she says. “When I first came to town, I was totally on the plane of throwing 20 instruments on a song and having so many things going on at once, and I really learned that I love five instruments, and I love simplicity.”
With that in mind, Bush assembled an appropriate band — former Mayer bass player Dave LaBruyere, DeRoberts, drummer Travis McNabb (Better Than Ezra, Sugarland) and keyboard player Brandon Bush (Train, Sugarland) — for a trio of sessions at Nashville’s Omni Sound. “Waiting On You,” cut in the second of those dates, became something akin to Mayer’s “Gravity”: spaciously arranged with judicious vocals and Ell playing commanding lead guitar.
“I didn’t even tell anybody we were making a record,” says Bush. “I told them we were making demos.”
The end product is almost entirely from one particular pass, resulting in a “live”-feeling performance, driven in part by the popping sound of McNabb’s high hat and snare.
“[Engineer] Tom Tapley has this great way of grabbing drums,” says Bush. “The snare drum in this song is so freakin’ good. It sounds like something off one of the Pearl Jam records maybe. It may be new for country music to be that loud, but, so what? A lot of things are new for country music.”
“Waiting On You” was something of a focal point as the album came together, and fans reacted similarly after Worth the Wait was released. It was an obvious single; now, Ell finds herself waiting again each week for feedback as the song begins its dance with radio.
“It really feels like this is the first time I’ve had a single in my voice,” says Ell. “It’s the most honest song I’ve released. But the rest is out of my hands. I have created music that’s real, and that’s me, and now it’s the rest of the world’s job to see what’s going to happen to it.”