Brighton-based harpist Ellie Ford is thoughtful and charmingly unguarded in conversation. We squeezed in a seafront shoot with her while she’s busy putting the finishing touches on to her debut album, ‘The Other Sun’.
First impressions? She seems to have an inherent curiosity, and a hint of ambition, which have allowed her to develop quickly and define herself as an artist. Born in York and now based in Brighton, Ellie’s music represents rare, deep, and textured clarity. Opting to leave York Minster at the tender age of 16 to go it alone in the big smoke, the now accomplished folk guitarist, harpist and singer’s love of making music did wane following a stint at a London music college. In attempting to harness her creativity and write to a more formalised music script, so to speak, she became somewhat disillusioned.
Questioning her future in music, Ellie travelled the world. A decision which unintentionally, but fortunately, cemented her desire to make music. This journey clearly forms the material behind her debut album.
Preparing to embark on her first tour supporting Ryan Francesconi, Ellie Ford is signed to independent imprint, Hidden Trail Records. ACS gets to know the sultry chanteuse.
What came first – the harp, the singing or the guitar?
I actually started off playing piano when I was younger before starting to play the guitar at school because it was ‘cooler’. When I started playing the harp I quickly found that I could transfer everything I knew about playing the piano to the harp as they’re very similar instruments. I’ve always sang and written my own songs, partly through not being able to play other people’s stuff! I always found it much easier and more satisfying to ‘make’ something rather than ‘learn’ something.
How did you get into harp playing?
I wanted to play an instrument that was laid out like a piano, but with strings that you could pick like a guitar. I actually designed my own blueprint for a hypothetical instrument and took this into my local music shop to see if they might be able to help build it. Instead they handed me a harp. I felt pretty silly for not knowing it already existed. I borrowed it and just started playing it. I remember watching YouTube videos of harp players so I could figure out which side of it you sat and listening intently to try and figure out what was going on! If I’m honest it did just click instantly, although I probably have awful technique!
Could you tell us a bit about your journey in music up to this point?
I’ve always been a bit of a loner when it comes to my own music. I spent ages practising in my room with the door closed. So when I first started playing publicly I felt shy and reserved. Now, I actually enjoy playing music in public! I enjoy being creative and using my mind, and music is a good way of doing that. It sounds a bit scary, but it’s certainly something I need to do, it’s so ingrained into my life.
How long have you been with your band for now? What have you learnt from each other over that time?
We’ve been playing together for about a year now. I really love it. I really respect each player musically so it’s exciting to hear their ideas for arrangements. Being in a band is great. And there’s always someone to help carry my harp!
Which song have you had most fun recording?
The studio isn’t really a ‘fun’ place for me. I turn into what I can only describe as an intense over thinker! Some songs took a lot of work. There are a few tracks on the album that I had a vision for, although I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what that was. I couldn’t explain it in terms of music. I think I actually ended up describing things with shapes and colours (thankfully I worked with a very like-minded producer!). But then there were other songs that we would set up to record, run a few takes, and that would be that.
There’s a track on the album called ‘The Only One’ which we somehow managed to capture much more than just the recording. When I listen to it now i can see everything so clearly, the room, the lights, the guitar, the wine! It’s like a photograph.
Are there any musical influences we might not expect from you?
I like hip hop, I like syncopation and vocals with rhythmic, unexpected rhyming patterns. I also really like music for solo piano, both classical and experimental.
How do you feel you’ve gone about shaking up the role the harp can play in the contemporary music scene and how does this sound enhance your own take on folk?
Something quite interesting happens when you take an elusive classical instrument, such as the harp, out of the classical world. I’m certainly not the first person to do so. I like that we have a harp, clarinet and violin sitting beside an electric guitar and a full drum kit in our band. It is that mix of instruments that I see as most exciting!
As both a harpist and guitarist – does one come more instinctually? Do you have a preference when you’re performing or recording in the studio?
Although I’ve been playing it for less time, the harp actually makes more logical sense to me. It’s the only instrument I’ve ever been able to improvise and play along to other stuff with. Saying that, the guitar has a mystery to it. I love not really knowing exactly what I’m doing! I think the different instruments encourage me to write differently. There’s so much to the harp. Endless possibilities of ways to play with rhythm and key, so my songs tend to be a bit longer and more free-form. The guitar, however, helps me to be more to the point. I’d like to blur the line between the two though.
Your debut album will be out in 2016. Talk us through the process of writing? How involved are your band in that process?
Generally, I write the songs and then we work on the arrangements as a band. I like that when you have five talented individuals working on one song, you can’t help but have a wide variety of influences thrown in. This definitely makes each song richer. When I listen to the record now I can hear each band member’s ‘stamp’. As a band they’re really respectful, they’re not ‘overplayers’. Each part is considered and precise.
Do you have a favourite venue? Either that you love visiting or performing at? Is there somewhere you’d love to play in the future?
The Marwood Coffee Shop in Brighton is a great little venue to play at. They have some great things going on and that’s where we had one of our single launch parties. I’d really like to play a gig in York Minster in the future. I grew up there and it’s gorgeous… just like a mini Notre Dame!
Who was the last artist you saw perform?
Joanna Newsom with her band at Brighton Dome last week. I was absolutely blown away. I’m actually supporting Ryan Francesconi, who plays in her band and does the arrangements on her albums, this month in Brighton which I’m beyond happy about!
The ‘July’ video captures a striking setting and atmosphere – could you tell me a little about the creative process behind this? How involved were you in the conception and making of this video?
I wanted the video to capture the character of the song. I’d never really done anything like that before so I didn’t really know what to expect. I worked with a brilliant director, Crusoe Weston, and the whole concept was his idea really. I wanted something that was quite modern, simple and direct and he really captured that.
Your new single ‘July’ is out today. Tell me about the track and what it means to you.
It’s about the rhythm. The sound of the words. The way the instruments fit together. It’s as much about the music as it is the words, and it’s hard to describe music with words. This song in particular is quite unique to me, and the band actually. We spent a lot of time working on the instrumentation to get it just right. There’s a lot in it. It used to fill me with terror (so much to remember!) before we played it, but now I love it.
Who do you admire in the arts or fine art?
I love reading Oscar Wilde. I listen to a lot of talks by Alan Watts – he has an incredible way of explaining things.
What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your music?
Physics and space. I like reading different theories physicists have about the universe. It’s an exercise for your imagination yet also so intrinsic to life. I feel like it’s always important to try and understand the fundamentals of things, but when it comes to theoretical physics I feel like the more I learn the less I know! I’m not sure if/how any of that feeds into my music though!
Listen to more from Ellie Ford on her website and look out for her debut album ‘The Other Sun’, released on Hidden Trail Records in early 2016.