Here at Team GDW, we first became acquainted with the music of Dennis Ellsworth via his 2017 project with Kinley Dowling, “Everyone Needs to Chill Out.” So it was a terrific surprise to learn earlier this year that he was yet again in the studio, recording a new album – this time, a solo effort with none other than Joel Plaskett as producer. Since we participated in the pledge campaign for the album, we’ve been enjoying it for several weeks, and we’re so pleased it’s finally out in the world so the rest of you can hear it too.
“Things Change” is a superb collection of songs, beautifully written by Ellsworth and excellently produced by Plaskett. Those of us who are long-time fans of The Emergency will immediately recognize familiar touches here and there (not least because Emergency drummer Dave Marsh fills that role here too), but make no mistake, the songs are all Ellsworth’s. Thematically, the songs provide a logical progression from his work on “Everyone Needs to Chill Out,” and there are some excellent hooks that have (at least for me) turned several of the songs here into persistent earworms that simply won’t let go.
The album opens with “The Bottom,” replete with crunching guitars and a driving drumbeat, leading into the more leisurely “Couldn’t Care Less,” which reminds me more than anything else of some of my favorite 1970s rock songs (this is a compliment – regular readers will recall I’m 100% a child of the 1970s). If “She’s Never Wrong” doesn’t have you dancing within about 30 seconds, perhaps you need to hit repeat and try again; it’s a captivatingly catchy tune that just begs you to get on your feet. I must admit that I especially resonate with “Absent Mind” – as perhaps any of us with too much on our plates do. (Listen for the terrific background vocals – and try not to sing along. I bet you can’t stop yourself.)
“Caught in the Waves” slows things down a bit, providing a memorable and refreshing break in the middle of the record together with “Anywhere but Here” (a rare acoustic ballad on this project). Although it’s short, “I Need a Vacation” takes first prize in my head for top earworm (and now that I’ve just listened to it again, it will be stuck in my head for hours) – another refrain with which this over-busy listener relates. “Cruel but Beautiful” is a heartfelt tune, an ode to the darkness in life and the power of friends and loved ones to carry us through those shadows. The title track is a bluesy delight (listen for the clever tempo change midway through and the absolutely stellar guitar solo that finishes out the song; having heard a few of these live from Joel Plaskett, it’s an added bonus to hear one captured for posterity), while “Stoned” closes the project with an anthem for – yep, you can guess. 🙂
If you’re not familiar with Dennis Ellsworth’s music, this is a wonderful place to start – a brilliant album, a listen that’s not only fun but deeply thoughtful. I can already tell this will end up on our 2018 favorites list – it’s that good.
And we’re so glad that Dennis took some time to chat with us about the album!
This album comes fairly soon after your great collaboration with Kinley Dowling, “Everyone Needs to Chill Out” – your press release says you needed to make an album in 2017… was there a particular logistical reason, or was it a case of having great songs that you wanted to get out into folks’ ears?
I needed to make an SOLO album. I needed to make a more UPBEAT album. The Kinley record was a holdover type thing while I bought myself more time to finish writing Things Change. At the end of 2017, Kinley told me she didn’t want to tour anymore, so it was perfect for my timeline…it just worked out that way. I’m always moving. Already working on new songs. I’ve entered a new phase of my career and it took me some time to sort out how to position myself in anticipation of it. I’m ready to roll now.
As long-time fans of Joel Plaskett, we certainly don’t need to be sold on his virtues either as a musician or producer – but I’m curious what inspired you to work with him on this particular project? What did he bring to the table for this collection of songs?
We have been talking about working together for a few years now and I knew these songs I had were suited for a 90’s guitar driven touch, and I knew Joel would understand this and make it work. I spent a lot of time listening to 90’s college guitar rock/alternative that inspired me to write new styles, in new ways, from different perspectives….and Joel understood all of it. His understanding allowed me to inject enough of these influences into this record and bring his own thing to all of it. He’s so easy to work with, such a pro and such a great human being.
It was a fairly organic decision. We talked a lot in advance about what we wanted to do, and by the time we got to the studio we had a perfect amount of preparation vs chance. The band on this record takes the cake…Dave Marsh, Charles Austin, Joel and me. I’d do this any day of the week. Making this record was such a trip. We connected in a lot of ways and those connections really brought the best out of us for the sake of this record. They all understood my references and brought me references I wasn’t thinking of but that I understood, so it was a total exchange.
In 2016 (per your bio), you were considering whether you wanted to stay in the music business or not… what aspects of it were driving you to consider quitting, and what convinced you to stay? (We’re glad you did!)
I still struggle with this, because I think the industry sucks. It’s so hard to make a living doing what I love doing, but I know there is no better option for me. I just can’t stop writing and I think it’s pretty decent stuff, and I’d rather work hard at this than paint a house or pave a road, or sit at a desk. I don’t always feel great about the industry, but it’s what I know and I feel like my view of it is mellowing and that makes me feel better. I pay less and less attention to certain things in the biz, but I do have to make sure I don’t completely drop the ball. There are so many aspects to the music industry that bother me, but who cares in the end. If I get the music part of it right, eventually the industry will pick up on it and want to be a part of it with me. Until then, I’ll just keep writing because it keeps my head and heart clear.
You’re releasing the album not only on CD and vinyl, but also cassette – what do you think of their resurgence? Has the cassette option been very popular so far for you?
I don’t think cassettes will make the same kind of comeback as vinyl, but more and more people are buying cassettes because they are a much cheaper option, and I like the sound of them. I like the tactile thing you get from a cassette…there is a nostalgia for me. When I first started buying music for myself, it was cassettes that were leading the way. I buy cassettes all the time, and I’ve never released anything on cassette, so I did it. Plus, with such a big inspiration drawn from 90’s music, I just had to put it on cassette. People think it’s funny….i think it’s rad.
I absolutely love “I Need a Vacation” – my only tiny quibble is that it’s the shortest song on the album! How do you see its place in the whole album… it feels like a bridge between the two halves of the album, is that intentional?
It definitely works as a bridge in its final state, and it was originally more traditional arrangement and twice as long, but Joel thought it would be more effective if we faded it out early, since everything that is missing is basically a repeat of what is there….it felt unnecessary and he was totally right. I bet if you heard the rest of the song you would like it less. I think its charm is its brevity and how poignant it is because we cut it in half. Make sense?
You sourced at least some of the funding for the album via PledgeMusic (that’s how we picked up the album, via your campaign) – how was that experience for you? Would you do it again?
Pledgemusic was great! Very organized platform. It’s tough crowdfunding, but these days it seems like the most feasible thing to do. PM is very user friendly too.
“Cruel but Beautiful” is perhaps my favorite song on the album (insofar as it’s possible to pick just one); can you talk a bit about what inspired it?
Gord Downie. It’s a song for him. I wrote it when I found out he was sick. Having had some very cool moments in the last few years with him, the whole situation just hit me really hard. I grew up listening to his words and they really had an impact on me as a writer. Having then collaborated with him on a song for my album Hazy Sunshine, I just wanted to pay tribute to him. Verse 2 is about compassion, and I feel through him that our world needs more of it.
What a legend! I’m so thankful to have connected with him on a personal level. He left us so much beauty. He deserves thousands of songs.
You have several tour dates listed on your site, mostly in the east; are more dates forthcoming?
Yup. Lots of dates coming. Should be announcing a bunch next week.