Lindsay Ell: Living the dream, night after night

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Photo by John Shearer

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 5

Lindsay Ell is living the dream. In just 29 years, this Canadian-born country music singer, songwriter, and guitar player has taken her own brand of music to the main stage.
Blending rock, blues, and pop with country, Lindsay has been able to leave her mark on Music City – and in no insignificant way. Her talents have been recognized by some of the biggest acts in country music today, touring with artists like Brad Paisley and Sugarland. Come September, she’ll be lending her talents to Keith Urban as part of his Graffiti U world tour.

Cover Photo by John Shearer

Lindsay makes it clear that this dream of getting to perform in front of thousands of fans night after night didn’t come to fruition immediately; it took her years of hard work, dedication, and a supportive fan base of family and friends to get her to this point.
From playing guitar with her father to playing pranks on her tour mates, Lindsay opens up to GGM about what inspired her involvement in music, how she hopes to inspire others, and what’s next on her bucket list.

Your current producer is Kristian Bush of Sugarland. What’s it like having someone produce your music who knows what it’s like to perform?

There’s a special relationship between an artist and their producer. Being a good match is half the battle when it comes to recording music. When Kristian Bush and I met to discuss music for the first time, he asked, “What’s your favorite record of all time?” I said, “Continuum by John Mayer.” He gave me a homework assignment: my task was to study that record front to back and be ready to record it in two weeks. Not only that, but I was to play all of the instruments on the record, doing it all by myself, alone in the studio.

It was at that moment that I realized how smart Kristian is and how special it is to work with him. Forcing me to do that Continuum record helped everything click in my head – it was like all the gears kind of locked into place, and all of the sudden, I knew what I wanted to say on my next record. I knew how I wanted it to sound.

I understood why I love the music that I loved so much. Sometimes we love songs, or we even love kinds of foods, and we don’t know why we love them. He helped me go through that process of self-discovery, which really the only way you can learn it is by sitting there by yourself and figuring it out. He’s an incredible producer and gives me exactly the tools I need to go figure out the problem without telling me how to do it, so I can create it my own way.

You played all the instruments on The Continuum Project? Not many artists could do that.

I did, and it was such a crazy learning experience. Obviously, I’m a huge guitar nerd. Piano was my first instrument, having started playing when I was six. But recording everything took learning to a whole new level. I had to really put things under a magnifying glass like I have never done before. It was a priceless learning experience for sure.

So, you also play the drums?

The drums are the only instrument I do not play physically, but I’m a studio nerd too and can program them in my studio, recording drum tracks and looping beats. There was one song on the album I had programming issues with – it took me two hours. I couldn’t figure it out. So, it was a steep learning curve with that whole process, but I’m really happy I did it.

Are there certain guitars you like to record with?

I’ve played so many different kinds of guitars. When I was growing up, I played tons of Les Pauls. In fact, I only played Les Pauls performing live until I was about 17 or 18. For the past seven years or so, I’ve been working with Fender, and I love the sound of a Strat. In the studio, I play a lot of Strats. I love single coils. That’s what I’m playing a lot live these days. You just find a lot of Strats in my records. You also find Teles, Les Pauls, and even a J35 we put on some tracks.

Your latest single off The Project is “Champagne.” It has a catchy chorus and offers a shout out to someone named Aretha. Should we assume this is Aretha Franklin?

Photo by Kirk Stauffer

That’s right, it’s the queen herself. Now, every time I sing it on stage it takes on a whole other meaning. She has always been a huge influence on me ever since I started singing as a little girl. Aretha is the one and only! I just figured since in the song I’m singing about girl power and about women doing what they need to do and about being strong role models, why not quote the queen herself?

When were you inspired to start playing guitar?

I started playing piano when I was six. When I was eight, I started playing guitar. At 8 years old, it was a lot cooler to play Shania Twain songs on the guitar than play piano. My dad played guitar, and the first song he taught me when he put a guitar in my hands was that opening riff to “Stairway to Heaven.” From that point forward, I fell in love with the guitar.

Did you have any female musicians that influenced you at the time?

Absolutely. Of courses, Bonnie Raitt was a huge role model of mine. She’s such a player and such an incredible songwriter and performer. Sheryl Crow, Jennifer Batten, and then Tommy Emmanuel, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Susan Tedeschi, and Derek Trucks. The list goes on and on and on and on. We could talk about my influences for an hour.

You performed at CMA Fest, have toured with the likes of Brad Paisley, and you’re now with Sugarland. Next, you’ve got Keith Urban coming up, right? 

It’s been an incredible year, and I’m just so grateful. I’ve gotten to tour with some of my role models. We were out with Brad for a year and a half, and I learned so much from him just by watching him play. As a guitar player, he’s perfect. He never makes mistakes. He’s so generous and it was so much fun being out on the road with him. The Sugarland tour has been awesome. It’s just so cool to be out on the road with my producer. Seeing Kris and Jennifer back out on the road together, I’m so excited for them. To get to be a whole part of that is really special.

Photo by Kirk Stauffer

Touring with Keith is a huge bucket list moment for me. As far as a player, he’s probably the most similar to my style, because I really come from a blues-rock world. I see a lot of that whenever I watch Keith play. We’ve been able to play a few one-offs over the past year, but our portion of the tour with him starts at the beginning of September. I am so excited. If you were to tell ten-year-old Lindsay that she was going to have a feature on a Keith Urban album one day, she would call you crazy. But the fact that Keith asked me to sing on a song on his record Graffiti U is just another cool thing. When we play “Horses” live, it’s a really special moment.

Tell us about some of your tour pranks we’ve been reading about.

I learned from the best in the business. Brad Paisley is probably the best prankster you’re ever going to meet. Touring with him, anything can happen. Especially the last weekend of a tour, anything can happen. On the last night of our Weekend Warrior tour, his crew dressed up as criminals and then another crew member dressed up like a cop wearing shorts and sunglasses and his hairy legs – he was just rocking it. They were chasing each other across the stage as I was singing. They also painted these pink bars that sat in front of my mic, like a jail cell. It was just crazy.

I needed to get back at Brad, of course. I bought one of those Lightning McQueen motorized toddler cars because Brad has that song on the Cars movie. One night while he was performing “Mud on the Tires,” I drove that car onto the stage, and I had taped this sign on the back of it that said, “Got mud?” The car was so small I had to put my feet on the hood and steer the wheel in between my knees. The slow speed at which this thing goes just added to the humor. So, when Brad saw it, he started laughing and missed a couple lines in the song. That was my main goal – to make him miss some lyrics. And it happened.

So, Brad can mess up after all, right?

Yeah! A few weeks ago, we were in Greenville, South Carolina, and their hockey team is called the Swamp Rabbits. Somebody in catering found the head of the mascot’s costume, so we were joking around about the costume. And, of courses, don’t tempt me with a dare.

So, I found the mascot costume, and during Sugarland’s encore, we all go out at the end. I put on the costume and went on stage. It looked like a really fat chipmunk. My hips were like four feet wide. Jennifer was beside herself laughing. At the end, the girls walk up from the back of the stage and Kristian didn’t realize what was going until we were in the middle of the song. He almost fell over laughing.

Tell us about the guitar that Fender made you.

I painted a different guitar for every song on my record The Project. The idea behind it being that I wanted the album to live beyond a three-minute song on the record. I wanted fans to be able to watch these colorful guitars while they were looking at audio videos on YouTube. I wanted something to be going on in these videos. I said to myself, “What if I time lapsed me painting a guitar for every song. And every guitar is different. And then we gave the guitar away to charity or something at the end.” And so that’s how this kind of started. And so, I painted 12 guitars. We gave away a bunch of them to charity, a few to fans, and I ended up playing the “Waiting on You” guitar live all last summer while opening for Paisley. And this poor thing, I used acrylic paint, because I’m not a professional painter. I just basically, slapped paint even over the pick-ups. And paint started chipping off of it because I’m using it in all these hot summer festivals.

Billy from Fender saw this, and he ended up scanning in my design and made me my own version of my “Waiting on You” guitar, which was so sweet of them. And I named her Betty Van Halen. So, now I have Betty Van Halen I which is the original guitar and Betty Van Halen II. I just love Fender from the bottom of my heart. They are just truly an amazing company to work with.

Do you see yourself as a role model? And what would you want to tell young girls that are wanting to play guitar?

It is the coolest thing for a fan to come up to me and be like, “Lindsay, you’ve inspired me to start playing the guitar.” It’s one of the coolest things, and it gets me really emotional. I remember when I was growing up how much Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Shania, and all of these incredible female artists and musicians inspired me to start playing. I only hope that I can be half of the role model that they were to me when I was growing up. And if I were to give some advice to girls learning instruments, I’d say, follow your heart, play music that you love, learn songs that you love because you’ll want to practice more, and always remember the reason why you love to play music.

Martin Guitar has their Museum Sessions on YouTube which you’ve participated in performing “Criminal” and “Waiting On You.” What guitar did you play?

I love working with Martin Guitar, they’re such a family-based company. You can really tell when you walk around the floor because sometimes it’s a grandmother who passed it down to the daughter who’s now passing it down to the granddaughter who works the same job, on the line, in the factory. It’s just a great environment to be part of. The museum is incredible. It has guitars that date back hundreds of years and tells the whole story of how Martin got started.

My favorite Martin guitars are OOs or OOOs or OMs. The day I was in the museum, I played an OO-28 on stage. I usually play an OMJM or an OM-28, but there’s something I love about small body guitars, and, of course, they have a very nice selection of them at Martin. They have a way of making small body guitars sound huge without being this massive thing that for a girl can sometimes be a lot to play every night.

Are you and Kristian working on singles now, or a full album?

We’re working on a new album. We’ll be promoting “Champagne” over the next few months, but then we’ll be getting back in the studio in November and December to record our next record.

What’s the best way someone visiting Music City can get the full Nashville experience?

There are so many incredible songwriting venues in this city. If you were to go to one thing, go see some songwriters play, either at the Bluebird or the Listening Room – they have great songwriting rounds every night. You also need to go to Carter Guitars or Gruhn Guitars because their selection of instruments is so cool. It’s amazing just to go browse and see what they have.

Lindsay Ell’s Guitar Gear

Guitars:

Betty Van Halen #1 and #2

#1 – American Standard Strat – the guitar I painted for the first single off The Project, the “Waiting On You” guitar, rosewood fretboard, standard single coils covered in acrylic paint

#2 – American Professional Strat – two Tim Shaw designed V-Mod single coil pickups and one Shaw Bucker humbucker pickup, with the new “deep C” shaped neck profile, rosewood fretboard designed by Fender after my “Waiting On You” guitar

Herbert

Custom Brad Paisley model – ‘57 Strat, custom vintage pickups, ‘50s style neck, gold hardware, maple fretboard

The Red Betty

Center block junior limited edition Gretsch semi-hollowbody, Filter Tron neck pickup, Seymour Duncan P-90 bridge pickup, with Bigsby B12C

Les Paul Goddess

490R neck and 498T bridge pickups, ebony fretboard, 24.75 scale length, ‘60s slim taper neck, chambered violet burst, steward Macdonald aftermarket bridge

Continuum Guitar

American Standard Strat guitar I painted for The Continuum Project, rosewood fretboard, standard single coils

Picks: D’Addario Heavy (1.0mm)

Strings: D’Addario XL Light Top/Heavy Bottom (10-52) & D’Addario NYXL (10-52)

Cables: D’Addario Custom Series & American Stage Instrument Cables

Pedals: (in series of signal flow)

»» Wireless – Shure ULXD4Q – quad channel digital wireless receiver
»» -535 Q Wah pedal
»» -Rockett Audio Archer Ikon pedal
»» -Ernie Ball VP JR Passive Volume pedal
»» -Xotic BB Preamp Pedal
»» -MXR Digital Reverb
»» -Dunlop EP103 Echoplex Delay pedal
»» -BOSS DD-7 Delay pedal
»» (Using voodoo lab pedal power 2 plus)

Amps:

»» -Vox AC30S1 1×12 – the more stripped down and straight forward AC30. A single channel design based on the Top Boost channel of the AC30. 30-watt combo amp. Two 12AX7s preamp tubes and four EL84 power amp tubes. Specially voiced 12” Celestion speaker, with studio quality digital reverb

»» Z Wreck – with custom Dr. Z “Lindsay pink” tolex, head and two 1 x 12 cabs. One cab backwashed behind stage. Three 12AX7 preamp tubes and four EL84 power amp tubes. 2 x 12” Celestion Gold speakers.

B-Rig: Fractal Ax8

 

 

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