06/18/2013 Ink Magazine (Kansas City, MO), Feature story , 'Photographs can feel like songs'
Travel and the road have been a big part of her life for the past nine years. Now they have become the subject of her voices, both musical and visual.
Friday night, Betse Ellis will celebrate the release of “High Moon Order,” her second solo album. It’s a collection of songs and fiddle instrumentals about the traveler’s lifstyle. The show is at the Brick, 1727 McGee St., which is also displaying “Yellow Lines,” a collection of photographs Ellis has taken during her far-ranging travels as a solo artist and as a fiddler and singer with her well-known band the Wilders.
Compared with music history, her experience in photography is nascent. But the two share some traits.
“They’re both a type of expression,” she said. “In a lot of ways, I approach a photograph like I approach songwriting. I like it when something random happens. Also, there’s an element of story-telling. And photographs can feel like music. Some images feel more like a fiddle tune than a song; others feel like the beginning of a verse.
“When I come home, I get asked a lot about how a tour went. Photographs can be a good way to tell stories of my travels.”
Ellis has been touring in earnest since 2004, when the Wilders became a full-time touring band.
“I’d say we did about 200 shows a year,” she said, “which probably doesn’t seem like much to bands who are out 300 days a year. But it was more than half the time, and it felt like we were gone all the time.”
A few years ago, after downloading a camera application onto her iPhone, she started toying with it, taking photos while on the road with the Wilders. After she showed some to friends, including professional photographers, the feedback was so positive it turned into a hobby, one to which she became increasingly devoted and one that diminished the tedium that can accompany life on the road.
One of those photographers is Emily Evans Sloan, who has a master of fine arts in photography from the Massachusetts School of Design. “When I look at her roadscapes, I feel the loneliness, the dread of leaving, the excitement of seeing something new, something familiar, and the ennui in between,” said Sloan, who helped Ellis select the photos for “Yellow Lines.”
“When I look at her landscapes, I feel the wind, the sun; I smell the sea. Betse has a great eye. I only helped her find the threads and relationships in the images … and made her realize her work is awesome and should be shared.”
“Photography became a way of preserving my travels and stories,” Ellis said. “But it also became a diversion. The daily patterns of travel can be the same, same, same every day. But once I started taking photographs, I started looking out for things that might interest me when we stopped. I started noticing things more and looking for things, for patterns, like words.”
Words are the theme in one of her pieces, a pastiche of 16 photos, 4 inches square, each with a word displayed somewhere — on a building, a sign or a sidewalk. Another comprises four photos of highways that disappear into the horizon, each split by bright yellow lines. Thus the name of the exhibit, which dovetails with the album Ellis is about to release.
“‘Yellow Lines’ was the working title for the song called ‘The Traveler,’” Ellis said. “These are travel photos, so you could call them a companion to the album.”
“The Traveler” opens “High Moon Order,” an album that touches on the cycles of emotion that many touring musicians fall into: the yearning to get home again and then the itching to get back on the road: “The yellow lines remind you/Not to look too far behind you/You might not look forward again.”
Ellis started recording “Moon” in mid-November. She’d spent the previous five months preparing to record it. In June 2012, the Wilders played what Ellis calls “the final show for a while,” as opposed to the band’s final show. (The Wilders will perform this summer at the Calgary Folk Festival.)
Two things gave her the confidence to step out on her own as a singer/songwriter and bandleader, she said. The first was “The Wilders,” the album her band released in June 2011, which featured “Things They Say About Home,” her first lyrical song with the band and another tune with a travel theme.
“It took a lot of nerve for me to put a confessional song like that out there,” she said. “It sounds really happy but it isn’t. I love that contrast. Then the guys insisted that I perform it live, which was another big step.”
Ellis also cited a now-dormant project she fronted a few years ago called Danger Hand, with friends and local music stalwarts Amy Farrand, Mark Smeltzer and John Greiner.
“We practiced a lot but only played twice, and only one of those was public,” she said. “But it was a good way to learn to be a singer and front a band. It taught me to be brave, even among friends.”
“Moon” comprises 13 songs, some with titles that evoke life on the road: a lovely folk tune called “Golden Road,” a fiddle tune called “Long Time to Get There” and the pretty banjo/fiddle ballad “Twilight Is Stealing.” The album’s title also has travel implications, Ellis said.
“The phrase came to me in a dream,” she said. “I sat with it for a long time and found a deeper meaning to it that felt connected to traveling.”
“Moon” also includes Ellis’ feral remake of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” a deranged, romping country rocker called “The Complainer” and “Stamper,” a gritty fiddle tune dedicated to Art Stamper, one of her fiddle teachers.
“He was the first fiddler for the Stanley Brothers,” she said. “He was 16, Ralph was 14 and Carter was about 18. He’s passed away, but whenever I could when we were out on the road I’d make a point to go visit him where he lived outside Louisville (Ky.).”
Friday night, with portraits of her travels hanging on the walls around her, Ellis will present live versions of the music on “High Moon Order,” plus other songs, at the Brick. She will perform two sets: an acoustic set, then, after a set of music by country/honky-tonk singer Adam Lee and his band, a set of electric tunes. Among her collaborators: Jason Beers, Mike Stover, Jonathan Kraft, Josh Mobley, Dave Reigner, Greiner and Smeltzer.
Together, she wants the images and songs to tell stories that arouse sentiments.
“The rule is the same with photography or music,” she said. “You hope to provoke a response.”
Or in this case, convey the bittersweet push and tug between wanderlust and homesickness.