A wonderful thing about music is that anyone can make it. Every single person on this Earth has some form of musical ability and can exercise it whenever they want. Want to start a hardcore band filled with nothing but banjos? You can do that right now. Do you want a whole ensemble of theremins to serenade you? That’s a possibility you can create. With the numerous avenues of connection that the internet and modern life have afforded us, any permutation of musical ideas, execution, or process can become a viable avenue to sharing music with the world. Nashville’s Daniel Ellsworth + The Great Lakes are students and teachers of this idea, having blazed their own trail through music as an independent band for the better part of the 2010s. With the release of their new album Fashion coming later this month on August 24, Daniel Ellsworth + The Great Lakes are still fully committed to doing things in a way that’s entirely their own.
If there is a universal truth in music, it’s that the run-up to an album release is always busy. This held true when I spoke to band members Ellsworth, Marshall Skinner, and Dr. Timon Lance at the end of July. As Ellsworth explains it, this is the end of an incredibly busy stretch of nearly five years. He says “We put out the last full length record [Kid Tiger] in 2014 and then we had an EP [Bemidji] come out in 2016 … We started writing and recording this album in 2017, and basically took that whole year, all of last year, into a little bit of this year writing and recording it.” While the last few years have all been busy, the creation of Fashion marks a different kind of energy.
Fashion’s creation was entirely under The Great Lakes’ control. Skinner affirms that by saying “when we were writing and recording Fashion we decided that we didn’t want to have to put it out or do anything on anyone’s timeline but our own.” Furthermore, Skinner explains that they have released a long string of music videos and singles before the album release as a way to switch up their approach as the music industry and record release strategies have shifted greatly. Skinner stresses that it’s not about not liking the traditional album release, saying, “We are still in love with the idea of how a record comes out, a full package type thing, but we’ve broken it down into singles and made music videos for all those and that was our approach.”All three members agree that this approach has been a ton of fun for The Great Lakes.
Just how different has the rollout for Fashion been? Half of the album is out right now. The Great Lakes have spent 2018 releasing not only singles, but “Chapters” from the album. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, released months apart, contain six of Fashion‘s twelve tracks. For Ellsworth and the band, this approach came from two primary reasons. Ellsworth explains the first reason by saying, “That’s how we recorded the album. We recorded it in chunks. We would go into the studio with this guy, Kyle Andrews, who produced the record, … with a handful of songs and we’d track them.” The Great Lakes would do one of those sessions with Andrews, spend time writing with similar ideas in mind to what they had just recorded, and then repeat a few weeks later. The other factor that caused The Great Lakes to land on the idea of “chapters” was simply a desire to experiment. “I think that’s kinda the thing right now, everybody’s doing everything different, and trying different things,” Ellsworth says, marveling at the creative opportunities afforded to bands now.
That experimentation extends to the actual music on Fashion as well. Tracks like “Modern Lover” and “Control” emphasize this new sound, which incorporates many more electronic elements into The Great Lakes’ sound alongside their usual mastery of live instrumentation. According to Lance, this came from an openness in the recording process to try new things. He says, “part of it had to do with just being open to it in general, and secondly what was different from the last time is that we worked with Kyle Andrews for this one.” While Lance says Andrews never specifically pushed them in that direction, his studio was full of equipment and sounds The Great Lakes didn’t have the opportunity to be around before. With new tools at their disposal, innovation was inevitable.
They also went into the studio with a little more wiggle room on some of the creative decisions. Lance reveals, “This was also the first time that we went into the studio with a handful of things that were undecided. I wouldn’t say songs were unfinished necessarily, but there were parts, there were sections and arrangements where we knew we wanted to do something else with them.” The reason for this circles back to their status as an independent band and not working under any particular deadline. All three members repeatedly stressed how nice it was to be able to take as much time as they needed in Andrews’ studio and on writing in general in order to get Fashion sounding exactly how they wanted it to sound.
If you follow Daniel Ellsworth + The Great Lakes at all, there’s a decent chance you know some of this already. The band is incredibly open, posting photos and updates from their recording sessions and daily life. Ellsworth explains that because they’re an independent band and therefore heavily involved in every single step of the process, he wants to show people all the work that goes into the finished product. He says, “I think anytime we’re together, like we’re writing, working, rehearsing, we tend to just document that stuff to just invite people in, invite fans or whoever might be paying attention in to see what is happening, what the process is like for us or for an independent band.” Ellsworth says it’s important to show people some of the less glorious parts of the music making process, which he says with a laugh are “most of it.”
Although largely self-sufficient, The Great Lakes can’t do everything alone. The band works with other independent artists for all their music videos and artistic endeavors, and you’ll often see the band making sure to praise and elevate these other artists. This is huge for Ellsworth, who says “an independent band is only as good or as successful as the people they surround themselves with.” Ellsworth’s wife is a local artist in Nashville who does a ton of work with the band, and Ellsworth draws big laughs from Skinner and Lance when he says, “we would look like idiots if we didn’t have her.” This sense of familiarity and trust extends to other artists who aren’t related to them. Ellsworth further explains, “we’re an independent band, a lot of these people are small, independent videographers and so they’re hustling too and we’re all sort of in it together, so it’s important.” The Great Lakes are clearly grateful to all the talented people they have worked with.
The Great Lakes tell me they’re trying to build a community amongst independent artists, and there are few better places to do that in 2018 than in Nashville. Ellsworth describes it as “a scene that thrives on community and bands support each other and build each other up.” Nashville continues to grow exponentially, so Ellsworth wants to keep that community going amongst independent Nashville artists even as the city expands. Lance chimes in, saying “I think more people are visiting Nashville now and getting off Lower Broadway downtown, and getting to see some other shows that they didn’t really know existed there.” That new sense of discovery fuels independent music, and The Great Lakes couldn’t be happier with it.
The Great Lakes’ mission won’t end when Fashion comes out. The band have formed Color Party Records with Andrews, who also makes music himself, as an umbrella for what they’re trying to achieve in the independent scene. Release shows are scheduled for the coming months, including a “Color Party” in Nashville which will feature local talent and be centered around acts and guests all wearing a specific color. The band hopes to do these big shows on a quarterly basis, and when I ask if they’ll structure the live shows in a similar manner to how they released Fashion in chapters, they playfully chastise me for making them rethink their whole live show format.
It’s clear Daniel Ellsworth + The Great Lakes are committed to making music their way. That includes a willingness to switch things up and try new things, and to remain independent while lifting up artists and musicians they believe in along the way. There’s no telling what The Great Lakes will sound like in the future, but rest assured whatever form their music takes will be decidedly their own choosing.