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John Ellis comes out fighting

John Ellis of Tree 63 fame has returned from the States and is going solo, he has been busy recording his latest album "Come out Fighting" which he will be launching tonight, Friday 16 July 2010, with band Lonehill Estate in Northriding. BizLounge chatted to him via e-mail about flying solo, uBuntu and Julius Malema.

So how's the solo thing going and why the decision to go solo?

It's going great, thanks! It just felt like time was up on the idea of fronting a band with its own separate identity and agenda. Tree63 became known for only one thing and I found that increasingly limiting as a songwriter. Solo is a new lease of life for me.

Your new album "Come Out Fighting" is described as "representing [your] current state of mind", what is your current state of mind?

Hopeful, frustrated, thankful, irritated. All of the above! I'm a proud South African who can't wait for things to be better, and I think that's worth singing about.

Why the title "Come Out Fighting"?

For starters, it's the title of one of the songs on the record, which is a 'this-far-and-no-further' song. Attitudinally, it was the best representation of the mood of the songs, so it became the title of the record as well.

How would you describe the overall sound and mood of the album?

I fell in love with garage rock over the years, raw things that weren't too polished, after all those glossy Tree63 records. I'm also a huge fan of singer-songwriters like Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith and Tom Petty, and so all these sounds and influences came to have an impact on this album. Guitars, guitars and more guitars. Not a lot of fuss, not a huge amount of overdubbing, and no ballads!

What was it like living and working in the US, how did you find the response to the band?

Tree63 was unfortunately mired in the ghetto of contemporary Christian music (which is a genre specific to the US) from the outset. We didn't have an opportunity to engage with the rest of America, and we had to make do with what we had. The response to the band was really positive, but ultimately Tree63's 'thing' was just too much for the kinds of Americans we were performing for. It takes a certain kind of person to live happily in the US, but you can't beat living in Africa.

Why the decision to disband Tree 63?

It just didn't seem necessary anymore.

Tree 63 was best known as a Christian band and having a strong Christian message. Is this still a concern and message you strive for in your solo career?

A difficult question to answer. I subscribe to certain spiritual beliefs which have a lot in common with Christianity, and Tree63 sang a lot of 'those' kinds of songs, but mainline Christianity leaves me cold. I don't necessarily strive to have 'a message' anymore, I learned the hard way that that's the last thing we all need. I try and write about what's crucial to me, because it's likely to be as crucial to at least one other person, and suddenly we're all not so alone anymore.

What makes you proudly and un-proudly South African?

There's this ineffable "African-ness" here that people sometimes call uBuntu, although that word only goes halfway. Africa is not just a land-mass, it's a spirit, a state of mind, and it's what makes me who I am. The story of this country is incredibly tragic, rich, hilarious and desperate, all at the same time, and to be caught up in it is an immense privilege. I'm made less proud by those who try and pretend the last 350 or so years never happened, and that it's all about 'take what you can get at the expense of others now'.

What is one of the strangest things that has ever happened to you on stage?

I walked on stage with no voice a few times in my life, and once we invited fans in the audience up to sing with the band while I just played guitar. We were near a lake on a freezing outdoor stage somewhere in America. A bizarre afternoon, hearing American teenagers auditioning for your own band!

If you weren't involved in music what would you be doing?

Hunting books all over the world!

Worst type of music ever?

Pan pipes.

What puts a spring in your step and a sparkle in your eyes these days?

Walking along golden sands hand in hand with my gorgeous wife watching our two children running in and out of the Indian Ocean. It doesn't get a lot better than that.

Word Association: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear these words?

Football: Blatter
Julius Malema: Gucci
Boerewors roll: Gourmet
Jelly Shots: University

Future plans?

Write more songs, make more records, play them everywhere, buy more books, employ Julius Malema as a roadie. And then fire him.

Catch John Ellis showcase material from his debut solo album tonight, Friday 16th July, at Musos International at the Banbusry Cross Shopping Centre, Northriding, Johannesburg. Doors open at 7 pm and cover charge is R50.

About Ruth Cooper

Ruth is the production manager at Bizcommunity, as well as a editor of the Lifestyle section.