Elise Bellew Visits ‘Wonderland’ on new EP
It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been a social media junkie for over 12 years now. My first taste of the poison was the now passé MySpace. Who remembers those days? The “Top 10” and what to put as your body type and intro song. Despite the superficial, I’ve got MySpace to thank for some very dear friendships I made back in the day. One of them, is Elise Bellew. Elise and I met through my Kate Bush fan club I created on MySpace. As one of the founding members of the dreamy-pop band, The Mary Dream, Elise and I quickly bonded over the fact we were both Scorpios and loved cream puffs from Solvang.
Fast forward to 2018, and I’m so happy to still count Elise among my friends. While we’ve all grown up and times have changed, we now stay in-touch via Facebook and I’ve loved watching (or should I say listening?) Elise grow as an artist and expand her already diverse sound. Now a solo artist, Elise has at last released a much awaited EP of brand new songs entitled Wonderland. While her previous work with The Mary Dream drew much influence from early inspirations like The Sundays and The Cranberries, Wonderland finds Bellew drawing from recent favorites and chart toppers like Lana Del Rey and Lorde.
While some may question the change in sound, I had no doubt that Elise would make the change effortlessly. She’s a Scorpio-we know how to change it up. Look no further than Joni Mitchell’s Blue, with songs literally ripped from Mitchell’s diary, to her synth and rock sounds on 1985’s Dog Eat Dog.
Read on for my fantastic chat with Elise to learn more about her recording and production process. Here’s hoping we can see her live one of these days, too!
Elise on the Songwriting Process
Mary: I have so many thoughts on Wonderland. I can hear your vast musical influences on each track, but they’re definitely your own songs. What was the writing and recording process like for Wonderland, and did it vary at all from previous albums?
Elise: Both the writing and recording process for this album were dramatically different than anything I’ve done before. In the past, I’ve always written lyrics and melodies to chords played by my guitar player or piano player. This would always take place during an improv session, which I would record, and then I’d go back and develop the songs later. But a couple of years ago, I started writing in a whole new and unexpected way. I now write almost all of my songs in my sleep! Just about every morning, I wake up with a song in my head. Sometimes, it’s just a melody, and sometimes it’s lyrics and melody. Then I sing the song into my phone and start developing the song right then and there. And this process will continue throughout the morning while I make breakfast (and go about the day).
I just keep recording everything into my phone – refining the melody and writing more and more lyrics as I go. After this initial “inspiration period”, I typically don’t revisit the song again until much later when I’m selecting songs I want on an album. I go back and listen to everything I wrote and pick my favorites. It’s at that point that I sit down at the computer, figure out a ballpark tempo, and record the song a capella for my producer Bryan Steele.
Through a series of Skype sessions and sending lots of files back and forth, we solidify the arrangement, and then Bryan produces the songs. Adding all of the instrumentation, while I record all the vocals in my home studio. We go back and forth like this until we both love it. Long distance collaboration has become a new norm. It creates endless possibilities for musicians to collaborate with each other around the world. I feel very inspired by this process. The freedom to write with no limitations, and to have someone out there who not only gets what I’m trying to do, but who also raises the bar all the way up with high-fi production. That’s what I’ve found in Bryan Steele.
Sad Songs and New Inspirations
Mary: Did you find yourself drawn to any particular inspirations for these songs? Was there an album you listened to often, or a book that stayed with you?
Elise: There were some very specific artists I had been listening to leading up to Wonderland – especially Lana Del Rey, Lorde and Ellie Goulding. You have to keep in mind, I come from an alternative pop/rock background, so I’ve gone through a change in genre – going more into electronic production and dance music (You’ll hear more of the dance music on my next EP “Spin”). To help me make the switch, I had to find current artists that I truly loved, and the artists mentioned above fit the bill. But some of my older influences still came into play for this album, especially Aimee Mann, who is one of my heroes. I also had a couple of unexpected influences, including Suzanne Vega and Prince.
Of course, I’m still influenced by my own work I did with The Mary Dream, and I continually try to enhance my own personal vocal tendencies that come naturally to me.
Mary: Sad Song is such a, well, sad song! Yet, you always have hope in your voice. How much of your own life experiences are in your work?
Elise: My history with The Mary Dream is that we wrote songs that were considered “bittersweet”. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been drawn to sad or moody songs… I find them cathartic and uplifting, and I strive to bring listeners to an introspective space with my music – using trancey production and carefully placed words. Almost all of my songs have personal content to them, but not all of them start out that way. Sometimes, it starts with what words rhyme or fit the shape of the melody. Then, I will find personal meaning within those words and expand on that.
Occasionally, I will write a song based on a book or a movie, or someone else’s life experience. “Sad Song” is about my own personal experience and then expands out into the world in general, with the hope that the listener will make the song their own. That’s really the goal of all my songs – that the listener will mold the meaning of the words to their own experience.
Elise Bellew in ‘Wonderland’
Mary: Are all of the songs recorded with a live band, or do you use keyboards for the spacey vibes on tracks like Orbit and The Forest?
Elise: This is the first album I have ever made without live instruments. It is strictly electronic production; all created by my producer Bryan Steele. Even though he is a seasoned multi-instrumentalist who tours the globe, we still chose to go with electronic production. Not just because that’s what’s “in” right now, but also because it’s extremely fun.
Mary: Any plans to tour or play more live gigs next year?
Elise: Yes, I’m currently putting together a live show for the upcoming Wonderland EP Release Party in November, which will be held at a local art gallery. I’m creating a unique live show where I want to do more than just sing. I’m interested in doing some storytelling, working with lighting, and possibly adding some other forms of media.
Mary: With a title like Wonderland, I expect you’re an Alice fan?!
Elise: I’ve always loved the symbolic imagery of the Alice story. There’s actually two songs on the album that I call “metaphorical journey songs” – “Wonderland” and “The Forest”. I consider them to be “companion pieces”. Both are about a personal journey of mine, and I use the Alice story and the forest as the metaphors.