Ellington was on top of the world, playing drums with The Driver Era, a stylistic mutation of pop group R5, when he traded it all in for his own creative edification. Such a risky maneuver pays off handsomely with his self-titled debut EP, out today (April 16), a five-track collection of totally unhinged pop/rock music which also seems to zip-line between grunge and late ‘90s R&B.
“There was a tectonic shift happening,” the musician recalls over a recent call with American Songwriter. Even during his R5 days, there seemed to be “uncertainty brewing,” he says. “In the back of my mind, I’d always thought ‘I love touring and this situation I’m in.’ But at the same time, I wanted to do my own thing.”
Nearly four years ago, Ellington looked around and realized the time had finally come for him to move on and carve out his own path. His then-band mates, Rocky and Ross Lynch, seemed to be doing their own thing, and the group was “morphing into something I wasn’t necessarily as much a part of. It’s freaky when you’re used to touring for years, being in this band, and touring with these people to go into my bedroom and learn how to produce myself and sing in front of people.
“I always use this metaphor: it felt like I had just come down from this mountain that took me 10 years to scale,” he adds, “and I turn around and there’s another mountain to climb. I had to find my sound, what I was going to perform… just everything. There’s an excitement in that.”
Perhaps it was always meant to go this way. Years before, while still a vital figure in R5, Ellington began collecting the odd song here and there. “I had a little apartment studio where I could slip away and write,” he remembers. He wrote to simply write, nothing too serious coming of any of it. “Once I made the decision to split off, that’s when I sat down and really went for it.”
His sound careens from the thumping opener “EMT” to the hair-thrashing “Sun to Rise!,” a rebellious war cry to finish out the record. Along the way, Ellington allows each song to exist as they are─his sound impossible to label. “There was a lot of trial and error. I wasn’t really producing all that much before,” he explains of finding his sound. With a new digital workspace called Ableton, a thrilling world seemed to blossom right before him. “There are a lot of genres I’m trying to implement into one sound,” he says. “Obviously, it’s not too much of a hodgepodge, but I definitely had to figure out where I fit in all these genres I love.”
With “Band of Gold,” Ellington slithers into the R&B space, a moment that will surely take his fans by surprise. Never loved the songs you chose / Couldn’t love you on my own, he sings over a silky piano groove. Initially, he wrote the song during “a transitional period of my life. I started playing this on the piano, and it stuck with me years later and came into its own. There are definitely a few things I’m pulling from,” he says, also pulling from James Blake for inspiration. “I feel the beat is very Kanye-esque to me. I’m also a big fan when people use vocoders.
“The song is about the beginning and ending of a relationship. I had the bridge where I wanted something different,” he continues, referencing sampled audio tracks layered for added emotional effect. “I thought why not literally showcase the ending of a relationship there and how it crescendos and then all of a sudden drops out. And you’re left with nothing.”
“Beauty is Terrifying,” a rhythmic-rooted moment, revisits a particularly profound psychic reading. Let him explain. “During a certain time of my life, I was going to see psychics. Some friends told me this one psychic was really great. At one point, they told me about this brunette who was coming into my life. I was single at the time, and I was saying, ‘Uh, maybe I’d like to be single for a little longer.’ They said, ‘Well, she’s coming for you, and she’s closer than you think.’ A month later, I met my fiance.”
My therapy is looking like a subscription / They try and tell me she’s a new addiction, his voice punctures an electric fog. Hard as I try, I never learned to listen / Yeah, yeah, yeah.
In working with mixer Mark Needham, a guiding light throughout the entire process, Ellington makes sense of not only his personal turmoil but the art itself. “As things were shutting down, we were getting the emails going and feeling it out. It was one of those meant to be moments,” he offers. “I always need people who can handle me throwing a lot of things around. He was so gracious and willing. Sometimes, you work with people who are really experienced and aren’t open. He was the opposite of that. He had no ego. He took all my notes and did so many passes where it’s probably laughable to some people. I’m very thankful for his work. I was able to get on the other side of these songs and walk away with something I’m truly proud of.”
Ellington’s solo debut EP─also greatly influenced by the work of Sault, Gabriel Garzon-Montano, and acclaimed producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Public Enemy)—testifies to his unwavering work ethic and rigid artistic vision. He allows his muse to take the lead, and what’s resulted is an impressive first outing. “This was very much my first exercise doing everything myself from beginning to end. I was very precious with it all. I’m glad I was. Now, I’m looking forward, and I know what it took to make this EP. It’s like when you do a workout, and it becomes muscle memory. This is going to be the next step forward in getting comfortable to make music on my own. It’s going to become quicker.”