Lindsay Ell on Deeply Reflective New Album ‘Heart Theory’: ‘It Was a Science of My Process’

'heart theory' is based on a lifetime of experiences...

Written by Cillea Houghton
Lindsay Ell on Deeply Reflective New Album ‘Heart Theory’: ‘It Was a Science of My Process’
Lindsay Ell; Photo credit: Jeremy Cowart

Lindsay Ell has a theory – if music theory is the science of music, then heart theory is the science of a heart, an ideology she explores on her new album heart theory.

A self-professed “nerd” about the seven stages of grief, Ell built a concept record around how she processed her past trauma by following the model, beginning with shock and running through anger to find acceptance. “As human beings on this planet, we go through moments of transformation in our lives. Our heart heals constantly and at deeper levels throughout our lives. This is the step by step process of how I healed,” Ell annotates to Sounds Like Nashville about the album. “It was a science of my process.”

Though it took three years to make, heart theory is based on a lifetime of experiences. Ell reveals that she endured a health scare in 2019 that she calls a “wide awakening” in the same year she turned 30, a moment she also cites as an awakening but “in the most beautiful way.” But when Ell visited Youth For Tomorrow in 2017, an organization based in Bristow, Va. that supports young people in crisis, it led her to write the song she’d been trying to craft for years. Youth For Tomorrow works with young women who have survived sexual abuse, Ell sitting down with a group of survivors to not only listen to their stories, but share her own. The singer was particularly inspired by the 12-year-old girl sitting beside her with a dark past, but bright eyes toward the future, sharing how her parents had sold her to a sex slavery company when she was a child; the girls’ honesty prompted Ell to share her story as a two-time rape survivor.

Ell recounted how she was raped by a man she knew through church at the age of 13 and was raped again when she was 21. “I have tried to write a song about my story so many times and it always ended up being so deep and so dark and so heavy,” Ell describes. “When I left Youth For Tomorrow that day, I knew that I needed to do something about it.” Ell then stepped into action, calling on Brandy Clark to help write “make you,” inspired by her experience as a 13-year-old, that explores the emotional damage left in its wake. Though expressing the pain she felt from the experience that followed her into adulthood, the song proves that Ell is undefeated by the trauma, the lyrics capturing her transformation from “it’s gonna make you hate yourself / When you didn’t hate yourself at all / It’s gonna make you build a fortress / Where you never had a wall” to professing “‘Cause if you can get through that/ There’s no valley that’s too tall / And it’s amazing where a broken heart can take you / All the things that bend and stain and break you / That’s what’s gonna make you.”

“I know that if I would have had somebody to hold 13-year-old Lindsay’s hand and 21-year-old Lindsay’s hand, I would have healed so much faster if I would’ve had somebody to tell me that ‘it’s okay, you’re not alone,’” the singer reflects on harboring feelings of guilt and shame from that harrowing moment. “We get used to carrying these weights with us all the time, and so writing ‘make you’ was so validating to me in so many ways because it took that shame and it normalized it for a minute.”

Coinciding with the release of “make you,” Ell launched the Make You Movement Fund that raises donations for organizations that help survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

Ell hopes the album will be a source of comfort for listeners processing their own grief and was intentional about ending heart theory on a “happy note” with “ReadY to love,” which sees her as a changed woman ready to embrace a new chapter that is “exciting,” “deep,” “connected” and “creative,” she describes. Though it took hard work to get there, Ell stayed the course, with heart theory symbolizing the brave steps she took to become the empowered woman she is today. “This is me looking at heartbreak as a whole in my life and how I’ve changed to show up as myself and how I can change in the future to show up as a more authentic me,” Ell observes. “I hope that this music can be support or empathy [for] people who are looking for that or help inspire them to go through their own journey.”