When Lindsay Ell first met with her producer to discuss the sound she wanted for her debut album, 2017’s The Project, he gave her a homework assignment. Sugarland’s Kristian Bush asked Ell what her favorite record ever was and told her to record it. His three rules? “You need to play all the instruments. You need to do it by yourself at your studio. You have two weeks. Go!”
In an interview with Sounds Like Nashville at Liana Estates in California before her performance at Live In the Vineyard Goes Country on May 17, Ell explained how recording John Mayer’s 2006 album, Continuum, helped influence her own record and her current single, “Criminal.” She also shares the decision to release The Continuum Project herself.
“I was an artist living in Nashville and when you move to Nashville you’re surrounded by so many talented people that it’s really hard as an artist to filter all of that great information down to exactly who you are, what you want to say, and how you want to say it,” she explains.
Ell took Bush’s homework assignment seriously and cleared her schedule for the next two weeks, hoping to figure out what she wanted to say as an artist along the way. From 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. each day, she worked around the clock to record Continuum.
A longtime fan of Mayer’s, Ell thought she knew everything about his album but admits that she learned even more about the intricacies of each song as she set out to record it. She began dissecting Steve Jordan’s drum parts, Pino Palladino’s bass parts and Mayer’s guitar solos from Continuum, and her musical education expanded to a whole new level.
“I was blown away by how much I learned about the way John plays guitar, by the way I play guitar, and, most importantly, it was like the gears finally clicked in my head at how I wanted my record to sound,” she notes. “It all made sense to me through doing the experiment and taking music that I love to listen to.”
She adds, “It was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever heard a producer ask an artist to do, especially since I’m a studio nerd and I just like to sit at home and record things. But to take music you love to listen to, put it in your own voice, and then listen to that back in the speakers, it made so much sense in hindsight and thankfully Kristian’s such a smart man.”
Ell says many of Mayer’s songs took on new meaning in the studio the more she studied them. And, the lyrics hit her differently once Bush took her drum tracks and muted them.
“When we were mixing it, once we decided to finally release it, it was crazy how the songs came to life in a different way. The lyrics you could hear them. They were more vulnerable. The guitar parts were like additional lyrics to the song — they said other things — and all of a sudden made the record to me, a whole different thing,” she shares. “John’s version of Continuum is obviously the original and the best it will ever be, but this is my version of it. And when we muted those drum tracks, it brought it to life in a whole other way.”
Songs like the poignant “Stop This Train” struck Ell once she sat down by herself to sing and record it. “So scared of getting older / I’m only good at being young / So I play the numbers game / To find a way to say that life has just begun,” Mayer sings on the track.
“I remember recording ‘Stop This Train.’ Again, you know the song, you’ve heard it so many times, but just singing it and recording it, those lyrics are so powerful. I think it’s just something I’m really feeling in life,” she admits. “‘Stop This Train’ talks about really taking in everything you get to do and not taking things for granted because life moves so fast and you can’t stop it. So, we better enjoy the journey not just the destination. The lyrics to ‘Stop This Train’ really hit me hard recording it.”
“Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” is Ell’s favorite song on Mayer’s album and she says it was one of the harder ones to record because it meant so much to her. The most difficult song to record, though, was “Bold As Love.” A Jimi Hendrix original, Mayer covered the song on his project and Ell says she struggled with the guitar solo.
“It was the hardest guitar solo to record on the whole project, because it is a two-and-a-half minute guitar solo. It’s one thing to cover a Hendrix song but to cover a John Mayer version of a Hendrix song, it’s like I have to now show respect for two of my idols,” she confesses. “I left ‘Bold As Love’ as the last song to record because it was like a high pressure situation and I needed to do it right. That solo took me a minute but I think we finally got there.”
One listen to Ell’s version of “Bold As Love,” and she no doubt makes Hendrix and Mayer proud. Ell decided to release The Continuum Project for her fans, who requested it the more she discussed her homework assignment from Bush. While she’s giving fans what they asked for on Friday (May 25), recording The Continuum Project also helped Ell discover her own sound.
“I wouldn’t have had ‘Criminal’ without The Continuum Project. I recorded ‘Criminal’ probably five times before meeting Kristian and getting into the studio with him. So it was that project, doing The Continuum Project, that gave us the right sound and the right code to crack to get ‘Criminal’ to sound the right way,” she concedes. “It’s just crazy sometimes how things happen in life and one thing leads you to the next.”