With Hazy Sunshine (Busted Flat Records), Charlottetown, PEI-based singer/songwriter Dennis Ellsworth has released a set of songs that are informed heavily by his belief that, no matter how rough things get, if you lose hope you lose the ability to effect positive change.
While that belief has been reinforced by his personal experiences as a songwriter, performer and recording artist, it’s a truth that applies to everyone equally, he says: "If you don't hold out hope for the future, who's to say your life is ever going to turn it into what you wanted it to be?"
Nowhere are Ellsworth’s own hopes reflected more clearly, if briefly, than on the song ‘Happiness.’ “It’s a very hopeful song, but when I played it on my last tour I did joke that it’s a rare topic for me – and only two-minutes long – so enjoy,” he says, laughing. That said Hazy Sunshine is one of the ‘happier’ records Ellsworth has ever made. “Happier sounding anyway,” he adds, although that wasn’t necessarily his intention. “When I set out to make this album my first thought was to isolate myself during the winter somewhere in rural Canada because I wanted that to contribute to the sound of the record, but I think we went in a different direction.”
While Hazy Sunshine dwells heavily on the necessity of remaining positive, it’s fuelled by a kind of dark optimism that’s always driven Ellsworth’s songwriting. "I'm hopeful but I'm not a firm believer,” he says, bluntly. And even the songs on Hazy Sunshine with titles that sound reasonably cheery, like ‘Paradise’ and ‘Everything's Fine,’ aren’t exactly joyful. “’Everything’s Fine’ is actually a song about everything not being fine, but telling yourself everything is going to be fine. And it will. But the point is the world is messed up and although that can bog you down, you can’t let it get you too down.”
That’s a message that comes across clearly on highly personal offerings like ‘Things I Want’ and ‘Can’t Turn To You.’ And one he sums up beautifully on the album’s title track; a moody, understated reminder that love and loss, light and dark, are all part of life, and that never experiencing some measure of despair can render hope all but meaningless. It’s also a perspective that’s rooted in Ellsworth’s own use of music as a means to get through hard times. “Music is something I can always lean on and when my own hopes fail a bit, I write a song about it.”
While he can’t pinpoint exactly what prompted him to pursue music initially, he does recall singing Neil Diamond’s ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’, in front of the mirror while brushing his teeth as a child and often singing around the house. “My parents gave me a little red plastic guitar and used to ask me to put on concerts on for visitors, so I’d get up in from of the fireplace with this little guitar. There was always some element of needing to perform for people, but I do this because I love it and because I feel there's something I need to say.”
Since making the leap from the bathroom to the barroom, Ellsworth has toured Canada extensively, made inroads into the U.S and is now gaining a dedicated following in the UK. In all, he’s written and released five records: Thank You, Goodnight (2009) and Howdy (2010), with his side project, Haunted Hearts, and, as a solo artist, Chesterfield Dweller of the Year (2009), the Strange Boat EP (2011) and Dusk Dreams (2012).
Produced by Skydiggers guitarist, Josh Finlayson, and recorded over five days in February at The Tragically Hip’s Bathhouse Studio near Kingston, Ontario, Hazy Sunshine is a bit of a departure – lyrically and sonically – from Ellsworth’s past records and Dusk Dreams in particular. Although both were recorded live off the floor, Dusk Dreams was more of a “sunny day record,” Ellsworth says. “Hazy Sunshine has definitely got more of a pop vibe in terms of the arrangements and lengths of the songs, but it isn’t as laid-back lyrically.”
The songs and instrumentation brought to bear on them are also more varied – in part; a product of the musicians he and Finlayson tapped for the sessions. Among them: Saam Hashemi, Chris Brown (The Tragically Hip, Chris Brown and Kate Fenner) on piano and organ, guitarist Tim Bovaconti (Leonard Cohen, Cummings-Bachman, Ron Sexsmith), as well as Finlayson’s band mates Andy Maize and Michael Johnston. "It was very much a blend of both of our resources,” Ellsworth says, referencing longtime collaborator and violin/viola player, Kinley Dowling (Hey Rosetta!) – who actually drove with Ellsworth from PEI for the Bathhouse sessions – her father, drummer Alan Dowling, and Ellsworth’s former band mate, bassist Matthew McQuaid (Holy Fuck).
Although Ellsworth has constantly refined his sound and his approach to writing and recording over the years some things that remain constant – one is the acoustic guitar he’s used to write approximately ninety-five percent of the music he’s recorded over time; an early Gibson he found in an old cottage in the Catskills that clearly hadn’t been played in ages. “But when I picked it up it was in tune with itself and that told me that it was well constructed. It’s got loads of charm and just seems to crank out the tunes.”
Another constant is the importance Ellsworth places on the players he brings together for his recordings, and his emphasis on allowing their unique voices as musicians influence his songs. The blend of personalities and talents he’s chosen to record with have always had a major impact on his records and Hazy Sunshine is no exception. “My job is to write songs and then pick the right people to ride in the car with me. Their contribution is everything.”
The result is a record that’s and extremely difficult to pigeonhole; a seamless blend of modern East Coast folk, rock and roll with shades of classic Americana, roots and country haunting the edges. And while Ellsworth’s music invites comparisons to the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Neil Diamond, and Elvis Costello, his voice, signature sound and highly visual approach to lyric writing are uniquely his own. Nowhere is that more evident than on ‘Coke Machine Glow’ – a tune inspired by the Gord Downie poem of the same name – and a track so vivid, so intimate, you almost feel as if you’re sitting beside Ellsworth as he’s thumbs through a well-worn photo album showing you pictures of the scenes he’s singing about.
Put bluntly, Dennis Ellsworth has a knack for writing the kind of songs that anyone who’s questioned their place in the world, or the rightness of the path they’re on, will find their own experiences reflected in and – regardless of what their own hopes are for the future – take a measure of solace in. While that’s always been a hallmark of his songwriting, on Hazy Sunshine he displays that talent with more certainty, honesty and passion than ever before.