John Ellis Tells new album perkolate online

June 2017. Interview by Marelise Jacobs. Cover: John Ellis through the years. Design by Perkolate. Photography by: Top image: Samantha Maber. Middle image: Dean Cothill. Bottom image: Copyright Tree63.


Since traveling the globe with his award-winning, hit making band Tree63 had come to an end almost ten years ago, a solo career beckoned for the Durban based songwriter John Ellis. Embarking on this road had many ups and downs which culminates in his third solo record called 'Tells'. Stepping away from the limelight to rediscover his love for music and the art of songwriting, 'Tells' is filled with personal, heartfelt songs that will garner the appreciation of a whole new audience.


John Ellis

Overwhelming Sense of Well-Being - From his latest album 'Tells'



What is the meaning behind the name 'Tells'?

John: It is a couple of things really. In gambling terms, when people are playing poker, they try to keep their facial expressions to themselves to avoid revealing the cards they have. But you can tell what they are dealing with in terms of their non-verbal cues, a nervous twitch of the eye or the way they shuffle their cards. Those cues are called tells. Then in archaeological terms, when they uncover ancient cities, they dig through all the layers of history. The cities that have been built on top each other over the centuries, those layers are called tells as well. It is an uncovering of things that have been hidden for a long time. In a way, that is the theme of some of these songs.

Things that have been hidden from yourself or other people?

John: I haven't figured that out yet. Either way, this is just a way of saying this is what was on the songwriter's mind at the time.


“...it is the first album where I felt like I am totally out of step with current trends in music and the first album where I feel I don't have to apologise for that...” - John Ellis

Another song that really stood out for me was Wreck at the Lifehouse, what is the idea behind that song?

John: Same girl. It was written a few years ago and is about a case of trying to decide whether or not to be in a relationship when you know it is tricky. When things are looking like maybe it is not a good idea. At some point you say let's just jump into the water and find out.

In terms of taking this album on the road, will you be touring anytime soon?

John: In a weird way I feel like I have retired from music. I spent a long time touring around and playing solo shows, trying to get people interested in the songs I was writing post-Tree63. I just found there was no real interest. It got very, very disillusioning and dispiriting. It is quite heartbreaking to play the music in front of a room full of five people who aren't really there to see you. Especially when you have had a career already, running around the world to big audiences. I felt maybe I said what I had to say and it was time for me to close the door, which I did at the end of 2015. Then a year later I felt I should just put these songs out because they had been waiting for a while for their turn. There is no real plan to play them live or go on tour unless obviously there is some sort of demand for it. But otherwise, I don't think I can handle anymore heartbreak.

That must be a difficult decision?

John:Music is very competitive, it is about popularity and fame. I am an old fashioned, guitar playing songwriter who just writes songs for the sake of songs. I am not trying to compete with other artists or try and be relevant. I did that for a while with Tree63 but is exhausting and you lose your love for music in the process. That is why I stopped. Now I am just writing these songs for myself. This album is a very personal record, way more than the other two solo ones or anything that I have done before. I think it is the first one where I felt like I am totally out of step with current trends in music and the first album where I feel I don't have to apologise for that.