The Joy Inside

Ellis, enjoying a cup of Serenitea
Darin Back

Break the Spell
Rubberneck Records

Maybe it's because she's a Buddhist. Maybe it's because she's 31 yet looks like a 17-year-old. Maybe it's because she's nine years into a relationship that still makes her visibly giddy when she talks about it. Maybe it's because she's an unassuming local folk singer who has sold more than 30,000 albums.

Whatever the reason, Ellis Grace Bergeron is almost unreasonably happy.

Dressed in a plain black shirt, with a mop of brown hair that looks both elfin and early-teen snowboarder, she is staring at me with powdery blue eyes that never seem to wander—or even hardly blink—over the course of an hour. We are at the May Day Café in south Minneapolis, and it's a noisy, chaotic bustle of bodies on this Sunday afternoon. I'm having trouble keeping my focus, but she manages to simultaneously exude both eager curiosity and unshakable serenity. I'm simultaneously charmed and jealous as hell.

You may know her as just Ellis. That's the name she has gone by since she was a teenager. She was born Mary Grace Ellis, named after her grandmother.

"I felt very much like it was her name and not mine. It also felt like if I was named Mary Grace, I was destined for the convent. It didn't fit," she says.

Ellis's parents lived in Liberty, Texas, outside of Houston. They divorced when she was a baby, and her mom later married a man Ellis describes as emotionally abusive. After nine years they separated, and Ellis and her mom moved to Minnesota to live with her aunt.

"It was not a good situation. Not a happy home life. One that could inspire lots of creativity in a child," she says with a tension-easing chuckle.

It was after moving north that Ellis legally changed her name to Ellis Grace Bergeron—Ellis for her father, and Bergeron her mother's maiden name. Despite, or maybe because of, her childhood, Ellis is now a woman who is very intent on finding, and relishing, joy in her life.

A major source of that joy today is her latest album, Break the Spell (Rubberneck Records). It's her sixth in ten years, and—she says without hesitation—her best. She shivers a little with ecstasy when asked about it. Produced by Ben Wisch (Marc Cohn, Patty Larkin), Break the Spell is a cathartic, intimate, and ultimately transcendent modern folk record. It's not trendy, or groundbreaking, or particularly adventurous. What it is is very, very real. It gets to you the way you crave a record to get to you.

It got to me on the second track, "Before You Leave." Amid an ether of vibrating, sparsely strummed guitars, delicate piano, and understated percussion, Ellis's breathy voice and ethereal backing vocals transport you to someplace beautiful, bittersweet, fatalistic: "Every star at night is a beating heart/Someday will fall/Young and old/They are bright/And make a grand exit."

She played for five years with the band Bobby Llama in the 1990s, but Ellis now performs solo most of the time, just her voice and an acoustic guitar. It's when she is at her best, her most emotionally powerful, when she strips a song down to just her hushed, innocent vocals and a few notes delicately picked on the guitar. She takes this minimalist approach several times on Break the Spell, but never better than on the Simon and Garfunkel-esque "Words You Said." When she sings tenderly, "I met someone new/And I am confused by it/She is not you/And I won't ever forget it," you're taken aback by the raw honesty of the words.

"This record is so much more intentional than any other record I've done. It's 'clearer.' Albums are like a landscape, like a painting. There are certain things that can be barriers to having an image be clear. Having an idea of what that image is, first off, you know, the song, having a clear idea of what that is, and then painting in such a way that you can feel the image even more, is an art form that I continue to evolve with," she says.

Ellis describes her songwriting process as "very messy and fun. Kind of like finger-painting. Sometimes you mix too many things, and you end up with a big pile of brown," she says with one of her frequent laughs.

Having sold more than 30,000 records, and touring more than 150 dates a year, Ellis clearly hasn't created too many big piles of brown. She says she hasn't had to work a "normal" job in seven years—which in her case meant working behind the counter at a coffee shop and giving flute lessons.

"When I first started out doing music it was really more of the queer and women audiences, and now it's become more of the folk audience. Mainly folks who are interested in music that has a quality of introspection. It's a different thing than going out to a rock club and listening to a band," she says.

With her remarkable success so far, it only seems natural that Ellis would have specific goals for herself and know exactly where she wants to take her career. However, the concept almost seems foreign to her when it's brought up.

"Where do I want to be in three years? Wherever 'here' is in three years. I want to be exactly who I am, whatever that looks like. I think too often we live our lives preparing for happiness. And it's like, 'When is the main event?' It's now! It's now! It's so easy to lose track of that. We have everything that we need right in this moment," she explains. "But if I had enough money, I would love to just give this record away. I would love for as many people as possible to hear this record. Absolutely."

ELLIS performs a CD-release show on SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674

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