Andy Elwell ratchets up his quiet intensity
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Heartbreak sucks. Throw in Minnesota’s blisteringly cold winters, and you’ve either got the recipe for self-destruction or constructive artistry. Singer-songwriter Andy Elwell opted for the latter with his third solo album, No One You Will Ever Know, written in isolation last winter. Though Elwell’s throaty, emotionally fraught tenor sounds full of self-doubt, his music is remarkably assured, a lush folk-pop tapestry featuring swooning string arrangements and tasteful alt-country adornments that belongs comfortably on the shelf between Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac—enviably good company. Prior to his Jan. 7 show at 331 Club and No One's Jan. 22 CD-release show at the Kitty Cat Klub, Elwell talked with The A.V. Club about his heavy-metal past, being confused by Southern California winters, and why he’s not a fan of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
The A.V. Club: The music you make now is worlds removed from the heavy-metal punk rock of your previous band, Islero. What's the connection between the two projects?
Andy Elwell: With Islero, [bassist] Al [Church] and I had been friends for the longest time, and by the end of it things were really just falling apart. It started to feel like every time we went on stage things got violent. It became a physically daunting thing, just punching and bleeding all the time. The same level of passion goes into what I’m doing now, but I’m just coming at it from an entirely different angle. Because I did such aggressive songwriting for so long, I can really appreciate the impact that being very quiet can have. In Islero, we never did standard verse-chorus-verse type songs; we’d throw in complex weird parts, and then only have them stick around for 10 seconds. We didn’t really worry about the songs making sense, and I think that openness to being different is one of the main things I’ve tried to carry over to my solo work. I feel like everything I’ve done up to now helped me figure out where I’m headed.
AVC: Whenever singer-songwriters throw around “I” and “you” in song, the lazy assumption is that the songs are confessional. No One You Will Ever Know is a dark record about troubled romantic relationships. How true to life is it?
AE: One of the reasons I called the record No One You Will Ever Know is that even though the songs are all rooted in a personal place, they’re not about any particular real person. I’m singing more to my idea of a person—how I would feel in the event certain things were happening in my life. I’ve never been a big fan of [the Beatles'] “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” type of song. I don’t feel I’m the kind of songwriter that’s good at presenting fictional stories. If I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t try and put it in to a song. When I initially write a song, it’s always about me to some degree. But the moment other people are involved, it’s not about me anymore, it’s about what the person listening is feeling, what they relate to in the song. So the “I” in the song, in my mind, kind of shifts from being me to being the listener. I like that idea because at the end of the day music is all about connecting with other people.
AVC: So the morose heartbroken “I” isn’t exactly you all the time?
AE: I would say it’s an extension of only one part of my personality. I’m not like some super-depressed guy drinking red wine and looking at my shoes all the time. [Laughs.] A lot of the time when I’m playing live I’ll play a sad song and then go straight into some silly monologue and often it seems like the crowd doesn’t know how to react, but "dirty joke, sad song, another dirty joke" is more who I am. I’m a lot more jovial in my day-to-day life than someone whose conception of me is only from listening to my records would think. Not that I don’t have my down-and-toxic moments. I’ve found that when I’m feeling down or angry it’s better for me, and everyone I know, to direct that towards my guitar and recording equipment than to other people.
AVC: Although you grew up in Duluth and now reside in the Cities, you spent part of your 20s living in Southern California. What did you learn from the experience?
AE: Whenever you leave somewhere you know well and enter a different culture, it’s a daunting experience. I lived in San Diego for awhile and it was nice. People are cool, and uncool, in the same ways everywhere. In some ways the hardest part, honestly, was adjusting to the weather. It was December and 80 degrees out and my body and mind were all confused. In terms of the music scene, people tended to have different motives there. In the Twin Cities, if you’re talented and can write a good song and are doing something that attracts some people’s attention it’s really about that, as opposed to “I’m talking to such-and-such label” or “I can pack this many people into The Whisky.” Whenever you’re talking about careers in music, there’s always this overlaying, distant kind of thing of wanting to be really successful. But there are different ways to try and go about that. I don’t think people try and out-cool each other here as much. There’s a bit more realness to things. Which is probably in part just a result of being physically further removed from much of the mainstream music industry.