For most, 2020 has meant hardships, off-the-wall life changes, and uncertainty. For Ellington Ratliff, though, it meant hunkering down in his new Los Angeles home, getting engaged, and kicking off a new solo project that hundreds of thousands of his decade-long fans are on the brink of falling in love with.
Alongside R5, and then later on with the spinoff duo The Driver Era, Ellington jet-setted around the globe putting on hundreds of high energy concerts to adoring fans, won numerous awards, and released critically acclaimed albums. As a drummer and a songwriter, Ellington knew what he was doing, but as of late, he has fallen into his own whirlwind of creativity and artistry. (Successfully, at that.) Under the simple but effective ELLINGTON, the musician is gearing up to release a slew of singles ahead of a debut EP; all homegrown, made with love, and done in the most passionate DIY style possible.
Your single, “EMT,” is just over two weeks away from dropping and I adore it. It’s emotive yet despondent and the perfect combination of living in the moment and looking back. What was the process of writing this song? Because I found the lyrical component to be just as vital as the musicality of this song.Because I found the lyrical component to be just as vital as the musicality of the song.
Thank you very much. Yeah, I was at a point in my life where it was kind of a crossroads and it was a new chapter. Like how you said, I was looking back on experiences in my life that were successful, but just kind of seeing them as like stopping being sustainable. It’s a lot about that. It’s also very autobiographical. As you mentioned, lyrically, these lines I feel speak to some things that have happened in my past or something that is related to those feelings of looking back on something and seeing how it’s changed. It’s about experiencing your ego and experiencing materialism, such as what you had, what you don’t have, and what you want. It’s all of those things combined and put into this song.
I can very much feel that it is very personal, but it also felt broad, as if any listener could almost put themselves in your shoes and find something in their life that correlate to these different lines heard throughout the song.
Definitely! Everyone has their ups and downs and everyone deals with them in their own ways. I think it’s a little note on for that and it’s looking at it with a sense of humor but in the same sentence, you can also be looking at it with dread or with happiness. At least me personally, I just feel like I can turn on a dime with certain things. We’re such complex people that we can feel all these different emotions for things that were good or things that were bad – and it could be both. I think the song is relatable for all people because it is just up for interpretation.
For sure. I felt that 100% while listening to it. Further proving your creativity as an artist, you also directed, edited, and of course starred in, the music video for this new song. What made you want to take on that project?
Well everything with my project has been done within the house. The writing, the music, even just sitting and festering and thinking about lyrics and about my life has happened within my house in Los Angeles. I moved into it about like a year ago and I kind of wanted to nod to that in the music video. I almost wanted the house to be like the other character in the video, because that is where everything happened. There’s a scene in the garden, there’s a scene I filmed in the backyard, there’s a scene in the house. It’s also just a very natural way to make something, also because we’re in a pandemic, but because it just makes it easier to just film in your own home. I used my fiance’s iPhone and I had some ideas and we ran around the house for like… I don’t know. It took like a whole, a week of kind of figuring out how to do certain things. Then I had to kind of take it and edit it using my high school Final Cut Pro. Pretty much just kind of going back to that drawing board, but the whole process is actually really fun. Even just tying myself up to the back of my fiance’s Jeep and seeing if that would work, it was a lot of experimenting and a lot of like some things worked, some things didn’t, but I’m proud of what we did. I think we had a really good time doing it, too.
It seemed a lot of fun and it’s even better knowing that it’s very full circle for you.
Exactly.. That’s the same thing when it comes to like the single cover. It was done in my backyard just by me, my fiance, and a couple of friends. We hung up stuff, shot it, and made it like the house was a part of my process.
That’s so awesome. It sounds like perfect timing to do this, because like you said, we’re in a pandemic, so if you’re going to be in the house, you might as well do something really great with it.
Well, it’s funny, too. I mean, it’s not funny, but before the pandemic was happening, I was pretty much alone in my house for most of the time, unless I was going out to go see a show or something like that. I didn’t feel much different from when the pandemic wasn’t happening to now, so once the pandemic hit, I think my actual life got a little busier and a lot more things started actually having momentum. This is an interesting experience, this whole thing, you know?
It’s absolutely been an interesting year, especially for creative people. Is that why now, the end of 2020, is a perfect time for you to be embarking on this solo endeavor? Because it just worked out that way for you?
Oh yeah, definitely. It just kind of fell into place. I mean, I think it might’ve been different earlier, things might’ve been easier… or harder! I started working with Mr. Mark Needham – he’s known for working with The Killers and doing stuff with Imagine Dragons and the 1975. A large part of even being able to work with him was because things just slowed down and he was able to take on my project. He made it into something that I never could have imagined. He added his own flare and everything, so I was very thankful to have him. I think that was a big part of the project, too, and the pandemic allowed it as everyone was just in their house and waiting for their next projects.
That’s true. Accessibility is at an all time high.
Oh, definitely! Things are starting to regulate a little bit now, but people are getting used to this norm and creatives are figuring out how to make Zooms like digital concerts. They are not just the blip they were in the beginning of the pandemic. Creatives are making this sustainable for the future. As we kind of get back on our feet, to your point, I think everyone is finding a way to work and regulate to this new norm.
To continue off of that, I think that this new norm might be here to stay to some extent, so what is your perspective on these virtual concerts? Because you have had a really extensive and really fun history of going out on jam packed worldwide tours.
It’s what we can do as of now. They’re doing these drive-in concerts, which I hear are fun and will scratch the itch in the meantime. But yeah, it’s hard because I don’t think anything is ever going to fully replace live music. Obviously we can only do what we can do as of now, but I actually really enjoyed when people started doing at home concerts in the beginning where Diplo was like deejaying from his living room or I got to see like James Blake, one of my favorite artists of all time. He was just doing some piano stuff from his iPhone in his bedroom, but it was so cool to see the vulnerability of it all. It showed him playing just off the cuff and showing his personality with his girlfriend was in the back. You get to see a new side of these artists that you didn’t see before. Also, like a lot of times, they don’t have a budget, so they’re doing all these things themselves. So I don’t know, I think you get to see more of the 360º of who these people actually are rather than them just being on a stage and going away and seeing a glimpse of them. I think it’s good for artists in that way, but still, I’m definitely excited for the day sometime in the future where we can stand in front of a stage next to a large speaker and really look at people performing right in front of you.
Definitely. I do like that perspective you have of the intimacy of being able to see or hear your favorite artists perform from their homes or from their backyards.
Yeah! It’s funny because it is intimate, but it’s also totally the opposite of intimate because you could be like miles and miles and miles away from the person you’re watching through a screen. It really can be intimate in certain ways when it’s done right, though.
So far it’s sounding like your own style is coming from a lot of really fascinating musical places, which I think truly helps shed the norm of coming up as an artist and immediately being put in a box. That being said, where do you look to for influence and inspiration to create this individuality as a new artist?
Well, thank you for saying that about my music. I really appreciate that, because that is something I enjoy, and especially in the beginning. As we all say, I grew up listening to everything. My parents listen to Motown and I really liked rap, but I really liked the people doing R&B. It was really hard to figure out either what lane I was going to go in or to just to figure out my sound, because I also loved The Beatles. They, of course, have their early stuff where it’s like “Help!” and “Love Me Do,” but like, I’m more of a White Album guy who likes when they’re doing “Rocky Raccoon” and “Back in the USSR.” They are just totally different styles of music in one album and I’ve always loved that. I kind of grew up on that, so I think there’s nothing wrong with exploring different genres, and like you said, not being in one box. I think for the EP that’s going to come out later on next year, it’s going to have songs that are rock, it’s going to have songs where you’ll see my R&B influences, and things of that nature. Doing that is really freeing and I’m looking to set that up in the beginning of this project so that I don’t have to fight that in the future and I can continue to make whatever music I want.
That’s genuinely so important, and even more so, exciting. You’ve also been dabbling with production, as well. You remixed The Driver Era’s “Feel You Now” just about a year ago and most recently Glass Animal’s “Heat Waves.” Is production and that side of creating music something you’re interested in and hoping to continue to do as a soloist?
You know, it’s interesting. Pretty much this whole process, I’ve never considered myself to be a producer. Like in my past projects, I was one of three writers that was just kind of doing a mixture of things, producing some, writing more lyrical and melody things, but having to do everything now, it’s new. There was a lot of time of me just banging my head against the wall being like, “Why doesn’t this work?” You’ve got to know file sharing and how to plug things in the right ways so it sounds good – there’s so much to it. I kind of fell into this whole producing for other people and doing remixes thing, but it was something that came naturally. I wasn’t expecting it and I do love it because you get to take something that obviously that isn’t yours and you get to manipulate it into something that is. Sometimes my favorite songs are remixes, so it was a nice accomplishment for myself to say like, “Oh, I can do that,” which also made me feel like I could produce my own things just as well, you know?
That makes complete sense, even though I have to say it’s quite crazy that you just fell into mixing and producing because it all seems so concise and well done.
Thank you! I grew up listening to like a lot of remixes and I love the people that take things and just like flip them around into something new, because there’s always the obvious drop remixes, but I really like when people take something and make it very unique – or even when they take a catchy version of a song, but then turn it around so doesn’t sound like the same song – and things like that.
Definitely! A remix breathes new life into a track. Now, you’ve been known as a drummer and a songwriter for most of your career thus far, but is drumming your first love? Is songwriting your first love? What was your introduction to wanting to become a musician? Because you did say that you grew up listening to a lot of great music.
That is a good question, because I think drumming was the intro. It definitely wasn’t songwriting first, which is interesting, because when I was 13, I started playing drums because of that movie School of Rock. I feel like 90% of people my age picked up a guitar or whatever because of it, so that was like the first step for me. Then the career started happening, tours started happening. But within that, as I’m touring, I’m also spending more time in the studio and learning how to use whatever is going on alongside people who were professionals – or famous even – and learning from them and finding my own voice within that. I definitely still love drumming, but now I’m more interested in how I can make my songs the best they can be. I still will drum and I still will probably drum live even with this project, but I just want to find out how the music I am obsessed with is made and how I can incorporate that into my own music so that I can be proud of it or excited about it.
You want to be your own, proud, full-fledged artist just as much as anyone else – and I admire that completely.
Thank you. It’s a lot to aspire to, but, hey, someone’s going to do it.