“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (Les Guêpes, 1849)
This above oft-quoted epigram from the 19th Century French critic and novelist is usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The phrase refers to how a large-scale change may appear monumental on the surface, but on closer inspection, the fundamentals remain.
Catching up with Dennis Ellsworth to chat about Things Change (his fifth solo album), we find the 41-year-old in the midst of a domestic existence. Ellsworth has just returned from Home Depot, where he was picking out kitchen cabinets and paint samples. Karr’s well-worn phrase sums up the songwriter’s current state; it’s also an apropos tagline to describe his new record.
Ellsworth quit drinking more than a year ago; he and his wife bought a house near where he grew up in the suburb of Stratford, PEI (on the other side of the Hillsboro River from Charlottetown); and he’s set to become a first-time father. Upon an initial spin, Things Change sounds like a departure for the songwriter. Gone is the alt-country sound that’s served as his wheelhouse. Replacing the roots vibe is a radio-friendly wall of sound, with a sprinkle of pop. Listen deeper, and you’ll still hear the poetic lyrics, and Ellsworth’s ability to make a song speak to us all – confirming Karr’s words. The building blocks of this songwriter’s art remain the same.
“I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do.”
“It’s not so much that I took my songwriting in a new direction, it’s more like I went back in time to an ‘old direction,’” says Ellsworth explains. “I’m a child of the late 1970s. When I first started collecting records, what I chose to listen to was late-‘80s and early-‘90s stuff. The early ‘90s were marked by alternative music that featured heavy guitars, and that music inspired me a lot in my formative years.
“When I started writing songs for this record, and I got a feel for where I was going, I intentionally listened to artists like Matthew Sweet, The Lemonheads, and The Jesus & Mary Chain,” he continues. “I used their music as my inspiration.”
Once the song bones took shape, it was “the icing on the cake” to hire fellow East Coaster Joel Plaskett to produce the record. The pair convened at the JUNO Award-winner’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, NS. “With Thrush Hermit, he lived in that alternative rock and Sub Pop [Records] world back in the ‘90s,” says Ellsworth.
Adding to the throwback vibe, Plaskett recruited The Super Friendz’ rhythm section (Dave Marsh and Charles Austin) to join them in the studio. “Recording this made us all feel like we were in our 20s again,” says Ellsworth. “As I get older, nostalgia plays a bigger role in my life. I’ve chosen music as the way that I write and express myself. Six months on, I feel Things Change is the best record I’ve ever made.”
While not a concept album, several of the songs on the record (“Absent Mind,” “Caught in the Waves,” and “From the Bottom”) describe Ellsworth’s feelings of career ennui, and the personal transformation he experienced in the last 365 days – especially his decision to put the plug in the jug.
“I wasn’t an abusive drinker,” he admits. “I was a constant social drinker. I didn’t want to quit because I like the taste of beer, scotch, and red wine, but I realized I needed to pull myself together a bit more, on a personal level, to strengthen my chances of survival. The benefits far outweigh the losses.”
Two decades into his artistic career, Ellsworth’s music keeps getting stronger. With this maturity, he’s also re-prioritizing where best to invest his energy. That means more time in the studio, recording demos, writing and co-writing songs every week, and less time away from home in the grind of touring. Signing a publishing deal three years ago with Cymba Music Publishing (see sidebar) was the main driver for this switch.
“I’m less of a performer and more of a songwriter, anyway,” Ellsworth concludes. “I just changed the parameters and structure of what I believed in. I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do. I still want to make music, write songs, and make records, but if I can switch my focus to songwriting more than performing, that’s a transition I want to make.”