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SINGER-SONGWRITER John Ellis is enjoying the chance to stretch his creative wings for the first time in many years.
The former frontman for the hugely successful South African band Tree63 has just released his debut solo album — and listening to it I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with Green Day’s American Idiot. Like that album, the lyrics on Ellis’s Come Out Fighting tackle political and religious issues head on.
The sound is also a lot rockier, raw even, something he tells me was deliberate. “The new album was recorded mainly in Johannesburg, with some of the guitar tracks being laid down in my garage. It was a conscious effort on our part to have that DIY feel. We wanted to take away all the crap that comes with modern music and just put a mic in front of an amp and record,” he says.
Turning to his lyrics, Ellis says that for him ‘words are everything’. “My lyrics are not self-indulgent. I know lots of artists who couldn’t be bothered about the words they sing, but I’m not one of them,” he says.
Ellis and Tree63 enjoyed massive success both at home and in the United States with hits like Treasure, Stumbling Stone and A Million Lights. They also won a coveted Dove Award (the Christian music equivalent of a Grammy) and released a cover of Blessed Be Your Name, which was Billboard’s most played contemporary Christian market track in America for two years. The accompanying album, The Answer To The Question, was the band’s biggest seller in the U.S.
Despite their success, Tree63 decided enough was enough and headed back home to South Africa. “We had a small taste of success and just what it takes to get it. Frankly there is so much more life to be enjoyed a few rungs lower down the ladder,” Ellis says of his decision to leave Nashville and head back to Durban.
Once settled on the coast, he began penning the songs which would form the backbone of Come Out Fighting — and because he no longer has to write songs for a specific genre, he’s enjoying artistic freedom for the first time in many years.
But that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his Christian beliefs. “I’ll never lose that spirituality,” Ellis explains, “but, I don’t feel the need to write Christian songs.”
Instead his new songs are expressing his views on issues like corruption and government inaction. “No one seems to be saying much about the current political state of affairs, so I felt inspired to rant a little bit,” he says. “Some people have said to me, ‘What right do you as a white suburbanite have to protest against the ANC?’. My answer to them is that South Africa is a democracy, so I have every right to protest, especially when the weakest in society are the worst affected.”
Ellis recently opened for Johnny Clegg at the Wavehouse in Gateway, Umhlanga, but says he wants to get out and play small venues around the country. “It’s something we didn’t really get to do with Tree63,” he says. “We went overseas really quickly and didn’t get the chance to perform in front of South African audiences very much. That’s why I want to get in front of 100 people and play ... And if I’m doing it in 10 years’ time, great.”