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Singer, songwriter Lindsey Ell talks about her upcoming album and painting guitars.
Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean

In 1995, six-year-old Lindsay Ell clutched her plastic microphone, belting out the words to Shania Twain’s “No One Needs to Know” as she chased her older brother around their house in Calgary, Alberta. Ell idolized Twain, a fellow Canadian, and 10 years later the budding singer had a van and a plan. 

Ell dreamed of moving more than 2,000 miles to Nashville in the hopes of following in Twain’s bedazzled footsteps. She could only afford one car, so while her friends pulled into her high school’s parking lot in Honda Civics, Ell rolled through with a van packed with musical gear from her regular three-hour sets at local bars.

“I was the coolest-not-coolest person in high school,” Ell laughed. “I was just a wide-eyed, blonde Canadian and I thought I was going to take over the world.”

At 28 years old, Ell is on her way. Much of the time, she’s still traveling in a van. But instead of playing Canadian bars, the singer/guitar player is opening for Brad Paisley on his Weekend Warrior Tour. Friday she’ll release her long-awaited debut album “The Project.” The 12-song collection was produced by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush and features a range of often guitar-driven tracks that showcase Ell’s edgy, eclectic point of view.

“She won’t give up on music,” said Bush, who is in the midst of recording his next project. “She’s not a tourist, and she’s going to be here for a long time.”

Ell has had multiple songs on country radio, but it took years of patience and Bush’s recent creative direction to hone Ell’s artistic identity. “The Project” is considered Ell’s debut, but it isn’t her first album. A true triple threat even as a teenager, Ell wrote and recorded two albums in Canada before she ventured to Nashville by way of Los Angeles when she was 20.

More: Win Lindsay Ell’s ‘Wildfire’ guitar

“I knew one person’s name on a piece of paper,” Ell recalled. “I walked off the plane and thought, ‘If any time is the time, now is it.’”

Within a year, Ell met with Benny Brown and Jon Loba at BBR Music Group and signed her first record deal in the United States. However, Loba admitted it was the record label’s well-meaning early guidance that derailed Ell’s career.

“We all were thinking on a much more commercial level, thinking this song or that song was a hit,” Loba said. “But it wasn’t the essence of her being. She sounded like different female acts at different times. When she would come in, there was no cohesiveness … because she wasn’t tapped into what really motivated her.”

After years of misses, Bush joined Ell’s project last fall and immediately hit the rewind button to the last time Ell was artistically fulfilled.

“The truth is great artist development happens with a whole bunch of failure,” Bush said. “You don’t come out of the box screaming success.”

Bush asked Ell about her favorite album release back at that time. When she pointed to John Mayer’s “Continuum,” Bush gave her an assignment: Ell was to cancel her schedule for the next two weeks, sequester herself from the outside world and record her version of Mayer’s “Continuum.”

To find her sound, Ell had to shake off the other female voices her label guided her to emulate. Bush knew what it was like to lose artistic vision — when his mother died, he was empty. He searched for direction by recording ‘80s rock covers. He hoped the process would inspire Ell, too. When Bush received the recordings, he mixed them and sent them back to her hoping she would find her true self in the new mixes.

“She went to record boot camp,” he explained. “When we mixed it and played it back to her manager and (record label), they suddenly had a product they could play for people to say, ‘This is the kind of music we’re looking for.’ They said, ‘We can’t believe … we’ve had it wrong the whole time.’ I think it’s an interesting lesson.”

With new understanding, Ell started to write songs that fit the album and accept songs written by other people. As a result, “The Project” has cuts co-written by fellow up-and-coming female artists Kelsea Ballerini, Carly Pearce, Maggie Chapman and Caitlyn Smith. Ell co-wrote nine of the 12 songs including “Champagne” with fellow country singer Walker Hayes and Fred Wilhelm, “Castle” with Abbey Cone and Josh Kerr, and “Wildfire” with Bush. She admitted “Champagne” terrified her manger — the song begins with a baritone saxophone and name-checks Jessica Biel.

“It’s not typical country, but I think as a genre country has just grown so much,” Ell said, explaining the song is about how every girl wants to be treated. “The beautiful thing about country music is it lets artists be artists.”

“Wildfire” was written late in the recording process at the end of a session, right as the pizza arrived. Bush said it was a typical move for him because all of Sugarland’s singles were the last songs added to the album. 

“I can see a puzzle with a piece missing from a commercial standpoint,” Bush said. “As much as I love to make art, we are in the commercial music business and how you balance something artistic with something commercial has always been my joy.”

“Wildfire” was completed before the pizza got cold, and Ell sees it as the album’s finishing piece. During “Wildfire” she sings about empowerment and shows off her enviable guitar skills on a blistering instrumental break.

“There aren’t a whole lot of guitar-slinging women out there,” said author and country music historian Robert Oermann. “She could be a country Bonnie Raitt if she wanted to be. There’ve been a few along the way, but it’s been a while since we’ve had one this good on guitar and vocals. She’s a real talent. There’s no question about it.”

She’s also made an impression on Paisley who after several months of touring with her, said country music has never had another female singer quite like Ell.

“When you think of the list of all the best attributes you could throw into a blender to create a musical artist, such as soulful vocals, writing chops, ability to play the fire out of a guitar, being gorgeous, and not to mention class and kindness, Lindsay is all of it,” he said. “Here’s to her future.”

Ell completed the “The Project” in May, about the same time she fired up the van to join Paisley on tour. Within a month, she was facing unexpected controversy when a radio station in California abruptly removed her from a show because she is dating popular-but-polarizing country radio personality Bobby Bones. Ell tweeted an explanation to fans, which went viral, igniting fury from country music fans as well as further conversation about how women are treated in country music.

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Speaking on the CMT red carpet, Bobby Bones says Lindsay Ell’s music is “maybe the best music I’ve heard in his life”.
Michael Schwab/The Tennessean

“I never wanted any of that to happen,” Ell said. “If it shined light on things that should be talked about anyway, that’s great. At the end of the day, I want good music to be good music. Music should always be judged on its own merit.”

BBR Music Group couldn’t be happier with Ell’s new album. Loba said when he heard her play the songs live, he had tears streaming down his face over her dramatic growth as an artist.

“It was an incredibly long process, and I’m happy we gave her the time to find herself,” Loba said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a dramatic transformation in an artist from one person being involved. (Bush) was truly a miracle worker. This album feels like a manifestation of who she is.”

These days when Ell pulls up at arenas in a passenger van loaded with band members and musical gear, she does so with a new found acceptance of herself, her path and with excitement for her future.

“I really believe in my heart that it’s not a matter of if but when,” she said. “I’m not going to try to be something I’m not. This is who I am, and I’m proud of it.”

Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227, ciwatts@tennessean.com or on Twitter @CindyNWatts.

Lindsay Ell guitar giveaway

Lindsay Ell is fearless when it comes to her music. She’s equally driven when it comes to promoting it.

Ell will release her debut album “The Project” Friday and she painted a guitar to go with each of the 12 songs on the album. The country singer and guitarist is giving the guitars away to rally excitement around the new album. Ell had never painted guitars before, but when the idea was born, it was too unique to pass up.

Ell donated the guitar she themed “Wildfire” to The Tennessean to give away to readers. Enter for a chance to win at giveaway.Tennessean.com

Ell learned to paint by watching hours of video of abstract painters on YouTube.

“I watch a YouTube video and I think, ‘You’ve got this,’” she said as she skillfully free-handed flames onto a guitar body.

The night before she started to paint the second batch of guitars, Ell sketched out a few ideas before deciding the process was too hard. She did further research by looking at pictures online. When it came time to start painting — like she does in her music career — she tackled the process without hesitation. She said it’s something she gotten better at since spending the summer on tour with Brad Paisley.

“It has been inspiring because he doesn’t let anyone stop him when he sets his mind to it,” she said.

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