Ellen Shipley is a Brooklyn Girl. From her beginning in Canarsie and evolution to recording artist to world class songwriter she is today a real advocate for songwriters in the world of diminished fees and royalties.
You were in NYC in the Golden Age of Music. How did you get into Music and who were your early influences?
I began singing at the age of thee and playing piano by the time I was five.It was all I ever wanted to do–Sing–play–perform for people. I sang before I spoke…singing to the men who went to work in the mornings from my crib at the window of the ground floor apartment we lived in. I was the star of all the school plays and it was the driving passion of my life. At sixteen years old, I got my Cabaret license so I could sing in clubs in NYC. At the same time, I loved the theater, so I was either singing or acting in Off-Off-Broadway or Off (hard to remember all the “offs”) Broadway plays or happily doing both at the same time.I started playing guitar at twelve and began writing songs so I could express all I felt as a young hippie child.
I was offered professional opportunities as a young girl, but my parents were against the whole child-star thing and I am grateful that I walked my own path; grew as an artist by following my own heart; listening for my own authentic voice to guide me to believe that the gift I was given was a dream for me to share. In 1976, I left theater to pursue my music. There are creative dreams we have and then there is the “calling”.
I loved nothing more than singing in clubs in NYC—I came alive–I was who I was meant to be– and I joined the group of struggling happy artists who wrote their names in chalk on the sidewalks of NYC and who supported each other throughout our hardest times and felt the great happiness as one of us moved forward into the professional music world We lived in five story walk ups; we had many jobs throughout the days to enable us to sing at night–We begged to be heard; we were poor; courageous and determined at all the clubs in NYC from downtown to uptown, you could hear any one of us on any given night.
There was no money and we played for hamburgers and french fries and we were happy because we were doing what we were meant to do. In 1977, I was discovered by Tommy Mottola’s associate as I sang in a jazz club uptown called Pearl’s Place. He signed me to his Company and suddenly I had a manager, a publisher, a mentor and a record Deal and so it all began . I recorded three albums; toured world wide and throughout the United States and performed with the most amazing artists. I lived for the moment, the lights on the stages lit up the darkness of a stage where I stood heart in my hand; and sang for the give and take of an audience listening to my songs as I listened to their applause. I grew up singing Motown; looking for that echo in the subway tunnels;– adoring Joni Mitchell; Dylan; the Doors; Nina Simone, Laura Nyro… and many other genres of music called to me and I was moved. From Beethoven to Richie Havens—it was all music that I loved. and so I carried that love with me as I took my own journey.
How did you get into the songwriter scene?
Did you plan on being an artist first or was it a combination?
I was an artist first but I could not find the songs I wanted to sing so I began writing and wrote or cowrote all the songs on my three albums. One day, I was sitting in a Woodstock cafe and a young man approached mutable asking if I was Ellen Shipley, the artist Me—”YES” What do you want?”He took that as an invitation and sat down at my table and tome he thought I was a great singer and really loved my writing. He told me he was about to produce a Belinda Carlisle solo album and would I write with him for her? Really? What did I know about writing for anyone but myself!
But Rick was persuasive and I finally said I would give it a try. The key to writing for her, was that I wrote the songs with Rick as if I was the artist. This way, the songs were real and not trying to second guess what Belinda might want. As soon as Rick and I sat down to write, magic, magic!Its one of those things in life,y ou are just at the right place at the right time with the right person and my first song with Rick, “Heaven Is A Place on Earth” went number one all over the world I had 27 worldwide top ten hits with Belinda in the first two years I wrote for her.
Now..I could have gone back to being a starving artist BUT this was the path I was destined to take and I became a songwriter. I was nominated for Grammys and won tons of awards.I went to concerts and heard people sing my songs.I walked in central Park one day and there was a little boy and girl holding hands walking in front of me they were singing Heaven Is A Place On Earth” Could I have asked for anything greater than that moment. And that has been my life for almost thirty years and until the songwriter world fell apart, I was content, grateful, joyful and inspired in my life
Did growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960’s have an effect on your musical direction?
Yes, yes, yes!
There will always be sixties influences in my melodies and lyrics. When we are young andisten to music i t is a time in our life when we are free and listen without critics or people’s opinions
we listen and remember whatever is going on in our lives at that time and it’s like a picture with music. W e danced to Motown, sang in the subway tunnels, searching for that fabulous echo; brought our 45 records over to friends houses and danced. IN Brooklyn, we were much more like the SOUL TRAIN sisters than Dick Clark! Brooklyn (especially in the poor section I lived in) had no money but lots of soul)I think I became the songwriter I did because I grew up in the best of musical times with so many great artists in all genres I absorbed it all
Loved my Brooklyn days
Was there a mentor or certain person responsible for helping you understand the craft of songwriting and being an artist as well?
I never studied songwriting craft. I don’t believe that there is one craft for everyone.You start with inspiration and with the desire to be a writer and to express something you think will move people.The idea of writing a song is to talk to people in a way that they can relate emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. I think I listened to so many songs, I picked up a direction for how I write.
Playing piano was a very big influence. I would listen to a song and then pick out the melodies and chords on the piano and learned what moved me as a writer and kept that and the rest I threw away.
Working with wonderful co-writers taught me a great deal about the difference between a great song coming from a wonderful collaboration (that worked!) or compromising my own ideas and feelings so much, the song was never mine and never theirs. You are born an artist and you have to create or you will never be happy. No one can teach you how to be an artist.You feel it or you don’t. Rilke said and I am misquoting .”If you wake up in the night and say I must write, then you know you are a writer and a artist”. There are some writers whose work I cannot appreciate because it sounds like ALL CRAFT without a reason. You need the inspiration; you need the courage to go through with it; and then you can use your knowledge of music to create a song that is the best you can always do
Is there a method you use to write or is it all inspiration?
I can only write if I am inspired to do so. I can’t think of an artist, and then tell myself to study their style and try to craft a song. But the inspiration comes in many ways, I can hear a melody in my head while driving; taking a shower or out of the blue.Sometimes I sit down at the piano and everything comes at once. If I hear a title from something I’m thinking about, I write tons of lyrics or go to the piano immediately and start working on the melodies
Favorite Movie? To Kill a Mockingbird
Favorite Food? Italian Food from Brooklyn
CD Review Steve Addabbo “Out of Nothing
Steve Addabbo has been a Grammy winning producer and engineer for the past 5 decades. He now however has released his first album, Out of Nothing which showcases his songwriting,vocal and guitar skills and is a real pleasure to listen to, The Opening track “Cynthia’s kiss: is a very Springsteensih turn that has a great vibe and nice groove thanks to drummer Steve Holly. “Empty Places” and other songs have got a definite organic Nashville feel to them but they were all recorded and mixed at Shelter Island Sound in NYC,Steve’s studio. Just shows you it is still about the artist and their talent more than where one records the music. Other Highlights are “My Emmylou” which has a very laid back vibe and truthfulness to it. “Left Of Center” which has a very uptempo hooky vibe to it. There is not a clinker is all of the 14 tracks. Sometimes it’s better to wait until that moment is ready to happen. Steve Addabbo’s moment is here and I highly recommend his CD Out of Nowhere
I am going to make this a short commentary and expand on it in my next column so it will give you something to think about. How many of you out there use presets on your instruments and now Plug ins? Be it Virtual instruments or effects and processing you use on a track. Do you notice that when you develop you own sounds and presets you are able to tap into a different character instead of the one that you are given by the companies you buy them from? I will expand on it next month and explain why developing your own personality within your productions can make a big difference in your work and reputation