Upon reflecting on her poignant, revelatory, and year-old breakout album Heart Theory, Calgary native and emerging Nashville artist Lindsay Ell offers a note about what she’s discovered about the power of music as an art form in the past 12 months:
“Putting emotions into songs by capturing how they feel is already difficult, but, [in making Heart Theory], I learned that music powerfully brings us together and allows us to present our best, most honest selves.”
Songs like “Want Me Back” feature Kane Brown as a co-writer and achieved Canadian country chart number-one status and top-40 Billboard Hot Country success. The album also features Brandy Clark, Laura Veltz, and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard as writing room collaborators. It’s an all-star affair. However, its roots are profound and heart-achingly emotional.
The album comes from a dark place that becomes light and effusively positive via working its way through the seven stages of grief. Whilst in the midst of emerging from a traumatic breakup, other emotions were triggered within Ell, specifically dealing with a major health scare, turning 30, and being the survivor of sexual assault at both the ages of 13 and 21. Thus, the project serves as what a press release notes is “a roadmap of comfort and reassurance to believe in yourself.” One year later, the album has been reimagined as a series of extended-reality videos paralleling how she survived multiple stages of grief.
In this conversation, Ell discusses how a mix of everything, including therapeutic self-study of works by the acclaimed clinical social worker and author Brené Brown, leaning on the skills of songwriters Brandy Clark to access her truth, plus learning how to navigate the thin musical line between radio success, pop accessibility and raw honesty has evolved her musicianship.
Marcus K. Dowling, CMT.com: You’ve worked with extended reality technology to reimagine Heart Theory. Would you please explain exactly what you’ve found most impressive about this process?
Lindsay Ell: The extended reality technology we used to reimagine this album is so fascinating. To stand on a platform in front of a 3D green screen and be transplanted anywhere is wild. To stand there and then look at a screen, and you appear to be, in an instant, in a redwood forest, on a beach, or on top of a mountain, is amazing. To capture where I’d be standing, that area’s lighting, and how that space would look, for each of these songs — to offer my fans new ways to experience these songs — allows them to have these songs resonate with them more deeply.
CMT: Insofar as the mental health aspects of writing this album, how did your mind and soul benefit from Heart Theory’s creative process?
LE: I didn’t realize I was writing a concept album until I was halfway completed writing it. These songs were initially just a part of my healing process of going through a breakup, which as a songwriter, lent itself well to being put into music. But then I realized it would be powerful to have an album that, from top to bottom, showed my process of personally unraveling through each song. Moving through the journey of the shame connected to letting go, then grieving, getting angry, and sad, leading to learning how to feel grateful and deeply appreciative for improved mental health is something people understand.
CMT: Of the 11 songs on Heart Theory, which of them has stuck with you and grown — within your mind and life — the most significantly in the past year?
LE: As I’ve had a year to sit with this album, its songs have, like, taken on what feels like different lives, so to speak. They have both grown within me and within the world at large. “Good On You” was a song I wrote after an off day on the road — and I never take off days on the road — and after hiking through a redwood forest and seeing Theo Katzman, the lead singer of Vulfpeck, one of my favorite bands, play a show, my heart was so full. Then, I woke up the next morning to head into a writing session, and I saw a story where my ex-boyfriend was dating someone new. She was beautiful and looked sweet. So there I was, filled with all of these conflicting emotions of happiness for them, yet sad because I’d not moved on yet from the relationship, but also musically and personally fulfilled from the days before. Once I arrived at the writing session, I had the hook, “I hate how happiness looks so good on you.” From there, I was luckily able to encapsulate all of those emotions into a song that represented my heart and my music.
As well, “The Other Side” has this fun groove to it but also deals with getting to the easy breathing point that exists at the other side of pain and grief. Seeing people fall in love with that song has been meaningful. For “The Other Side”’s (new) video, we shot it on a beach, and it has that feeling of sitting on a beach after a s**tstorm of sadness.
CMT: You’ve mentioned the impact of Brené Brown’s work on how this record evolved. Definitely take me through this unique connection, if you may?
LE: I am such a nerd. I read a lot about mental health and self-help in my spare time, especially anything written by Brené Brown. While writing Heart Theory, Brené’s brilliant talks and books really spoke to me and made my music better. This was the first project where I decided to discuss elements of my life story. For the past decade that I’ve been living in Nashville, I’ve learned that learning about ourselves — and how we can be our best selves by processing our emotions at a deeper level — makes us more potent human beings. Healing from past traumas, especially those from our childhoods and in our present lives, can be a groundbreaking experience.
CMT: I can’t imagine that the process of dealing with grief by reading self-help books necessarily lends itself to the type of material that performs well on country radio and the Billboard charts. But, this album is important and unique in that it achieved everything it set out to do. Can we discuss, in your mind, how this occurred?
LE: As an artist, the constant battle is between writing a song that will be a radio hit versus writing music that reflects who you actually are as a person and how you process what’s happening in your life. When I was writing Heart Theory, I realized that I needed to write radio-ready songs to keep my good run of career success happening. Still, then I also realized that I needed to write songs that reflected the reality of what was happening in my life. Oftentimes, while trying to write “radio hits,” you lose your authentic voice and the ability to create music that fans and listeners can feel from an honest place of directly connecting with an artist. It is important to create raw, unfiltered music — especially now, where fans are connecting with music more directly via social media and more wanting direct connections with the musicians they like — because the fans, the listeners, want to know you, not the filtered image of who you are. I’ve gotten thousands of social media direct messages since I released Heart Theory because my fans, through my music, have been able to process and discuss their more difficult and vulnerable emotions and stories.
CMT: In final, please take me through working with songwriters you’ve known forever, but then introducing them to parts of yourself of which they were likely unaware, then getting the material you ended up with on Heart Theory with them? It feels really brave, to be honest…
LE: Nashville is a town where incredible songwriters — who are also people you’ve oftentimes never met before — sit down and bare their hearts and souls about things they’d typically never tell someone. For years, I’d known the writers I worked with on Heart Theory — people like Kane Brown, Brandy Clark, and Tyler Hubbard. And when I told them about some of the topics I wanted to write about because they’re such special humans, they understood that as an artist and songwriter, how I needed to write things that finally resonated with my story. For instance, working with someone like Brandy Clark was incredible. When I started diving into issues I had as a little girl with sexual violence, the songs would end up half-written. In trusting someone like Brandy with my story, the fearlessness in my voice was exposed. This album reflected the best “playground” of sorts that I’ve had to showcase myself as a creator.