Roots music or American traditional folk music include many categories of music as bluegrass, gospel, blues and Cajun to bring up a few examples, and have a special place in the history of music especially in the American South where it partly was intertwined in the process that brought forward The Emancipation Proclamation – black slaves became free people. Thus there’s a connection between American folk music and social movements.
150 years later and across the Atlantic and a bit, we’re in Hamburg to meet up with a musician who fuses together roots music with tribal influences and spiritualism, and running it through a filter of a social movement raising awareness on living in harmony with nature.
Hamburg based artist ELIH released his debut EP “The Meet Me” in 2017 with musical roots steeped in blues, folk and tribalism, and there’s a desire to keep moving, to find a way to forever keep the feet itchy and the mind in a permanent yearning state for soul searching.
However, music isn’t enough. Aside from his music, ELIH has always taken a keen interest in raising awareness about sustainable living and that’s an important message in much of what he does in life.
These are some of the topics we talked about when we sat down with ELIH a typical rainy Hamburg day a few weeks ago.
A wide range of roots influences
We just have to start in the kind of music you do. It sounds very much as you have your roots in the kind of blues and folk music coming out of the American south.
I think I’ve always felt drawn to early blues since a very young age, and to some part it’s because my parents used to listen to it when I was a kid. But it’s also some kind of spiritual déjà vu feeling, like being in a well-known place and to resonate with the sorrow, longing and excitement that is unique to the sound of the American South, although it’s all rooted in the musical traditions of tribal music across the world – African, Australian, Indian, South American and much more.
I guess I easily get captivated by feelings that have affected humanity a very long time; loss, leaving home, being challenged, letting go, coming home, communication with nature or god, creating community, and being captivated by those magical moments beyond our comprehension of understanding.
I really enjoy listening to early blues artists and learn, adapt and create my own authentic style to sooth myself, connect spiritually and comfort others, just as they did back in the day when it was all they had.
How does it fit into the German music landscape? It’s not really what you expect to find in Germany. Is there a fan base for this type of music?
What’s most important is that my goal is to play music from my heart and bring in elements that we need although we don’t always know it; authentic and natural tunes that creates an atmosphere connecting us with our soul searching and our true identity. More and more people have become interested in being connected with that, and my message makes it possible for me to be invited to people and places sharing a similar mindset, like yoga festivals, trance parties, but also living room concerts.
I think that the reason my sound works out that well is because it strikes a balance between earthy, bluesy folk music, shiny, romantic soul, hippie-esque, uplifting sing-along, deep, mysterious ethno rhythms and a heart-warming world music sound. I’m very happy to have the opportunity to perform in such diverse contexts.
And yes, the fan base is growing.
You have released one EP so far, “The Meet Me” EP, and a few singles but if I understand it right there’s an album in the works. Tell us a bit more about the album.
That’s right. I released “The Meet Me” EP in 2017, recorded in a small cabin out in the woods. Last year I released the single “As Above So Below” and a music video.
“Essence” as I call the album will be my first proper album. The idea is to dig deeper into mysteries of the world and disclose what I’ve learned so far, both personally and musically. New Songs, new styles, new instruments but still with a down to earth vibe.
Also, there’s going to be several features in there, lots of friends and musicians as Morgaine and Jon Kenzie, and I’m really looking forward to hit the studio with all of them. Together we will let the “Essence” of ELIH emerge (laughs).
You also work with a record for kids. What’s that about?
Yes I do and it’s almost finished! The songs are being mastered as we speak and the artwork is being processed. I promise you it will be beautiful!
I started working in a kindergarten as a sustainable living teacher half a year ago and began writing songs with ideas I wanted to pass on to children. It worked out quite well and the kids loved the songs and very quickly learned to sing along. Even adults really seem to like them and I decided to make a record out of it.
All of this makes so much sense to me; teach children from a young age to live in liaison with nature and show it respect, to believe in themselves, to dare showing emotions, and to interact in empathic ways. Of course we all have to learn that.
I imagine the whole family sitting together at home or in a car singing these songs, laugh, play, cuddle, care for each other and have a good time. So if you have kids, or your friends do – get ready!
The album is called “Los!” and will be released very soon.
Some say that finding a label is most important while others go in the DIY direction where they do everything on their own. What’s your thoughts about how everything around the band should work out? Label or DIY?
At the moment I’m doing everything myself. If I’m going to sign to a label it has to be a label that really supports my ideas and my music, then I can see myself doing that.
I had discussions with two labels last year but they didn’t offer anything I couldn’t do on my own, nothing that I really needed actually. What I need is a distributor for my merch and my CD’s and a booking agent who can put me out at the right places. But it’s also fun do all this stuff myself, to apply to festivals, writing promo texts, organizing photo sessions and putting myself out there in a way I want to be promoted, in an authentic way.
A label can always push you in a certain direction and will have expectations, and I’m totally open for working with a label under those circumstances if there’s the right chemistry.
The power of messages in music
There has always been a strong relationship between music and politics, social movements and raising awareness about social injustice.
The very nature of politics is, like music, rooted in conflict and harmony. The heart of music is the interplay of the physical and the mental, as the compromise between them forms a cohesive whole. Compromise is also the heart of the political process, trying to find common ground and consensus solutions to problems of society through open communication. Both seek to inspire their targets, and both have made great use of the other to advance their ideas. And ELIH is no different, it’s in fact important to him to get his message out, with the help of music.
You also have a huge social engagement and I know you’re involved in the climate movement in Hamburg, and many artists have a political engagement which is often part of their musical message. How important is it for you to connect music with your interest in sustainable living?
It‘s very important to me because I’m not just doing this for entertainment but to have an impact on the world, to bring forward ideas in my music that really resonate with the time we live in, the needs we have and the challenges we’re facing right now. What else is better to get your message out than using music?
It may not necessarily be political messages; my main message is to get back to nature and live in harmony with each other and every other being across on this planet, just be who we were supposed to be. That is of course strongly connected to the [climate] movement, and I think my music can support the power of this movement and that power can also support my music and my attempts to reach out to people.
It’s not that I play music as a hobby but it’s also part of my everyday engagement in this movement to make the world a better place to live in.
Is it even a responsibility for artists to put out political messages and get people involved in different movements?
Not at all, it doesn’t have to be like that at all. I’m totally fine with bands and artists that just do it for sheer entertainment. Everyone likes entertainment without a political message, even me; sometimes I just want to listen and enjoy what I hear in terms of music and harmonies. But for me it is really important to have an opinion and speak up, especially when you consider how the world looks like today. Many artists that have a huge outreach could use that to affect people and have a good impact on them.
I just consider myself as a very small part of the global movement that happens right now that entails lots of musicians, artists, activists, just normal people who start to wake up and understand that something has to change and that we have to build a sustainable life together.
Being authentic by meeting people
Before social media, bands and musicians had to wait on the goodwill of their record label for promotion – that’s if they ever had a recording contract to begin with. However with the advent of the Internet there has been rapid progress in terms of marketing opportunities and the rise of promotion spaces on Facebook and Instagram.
Social media has made self-promotion for indie artists easy. The main problem is that there’s too many different platforms and it’s difficult to know where to start. You don’t have time or money to waste, but you want to get potential fans hooked, buy tickets and downloads. And in the end you don’t know if it helps you out at all to put all that effort into reaching out to fans in the massive competition about media space that’s out there.
We’ve met quite many new bands and artists and always have this discussion on how you do to reach out to people, because that’s what makes people come out for your shows. The whole modern music industry is about promoting yourself and you can get lost in social media for instance. How is your relation to social media in terms of promoting yourself? Do you find it rewarding to work with, for instance, Facebook and Instagram?
I’m just like everybody else and use social media, and that’s a big thing, but it’s equally important to play concerts and be on the streets and work on your relations to people who come out and watch.
I like using social media and it offers some important tools but I’m trying not to get stuck in that kind of world because it will eat you up. If you’re very active online you will of course get many followers and it’s good for your outreach, but you’re not a real person. You need to be at the physical location, talk to people, give them your business card, meet families and say “Hey, I’m producing this album for kids right now” or just be like “I’m doing these concerts, come and join”.
That’s the general challenge for everyone today, to use social media and put yourself on the digital slab, but also be a real person at the same time. As an artist I want to be authentic, also as a human being, and that’s why I’m kind of the same person online and offline; that’s what builds your outreach and what makes people remember you. People today are desperately looking for something real and authentic because anything can be fake or manipulated, and hopefully I deliver something real.
For me it’s very important to stick to my values and try hard to be a role model in the climate movement for instance. It’s also a way for me to grow in a sustainable way as an artist by being real and authentic, and since there’s no border between my artist life and personal life I need it to grow in a sustainable way just to be able to grow with it and being capable to cope with the challenges that come with it. I’m not really trying to become a star overnight (laughs).
How important is to reach out of Germany in the future and find your way onto scenes around Europe or even better, an American scene where what you do is a perfect match with musical preferences?
(laughs) I’m deeply connected to early blues and that genuine folk music feeling, and it is really important for me to connect with the American scene because it’s really big and there’s many great opportunities on that scene.
I only post stuff on Instagram and Facebook in English, not German at all, just to have an international profile. On Instagram I’m much involved with this neo-spiritual/sustainable living youth and music scene in America, especially in California and at the Hawaiian Islands. Many people there do the same thing as I do and I’m planning to collaborate with people there in the future.
But how is the competition about stage time, festivals slots and just reaching out to people in Germany for you? How good is the German scene for you?
It’s getting easier for me. Of course I still need to send in my stuff at times and apply for gigs, especially the first time I play a festival, but the next year that would have generated three more festivals.
But getting in touch with the right people is not so much about being on a digital platform, it’s more about personal connections. Last time I was at the Fusion Festival I met this Irish guy and I told him that I really would love to go to Ireland and play festivals there, and he connected me with one of his friends and I ended up playing a festival in Ireland. Of course I met people there, especially this guy I may want to work with on an album.
Another feature I would love to do is with Jon Kenzie from Manchester, an amazing blues artist, and I would love to have a collaboration with him in the future. But I’m also trying to connect to electronic artists from California at the moment to get producers who can do an electronic song with a tribal sound with my voice and maybe a few other instruments in there, just like a remix. Then I can reach out there as well. I don’t always need to be in the blues but can use the technology we have to make good music.
That’s what I would love to have on an album, a lot of international features because it also makes it easier to reach out to people.
Five million fans in three years?
What’s the plan for 2019? What’s going to come out of this year?
The major goal is to finish the CD for children I’m working on at the moment and find a distributor for it and start recording my own album, get that one out and record one or two videos for it.
I’m playing a few festivals this summer which are good opportunities to promote my music.
And in the long run? In what position would you like to see yourself as a musician in three years?
In three years (laughs)? Like every musician I would love to live off my music and play big international festivals on my scene which is more like tribal, new age and spiritual music but not only.
But I haven’t thought everything through yet, three years is a long time. Besides, music is not my only interest, it’s actually not enough for me. I really want to have a second purpose with my life than just being a musician. At the moment I’m planning to work at a permaculture farm to learn about how to grow sustainable crops, basically how to live in liaison with nature and not against it. There’s different things I also want to alongside being a musician.
It is important to have a second interest just to avoid being bored or get fed up on what you do musically. That’s a good way to relieve you from stress I think and a way to have a longer career and be here in ten or twenty years as well.
But let’s say it like this; in three years I would love to have an outreach of five million fans (laughs). Even if it’s just ten thousand people it’s worth the work. If I can have an impact on two or three people’s lives and make them better, it would make me happy. That’s why you play music.