Ellington Ratliff is no stranger to the spotlight. Having grown up in Los Angeles, his childhood was filled with acting auditions, high school bands, and exposure to the arts. From roles in Victorious to more recent tours with R5 and the Driver Era, Ellington consistently works to pursue his passions and to make a name doing what he loves. And now he’s taking control of his creative license and releasing his first single, ‘EMT’, under his name, Ellington.
But, fame is not instant nor is it forgiving, and smog-like illusions hang heavy over Los Angeles whispering false promises of riches and fame tucked neatly in rolling hills. Ellington knows this landscape well. Prior to quarantine, he found himself reflecting on the life he had created. Opportunities and people that had once felt so promising had dissipated. The attractive guise of the young, LA lifestyle had dulled and proven itself an unsustainable dream at best. Left only with hindsight, Ellington wrote “EMT.”
With an autobiographical air, “EMT’ and its accompanying music video offer an objective look into Ellington’s realities of past and present. Though particular to his own experiences, his down to earth lyrical style and straightforward delivery offer listeners the ability to examine their own lives and perceptions of success. With an Alt-Rock styling, a steady drumbeat carries throughout the song, matched by bouts of electric guitar throughout the chorus. Ellington sings, “I want a house in the hills/ a dog on a leash/ I want some friends that never tell me everything.” Filmed throughout his backyard and house, he spray paints canvasses, appears in ghost form, and runs from location to location as lights flicker. Within the organized chaos of the flashing lights and ghostly figures, it is evident that an artistic and personal metamorphosis is occurring.
With a strong and growing fanbase, Ellington is as excited as ever to release “EMT.” LADYGUNN had the pleasure of chatting with him to discuss growing up in the music industry, going solo, and what’s to come for him in 2021.
How’d you get into music?
I was raised in a musical family. They weren’t musicians, but they were in theatre. I grew up listening to Motown and classic rock. You know, the more gritty stuff too like Led Zeppelin and the Doors. Anything that sounded like it was in a room full of sweaty people, a bit dirty sounding. Then, like so many people, I watched School of Rock, which led me to get my first guitar, then drum lessons, and then I joined some bands in high school. Growing up in LA you either act or you don’t. I think I went on my first audition when I was 6-months-old. So I dabbled in some acting and theatre too, but music was always the thing I felt most natural with. I liked being on set and doing the acting thing, but music was just so much better overall for me.
What was your high school band name?
Oh God, it’s the worst one. I mean it was great, but also it’s embarrassing. We were called ‘Nature Factory.’ We had like an Indie/Alt sound. We were super into Devendra Banhart and Arcade Fire and Dr. Dog. Like the folk meets electronic sound. It was fun, but I started going on tour and stuff so that all came to an end as most high school bands do. I still hang out with them [Nature Factory members], so maybe a reunion someday.
How are you feeling about releasing your first single, “EMT?”
I thought I’d be a lot more freaked out than I am right now. It’s been three years in the making. You have to go through the, “Oh, how can I leave bands that I tour with and do things with? And how can I be a drummer and frontman?” There are all these questions that hit you when you first are trying to get into it. So I’ve had almost two years of solid preparation for this moment and three years of wondering what the hell I’m gonna do. But I feel prepared now and I’m happy and really excited. I’m really curious to see what’s going to happen with all of this.
How have you grappled with this drummer to frontman transition? What’s that mentally been like?
I think more impossible things have been done. People like Anderson.Paak, Phil Collins, and, the biggest one for me, Father John Misty. He was a drummer for so long, and I actually saw him at Coachella as a drummer. And now I’ve seen him also on that same stage as Father John Misty. I think there are more drummers that are becoming frontmen which is really cool. Also, technology has made it easier for people to make that shift. Once live shows become a thing again, I’m excited to play with everything. It’s definitely going to take some time. I would definitely play drums, but I don’t want to be chained to the drums necessarily.
Do you feel like you’ve been well-supported in this transition to a solo career so far?
I feel like I’ve had support from people I didn’t even realize I was going to have support from. You know, you go through life and you meet a lot of people, but it’s interesting when rubber hits the road and you’re vulnerable who shows up. People from my past label to people I was more acquaintances with rather than best friends were really like, ‘Hey man, I love it!’ Some of my closer friends could’ve been the ones who were more critical. But overall, the support has been nice from my friends and family. I’m excited to hear what my fan base thinks of everything.
What inspired EMT? What was the process/thoughts/feelings behind it?
At the time I wrote “EMT” I was alone a lot of the time and I had cut ties with some friends. Even prior to quarantine I had been pretty secluded. I was writing every day and my girlfriend, now fiance, was at work. So I was sitting at home pondering life and looking at the past five to eight years of my life very objectively. There were a lot of cliques and a lot of different people around me that aren’t around me now. At the time we all wanted things, that young LA lifestyle. Somewhat successful people aspiring for stuff that’s so not sustainable. And this point for me all that stuff was gone. All these things I thought I wanted or had worked for were nonexistent. I was really observing my past and writing about it in an autobiographical way.
Musically, I was getting into this band called SAULT, and their production is amazing. So that was really inspiring on this song. I started with an 8 bar loop [for the song] and I had that for like weeks. Then I was at the gym one day, on the treadmill, and I literally had to hop off and go to the outdoor common area and hum melodies into my phone. It just came to me, but I probably looked like a crazy person. After that, the lyrics came together and I finished the song. That was actually almost a year ago. I’m really excited this song is finally seeing the light of day.
Was this single a fully solo production or did you have help on it?
I had zero help with all production which was pretty daunting. I’d never considered myself a producer. But, I kind of just had to become one. It was hours of building and I really can’t even tell you how I made it. It’s like one night you hit that eighth hour of working and you just try something and it comes together. My friend Mark Needham does my mixing. He works with the Killers, The 1975, Imagine Dragons, you know. He added more clarity and depth to EMT and made it all sound how I wanted it to. I’m really thankful for his help. Aside from that, it was a lot of headbanging against the wall for a while.
How was your songwriting process with this? Do you feel like you’ve developed your sound?
Songwriting takes a long time for me. Some people can do it in a day, but I take longer. It takes a lot of work and practice. Hopefully, I’ll start turning out things quicker soon. I also wanted to be careful with the direction I went. I wanted to make the right choices. I’m happy with ‘EMTs’ sound and I think my upcoming singles and EP are where I want them to be. It’s just the beginning for me, so I’m excited to see where it goes. And I’m grateful for this body of work I can look back on. I’m excited for people to hear this. I feel like I’ve entered my own sound, but there’s always room for improvement too. Walking the line of multiple subgenres, you don’t want to go too far one way or another. I’m very cognizant of that, I’m definitely trying to strike a balance of all my favorite genres. It’s been a surprisingly freeing experience to gain this freedom through solo songwriting because I’ve spent so long being more of a collaborator. It was horrifying at the beginning, but now I’m so grateful to have my own freedom in writing. Being able to change my mind and follow my gut without checking with ten other people in a room is nice. Doing everything the DIY way has been a lot of work but I want everything to start outright. It’s so easy to work with the wrong producer or label or director, and I wanted this first release to be exactly what it is so that it can be looked at and built off of in the future.
How was it creating the music video for “EMT?”
It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. There’s a lot of trickery in this music video that needed greenscreens like there were parts where I wanted to show up as a ghostly figure. There were so many moments where I was like, “Okay, I see this in my head. How do I do this?” We shot it in about four evenings. My friends helped and my fiance, Dani, was there holding a ring light. I’m honestly super pleased with it. I knew whatever would come, would just be what it is, but I definitely surpassed my own expectations, which doesn’t happen every day. There was so much going on though. At one point, I was being pulled behind a dolly attached to a jeep and we were filing the backup camera on a phone. We ended up reshooting it by taping an iPhone camera onto the back of the truck. It’s hard to explain to your friends all the crazy ideas in your head, especially when it’s like, “I’m gonna appear as a ghost and pop out of my own body”, but I think it all worked out. We filmed everything at my house too, which was cool because everything I’ve done has been in this house. Like writing lyrics and such, it’s cliche, but these walls are my comfort. I wanted the house to be almost like another character in the video. Just me and the house like it has always been. This house is almost 100-years-old so it kind of feels right.
Congrats on your engagement! Is Dani excited about your solo career?
Dani is the person who really encouraged me and told me that my music was good. I was like a shell of myself at the time and she’s helped me immensely through this whole thing. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I’m really lucky to have her.
Do you have a piece of advice that’d you would pass on to up-and-coming musicians?
It’s a long road to find the sound that you wanna find, or at least it can be. It may suck for a while and that’s okay! You’re gonna feel lost sometimes and that’s normal. You have to work through that and you’ll come out of it a stronger musician. Work harder than you think you have to. Nothing will happen unless you work for it.
Was there a turning point for you that made you realize you wanted to go solo?
It was one of those things where life put me in this position and I realized it was time to move on to new projects. It wasn’t necessarily something in my control, in the moment it felt like things were going on. But, it’s just how transitional periods work, Everything falls apart and then you rebuild. There was a perfect storm of things happening, but that was my turning point. Sometimes you don’t realize what’s in your interest and working for you until after it’s done.
Can we expect an album or ep soon?
You can expect an EP around Spring 2021 and, maybe, a sprinkle of tracks before that.
But until then, everyone go listen to “EMT” and let me know what you think! Hit me up on all the platforms, all be around, and we can talk about all things music!!
CONNECT WITH ELLINGTON
photos / Anna Lee
story / Kinsley Cuen