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James Ellis and the Jealous Guys Talk The Narcissism In 'Country Lion'

16 October 2020 | 12:10 pm | Mallory Arbour

Alt-country honky tonkers James Ellis and the Jealous Guys have today released their second studio album, Country Lion. Read our interview.

Alt-country honky tonkers James Ellis and the Jealous Guys have today released their second studio album, Country Lion. The sound was heavily directed by Nashville-producers, Micah Hulscher and Alex Munoz, who helped create the record's sense of a journey through many different styles through country and associated roots music, as already evident in the singles, Sixteen Hours and A Thousand Tears.

Country Lion is the follow-up to their first album, It Ain't Texas (But It Ain't Bad), which won Best Country Album at The Age Music Victoria Awards in 2018.

I spoke to the front man of the award-winning band, James Ellis, to find out more.

Firstly, where does the band name The Jealous Guys originate from?

It comes from a play on my name – James Ellis – take out the ‘ames’ from James and you get J Ellis, which is jealous. It's a play on that. A few years ago, when I was DJing at a bar, it was our bass player, Kelly Day [who] said, “You should call yourself DJ Jealous Guy.” Then we adopted it for the band as well.

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That makes it sound kind of self-obsessed and narcissistic. And maybe it is, I don't know. But on stage, when someone's not playing with us because they've got work, another gig or haven't been able to make it, say, “They're the real jealous guy tonight because they can't be with us!”

Your latest album Country Lion is out today. What are you hoping people feel or get out of it when they listen?

I hope that people enjoy the range of country and country-related styles that are on there. We got our producers involved – Micah Hulscher and Alex Munoz from Nashville – and we wanted them to come in and bring some interesting stylistic ideas and arrangements for the songs and instrumentation. And they really did that. They brought some musical ideas that we would never have come up with.

So, I hope people appreciate the variety in there. It’s a variety that exists within this larger framework of what I see is country music. You've got a bunch of songs that anyone would listen to and go, “yeah, that's a country song” and songs that are hinting at offshoots from country or styles that feed into country like blues. And we've got a song that's like a Latin feel, the single called A Thousand Tears.

So, if someone hadn’t heard your music before and wanted to get into it, would you say this is the album that best represents who you are as a band so far?

I think so. We've developed a lot in the last couple of years since we recorded the first album, and I think this record probably represents where we are much better.

From start to finish, how long have you been working on the album?

We started recording it in March 2019. It was ready in June 2019, then I sat on it for a little bit and started preparing the release. We were going to put it out earlier this year but then covid happened, so we put that off. Now it's out still in lockdown, but I'm happy it's out. It feels like it's been quite a while, it's been a year and a half since we started recording it, which is a fair amount of time.

Did you consider pushing back the release date further until when the pandemic was over?

In the end, I thought there's so much uncertainty around covid, if my decision to push it back is based on only [releasing] it when everything is open, when we can tour again, and feel like we're in the normal world, I have no idea when that might be. It might have been now, three months’ time, six months’ time, a year's time – no one can guarantee that. So, I thought I'm just gonna put it out in October and if we can tour, then great. If we can’t, we'll tour when we can. And now, I think people have more time to focus on stuff that's coming out, so I feel like it's not necessarily a bad time to release new music.

How frustrating is to release a new album and not being able to travel and promote it live?

Yeah, it's difficult. The live shows that we play is such a big part of the band's life because in Melbourne we usually play two or three times a week. It's this regular way of life. And take that away, not only during our normal period but also when we're trying to put something out, introduce it to people and share it, is difficult. It's also hard because it means we can't promote it in the way we usually would with tours and festivals and getting access directly to people who are or might be interested. But I know that we will get back to that at some point. I don't know when it will be, but I'm looking forward to it.

Have all the songs featured on the album been sung in front of an audience before?

No, not all of them. We've had a few in the set for a little while, but there are a bunch that we've never played live. So, I'm looking forward to getting into the rehearsal studio when we're able to and getting them ready for our live sets when we can do shows. That's going to be a fun experience.

Where did the title of the album, Country Lion come from?

I was in Nashville two years ago for Americana Fest. I was at a party and someone introduced me to Chuck Mead, who was the singer in the popular honky tonk band BR549 in the 90s. After the party, I saw him in the car park. I had some album downloads for our first album, and they were printed on business cards. In the US everyone's got business cards, it's a weird thing to do in Australia, but it's the thing there.

So, I was trying to push myself to give these [cards] out – even though I felt silly doing it – I went up to him and gave him one. It had a picture of the album cover for that album, kind of portrait photo of me. He looked at it and said, “Man you're the country lion!” And in my head, I was like, “I have no idea what that means, but I really dig it.” So, from then on, I knew our second record would be called Country Lion.

Wait, let me get this straight – your name is in the band title, the Jealous Guys is a play on your name and the album title relates directly to you as well …

You're picking up on a theme here. I'm sure the band would agree with this. Everything’s all about me, me, me. [laughs]  

The two singles off this new album that you have released – Sixteen Hours and A Thousand Tears – both are about missing someone and loneliness mixed with notes of heartbreak which is a very common issue with people being unable to visit their friends and loved ones during the covid pandemic. Was choosing to release those two tracks a direct result of the pandemic?

No, that reflects what I love about country music. When I think about all my favourite country songs, they're all about heartache, heartbreak and loneliness. All the great Hank Williams songs, Crazy Arms by Ray Price, and great ballads by George Jones, which I absolutely love, so many of them are based on this idea and the writing that I do naturally fits that very well. So, those songs reflect those feelings.

How important has social media been for you to keep up interaction with fans during this difficult year?

I haven't really engaged as much as I probably could have on social media, but I needed a break from it. It's been a strange few months and I've enjoyed pulling back a little bit, listening to a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis, playing the harmonica and reading. I knew that at some stage we'd ramp up again and start pushing the record, so it was healthy to have a bit of me time for a while.

Certainly, for me, I felt like I really needed to focus on why I like playing music and enjoy it from that basic level. I play music because it's fun and it's a simple statement like that. Getting back to that and focusing on the joy of music, that's been an important thing for me to get through all this lockdown business.

I read that you started James Ellis and the Jealous Guys in 2016 after coming back from a trip to Texas. What was it about that trip that was so inspirational, and do you think that the band would never have come to fruition if you hadn’t have gone there at all?

Hard to know. It was a significant event that influenced [starting the band] heavily. But the background is, I had another band that was like a country rock band that naturally wound up in 2016 and I was at a loss about what I wanted to do musically – whether I wanted to put another band together or do solo stuff – I had no idea the direction I wanted to go in. But I knew I wanted to play country music and I wanted to play more pure country music than I had been playing.

So, early 2016 I was like, “I'm gonna book a trip to the States. I'm gonna drive around Texas for a month, buy a lot of country records, see a whole lot of bands – just really immerse myself in country music.”

I got to see all this incredible country music. When I saw this honky tonk stuff in Austin, mainly, I thought, “This is exactly what I want to do!" I want to go back to Melbourne, and I want to play [and] write songs in this style. I also want to play old country standards – Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and George Johns. I want to do both of those things.

I already had some shows booked in at a residency for November 2016 at a bar called Some Velvet Morning in Clifton Hill, and they were really the band's first gigs. And we just continued from there. There have been some changes in the line-up along the way, but it’s all been fairly natural and very amicable.

What would your ultimate ‘we made it!’ goal be for the band?

I think doing a tour of the US would be amazing. Just to be able to tour around and play shows in the country that all the country music I listen to comes from; I think that would be really wonderful.

Lastly, can you name something you’re jealous of for each member of the band?

Tim Baker – guitarist. I'm jealous of him at the minute because he's living in Point Lonsdale, which is out of the city and at the beach. I'd love to be there!

Daniel Brates – drummer. I'm jealous of him because he's a surfer. I used to surf when I was a kid and I loved it. He took me surfing last year, but it's been too long. I wish I could get back to that, but I'm sure I never will, so that makes me jealous of him.

Joe Cope – keys player. I think it's gonna be another geography thing with him because he lives in one of my favourite places – Castlemaine, which is country Victoria, near where Joe and I grew up. I'd love to be there at the minute, in the country and not stuck in Melbourne.

Kelly Day – bass player, sings duets and backing vocals. I'm jealous of her because she is the most wonderful harmony singer I know. I wish I could sing harmonies like her.

Steve Veale – pedal steel. I'm jealous of him because he plays the pedal steel and it's the most beautiful country instrument, that's for sure. I don't know what it takes to learn pedal steel, but it looks like the most difficult instrument! [It has] 10 strings [and] I have no idea what any of them actually do. The tunings weird, you’ve got all these different pedals which bends the pitch of the strings, so it’s even hard to keep track of what you’re playing. It’s mind blowing! So, I’m deeply jealous of Steve!

Keep up to date with James Ellis and the Jealous Guys on their Facebook page here.

For more in-depth interviews on CountryTown, check out here.