ELLIS LUDWIG-LEONE ’11: Songwriter, Bandleader, Fan of Hemingway

San Fermin played at BAR this week
San Fermin played at BAR this week // Sarah Eckinger

Q. First of all, I’d love to know the history of San Fermin. How did you guys get together, and where did the idea come from to release an LP?

A. Right after I graduated from Yale in 2011, I spent two months in the Rocky Mountains in this studio there, called the Banff Centre. I had this idea to write this record. I didn’t know who would be singing on it or performing on it or anything. I just knew that I wanted to write this thing. There are a lot of classical musicians up at the Banff Centre, and the songs all became very interconnected, motivically and harmonically. There was an operatic scope to the thing as I was writing it. When I came back, I started talking to people about it – there was my friend Allen Tate, who sings on the record, I found some female singers in Brooklyn, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, and then I built the album around that.

It was actually funny, we had a finished album before we’d played a show, which was totally crazy. So then we needed to perform, so we played a show at Pianos in downtown New York. After that, we got an offer from Downtown Records. Then, things picked up. Now we’re planning a summer tour and a fall tour, and releasing the record in September.

 

Q. Was your performance at BAR part of that touring plan?

A. The BAR performance was sort of a warm-up, we’ve been changing around the personnel of the band. Last night was the first time that Rae Cassidy performed with us. She’s singing lead vocals now. She’s really great. And so we performed onstage to get us used to what will probably be a very long and sometimes brutal slog, this tour. And it was fun to get back to Yale, too.

 

Q. Do you feel many of the songs changing as you perform them and adapt them?

A. They change a little bit. It was interesting. I studied musical composition at Yale. I was writing classical music at school, and I ran the classical music group SIC InC when I was there. Because of that, I had this idea that you could figure out and write out, in notation, everything that you wanted and that then the performers would just do that. But the reality of it is, especially with indie-rock and pop singers, is that you have to work around, and work with, the voices that you have. So, as we’ve started to perform these things live, we definitely adjust to the singers. We change the key. We change the background harmony. We even change the forms of the songs in order to streamline it for a live performance.

 

Q. You mentioned that the album has an operatic theme. How does that play out? Do you think of the album as a unit?

A. Yes, so, when I was in Banff, I wrote a song a day for the first two weeks. No matter how complete the idea was each day, I’d move onto the next one the next day. The idea was that I thought that a lot of very concentrated creativity in one small period of time leads to a lot of subconscious connections. That was one of the ideas behind the record. I really wanted a lot of themes that connected throughout. There are melodic and harmonic themes that are consistent with certain ideas that come back throughout the record. The way I wrote the lyrics — I don’t sing — but I wrote for certain characters, mostly from books. “The Sun Also Rises” was a big help. It’s helpful for me, when I’m writing for someone else to sing something, to write from the mind of another character. At least for me, you get a little “singer-songwritery” if you write for yourself. If you write for characters, you end up writing about yourself, but through the lens of this fictionalized person.

 

Q. And the record’s theme?

A. The male singer has these grandiose thoughts. He’s sort of a blunted Romeo character. He knows he’s looking for something, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. The female character ends up being much more jaded. She cuts him down anytime he gets too big. Then there are these interludes through the record that help tie it all together. You hear the girl whispering and hear her inner life, and this is supposed to create a world where the two characters have a dialogue. There are these musical thematic connections that go through the interludes that then play out in the songs as well, which is consistent to the operatic idea that certain characters have certain themes, and that those themes change over the course of a narrative.

 

Q. When you were at Yale, did you mostly write classical music, or did you know that you wanted to go in an indie direction?

A. I had a series of bands when I was at Yale — to varying degrees of success — but I was mostly focusing on a classical approach. I came from a world in high school of playing for bands and stuff, but when I came to Yale I really wanted to immerse myself in the traditional classical side. I focused on composition, especially in my last two years. But there are all sorts of devices you can take from that world, even if you’re writing a pop song.

 

Q. And, according to your website, you are also collaborating on a ballet.

A. Yeah, there’s this choreographer, Troy Schumacher, who is part of the New York City Ballet, and he and I came up with the idea to work on this ballet that we’re going to perform at the Joyce Theater in August. And actually, he had the idea to work with Cynthia Zarin, who’s a professor at Yale. I was in her freshman year English class, and she’s now a very good friend of mine, and it wasn’t even my idea, at first, to get her involved. Anyway, the three of us got together and she wrote a narrative poem, from which we built this ballet. I’ve been working on that in the moments that I haven’t been traveling around playing rock music.

 

Q. How was it being back at Yale, performing at BAR?

A. It was weird, man! I’ve been out for almost two years now, but that’s long enough that all of the people have changed already. When you’re one year out, there are still people that you know, and now I’m kind of a stranger. My sister goes there now, so it’s her school at this point. But it’s great to be back. What was exciting about last night was the chance to bring back some Yale bands. There’s a lot of great stuff happening with recently graduated Yale bands. We play a lot with Great Caesar. Elijah from Plume Giant plays a lot with us. Magic Man is also doing great stuff. There’s a great community of Yalies in New York City. There are a lot of grads from the Yale School of Music there, too, so both of those two worlds are in the city.

 

Q. Do you see yourself leaning either way in the future — classical or rock?

A. The idea behind San Fermin was that it is a project that combines all the ways I naturally think about music, whether that’s from school or the radio. In that sense, I think, the answer is to mix it all up together. It’s a pretty exciting time to be just out of school and to be in New York, because there are so many opportunities open. I’m doing this ballet. I love writing chamber music. Whatever comes up naturally, I’m excited to do it. It’s a “say yes, and do it” sort of situation. In the future, it’d be nice to keep both those things going together. It looks like we’ll have a lot of shows and activities related to San Fermin, but there’s also a lot to be done in the other worlds of music. Whatever comes up, I’ll do it!

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