Eli Conley suggests I order the breakfast burrito. With a wide grin, he tells me that it’s a great vegan dish. The Virginia native, now an East Bay resident, has a lot to smile about. He’s finished his first full-length album, At the Seams, to be released on September 28th. He’s setting west coast tour dates for the fall and lovin’ life at the moment. At our small table at Herbivore, I could easily tell that Eli, the queer folk singer-songwriter with a powerful passion for music and an equally powerful voice, was anxious to unleash his music unto the world…
Your album, At the Seams, is done and about to be released. How do you feel?
I’m super excited. I actually got the physical CDs two months ago. I know many musicians who had to rush at the end, not having time to master it or not having them in time for a CD release show. So I’m like, ok, I’m recording in April and I should have them in hand by June so I have time to send them out to press. Then I was thinking when to release it in September, and just figured ‘why not just do it on my birthday!?’
September 28th is your birthday?
Yup, on September 28th, I’ll be 28.
That’s going to be a very momentous birthday for you.
I know! Why not just release my first full-length album on my 28th birthday. I feel really excited to get it out because I’ve been sitting on them for months, thinking ‘I really want to share this!’ It was in January when I started thinking about, and prepping, arrangements and stuff so I’m very ready now to put it out into the world.
And you’ll be able to clear some room in your place.
Exactly. A thousand CDs takes up as much as…maybe this table. So yeah, that’ll be great.
You describe your music as being “for misfits”, can you elaborate on that?
Well, obviously, I’m a queer artist and I write a lot of stuff with queer themes so that’s certainly a part of it. By being queer and, personally, being transgender, I’m sort of positioned outside of the mainstream in certain ways. I choose to embrace that. I think also that a lot of the songs that I write are about coming from a place of feeling like an outsider or having a hard time in a relationship or about people who politically don’t have power. I feel that I really identify with the underdog in that way. People who are not the people in power in our society, those who are the 99%, know my language. Even though when I’m writing a song I’m not necessarily thinking about the audience in that moment, once something is written, that’s when I start thinking about that. So after I write a song I think about how people will respond to it and I think the people that respond the most to my music are people that are a little bit outside the mainstream.
Do you envision or aspire for your music to have a certain impact on the LGBT community, or with “misfits”?
I think everybody hopes that their music has an impact. But for me, there’s an emotional resonance in my music and I hope that people feel connected to the stories I’m talking about. I hope they can see themselves in the music. For me, so much of listening to music is about ‘what does this piece of music have to do with my life?’, whether it’s a break-up song, or a song about something I haven’t experienced and I can put myself in that situation. So it’s a very big compliment to me when somebody says, ‘oh, I really identify with this song’ or ‘this song tells a story that I can really relate to’. I also have songs that are explicitly political and I don’t write them with some specific action in mind, necessarily, but to bring attention to things that people may not know about. The song on the album, “Dry As Sin”, is about the mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia where my dad’s side of the family is from, and how the coal industry is needing less and less people to blow the tops off mountains. What that’s being replaced with, job-wise, is super-max prisons and the song talks about the impact that has on the working-class people who live there and the fact that most of the people in those prisons are not from Appalachia. They’re African American and other people of color from other parts of the country. So a story like that is really important for me to tell in a way that people can relate to and that also affects them on an emotional level and may cause them to think more about that issue…maybe even take action on that issue. I think the job of all artists, really, is to make meaning from our world. But everybody creates their own meaning when they experience a piece of art. Whatever they take away from my art is right, you know? You can’t take away a wrong answer from one of my songs, but I want it to feel resonant.
Where do you usually draw inspiration from?
It’s so different for each song. The other day I was going for a hike and I sat on a side of a hill and I started having this line ‘scramble down a mountainside’ come into my head, and that’s very rhythmic… <<singing it aloud>>… so then I was thinking of what goes with that and telling a story about someone in the woods. Half of what I came up with is really dumb <<laughing>> but my process usually involves coming up with way more verses than I’m actually going to need. Then I’m like, which story do I actually want to tell out of these seven verses.
Some of the songs on the album were started from a very explicit emotional moment. For instance, the song “Draw the Line” was about a moment when I had gotten out of this relationship and was having a hard time, literally, drawing that line and saying ‘this is over’ and just moving past it. So I wrote that song as a therapeutic process for myself, telling myself what I needed to do. It tells the story of what it’s like to encounter someone again when you’re hoping not to see them. It’s the same relationship that the song “Now I’m Doing Me” is about — kind of two different ways into the same thing. One is like, ‘here’s my angry song!’ and the other is the one admitting my own faults in what happened in the relationship.
Sometimes a song comes more from a groove. The first song on the album, “When God Sets His Sights On You”, I had just come up with that guitar part while I was playing a Ray LaMontagne song that I like. And originally it told a story that I ended up not really liking so I tried to see what else I could find in that guitar part.
I did hear some Ray LaMontagne influence on the album. It’s probably my own music preference but I also heard some early Billy Joel, his first album, Cold Spring Harbor, within a few songs. What are your influences and who do you often listen to?
I actually never really listened to Billy Joel very much. My boyfriend is kind of into him so I’ve heard some stuff through him. While I was writing most of these songs, vocally, the influence that I hear when I sing is this Americana instrumentalist and vocalist, Tim O’Brien. He’s well known in the Americana and old time country world. He’s someone who, as my voice changed and deepened, I realized that I could kind of sing like him and so my vocals are definitely influenced by him. Writers that I really love include Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. When I was growing up I listened to a lot of Bjork and Rufus Wainwright. I’m working on a song right now that is influenced by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and I’m also playing a cover of one of their songs, called “Talk to Me In Mendocino” at the CD release. I was also writing a song recently and began thinking that it sounded like Lyle Lovett.
Do you have tour plans in the near future?
Yeah. After this album comes out I’m going to go on tour, a West coast tour — Portland, Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, Wilsonville, Sacramento, San Jose…
Any places you haven’t been to that you’re really excited to visit?
Well I’ve never played in San Jose so that should be fun. I haven’t played too much outside of the immediate San Francisco Bay Area. I hear there’s a very vibrant folk music scene in Olympia so I’m really excited to play a house show there. Seattle will be great because I’m performing at the studio I recorded the album at — they have a great listening space.
Sweet. Well, thank you so much!
Thank you! Short and sweet, I love it.
Eli Conley’s album release party for “At the Seams” will be this Saturday, September 28th, 8pm at Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center on Shattuck Avenue. For tickets and information, visit http://lapena.org/event/eli-conleys-debut-album-at-the-seams/ and for more on Eli Conley’s music and tour dates, visit www.eliconley.com.