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Healing music: Calgary expat Lindsay Ell confronts past trauma and heartbreak with Heart Theory

Singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell
Singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell

It has been nearly three years since Lindsay Ell first heard the girls’ stories.

The Calgary-born country star was visiting a Virginia-based organization called Youth For Tomorrow, which supports young victims of sexual abuse. Ell was there to help launch a music program but soon found herself sitting at a table in a conference room with 12 girls. One by one, they began to share their harrowing stories about rape and abuse.

“This 12-year-old little girl was sitting beside me and said ‘My parents sold me to a sex-trafficking company when I was little,’ ” says Ell, 31, in an interview with Postmedia. “Horrific things that you would never want to even imagine. But it happens, whether or not we want to admit it in our lives and our communities.”

Ell did not go there intending to share her own story. But she soon found herself opening up to the girls about her own experiences. When Ell was 13, she was raped by a man who went to her church. She was sexually assaulted again by a different man when she was 21.

“I had no idea what I was walking into and the revelations I would find within myself on that day,” she says.

By the time she left that room, she promised herself that she would share her story more broadly in hopes of helping other victims of sexual assault.

“I really do feel like not enough people talk about it,” Ell says. “It’s an experience where people feel so much shame for so long that often people don’t want to talk about it for a long time. I’m definitely a case of that.”

Ell is talking to Postmedia from her car. She is out driving somewhere near Nashville, where she has lived for the past decade. This interview was not meant to focus on her experiences as a young rape victim, or the #MakeYouMovement she launched earlier this month under the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to support at-risk youth and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. It’s supposed to be about her new album, Heart Theory, which dropped Aug. 14. But in early July, she gave an exclusive interview to People Magazine in which she talked publicly for the first time about the rapes and how she was inspired to start a foundation to give support and a voice to fellow survivors. When news of the interview broke, it made headlines around the world.

“Thousands of fans have reached out to me in the past few weeks with their stories,” says Ell. “Sometimes they tell me ‘This is the first time I’ve told somebody.’ If I can inspire even one person to go into healing within themselves and with wonderful people around them, then mission accomplished.

“To be honest, I wasn’t really prepared for when the headlines came out the morning when they did and opening up my computer and reading ‘Lindsay Ell reveals she was raped at 13 and 21.’ It was a difficult day, mainly for my family. Because we had a lot of people from my childhood and our church community and even other family and uncles and stuff who never knew about it because it was not something I talked about openly, or haven’t until now. So it was a really hard day for them that I should have seen coming. But, at the end of the day, I truly desire to do a lot of good through all of this and continue to grow my foundation and continue to be able to help a lot of kids and adults find things to love about themselves.”

Heart Theory is a followup to Ell’s 2017 major-label debut, The Project. Make You, a sombre but ultimately empowering ballad co-written by Brandy Clark, is the only song on the record that directly addresses Ell’s experiences as a rape victim. But partway through the writing process of the record, Ell realized was working toward a concept album. Specifically, she noticed that the songs seemed to be about the different stages of grief she had been going through since ending a long-term relationship. All but one of the tunes were co-written by the singer-songwriter, who enlisted a team of Nashville songsmiths and fellow artists such as Gordie Sampson and Kane Brown to help out. The 12-song cycle chronicles the seven stages of grief: from shock on the funky mid-tempo Hits Me; to the anger of the steely Wrong Girl; to acceptance on the cautiously hopeful Ready to Love.

But Heart Theory isn’t a downer. Ell’s sure hand with a hook and ability to convey everything from wounded heartbreak to sassy defiance makes for a satisfying, radio-friendly collection that is still deeply personal. None of the songs would sound out of place on a mainstream country playlist, even as she expands the genre with snippets of pop, guitar-rock and soul. How Good opens with a great Stevie Wonder-like clavinet line. The bluesy-folk number The Other Side features tasty samplings of Ell’s understated virtuosity as a guitarist, skills she has been developing ever since Randy Bachman discovered her as a teen prodigy in the mid-aughts.

“I think music is so powerful in how it can represent our feelings,” Ell says. “Some of my favourite things to do as a songwriter is to write songs with heavier lyrics with music that sonically makes me want to dance. They are my favourite things. I call them bangers. They’re sad bangers. Writing this record, I knew I was writing about heavier things but I still wanted it to be fun and still wanted it to be like the type of music I love listening to.

Ultimately, the album sees Ell’s journey to the end of the grief cycle, landing in a place where she can address both a broken heart and the 13 and 21-year-old girls inside of her that “for so long I haven’t let heal.”

“I had just gotten through a break-up,” she says. “It was causing me to re-evaluate a lot of things in my life. It was a really important relationship to me and caused me to focus on heartbreak in general and traumas that we’ve gone through in our lives. If we never fully heal from either tough relationships or stuff we’ve gone through in our childhood, any time we go through little bumps on the road it stirs all the stuff up again. I just felt after I got out of that relationship I was doing a massive assessment of who I am, what I was supposed to be doing and what I really want and desire in life.”

Heart Theory comes out Aug. 14.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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