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John Elliott

The songwriters' favorite songwriter, at Strange Brew tonight

By William Harries Graham, 11:30AM, Wed. Jun. 11

John Elliott
photo by Amy Sue Berlin

I’ve heard tell of a legend among songwriters: John Elliott.  J. Wagner, who regularly writes with Gregory Alan Isakov and has worked with Elliott before, describes him as “someone who has opened a different door.”

“He’s found the right room,” Wagner continues. “He’s bold and brave. He out tricked the trickster. He writes only the good parts of co-writes. He’s the real deal, an honest writer.”

Wagner also jokes: “He’ll sleep on your couch then leave you stranded at a train station. I have him on speed dial. He never answers.”

Amy Sue Berlin says “Elliott’s songs will take you on an emotional roller coaster. He brilliantly describes the raw realities of his unique perspectives of life. The passion behind his voice and his words makes you feel as if you are a character in his story.”

Andrew Pressman, local bassist for Ben Kweller, Hayes Carll, and Raina Rose, asserts: “Elliott is a “brilliant voice in contemporary post-Seinfeld eyebrow rock. He understands the subtle differences between vibin’ and flowin’. He’s an incredible poet and performer. His shows are not to be missed.”

Elliott is a mix between Steve Poltz and John Fulbright, and sort of looks like Jeff Tweedy’s younger brother. He lives in San Francisco, but Austin and the Kerrville scene are second homes. He hails from the Twin Cities, growing up on Orange Julius, the Metrodome, and Kirby Puckett.

“We lived in the ‘burbs and went downtown to see the Twins or maybe a play,” he says. “It’s just brutal in the winter.”

Elliott has traveled a lot, and lived in Los Angeles before a stint in Northern California. He’s in Austin tonight at Strange Brew for the release Elliott of his CD, Live in Austin. Showtime, 10pm.

Austin Chronicle: How does geography affect your writing?

John Elliot: One of my friends called my show the “John Elliott Geographic Experience.” I’ve been moving around a lot for eight, years so that’s bound to get in there. Certainly, I am inspired by the places I go and the people I meet.

AC: Some folks say your music can’t be cast into a box?

JE: I don’t even know all the genres. My albums are in different genres. My last studio album was lots of drum machines and electronica sounding. The new live album is probably folk and Americana. My 2011 album Backyards is a rock record. It varies and it’s a marketing/branding issue for sure.

AC: How did you get started in music, and how would you explain where you are right now?

JE: I’ve been pursuing music since I was seven years old. In terms of money, it’s a complex quilt of various strands that make it work at this point and keep the boat afloat. I have had different managers and labels and producers and bands and I’m sure I’ll have many more. I have made nice chunks of money from licensing and good gigs, and I have played for $50 and a grilled cheese and slept in a tent in Puyallup (Washington). Obviously we all have to make money, but it seems like the business stuff goes best when the creative, artistic stuff is going best. You can’t really monetize or that, but when it feels good it feels good, and when it’s happening it’s happening.

AC: What do you do on days off?

JE: I have really gotten into riding my bike. I love it. It makes me feel good and I can get all over. So I’ll definitely ride around, find a place to sit and eat something and read or write or look at my phone. Something like that. I really like to eat out at places. And places that serve breakfast should always serve it.

AC: Could you describe your favorite times onstage?

JE: My favorite moments are when everyone in the room gets on the same page for awhile and you can feel that connection. It’s a very tangible, real thing. I love when that happens.

AC: Who are your inspirations?

JE: People who carry on in the midst of terrible odds. I’m talking about people who live on the street and still say hello to you in the morning and somehow stay positive. The inequality thing is really getting out of control. If we’re all created equal there ought to be an agreed upon basic standard of living that we have a moral responsibility to provide for everyone. That’s not socialism, that’s being a compassionate human being.

AC: How do you find happiness?

JE: Achieving mindfulness and living in the moment for longer and longer stretches of time. That would make me pretty consistently happy.

AC: What should we expect at the Strange Brew album Release tonight?

JE: There are imperfections and rambling, unplanned spoken introductions, but that’s part of what makes this recording unique and earn it the distinction of being called an album. I’ve put live recordings on my website for free for years and called them bootlegs, but this is something special. I’m proud of it. I hope people like it.

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