Caleb Elliott and I spoke about staying hungry for music, discovering fairly late there’s more than just classical music and the important people in his development; his high school orchestra conductor, his cello professor at the liberal arts college and his mother who, after his dad passed, got a degree, raised four children and started a women’s shelter by herself. I know, what have we been doing with our lives, right? What her youngest son has been doing, is focus on his songwriting rather than being the cellist, with his 2019 Single Lock records debut album ‘Forever To Fade’ as the first stunning output.
Shortly after its release, we met at the Down by the River festival in Venlo, The Netherlands. Elliott, who was touring with Nicole Atkins at the time, recorded covers of Neil Young and Johnny Cash and one beautiful original from his debut on this session.
Caleb Elliott grew up in a town in South Louisiana called Natchitoches. “I had to learn how to spell that, because we pronounce it really different. It’s an old Indian name so I think we just made up how to say it.” Elliott lived there all through high school, before going to college in Lafayette. “I lived there for quite a few years until I moved to Florence in 2015. And I have a degree in biology, actually!” He adds it with a grin. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. As the youngest of four, my parents sort of pushed me in a different direction than music. ‘It can be good, but it can also be a very tough path.’ So, I didn’t major in music, but in a way I’m kind of glad because a lot of people get burned out on studying music. I sort of deprived myself of music and I’m still hungry and searching. And I think I forever will be.”
“I got really lucky in high school, because my orchestra conductor was extremely over-qualified. She got her doctorate in Europe and she moved back to Natchitoches, small-town Louisiana to be with her husband and found the best job she could. Her doctorate wasn’t recognized in the States, so she took the local high school job and I got really lucky. She took me under her wing. Combine that with the liberal arts college in my hometown that had a really strong orchestra program and the cello professor was the best. I got lessons from him in third grade all the way through high school. Thanks to those two people, I definitely showed up to college knowing more than most of the music majors.”
Making big decisions.
“Mom had all four kids start on a classical instrument in about third grade. My sister is four years older and started playing the harp. We all picked an instrument and got lessons from an early age. It was a sort of funny rite of passage. I was the youngest, so I knew what was coming. When it became about that time, my mom would take us to an orchestra performance and ask: ‘which instrument interests you?’ I definitely knew this was happening; I had to make my big decision. And I couldn’t pick the violin, the trumpet or the harp. They were taken. My mom already played the piano. I wanted to be unique. So, we’re sitting there and the orchestra starts to play. My mother whispers over to me: ‘What are you thinking?’ I’m looking around and in the back of the orchestra, this guy in the back starts going: boing, boing, boing, boing. My face lights up and I say: ‘That’s what I want to do!’ Of course, my mother chuckles and gently guides me towards the cello. Because she’s a wise woman. She made a good decision for everyone involved!”
Classical music was a big dose of what Caleb Elliott was exposed to, he continues: “I grew up in a – for the lack of a better word – religious household and so we didn’t have cable tv and really only listened to NPR and that was as far as we got into radio. No real exposure to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, or all the other classics – I learned those in college. I got my education later, in that regard, but I grew up listening to mom sing and play the piano. She played in the church we went to and we would sing around the piano with mom. And at all hours of the day, one of my siblings was practicing their instrument. Those are my earliest influences; hearing my brother practice Bach or Beethoven in the background, my mom singing hymns at the upright piano.”
“My mother is one of my heroes.”
Elliott’s father was a minister and his mother a stay at home pastor’s wife. “My dad passed when I was eleven, so my mom – pretty heroic – went back to school later in life, studied Sociology, graduated in four years with killer grades and got a job immediately. She was in college when I was in junior high. Later, she remarried and her and my stepdad still live in Natchitoches. He’s an architect, so their house is really cool. The back wall of the house is floor to ceiling glass. It’s built into the woods; there’s no yard and so it feels like you’re in the woods – it’s really cool.”
“My mom used that degree to run a domestic violence shelter for abused women and children. She ran that shelter for about ten years and took it from a one lady operation to eventually being the flagship program of the state of Louisiana.” Caleb Elliott tells the story with audible and visible pride – and rightly so. “She did incredible, but it was a very stressful taxing position as you can imagine. She’s one of my heroes for sure.”
Touring with Dylan LeBlanc.
Elliott remembers calling home during the fourth year of college and saying: “I’m going to finish my degree, but I’ve decided that after I graduate I want to try and do music for a couple of years. And I went to it man, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I did know, locally, how to make money making music. I was taking every gig I could get. Remember when I told you I didn’t listen to pop music, growing up? Well those were the years I went back through the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, and I learned all the songs. I was the covers guy – I could play for five hours and not repeat a song. It was like training grounds for me.”
Those years led to him making an EP in 2012. “The best thing that little EP did, was that locally people discovered that I play the cello and asked me to play cello on their recordings. I realized that could be a thing. Long story short: I started picking up gigs as a cellist. One night I was at a venue in Lafayette, sitting in with a friend’s band and there was a solo acoustic opener there by the name of Dylan LeBlanc. I ended up playing cello on his song ‘Emma Hartley’ that night. It went really well and he asked me if I wanted to go on tour with him! I replied: ‘You mean like on the road?’ Because I couldn’t believe it. That’s how I got my first touring gig. A few months after that I visited him in Florence for the first time and found myself playing cello on his album ‘Cautionary Tale’, with John Paul White and Ben Tanner producing. They immediately started recruiting me to move to the Shoals, because they wanted to have a cellist around. I took the bait, hook line and sinker. Hell yeah, I’ll come up here!”
A different can of worms.
“I didn’t even tell any of them that I was a songwriter. Dylan knew. But through all of these experiences I started realizing all the things I didn’t know. I had a lot of room to grow; it was a time to be humble and to learn. Organically, as I kept writing, they sort of found up I wrote songs. Eventually the Dylan gig was over and I was looking into making my next move, and figure out what I wanted to do next. I had all of these songs I’d been putting in my back pocket, quietly, for years and I asked Ben: ‘Would you want to make a record with me?’ He said: ‘Sure,’ and he looked at me: ‘oh you mean like your songs?’ At that point we’d done countless sessions and he said yes without ever hearing my songs.”
It was difficult to take that leap and focus on his own songwriting instead of ‘being the cellist’, Elliott confirms. “I’ve had to develop a thicker skin. As a side man in the background, you just get in the van and make sure to perform. That’s it. There’s a lot of other stresses, I’m not trying to discount that, but it’s a completely different can of worms when you’re the guy, putting yourself out there for people to judge you. For better or for worse. It changed a lot of things in my life. To really focus on being sane and not sensitive to peoples’ opinions. Trusting in myself. With the second record I’m equipped to be less of a neurotic mess, hopefully. I’m a pretty chill person most of the time…”
Uplifted by a community of peers.
“The validation you get from peers who do like your work, means a lot. A guy like John Paul digging it, meant the world to me. Ben too, Zac Cockrell and my drummer Jeremy Gibson. Those are guys that I really respect. For them to be excited about the record was encouraging in a way that I didn’t even anticipate. It normalized the whole thing.” Elliott tells me it’s one of the reasons he loves the Shoals. “Most of my life – nothing negative about the area I came from but – where I was living and the people I was surrounded by, I pretty much felt like I was crazy for having this dream. In the Shoals, it was normalized; there’s a lot of people going for this and they want to see you succeed too. There’s an altruism and a community that I feel uplifted by.”
“When I was younger, I had a mentor who said: ‘If you want to be a better songwriter, hang out with better songwriters.’ It seems so simple, but it’s so true, man! Riding around in the van with Dylan made me a better songwriter. It was my first touring gig, so what I learned from that is immeasurable, really. The dynamics of a good band, lots of good things. How to treat people and how not to treat people. Taking this cello to a session for Donnie Fritts, John Paul and all those guys, it made me better. Just rubbing shoulders and being around people who’re naturally really good. I feel very lucky to have the cello. It has brought me to a lot of wonderful places and situations. Still I just try to sponge it all in and let it affect me how it will. Hopefully I can make something that I’m proud of.”
“Nobody covers ‘Ring Of Fire’ in its original timing.”
When we recorded this session, Caleb Elliott was touring as the opener for and sitting in with Nicole Atkins. “She’s a lot of fun to tour with. She really is. Always a good time – keeps it interesting. She’s like my sister, and a good friend. Man, her new record is so badass!”
On this session, Caleb Elliott went for the big songs and songwriters. ‘Ring Of Fire’ by Johnny Cash and Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’. “I really love these songs. Back in my days of playing cover songs, I think I played those two at every single gig. ‘Harvest Moon’ still holds up as one of my favorite love songs. The recording of it – with the broom sweeping – is really magical. I love Neil Young, I’m a big fan.”
“I never hear anyone cover ‘Ring Of Fire’ in the original timing on the verses. They always straighten it out. If you hear the original, with the Tijuana Brass, it’s seven beats in the verse cadence, and then it straightens out on the chorus to be in four. It tried it one day and thought it was kind of neat. A lot of people have covered it obviously, but I still wanted to try my hand at it.” I – for one – am glad he did.