“I’m very leery of plot as a device in song,” says composer/songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone. “A song that follows a person through a series of events seems very musical theater, and I’m not interested in that. I’m more interested in snapshots; moments in time that add up to something more.”
Ludwig-Leone, a recent Yale graduate with a degree in classical music composition, released his first album under the moniker San Fermin in 2013. Most of the 17 songs—save for the instrumental interludes—have a photo quality to their lyrics: small moments either rooted in a feeling or dancing around a particular abstraction. It all adds up to what’s essentially a serious dialogue about romance between two people who are diametrically opposed—a woman who’s cynical and cold, and a man who’s hopeful and romantic. Baritone Allen Tate and soprano Rae Cassidy (in place of Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig on the record) share duties on lead vocals.
It’s funny to hear Ludwig-Leone describe his characters, because he prefaces most statements about them with “I think,” which is to say that he doesn’t actually know them—or, rather, he’s getting to know them on an ongoing basis.
“When you’re writing new songs, there’s a mixture of things happening,” he says. “You’re writing lyrics based on what you think these characters might say, and based on what you, yourself, might say or feel. It all sort of gets mixed up.”
The characters, as well as the baroque chamber-pop orchestration, were crafted at The Banff Centre, an artist-residency community in British Columbia, when Ludwig-Leone was 22. More than two years later, the composer continues to learn about his characters, and says they’ll return on the follow-up album.
“I think that they’re the same characters in a lot of ways, but they aren’t saying the same things. It’s a bit more mixed up,” Ludwig-Leone says. “With both, there’s a lot more aggressiveness and sarcasm, in a way that’s surprising and that I wouldn’t have thought would happen.”
There’s no small level of care put into the songs of San Fermin—the rich composition required more than 20 players to record. Ludwig-Leone’s score has hallmarks of classic indie rock and avant-pop, like Sufjan Stevens, Dirty Projects and The National, yet it can be challenging; the listener can peel back layers through repeated plays.
you have multiple points of entry and multiple layers of meaning ...
it’s almost your responsibility as an artist to appeal to all of these
things,” he says, taking note of the accessibility and complexity of the
popular single “Sonsick” or the dense yet lovely “Oh, Darling.” “I’ve
always thought that people are more expert listeners than the radio
gives them credit for.”