The sultry brushes introduce Ellen Pels in “Faith,” a ballad about strength. She sings with a straight and true voice, the end of each thought lightly adorned with a sweet vibrato. “On the Way” is another uplifting and re-assuring offering; this one an intimate chat with the listener, only set to music. The conversational timbre fits the music like a glove. It feels genuine and specific. Then veering jazzier with a Latin beat, she leads the band in unexpected chord changes in “If I Were Bebel” (a nod to Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto). With a silkiness and ease, her voice is inviting, versatile and like a hand extended in love and friendship.
She started singing well into a career in speech therapy. It was as if she were saving up her voice for the best time to display all the colors that life had brought to her. It is a fragrant and beautiful garden.
When did you “find” your voice?
There was never one exact moment, it sort of happened in stages. As a child, I was always singing, dancing, making up sketches with my friends, performing. At the age of 10, I suddenly became self-conscious, shy, inhibited.
When I started my SLT [Speech and Language Therapy] training at the age of 18, part of the training involved voice work. Classmates would give me positive feedback on my singing voice and a friend encouraged me to take singing lessons. I later joined a choir, but my stage fright was so enormous that I would never join them during performances. I was always making up excuses.
Later on, I realized that one mistake from me wouldn’t ruin the whole performance. Gradually, I started gaining more confidence, and set challenges for myself. I started to enjoy being on stage more, signed up for a Master Class, sang with a big band. Beforehand I would be terrified, afterwards the adrenaline would charge me with endorphins for weeks.
I was always overly critical of how I had done, and my fear was always stronger than my desire to be on stage. Until I became severely ill. I realized that if I were to die, I’d not have done what I wanted most. Then the miracles started happening. Before I knew it, I had my own band. I also realized that if people were enthusiastic about my singing, they said so because they meant it, not just to be nice. The only thing I needed to do was start believing it myself.
What made you want to become a speech therapist?
It kind of happened. I wanted to be on stage, but this desire was so hidden that I never shared it with anyone. In Amsterdam, there is a school for the arts where they teach singing, dancing, acting, comedy. I would have wanted to go there, but I would never have been admitted; I was way too shy and self-conscious.
My mum suggested I became a Speech and Language Therapist, so I went along with it, I had no alternative. Once I had started the training I thoroughly enjoyed it and worked as an SLT happily for 15 years.
How did that training become useful for you as a vocalist?
In the Netherlands SLTs do voice work as well. Working with professional speakers with voice problems is part of an SLT’s training and job. Teachers, public speakers and singers are the clients SLTs work with. So they need to understand the workings of the voice and how to avoid overstraining, or how to change bad habits. Many professional singers see an STL at some time in their career for help and support. I actually do now as well, especially for the vocal massage.
What were the highlights of your music education, and was it difficult to change careers?
I have had little formal musical education. I can’t play an instrument (I have very poor motor skills and I move like a chameleon), in spite of piano and guitar lessons for a few years. I can’t read music, in spite of having had lessons for several years. It is as if I have dyslexia for music notation. Many of my singing lessons involved singing-for-fun rather than formal training.
Changing careers was like changing my mind. I decided that I AM a singer and songwriter. Financially I can’t live by my trade, so I need to make money doing other things, and then invest all my earnings in a new album or interesting showcase.
How does Deepak Chopra fit into your songwriting?
Deepak Chopra is one of the many spiritual teachers who writes about spirituality, as well as Paulo Coelho, Marianne Williamson, etc. Many of my friends are writing books in order to share what they have learned in life. I share my insights in song lyrics.
What is your theatrical background and how does that inform your music?
Being on stage as a singer, I want to be as authentic as I can. To connect with my audience, I need to “feel” them. I tend to interact with them, but I never prepare what I am going to say or do (other than a set list).
My theatrical background is mostly informal. I seem to have a knack for it. I can improvise easily and I understand comedy timing intuitively. I have done plays, musicals and comedy on and off all my life. I have more gumption when playing a role than I do when I am just me. But somehow that gumption spills over into my singing performances.
What about New Age philosophy appeals to you? How do you see it blending with jazz?
I have been exploring spirituality from a New Age perspective for many years. For me, spirituality involves looking at life and the reason things happen, as one big ongoing school. When disaster strikes, I don’t think “Why me?”, but “Why?” There is a reason for everything. We all have a contribution to make in this world. Other people are teachers for me.
When people listen to music they often listen to either the lyrics or the music. I want to address both. I want my love of jazz to be evident in the music I write, as well as for my song lyrics to convey a message.
How did you meet the nine musicians and what strength does each one bring?
Once again, this is where the miracles are at work. I had always worked with amateur musicians. Initially I wanted to record a few songs with some friends. However, I was writing so much new material that I decided I wanted to make a full album. My amateur friends all have day jobs and couldn’t spend days on end in a studio, so I started asking around. I connected with Elton Joseph (guitar) and Tony Hoyting (piano) through a friend. They knew other musicians and I approached them as well. And then we had a band. It just happened.
I actually had never met a number of the musicians in person until we started rehearsing in preparation for the studio. I was well out of my comfort zone. And they were all so encouraging and enthusiastic about what I was doing.
Tony is my go-to-guy when I am stuck in my songwriting or demo making. Elton is our quiet one in the background, and he often has suggestions concerning venues and marketing. Pieter Althuis (bass) is the one who helps during rehearsals: he keeps us on track. Joost Visser (drums) is positive, has useful suggestions and dares to be critical. Evert van Loon (saxophone) also writes the arrangements for the horns. His contributions to my songs have always made them better. Libbe Oosterman (trumpet) is creative, consistent and patient. Inze Meijer (backing vocals) is a hard worker. Our voices blend well together and she is super reliable. Florens Eykemans (backing vocals) has a lovely voice. He is the sunshine of the band, and always has great suggestions.
I love how the band members work together. I always feel their feedback comes from a supportive place and interpret it as a positive contribution. Even though we don’t speak the same musical language, I know exactly how a song sounds in my head, and somehow the band members understand where I want to go with a song.
Why did you start your own label? What does the name LLL Zingt refer to?
I only realized that I had a label when I spoke to a representative from a record company about what he could do for me. Much to my surprise everything he said was something I had already done myself. So we concluded that I already HAD a label.
LLL Zingt is a play on words. It means Ellen Sings. LLL is what my husband of 35 years always uses as a header when he leaves me a note. The plural of the letter L is “ELZ” in English, but “ellen” in Dutch. It wasn’t until I had chosen the name that my husband mentioned that the first L meant Lieve (Dear). Dear Ellen: LLL. And “zingt” means “sings.”
What is the advantage, creatively, to your own label? What challenges (extra work) is involved?
The advantage is that I can do exactly what I want, when I want it. I have total and complete artistic freedom. I don’t owe anyone anything, I can make my own choices, create my own path, do things that feel right and stay away from things that don’t.
The disadvantage is that I am making it up as I go along. I am my own marketing and PR consultant, booker, manager, producer, financier, etc. I have very few contacts and little knowledge. It is a steep learning curve and I often find myself doing things that I am not very good at or don’t enjoy.
You don’t shy away from subject matter. What unusual or difficult issues have been featured in your music?
I have written a number of songs about death, life after death, the heartache of missing someone, depression. But nearly always from a positive viewpoint. I want to awaken feelings of hope or faith or gratitude in my listeners.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
Zwolle, a town in the eastern part of the Netherlands, does not have much of a jazz scene. There are a few bars where jazz acts are featured on a regular basis. Luckily a successful crowdfunding campaign was recently launched by a few young local jazz musicians, who are using the money to create more of a jazz scene by organizing activities like a jazz festival here in Zwolle, which I wholeheartedly support.
What inspired your first recording, “Dragonflies”?
The song “Dragonflies” is full of metaphors about life and death. This is a theme that I have close personal experience with, and that somehow finds its way into my lyrics on a regular basis.
I was lucky enough to be able to work with Perquisite, a well-known Dutch artist. We co-wrote the song and he produced it in his studio.
How was the 2015 CD “Late Bloomer” received? What was exciting about making the album?
“Late Bloomer” was well-received by a small group of listeners. I only started considering PR once the album was released, so not a lot of people know it’s out there.
The whole process of writing, recording and producing the album was one big roller coaster ride for me, never having done anything of the sort before. I still am so proud of what we made, and sometimes I wonder how it is possible that I made it at all.
That’s like asking which one of my kids is my favorite. Impossible to answer.
What was the biggest challenge in marketing “Late Bloomer”?
The fact that I had no plan. At all. I had no idea what to do, whom to reach out to, what to tell them. Since then, I have been doing workshops and courses to learn how to do marketing and PR. But it still isn’t what I do best, to be honest.
Where else in Europe would you most like to perform?
My first answer would be the UK, because I used to live there and love the country. I believe, however, that my music would be better received in Germany, where audiences seem to like quiet jazzy songs more.
Is it fulfilling to realize your dream of performing as a vocalist?
Good grief: YES! I believe I am much more conscious of what is happening and who I am and how I want to present myself than I could ever have been at a younger age. I am so much more true to myself.
Your favorite venue to perform?
I love playing for a small audience, to see their faces, to feel their response to my music, to truly connect with them. And I love playing in bigger concert halls with my full band, donning false eyelashes and an evening gown.
What new projects do you envision for your band?
Next year we’ll be playing a large venue in the south, with a live-stream for a local radio station.
I also want to do a big EP release show later in the year. I am planning on recording and releasing the new EP (“Love”) as part of a trilogy: Peace, Love and Happiness. (Happiness was released in September 2017).
Best advice to musicians starting as “late bloomers”?
Be true to yourself.
Know who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Seeing age as a limitation is all in the mind; it’s never too late. Think of Charles Bradley and Seasick Steve. If they did it, so can you.
Best advice you ever received on your career?
Only one bit of advice? For me there have been many treasures, many snippets from all kinds of different people and sources.
Maybe the one I live by most is: “Leave room for the miracles to happen.”
I am glad I have outgrown the opinion of others. Whether people like what I do or not is all a matter of taste. As long as I do what feels right and true to me, I know I am on the right track.
For more information, visit www.ellenpels.nl.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Ellen Pels.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017