How Ark Life Made a Promising Career Out of Drinking With Friends
When Jesse Elliott came to Denver in early 2013, he was only passing through. As the frontman of Washington, D.C.-based rock band These United States, he'd passed through Denver plenty of times. In fact, that group toured so much that Elliott hadn't kept a home address for three years.
But a week turned into a month, then three months. Elliott and Leon Art Gallery co-owner Lindsay Giles had talked about moving to New York together, but Denver drew them in. "I didn't realize how fun it is and how really unique it is until I accidentally moved [here]," he says. As Elliott describes it, he and Giles started "basically just drinking and jamming together" with some friends, including Anna Morsett, who plays bass in These United States; Ben Desoto, an experienced Denver drummer who works as a talent buyer for the hi-dive; and Natalie Tate, a gifted guitarist making a career transition from teaching to music. The musicians all share a love for old rock and roll -- in particular, the period between 1958 and 1975 -- but their geographical backgrounds give them unique perspectives. Morsett, for example, is originally from Olympia, Washington, and is inspired by the punk and DIY history there. Desoto is instilled with the blue-collar rock of New Jersey, his home state. Elliott grew up in the Midwest listening to songwriters like John Prine. The five artists' influences and personalities quickly jelled.
"It became fun enough where we were like, 'Hey, let's go play some music for people," says Elliott.
And play for people they did. They named their band Ark Life and hit the road for six months on what Elliott says was a kind of test run, with no recorded music to their name and no reputation to precede them as a band. They were able to book some seventy shows across the country from April to September of last year, with help from Elliott, Morsett and Desoto's connections to various music scenes and bands.
"The cool thing about not having one home is you really start to have 100 homes," Elliott says of his life as a touring musician. "All these people and communities...it still gets a little exhausting, but the huge benefit is that you really do feel at home kind of anywhere you go, which is a great feeling."
Still, Ark Life played in Colorado (and Denver, specifically) more than anywhere else. "I think the reason I moved here is because I was like, 'This place is incredibly supportive of live music on a lot of different levels,'" says Elliott. "I think there's a lot of fan appreciation. In my experience, in the big cities I've lived in, [music] isn't quite so interwoven into daily life for your casual, average listener or whatever.
"I've always lived in slightly bigger cities where things get a little bit more fragmented," he elaborates. "The thing I like so much about Denver is it feels like it's just big enough to be really interesting and diverse, but it's also just small enough to really feel like a cohesive thing."
After a headlining show at Boulder Theater on September 5, the band took its road-tested songs up to Hideaway Studio, situated high in the heart of Pike National Forest, to record a debut full-length called The Dream of You and Me (which you can listen to now via Guitar World. That's where it was when heavy rainfall caused the worst flooding in Colorado's history. "We could see a lot of the storms rolling in all around us, like on every side of us," Elliott says. The extremes in weather -- from epic thunderstorms to brilliant sunshine -- made for a particularly intense recording process. It wasn't until they returned to Denver that the bandmembers realized the extent of the flood damage. "We had no idea how bad it was, because when you're in the studio, you're sort of disconnected," Elliott says. "We had just seen it kind of from above."
With the recording in tow, Ark Life went to Portland to master the album in the warm wooden basement studio owned by Fruit Bats frontman Eric D. Johnson. "Basically, [The Dream of You and Me] is a live album, but with a lot of fun little textures and stuff courtesy of Eric's brain," says Elliott. The band spent a week working with Johnson, tinkering with details like guitar parts, instrument layering and vocal harmonies (there are some insanely lovely harmonies on the disc).
Still, the biggest part of the album's appeal is its simplicity. The songs feel more organic than the output of These United States, where Elliott says he and his bandmates are often focused on being clever and crafty in both the musical and technical details of their recordings.
Ark Life's debut feels comfortable and somehow familiar, like a two-year-old pair of sneakers. In part, that's because the band played the songs so many times before actually committing them to tape. But the immediacy is also intentional. Elliott, who is the primary songwriter, says he was going for something "simple enough...that you can pick it up pretty quickly. It makes me think of folk music in the broadest sense -- something that you teach friends easily and play with friends easily when you're just sitting around the campfire. There's a sing-along element to it."
The music matches the band's bare-bones live shows. "There's not a lot of effects pedals or digital excitement," says Elliott. "It's just a very old-school sound. We really have very little equipment. We plug it in and we just play simple songs with it."
He and his Ark Life bandmates have played those simple songs at more than 150 shows now, at venues ranging from a house in a Salt Lake City suburb to Red Rocks Amphitheatre. This weekend, they'll play them on a stage set up in the parking lot of Park House, at the corner of East Colfax and Madison, to celebrate the new album, which is being co-released by Denver's Greater Than Collective and the Ohio-based record label Misra. In addition to performances by Ark Life and Portland's Quiet Life, the block party will feature comedy, food from Illegal Pete's, beer from New Belgium and more.
"The whole idea is for it to be a little more than just music, just a show," says Elliott. "Although we love shows, we really wanted to make it a celebratory thing, which is why we're doing it in the afternoon and outside. The idea is for it to be more of a summer party than a straight-ahead rock-and-roll show, per se."
The five musicians in Ark Life are all extremely active in the Denver music scene, and they plan to take a break from touring this winter to focus on other projects here. First, though, they'll hit the road again. Leaving the day after the block party, they'll stop for a show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre outside Fort Collins, then continue on to Wisconsin before heading west to California and then back across the Midwest on their way to New York. You can catch them in Toronto on September 23, in Lexington, Kentucky, on October 3, or at the Joshua Tree Music Festival on October 9. Or you can just wait: They pass through Denver pretty often.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.