Megan Ellsworth's vocals invite listeners to sway like prairie grass in the breeze. Her indie-folk songs call to mind sunlight on the face, birds chirping in the distance and worries fading away. But a sadness lurks beneath the pleasant sounds.
Ellsworth, who performs under the name ELLSWORTH and just dropped her self-titled debut, has plenty to be sad about. After all, she’s a member of the generation that grew up after the 9/11 attacks, in a country with two perpetual wars, weekly school shootings, crippling student-loan debt, a planet poised to expel us and now a lethal pandemic. Who wouldn't be bummed out after all this?
Music helps her process emotions like sadness, anger, guilt and regret.
“When you’re happy, you don’t need to find out why you're happy,” she says. “But when you’re sad, you’re like, ‘Why am I sad? Why am I anxious right now? I don’t like this.’”
Ellsworth, who also sings in the three-part, harmony-driven group Sister Neapolitan, says her music is for anyone, but she adds that members of Generation Z have had a unique experience, and she writes from that perspective. She’s heard her generation compared to the Lost Generation, people who came of age during World War I and the Spanish Flu, a nasty time that undoubtedly left an indelible impression on those who lived through it. Why is Generation Z any different? Sure, there are antibiotics now, but there's also cyberbullying.
“I definitely pull from my youth and the things I’ve seen through my life,” she says. “The recession and different presidents and just growing up in a digital age.”
Ellsworth struggles with a panic disorder that she taps into in her songs, including “Anxiety.” She wrote the song about six years ago, when she was in high school; its free-form structure meanders, reminding her of how anxiety feels.
“I would say that writing, songwriting, for me is like no other thing when it comes to panic,” she says. “It’s so therapeutic.”
She wrote the song for her father, who also suffers from the disorder, which creates a sensation akin to a heart attack or stroke. He taught her music as a way to cope with her feelings as a child.
“I’m a highly sensitive person,” she says. “I think that’s an actual term, HSP. Sometimes I just feel so fragile, and it’s so frustrating. I wrote that song after an anxiety attack or panic attack, whatever it was. I was just feeling so out of control and fragile.”
The song “Fight or Flight” also references the disorder, as panic attacks trigger a response to danger, something one might feel during a mountain lion attack; you either fight the lion or run away. The lyrics reference French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas's images of ballerinas, specifically the figures falling down and breaking apart. It's grim stuff.
The album's recording process involved some experimental instrument choices that linger for listeners. Matt Hoffman of Strange Americans — who also plays in ELLSWORTH and is Ellsworth's instructor at the University of Denver, where she studies music — experimented with various instrumental choices.
“It was on ‘Overboard’ — we used sandpaper instead of a shaker,” she says. “Just watching Matt try to be on time with two pieces of sandpaper, using them as a shaker — things like that made the album so much fun.”
The name ELLSWORTH is equally perfect for performing solo or with a full backing band, and in the months to come, Ellsworth hopes to perform both ways at socially distanced concerts. She can't wait.
“This is like a dream come true,” she says. “I’m so excited to get to play with these amazing musicians and share my music.”
For more information, visit ellsworththefolksinger.com.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.