Indie artist Elliott Burgess recently released his insightful and mystical album, titled Just Look Up at the Moon.
Burgess hails from southern Tennessee, and his music shows all kinds of inspiration from the powerful musical history of the state.
Burgess combines indie rock sounds and aesthetics paired with hints of Americana reminiscent of the region. He likes to use his music to “critique the provincial, rural Southern mindset,” while still drawing from the distinct cultural and artistic palette. With this style of music, Burgess has created a kind of tension or sorrow that feels so intense it can practically be touched. He draws on the experiences specific to his own life, like the tragically early loss of his mother, as well overarching frustration with the community he grew up in.
While drawing on less than light influences and having pain to release through his music, Burgess is sure to stay “never preachy, always hopeful, always delivering his discontent with a wink and a smile.”
To learn more about the complexity and stories woven throughout Just Look Up at the Moon, Burgess answered some questions and shared more about his project.
So can you give us some more background on what led you to be a songwriter and how your upbringing might’ve influenced your path?
Well, I grew up with music in the house. My mom played piano and was a great singer, and my dad played the dobro and harmonica. I remember having a wide exposure to music as a kid. My mom listened to The Police, Carole King, James Taylor and my dad liked CCR, Bob Seger, and more bluesy stuff. We had a big piano in the living room, and I was bought an electric guitar in elementary school and had lessons but gave it up until high school because I was so into playing baseball. I also have two older brothers that got me into Weezer while I was in middle school. I think that was the first “cool” contemporary band I was interested in.
In high school, my friends and I would go out to this little country store my family has and we would record goofy songs on iPhone voice memos. We compiled the songs together and made two little CDs with ridiculous album art to make our friends laugh. In college, I made a little bedroom pop album with my roommate with a project called Vos Lake, and got pretty good feedback from family and friends. In college and post-college, I began writing songs on a 1933 dobro guitar that my dad had redone for me in Nashville. I did it mostly as a cathartic thing, but always had a long-term plan of putting something else out after the Vos Lake project.
As a follow up, do you find a difference in the influences between your lyrics and your instrumentation?
So far, my lyrics have mostly been about a small moment or feeling from my life that I’m trying to describe. The John Prine “storytelling” type of songwriting is not intuitive to me. I think I’m a bit better taking a more impressionist approach to songwriting where I focus more on mood and painting a scene for the listener. That more impressionist approach also informs the sounds that I choose in production and recording.
You just released your latest album, Just Look up at the Moon. Are there any overarching themes or motifs throughout the record? Major influences?
One main reason I wanted to complete the album was to honor my mom. The first four songs are me dealing with losing my mom my senior year of college to cancer. The second part of the album includes songs of feeling isolated in the rural South after having fundamentally changed after experiencing loss and spending time overseas, which shifted my perspective on quite a few things. The final three songs are trying to get at what I think is the most important thing about the human experience, which is the connectedness of humanity and giving grace to other folks that have or will eventually go through some sort of tragedy or bad experience. So, throughout the album there are three main themes—grief, isolation, and transcendent grace.
Sonically, I wanted the album to have a darker feel to it since it was dealing with heavier subject matter. I tried to synthesize the sounds of Ben Howard, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, and The National. I was also really influenced by Gillian Welch’s songwriting and the poet and songwriter Malcolm Guite.
What did your creative process look like for the record?
I wrote all the songs on my resonator guitar and then had ideas of how to add layers. Honestly, they all sort of started out like folk songs. I would find a chord progression I liked and would add a phrase, and then would build the song around that. As I said, the songs are mostly autobiographical by recounting a moment or scene from my life. There were a few times at the end of the album where I brought in things I had been reading about and incorporated them into some of those personal experiences.
For instance, “Catwalk” is about Myles Horton, who was an important Civil Rights leader, that was born in my hometown that I never knew about, and “I Will Never Be Alone in Time” was written after I read Checkov’s short story “The Student,” and David Bentley Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea. The recordings were done in three different houses in West Tennessee, and were recorded and co-produced with my friend and drummer Rob Franks who was a big help and constant believer in my work.
You specifically shared the track “Sentiments” with us. What sets this track apart from others on this album?
Well, it was one of the first songs I wrote for the album. With this song I discuss how a place, like your hometown, can feel foreign to you after you lose someone close to you. The whole geographical place feels different, which is a strange feeling. The chorus says, “You’ll never walk alone, you’ll always be beside me. Just look up at the moon.”
At my mom’s funeral, the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” was played so I used that phrase. We also used to watch the English soccer team, Liverpool, together and that is the song they walk out to. The phrase “just look up at the moon” was from when I was going to be away from my mom for three months in Europe. I felt guilty about leaving, so she walked outside on a full moon and told me to just look up at the moon and remember we are both under it and to not worry. I also felt like it was one of the most memorable of the songs on the album.
‘Mysticism’ is a trait that you are open about expressing in your music. In what ways do you see and feel that in “Sentiments” or Just Look up at the Moon in general?
Like I said with the story about my mom telling me to look at the moon, I tried to provide songs that help us see things from a different vantage point, to consider that maybe our perception is not the only thing going on. At least with my experience in the Christian tradition, there has been a loss of the mystical and an over-reliance on the rational where we try to find “reasons” for all types of tragedy and cruelty. Or we focus solely on what is practical or has a utility. I think that’s crap.
I think a more wise and ancient approach is embracing mystery and accepting the fact we cannot understand everything whether it be through reason, science, or the religious rules we make up. Something that I learned through my experience of losing my mom is that in the end of life, all that matters is love. Though it sounds cliché, there is a helplessness where sacrificial love is the only thing that makes sense. I hope that comes through with the album.
What messages or feelings do you typically try to convey in your music?
At least on this album, the idea of trying to get through the darkness of life is prevalent. There are also times where I try to critique Southern culture in a sly way. I subscribe to what the Drive-By Truckers call the duality of the Southern thing, where you are proud of your roots, but are also honest about the horrible, backwards parts about the South. Really, I want to make songs that are sonically enjoyable, but also have lyrical depth that might not be heard on the first listen.
Do you have the wheels in motion for what’s next following this release? Touring, regional gigs, etc.?
I actually have another full album coming out this year called Nobody’s Perfect Anymore. It is a group of songs that are inspired by some recent trips to California. I hope that it can be some songs people enjoy on their summer vacations. The songs are a lot more lighthearted.
The last record was emotionally heavy for me, so I wanted to begin working on something a little more optimistic. This fall, my wife and I plan to move to Czech Republic, where I hope I can begin playing some shows in the Prague area. I’m excited to have a body of work to show before we move. Since I write everything on my acoustic, I can play with either a full band or by myself.
What is your ultimate goal as a songwriter and musician?
I honestly just love writing songs and would do it if no one heard the songs. At the moment, I’m a full time English instructor at a university, so it gives me a little more financial freedom to write and record without worrying if I can pay the bills. It would be nice to somehow make music a full-time endeavor. I will always write and put stuff out. I like the idea of having grandkids one day and them saying, “Grandpa! You weirdo! You recorded 25 albums!” Yeah, I’m in it for the long haul, and will probably ebb and flow through different genres. It might be a country blues album or something more electronic. That sounds fun.
One last question: what might be your dream performance and/or collaboration as an artist?
Kurt Vile is a big inspiration for me. I love how he both works within and subverts different music traditions like folk, country, heartland rock, and psychedelia. I think playing a show with him at the Ryman would be the thing.