San Fermin a band of characters, about characters
With a name like Ellis Ludwig-Leone, you're likely destined for either music or sweet spaghetti westerns. Luckily for music fans, the 24-year-old Brooklyn native chose the former.
Ludwig-Leone learned piano at a young age and perfected his skills while studying at Yale. He assisted composer Nico Muhly on arrangements for the likes of The National and Sufjan Stevens before finally deciding to make his own record with his own band. Thus was born San Fermin, an orchestral pop band with a dash of The National, a dash of Dirty Projectors and several dashes of something completely different.
On the date of their self-titled debut album's release, OnMilwaukee chatted with the understandably excited Ludwig-Leone and Rae Cassidy – San Fermin's lead female vocalist and a Brookfield native – about looking back and looking forward from the new record, as well as Cassidy's not-so-secret past appearance on this very site.
OnMilwaukee.com: How's today going? It must be exciting.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone: It's great! It's a little nerve-wracking right about now because finally everyone gets to weigh in on and give their two cents on the record, so you have to find a certain Zen state. Like, "I know this is good. It's fine."
OMC: When was the exact time, Ellis, when you decided to move from classical music to a band?
ELL: Yeah, it's interesting because in college I was studying classical music very seriously. But I had a classical ensemble that I started at school, which our saxophone player in our band was actually in the classical ensemble as well. His name is Stephen Chen, and he mentioned the other day, "I was thinking about it, and our ensemble at school was just the prototype for this, wasn't it?" And it really was, actually. I realized that having that kind of community was something really important to me.
In a way, it's a big change because we're playing at rock clubs rather than at concert halls, but in a way, it's also been very natural.
OMC: Rae, When did you start getting involved in music?
Rae Cassidy: I started by recording a cappella arrangements when I was 12 or 13, and then did the whole MySpace music thing. People who would search locally for music in the area would find me on there. Friends would make me start performing. They'd drag me out on stage, so I got into a habit of that in Milwaukee as I grew up. When I was 18, I moved to the city and started singing with different groups in the area and performing solo a lot. I sang with I'm Not a Pilot and Fresh Cut Collective. We had a swing band in town, and we'd play at Via on Downer.
OMC: You're a Milwaukee native?
RC: Yeah! I come from Brookfield, but I was playing in Milwaukee since I was like 15 or 16. Then I moved to New York, like, a year ago. I had some friends out here, and I knew that was what I was supposed to do. I've been working on a solo record for about a year and a half or two years, and I just came here with that. While pursuing that, this whole thing fell into place, and this feels really nice.
OnMilwaukee even did an article on me and my little weird solo a cappella stuff when I was like 14.
OMC: I'll see if I can pull that up and link it up to this article.
RC: No, don't link it up! It's a weird photo of me; I'm like a little kid.
OMC: It's too late. I've already decided to link it up.
RC: Noooo! (laughs)
OMC: So when exactly did you get involved with the group?
RC: I got involved at the beginning of February. We have a mutual friend who sent Ellis some of my solo recordings. I just got an email from Ellis one day, and he asked me to come over and sing. And I did. It was very random, and it all happened very quickly. I thought we got along really, really well, and I was super stoked.
ELL: Rae's first audition consisted of like 15 minutes of giggling at the beginning.
RC: They had me sing "Sonsick" in front of them after just shaking their hands, and that song … it's just very, very loud shouting that I have to do. And I was so embarrassed. I remember I was on the floor giggling because it was the weirdest thing. But it was the birth of a great couple of friendships.
OMC: The album's songs tell the story of a man and woman in a kind of semi-romance. How do you go about writing characters for music?
ELL: It was really important to write and invent characters because I, as a songwriter, always feel like there's this need to put everything in there all at once. That the song has to say everything that I'm feeling and everything that I am. And for me, that's very crippling because I often feel pulled two ways about things.
So developing the characters was really important because I was able to pull things in one way, and then push back and pull with the other character. I think the big challenge is to turn those characters into people that feel real. You want your characters to feel like what they're saying is honest and true, rather than a device to make the song work.
OMC: Rae, how did you get into character for these songs, especially since, on the album, the female part is sung by two different vocalists (Jesse Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius)?
RC: It took a little while because I got to hear this recording that already had two different female voices on it, so it felt less like personal to that singular character. It felt more like it was a general consensus. But Ellis is very specific and personal with the layout of this plot that he has, so I tried to come back to that.
Through my friendship with Allen (Tate, San Fermin's male vocalist) and Ellis, I feel like I'm growing more and more into the creature of this character, whoever it is. But it's less vague than being split between two voices, two girls, how it was on the record. It's more personalized into a very specific story for one person. Now, I feel like the character is more focused and singular.
ELL: I think what's been very interesting about Rae getting involved in this when she did is that some of the lyrics that were written for that female character are sort of vague enough that, depending on the delivery, it really changes how the lines are received.
I think a good example of that is "Oh, Darling." The lyrics are, "Oh darling, I've been so miserable I can't describe." On the record, it sounds sort of aloof and sort of over it. Rae has interpreted it in an interesting way, which is that you buy that she's really miserable. It works in a really beautiful way, which is one of the reasons why we put out that video with "Oh, Darling" as soon as we could because it felt like such a new and fresh take on the song.
OMC: These songs seem so intricate, and they have so many moving parts to them. How is it to perform these songs live?
ELL: Honestly, it's been a blast. When I wrote the record, it's 22 or 23 people on the record, which is essentially a mini-orchestra. Obviously, that's not going to work on the road. When I rearranged it for the seven that it is now, there was a certain "Sophie's Choice" aspect of, like, what are you going to let go. That trombone line is gone now; how can we make up for it? It was a really sad but necessary thing to do.
Then, as I started arranging, I realized that it was a really good compositional exercise. How do you get the same bang for your buck with the most conservative strokes? Everyone is always doing something, and it should always be something interesting. Now, I'm starting to think that, for the next record, I might just want to keep it the size that it is rather than add in extra things. It's a little more minimalist. It's certainly less maximalist, I guess, than the record.
OMC: You have lots of themes in the album, and you've mention some like misplaced romantic love and nostalgia for simpler times. How many of these themes are from personal experience, and how is it writing about these big themes at such a young age?
ELL: I've always tended toward the grandiose in terms of my general feelings on things. When I finished school, I was like, "Oh my god, what am I doing? Am I going to be a musician? Where does this go?" I also felt that everything felt a little less intense than it did when I was younger, which is just like a natural thing I think. With life experience, things don't hit with quite the same force.
I think the mixture of those things prompted me to write the record, but honestly, I hope there are themes that are universal and not just about being young. But I think, on the next record, I would hopefully have more nuance going about them. I think a lot of times when I was writing these songs, it was all one thing or all the other thing. And that's why these two characters existed, to sort of fight it out back and forth. Now, I feel a lot more mixed about these things. I hope that's a sign of maturity. (laughs)
San Fermin will be performing a Pabst Pub Show on Sunday, Sept. 29. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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