Two years ago, Lindsay Ell released The Continuum Project, a song-for-song remake of John Mayer’s 2006 album The Continuum. It was an ambitious release that initially sprouted out of a studio and songwriting exercise before widening in scope, but it pales in comparison to the lofty concept underpinning the Canadian singer-songwriter-guitarist’s new release, Heart Theory. The 12-track album, on which Ell co-wrote 11 of the songs, was produced by Dann Huff and goes headlong into self-care as it tracks the seven stages of grief — a psychological framework first developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Ell didn’t realize it at the time, but she was well into Kübler-Ross’ process while writing the songs that would become Heart Theory, the follow-up to 2017’s The Project.
“I was like, I’m writing these songs in the order of what I’m going through right now,” she tells Rolling Stone. “How cool would it be to write a record around the seven stages of grief and do that in order?”
True to her idea, Heart Theory drops us right at the beginning stage of shock in “Hit Me,” a slinky, funk-pop number about the sudden pangs of absence one feels after a breakup. From there she progresses through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.
She sometimes lingers in a stage for more than one song — the denial stage encompasses the pulsing, danceable “How Good” and the slow-burning ballad “I Don’t Love You,” while the anger stage gets three songs, including the righteous “Get Over You.” Near the end of the album, in “Make You,” she addresses the trauma of sexual violence she experienced when she was 13 and 21, chronicling her path to healing. Throughout, Ell shows off her fiery, nimble guitar skills and growing confidence as a vocalist in songs that are overwhelmingly upbeat and tuneful — with a couple of exceptions — in spite of the knotty emotional territory they cover.
We spoke with Ell about seeing her concept come to life on Heart Theory; seeking therapy to unlock her potential; and how she hopes to help others who’ve experienced extreme trauma.
Were you working on Heart Theory during quarantine?
Yeah. The day before Nashville shut down, Dann Huff and I had our last band tracking session and we got that in the can, thankfully. And then I had a bunch of vocal and guitar tracks still to do. I finished the record from my house in quarantine. I have a little studio in my house and Dann has a studio in his. I’d record things, send him files, he’d work his magic, send them back. And then to finish guitar parts — because Dann is one of the best guitar players in the world — we got on FaceTime, and I had my whole guitar and setup over here, and he would just talk me through as he would in the studio.
Are you doing all the guitar work?
I’m pretty much doing all the guitar — all the solos are me. We had a couple of rhythm guitarists when we were tracking with the band, so I could stand in the mixing room with Dann and help produce and move the session, but other than that, all the guitars are me. All the lead work is me. I was so nervous going into the studio with Dann the first time, because I was like, here is someone who could play circles around almost any other human on the planet and I have to go play guitar in front of him? And he’s just the most down-to-earth human. He empowers you as an artist and pulls out that creativity within you that is sometimes really hard to voice. If anything, he was like, “Lindsay, if you don’t play guitar on your record, what’s the point of making a record? This is your thing; let’s do it right.”
The concept of the album, following the seven stages of grief, is ambitious. While writing, were you going through a breakup or a series of things?
I was going through a breakup. I had a major health scare last year. I had just turned 30. There were all these moments in my life where I was basically reflecting, partially on my life in general, and turning a [new] decade and truly figuring out, “OK, who am I?” We go through moments of transformation in our lives. I’m such a nerd about a lot of things, but I love reading up about these kinds of things. I’m a huge Brené Brown fan. The seven stages of grief is one way of articulating the process of how we move through things and let them go.
The idea of going to therapy turns up in a couple of these new songs. How has that shaped your outlook and the way you work?
I am a huge proponent for therapy; I’m a huge proponent of self-development and self-love. Regardless of the spots we’re all in in life, whether we feel healthy or unhealthy, therapy is an amazing tool to be able to help us show up with our full potential every day. It has definitely been something I’ve embraced in my life over the past six or seven years. Over the last couple years, I really dove in deep and gone to the next level and have been reading the books, and have been doing the work, and journaling and meditating.
Maybe this is by design, but it’s a very upbeat album — a lot of bright melodies and grooves, even though the subject matter is heavy. How were you able to strike that kind of contrast?
It was definitely intentional. My favorite songs say something, and say something usually pretty deep, yet they feel so good. I wanted this record to feel good. People could listen to it and it would make them want to dance, yet I was still saying real things and difficult things sometimes. I call them “sangers” — like sad songs that are bangers. You kind of want to dance and groove, in your car or kitchen. That’s what music is about. I didn’t want this to be a heavy record; I wanted this to be an uplifting record to inspire people.
You disclosed that you were raped when you were 13 and 21, which is heartbreaking and horrifying. Why did you want to go public with that information, and what do you hope to accomplish by launching the Make You Movement?
I’ve never talked about my story as a little girl until this point, and part of that reason was I just never wanted it to be about a publicity stunt. And I was still processing parts of that. Three years ago I went to an organization called Youth for Tomorrow to help them launch their music program. I sat down at this conference table with 12 little girls and I told them my story, and then they told me their stories. The more I talked, the more they wanted to share. These are horrifying stories.
I left that day knowing that if I didn’t talk about my story, I was holding back the opportunity to help other little girls like that, or little boys, or grown adults, because I feel like this happens more in our communities and our cities than we want to even acknowledge. I decided it was time for me to talk about this, [so] I called up a good friend of mine, Brandy Clark, and asked her if she would sit down and help me write [“Make You”].
I was able to help launch my own foundation as well, because it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is if I truly want to help. The Make You Movement focuses on disenfranchised youth, specifically survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse. If I had somebody to hold 13-year-old Lindsay and hold 21-year-old Lindsay’s hand and tell them it’s going to be OK, and they’re not alone, I would have healed so much faster. Every survivor has their own process and own story and own timing, but I really just want to focus with the Make You Movement on being there for other survivors, letting them know they’re not alone and it’s going to be OK, and help them, if I can at all, heal a little faster.
In “Make You” and several of the other songs on Heart Theory, you sing about going through these troubles and emerging better on the other side. What signaled to you that you were getting to a place of acceptance and healing?
Sometimes you can wake up in the morning and you don’t feel that heavy weight on your chest. You can breathe a little easier. It’s a gradual process and there’s no right or wrong way — there’s no specific order of how things go or how many days it takes. Everybody is completely different. But when you can wake up in the morning and breathe a little deeper and have clearer thoughts and be excited about new opportunities, feeling your heart start to open again to new things, you are totally rounding that corner.