By Dan Kimpel Beyond the engaging songcraft, the assured vocal intimacy and the melodic purity, the spirit of Ellen Tipper's artistry is a compelling, connective force that spins on an axis of innocence and experience. On her new CD, Flanagan's Field, the Maine-based artist alternates her own voice with the narratives from a rich cast of characters. In a trio of songs about women's lives, "Not This Time" is the saga of an abused woman whose husband derides her intelligence while demanding her body. In "Let it Be Real," the protagonist is a woman blindly searching for love in the aftermath of divorce, and "Play It Blue" offers a remedy for living with the disappointment that sometimes accompanies mature relationships. Alternatively, the political reality of modern-day America provides the text of "Save Me," as Tipper offers up this plea: "Save me from the cowboys who circle round the posse/to rope us in and keep us in their own sacred world," while the gentle, contemplative "Crayons" paints a vivid spectrum of lush hues in jewel-toned lyrics. "Songwriting is a kind of anthropology for me - a way to make sense of humanity. When I bring the big questions down into specific experiences and stories, it makes me feel connected and real," says Tipper. Growing up in Maine, Tipper developed a healthy wanderlust, which she has indulged fully. As a classical pianist, broad interests swayed her from the conservatory life, but inspired her songwriting. After college and grad school in the U.S. and studies in London, her persistent interest in world cultures inspired a move to West Africa where she worked with women's cooperatives and AIDS education efforts. "One of my favorite things to do is to go somewhere I don't know and get lost, and have to try to make sense of my surroundings. The kindness of strangers is always surprising and beautiful." The rhythms of Africa pulsate in "Fatima," where it's evident that Tipper's insights are deep. "Everyone wants to approach Africa with a solution but few people ask good questions first, she observes. "There are huge cities, enterprising people on the go, layers of social strata and an immense complexity in all of the cultures of the continent. But it's the richness and depth of people's souls that fascinate me most." As Ellen settles back into her native Maine, she returns to a locale imbued with "gentleness but an incredible harshness as well." On morning walks, words appear to her and in long hours at the piano, in a stream of consciousness flow, lyrics evolve into songs. Whether inviting the listener to enjoy a sunset on Flanagan's Field, to stroll among the children in an African village, or to open a box of crayons with a child, the minute details, the smallest observations and lyrical textures, are in perfect counterpoint to the endearing simplicity of the melodies. "Songs allow you to be transported," Tipper observes. "Like traveling, it's the crooked path that's usually the most interesting. Distilling songs to their essence from that faucet of raw ideas is like emerging from that path, renewed, emboldened and ready for more."
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