“I’ve Never Written an Optimistic Song in my Life”: The Extended Universe of Ellie Bleach

On the eve of the release of her debut EP, we caught up with Ellie Bleach to talk selling out, modern and post-modern cliché, and why more artists should start their own lore.

Words: Lloyd Bolton | Photo: Willow Shields

Show business, ‘selling out’ and the act of performance

‘No Elegant Way to Sell Out’ is the masterful debut EP from Ellie Bleach, one of the finest songwriters in London right now. Over five tracks, she shows off her ability to inhabit a range of musical and lyrical perspectives, spiralling around stories of thwarted attempts at success. Ellie defines success in its most general terms, “Whether it’s romantic love or industry acclaim”. Each demands its own personal sacrifices and moral compromises, some form of ‘selling out’. After her set at Hard Of Hearing’s August bank holiday weekender, I had a chat with Ellie about the themes and influences of the EP, sat in The Victoria’s pub garden among the holler of hen dos, grown men throwing paper airplanes and what we diagnosed as a first date on the table beside us.

Considering the collection as a whole, Ellie explains how the idea of being a performer informs these modulations on the theme of ‘selling out’. “I love any kind of media about show business. Everyone loves films about the film industry, and I like to extend that to songs about the music industry without being too on the nose.” She argues that, “The idea of being a performer is actually more relatable than you think it would be”.  Her songs reframe and exaggerate aspects of performance, performance becoming the ultimate metaphor for the sale of oneself. Her range of characters all present themselves in a kind of permanent performance. The downtrodden protagonist of ‘Doing Really Well Thanks’ assures us they’re fine; “At least I do my crying on Egyptian cotton sheets”. The cruise entertainer in meta-lounge banger ‘Precious Feelings’ hides their love away as they “keep it light and breezy”. To draw an ultimate argument from the EP, not only from the knowing cynical humour of its lyrics, but also from its self-conscious synthesis of pastiche and modern stylings, it is that we are all performing all the time, in danger of losing our true selves to those we present.

(Left) Eleni Papachristodoulou, No Elegant Way to Sell Out, 2022, (right) William Mariott, Pearson’s Magazine, 1910.

Kitsch devotees, cinema and a world defined by love, not money

Given the vital importance of appearances to the concept of the sale of oneself, and Ellie’s eye for style as flexed in her regular Instagram fitchecks, it is fitting that the EP’s cover is at once fabulous and carefully evocative. Designed by a fellow kitsch devotee, Eleni Papachristodoulou, the image is based on a photograph of William Marriott, which Ellie spotted at the Wellcome Collection gallery, London.

The original photograph was part of a body of work by William Marriott from the early Twentieth Century. He sought to show how images of purported supernatural activity could be faked through trick photography, part of a wider current of demonstrations disproving the objectivity of the new medium. Though chosen initially “because I thought it was a really cool image”, with details out of shot (a favourite design feature of Ellie’s, which recurs in her artwork), it also speaks, in an abstracted way, to the themes that are addressed across the EP. It comes from a desire to reveal artifice, “to show how the sausage is made”, as Ellie puts it. Her songs themselves do this in their confrontation of crisis points for characters, whose drive towards socially constructed ideals prove to be at a disjuncture with their own well-being. Knowing lyricism strengthens arguments with its own offscreen elements, as with the ‘limousine’, ‘spiral staircase’ and ‘chandelier’ – a flood of symbols of artificial opulence – mentioned in passing in ‘Doing Really Well Thanks’.

Papachristodoulou’s reinterpretation of the photograph is a fitting invitation to the world of Ellie Bleach. The artist is posed front and centre, touching her hair mock-shyly, with William Marriott’s props overwritten with plastic symbols of the entwinement of success and pressure. Hands insistently proffer time-dependent objects: a waiting telephone, an engagement ring. a sand timer and a dagger. Ellie’s expression is ambiguous, possible discomfort masked by poise and a glamourous mise-en-scène. On the surface, she’s “doing really well, thanks”, but underneath it’s anybody’s guess.

“I definitely have this mood board in my head”, she says, explaining the development of what she only half-jokingly describes as the “cinematic universe” of Ellie Bleach. Though she has always performed under her real name, she dates the quote-unquote ‘Ellie Bleach’ persona back to 2019, when she began to develop the framework within which her songs fit. Not only does this establish a compelling voice to listen to, it also focuses Ellie’s ideas as a writer. “I work better when I have limitations and a framework. It’s why I was never very good at poetry… I didn’t ever want to write in free verse, so I would just come out with William Blake-style couplets”. This creative necessity seems to guide the development of an extended universe underpinned by consistent themes.  I suggest that these people could even appear in each others’ songs, and Ellie agrees that she “should start more lore”.

Certainly, the EP possesses a cinematic quality, and offers as much a collection of stories as songs. “I don’t really like musicals, but a lot of people say my songs could be showtunes”, a nod to their Hollywood chord progressions but also to the deeply developed melodramatic stories they tell. On that note, I wonder aloud whether ‘Tupperware Party’ could be the opening or closing song of a musical, depending on the story that would be told. Though she defends its self-contained nature, Ellie indulges the idea. She acknowledges it could fit into the category of ‘I Want’ songs in modern musicals, which introduces a character with a presentation of their life and what is missing from it. As the refrain, “Is he too late”, shifts into first person, I like to imagine the stage suddenly bathed in an optimistic glow as our protagonist throws up his arms and asks “am I too late?” over a rousing musical conclusion: end of Scene One. It could be the start of a heartening story about his rediscovery of the world as defined by love, not money. Ellie sets me straight on this, however. She puts it flatly: “It’s pessimistic”. Upon further consideration, she adds, “I’ve never written an optimistic song in my life!”

Yet although the songs on ‘No Elegant Way to Sell Out’ tell sad stories, they are not defined by sadness. There is something triumphant about the vividity with which Ellie depicts ugly human characteristics, as well as the structural problems within society that create such feelings of shame and unfulfillment. “There’s a big canon of sad girl songwriting and I don’t think it fits into that”, she says. “I like to maintain a balance between funny and sad”. Returning to the reference point of cinema, she points out that “there’s no such thing as a film without conflict. Conflict is what spurs everything along”. The instinct suggests Orson Welles’ famous adage, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, on where you stop your story”. Perhaps the authority of the cynicism of ‘No Elegant Way to Sell Out’ is the wisdom of its perspectives, almost always set after the happy ending of the suburban marriage, the steady Wall Street job, the escape from home to the big city by “Little Miss Most Likely to Succeed”. What Ellie is more interested in are the entropic consequences of the sacrifices made in the name of success. “I’ve tried writings songs about being in love and I was like this is just boring!”

Photo: Indy Brewer

The call of America, connecting the dots and letting the audience do the thinking

Considering the importance of settings and their sounds on the EP, we discuss the significance of place to Ellie’s storytelling. The call of America is heard throughout the collection work. As in so much American literature, we shift between suburbs and cities, each arenas of success and failure in capitalistic terms, defined by the necessity of ‘selling out’. Considering this reference point, she explains, “The Twentieth Century vision of America, all the clichés about the American dream, there’s been sooo much on that topic that it feels kinda funny to still be talking about it. It’s something you learn about in GCSE English, everything about it has been said.”

As a narrative backdrop, it affords Ellie the easiest world to tap into, but also allows for a playful interaction with the listener. “You can leave things unsaid. When you gesture toward such an established cultural canon, you can let the audience do the thinking for themselves”. There is plenty of room in this collection to connect the dots, throwaway lines explaining everything about a character. The “jobsworth waiter” doing a “theatre major” from ‘Tupperware Party’ sounds like he could be an Ellie Bleach song himself, one that we can already begin to imagine because of the excess of literature from which he is plucked. The onslaught of images and characters that we immediately feel so deeply is central to the commanding literary greatness of the EP, which is dependent on our shared cultural heritage.

In working with an oversaturated literary canon, Ellie hopes to build a certain timeless quality into her songs. “Looking to the past, you already know how things will age because they have aged.” Writing of an 80s Manhattan today, she knows what details and themes are durable and is able to create something universal because of a degree of foreignness from the subject. At the same time, she keeps half an eye out for a chance to make a reference to something comically dated, like a “Tupperware party”, in the security of the terms upon which this has been consigned to its time.  Considering the converse option, she concedes that attempts to write about modern technology and trends have felt too contrived, arguing that “No one wants to write about phones because no one knows how”. It does not help that all of this technology “ages like milk”, with new brand names and app functions constantly flashing in and out of pertinence.

At the same time, there is something very contemporary about Ellie’s songwriting, which encapsulates modern attitudes and experiences even at some degree of narrative remove. Late stage capitalist instincts are peppered throughout the EP, like the mollification of a breakup by the thought “of all the energy I’ll save” in ‘Big Strong Man’.

Society’s constant demands upon our time and energy feel especially oppressive as business and pleasure are melded on our phones, which are becoming increasingly difficult to put down even for an hour. Social media is our platform for selling out, holiday pictures from old school friends broken up by small-scale show business, the monetisation of hobbies, and fleeting romantic possibilities. Even Ellie’s fitcheck stories have of late been necessarily broken up by the reminder, communicated behind rolling eyes, that it would really help her if you pre-save the EP on your chosen streaming platform. Her songwriting delineates the inescapability of these situations, and even while not always directly depicting trappings of this life – the 15 seconds of fame, the like and the superlike – it is always on her shoulder as she transposes onto archetypal scenarios. 

Considering the veiled contemporaneous quality to Ellie’s writing, we must also look to London as a key muse, as wilfully unoriginal and inspiring as the USA. London, and ‘the city’ in general, is integral to Ellie’s extended universe. She identifies with, “All the clichés about it being busy and alienating and lonely at the same time, being fast-moving and competitive”, and this comes through in her work. Speaking of the Fiona Apple-type strut that is ‘Something Wrong’, she explains its protagonist’s jealousy of hypothetical “other women” her lover is seeing as “a very London anxiety”. “Dating in London, you kind of assume everyone is talking to five other people”, she remarks. This in turn evokes a line in ‘Doing Really Well Thanks’: “The city is a buffet, don’t fill up on the bread”. Within these concerns lies the tragicomedy that has become Ellie’s trademark, here manifested in the “sense of abundance” of potential lovers. She explains how this dangerously teases the city-dweller that “there is always something better around the corner”, an idea that could deteriorate into a situation where “you can never be satisfied”.

On a table beside us sit two people sipping pints and talking quietly. “Do you think those two are on a first date?” asks Ellie. “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that man on Hinge before”. It is a fitting sideshow to the conversation. The Hinge assimilation of romance is part of a new round of means of selling oneself, forcing people to contrive a cheapened means of presenting themselves to a massive public as the gap closes between dating and online shopping. The point made by the jumps between historical periods in Ellie’s work is that these experiences run deeper than recent technological trends, built into our society and routinely instigating the kinds of melodramatic flashpoints her songs present. Behind the profile picture, the ‘Egyptian cotton sheets’, the performance of doing alright, we are fighting against a society that thrives upon our weaknesses, our ugliness.  As we try to make it work for ourselves, we face it as we have faced it over and over again: There’s no elegant way to sell out.

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