Annabel (lee) on Collaborating from Afar and How Lyrics Shine through Sparseness

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

Richard and Sheila Ellis began their collaboration with files sent back and forth between Europe and the United States. Now a married couple, the duo lives together and makes music under the name Annabel (lee). The writing and arrangement on their latest effort, The Cleansing, rejects the rules of genres they pull from, as they opt instead to draw from influences as singular and disparate as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Billie Holiday, Debussy, and Edgar Allen Poe. Gothic lyrics and soundscapes beat against the simple intimacy of the vocal and guitar, making the the A-side of the record feel like some kind of wonderfully twisted bossanova nightmare.

The title track, “The Cleansing,” (which introduces the more orchestrated B-side) simmers with tension: Electronic production pulls against an insistent woody piano, a ghost choir emerges suddenly from the mist of synthesis to accentuate the uncanny quality of Sheila’s voice, which is both playful and sinister.

Annabel (lee)’s powerful sophomore album The Cleansing is out now on the Brooklyn-based label Youngbloods.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Myles Avery

The two of you were located in very different parts of the world, which must have added some complexity to the writing process. What were the benefits and challenges of collaborating from afar?

It was more simple than one would imagine. We shared ideas that were then sent via files. The back and forth of it all was fun. Of course, the downside was not seeing the joy on our faces when the “magic” unfolded and we knew we had the goods. Obviously, the time differences proved challenging in that one of us would have to “wait it out” and sleep (!) while the other was knee-deep in creative action! The outright benefit would be the time to sit with oneself, alone, and think before putting pen to paper.

That is definitely how we started, but we’ve been together non-stop since we got married. Living and working together in London, Deal, Hastings, and now LA.

“We love the idea of the music and vocals being equally as expressive about the theme of the song.”

How did the two of you meet and eventually form Annabel (lee)?

Myspace. We were perusing our music pages, networking with other artists. Our exchanges throughout a brief time revealed something else, something more than the usual we should collaborate. Our creative minds gelled, we started sharing music likes, we challenged each other to write parts, put them together, and immediately knew we had something. That was the birth, really.

The influence of Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell are very apparent here. How did your influences help shape this album — that is, when you were dialing in the nuances of the album’s sound?

I personally wanted to remind others (and myself) that the simplicity (which is actually not quite simple) of folk is vital to my heart. I wanted to give deserved attention to lyrics, coming from a quiet place. Vocals and guitar allows for that process. Drake and Mitchell bring me to tears often when I listen to them with bare instrumentation. We wanted to have moments of sparseness to really require the listener to come closer to his or her device and pay attention to the space, the air between notes.

One of the key themes of the project is contrast, and I’m wondering if you went into writing with this idea, or if it was something that emerged through the collaborative process?

Ha. Well, our minds work and function that way. We’re odd creatures. I’m constantly thinking from A to Z, and not at all in proper order. There’s a stream of consciousness always at play. I try to smooth out the edges, so it’s possible you hear a unique combination of smooth and edgy!

In many moments, granular and delay effects were layered to create harmonies with the vocal lines, rather than, for example, multi-tracking vocals to create more traditional harmonies. Why did you choose these production techniques in those moments?

As Sheila is capable of doing anything she wants with her voice, and loves to experiment, it was natural for me to treat it as any other instrument in the production process and experiment also with filters, effects, and delays to serve the mood of each track. We love the idea of the music and vocals being equally as expressive about the theme of the song. Certainly in the acoustic, guitar-based songs adding more reverb and delay to the vocals in, say, the chorus really enhances the dreaminess of Sheila’s performance and lyrics.

From a mixing perspective, it’s interesting to hear that there are songs in which the vocals are aggressively filtered, adding an old-school-radio vibe, and at other times, they’re much more modern and full. What’s the rationale behind this decision?

It’s really just about what makes sense for each song. We both pull from a deep well of influences, and we feel we’ve found a viable way of using them in different ways to create our own universe, and this includes the production techniques.

Which production choices were made through the recording process, and which were added afterword? 

“The Cleansing,” like all our tracks, was recorded piece by piece at home by just us. It started with me laying down the piano track, then winding the bass around it. The production choices are ever-evolving with each track as it grows. There are times when I present Sheila with finished tracks and others when I present something more basic, knowing that her melodies and lyrics will guide what’s needed to complete it.

This material seems pretty difficult to perform live. Can you talk a bit about your ideal performance scenario for this music? 

In the backyard of David Lynch’s grand terrace! Five nights a week (Mondays off and, on Sundays, a matinee, of course). Los Angeles or London Symphony at the ready, Tilda Swinton is the host. Duh.

We already have a 10-piece live band, which includes harp and strings, assembled over a two-year period. All great musicians, and all sensitive to what we do. We’ve played in the garden of an art gallery, the Stella Adler Theater, a hotel rooftop, and a 150-year-old cellar bar in East London. We like interesting and intimate spaces. Other than that, the Hollywood Bowl!

Why did you decide to make an album titled The Cleansing end with a requiem? And what specific meaning do requiems have to you? Did they play a role in this process?

I have just a faint obsession with death; we’re all going to face it someday. I feel that prior to traveling to the ultimate stop on life’s path, our hearts and minds should be cleansed. It has to be easier than to embrace those on the other side awaiting our arrival. Requiems are the final adieu, or the initial greeting, depending on your mindset.

“Every sound and every note of every instrument should be worked on until it is perfect, but perfection is your call.”

At Soundfly, we love to use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Our harmonies and music direction; they’re unusual for some. Sometimes, you’ve no idea where we’re going to take you. That’s OK, though. It’s a Wonderland, and Annabel has replaced Alice.

I guess it would be the free intermingling of sounds and styles. Musically, I like to abstract the sound of a style more than the form. So, for instance, “The Cleansing” was born from hearing a classical track. It was mostly complex, but there were two slow, deep, passing chords that made me feel I wanted to hear them again. So, I tried to recreate that feeling.

Growing up, what kinds of musical experiences did you have?

I was a dancer initially, but music was the thing that prompted me to dance, so it made sense in the end. I listened to countless genres because it all moved me. I spent most of my college years hanging out with musicians and visual artists (I happened to be really comfortable with both), got on the jazz scene in New York in my young adult years, and “planned my attack” (i.e., dreamt of a music future) while writing poetry and humming at the same time. (Women really can multi-task.)

My father would listen to jazz, blues, folk, classical, country, and opera. He was in the merchant navy and got to travel the world many times. He saw Fats Waller in a basement jazz club in Harlem and went to the great opera houses in Italy. He would record cassettes of jazz radio shows on the BBC and diligently write down the artists and track names on the cassette insert. He bought me my first guitar at age nine.

In my teens I loved Bowie, Roxy Music, Eno, Nick Drake, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, the dark poetry of the Doors, punk, and new wave. When I was 15, my Physics teacher lent me Sketches Of Spain by Miles Davis, leading not only to a love of Miles, but also arranger Gil Evans. In my 20s, I fronted an indie rock band but got more interested in emerging technologies and a more expansive range of sounds. The rest is history.

What was the best advice you’ve ever received, or do you have a piece of advice for amateur artists?

We’re all amateurs.

Every sound and every note of every instrument should be worked on until it is perfect, but perfection is your call.

Thoughts on “The Cleansing”:

The rebirth. Each song had to reflect the growing pains of love and life. For the song of the title’s name, Richard initially laid down the music, and I immediately heard those voices of understanding and support (other women!) in unison; quietly, deliberately, speaking out on the drudgery of being a neglected wife/mother. Those lyrics came instantly because the music spoke to me instantly; I clearly understood what it was saying. “The Cleansing” was a springboard for the other tracks. We see various stages of a relationship: initial infatuation, romanticism, reality, despair with hopelessness, and ultimate redemption for getting through it all and thus having a deeper understanding.

One is exhausted, but thankfully, cleansed.

Looking to advance your skills and open up more opportunities in music? Explore Soundfly’s growing array of Mainstage courses that feature personal support and mentorship from experienced professionals in the field, such as Beat Making in Ableton Live, Orchestration for Strings, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, and The New Songwriter’s Workshop.

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