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It’s no wonder that Germany’s Rolling Stone compared Luke Elliot to some of the greatest sonic storytellers of our time when they wrote, “Luke Elliot’s style is timeless, his songs tell stories and comparisons to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, or Tom Waits are therefore not uncommon.” It’s because he’s had a lot of practice at storytelling. Before even penning a tune or hitting the keys, the Princeton, New Jersey-bred singer/songwriter/pianist let his imagination fly with short stories that veered to the darker side of things.
“I was always a weird child,” reveals the artist, who started writing stories and poems at age 7, playing piano at 8, and writing songs at 12. “I was always getting in trouble in school for writing or reading things that I shouldn’t. We had to write a story based on a photo we saw. I made up a story about a kid looking through a lock in a door and seeing his dad having an affair on his mom and then he went and killed the woman. I was in third grade. They were a little worried, so they called my parents in for that one.”
Another worrisome moment was his sixth grade book report on William S. Burroughs’ Junkie, and the fact he was admittedly fascinated by the dark romanticism of the topic. But, luckily for the young boy, his parents (his mother a poet and father an English professor) not only understood, but also completely nurtured, his creative side — no matter how offbeat it might have seemed.
Elliot’s penchant for storytelling and fascination with topics a bit out-of-the norm is front-and-center on his debut full-length release, Dressed for the Occasion, which is set for a Summer 2017 release on Jullian Records in the U.S. “Trouble,” which starts with a bit of a spaghetti Western feel and kicks into his trademark dark and stormy raspy vocals atop ’60s Lynchian guitars, depicts a fictional character whose wife died was inspired in part by the Frank O’Hara poem, “Having a Coke with You.”
“I don’t know where the stories come from sometimes,” explains Elliot. “They just come. I like creating characters or telling someone else’s story, but sometimes I write about what I’m going through. It generally starts with a sound that I’ll have on the piano or guitar or something. And then I just kind of fumble things for days until I get an idea of the story that I want to tell. The mood of the song will sometimes lead you into what it’s about.”
Elliot dives into a few other dark tales on Dressed on “The Great Rondout Train Robbery” about the largest train robbery in history perpetrated by The Newton Gang in 1924. And, on “A Prayer for Saint Rita,” the singer recounts the sad tale of Saint Rita of Cascia, the Patron Saint of the Impossible, Abused Wives, and Widows. “I’m just drawn to the sadness, I think. But there’s a lot of honesty in the sadness that I like to explore, too,” he explains.
The album’s lead track, “Get ‘Em While They’re Hot,” is a remake of a critically praised track on the singer’s debut EP, Death of a Widow (Yer Bird Records, 2010), which No Depression called “a superb debut.” “We re-recorded it because we loved the way that it sounded and wanted to have like a fresh take on it. This song has a lot to do with superstition because I’m a very superstitious guy,” he says.
The singer lets the listener into his personal life on the album as well, as heard on “Blue and Green” and “Let It Rain on Me.” “I was engaged at one point and those two songs directly have to do with the person that I was involved with. There’s a whole lot of personal things that we would say or do or watch or think that had to do with the end of that relationship in those songs,” he says.
Musically, an eclectic mix of influences pumps through Elliot’s veins that range from John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Dylan to the Cramps, Gun Club and Mink DeVille to films by spaghetti western inventor, as well as Badlands, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers. With those influences, it’s no wonder that Dressed for the Occasion serves quite the eclectic mix of crooner rock and roll, spaghetti western music, classic country, and pop standards, with a bluesy, gin-soaked swagger.
“We recorded a lot of the album live,” explains Elliot. “90% of it was recorded to analog tapes. We had one musician with us who played like 80 different instruments, so there’s a lot of violin, cello, mandolin, dobro, different organs (pump, Hammond, and Farfisa). We did it in Halden, Norway in this studio called Athletic Sound that had all this just really incredible tape equipment. So we did it as authentic as we could and then we had it mastered at Abbey Road Studios for vinyl.”
The album was produced, recorded, and mixed by John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile), who fell in love with Elliot’s second EP, Provisions (self-released, 2014). “John really had great ideas for how to make the songs come to life that I desperately needed. He’s really a master arranger and producer,” says Elliot.
The musical love-fest is mutual. “The first time I heard Luke’s voice,” recalls Agnello, “I knew he was super talented. Then when I saw him play piano and sing, I saw that he was a force of nature. And watching him grow as an artist has been remarkable.”
Elliot’s journey began the old-fashioned way — working his way up from playing small bars in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to some of the most legendary clubs in the country, such as NYC’s Mercury Lounge and Webster Hall and Philadelphia’s World Café Live. At the time, The Aquarian Weekly wrote that Elliot is “taking the New York music scene by storm,” while PopDose described him as a mix of Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits. Through his critically acclaimed recordings and mesmerizing live shows, the fledgling artist caught the attention of film director Paul Cantagallo, who asked Elliot to compose the music for his film, Benny the Bum, which won Best Local Film at the 2012 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.
But it was an introduction to Rihanna’s original manager, Christa Shaub, which would lead to a chance meeting with an influential Norwegian journalist that would send his career on a fast-track trajectory. Elliot was soon signed to Norway’s Indie Recordings, which released Dressed for the Occasion in 2016. And, though he’d never been out of the country — or even owned a passport — he found himself spending a whirlwind two years in Europe, recording in Norway and then embarking on sold-out tours, performing to thousands of new fans, appearing on major TV shows, and drawing the praise of the European press.
The influential Rock & Folk, France’s largest magazine, raved, “My favorite song on the album? All of them.” Le Parisien wrote, “He brings life to his compositions with conviction, and makes us live a great concert hour… Luke Elliot shines with the stars.” Further kudos came from VG, which called the record “a masterpiece,” and Dagbladet, which dubbed it “an instant classic” and chose it as its favorite album of the year.
Meanwhile, Dressed for the Occasion hit #7 on iTunes in Norway, received more than 2 million streams on TIDAL/Spotify in Europe, and Elliot was named one of the world’s five best new artists by TIDAL.
“It’s been a crazy journey so far,” adds Elliot. “I never expected the reaction from Europe that it got, but I just can’t wait for America to hear this record now.”