For longtime performer Ellen M. Wilson, this foray into Adult Contemporary music isn’t so much a new venture as a return to her roots. The singer and songwriter penned songs as a teenaged member of several rock bands before heading off to study classical music in college. But a more recent series of seemingly unconnected events led her back to the music of her heart and soul.
After the release of a solo album of songs penned by pals Robbi Sherwin, Larry Lesser, and Scott Leader (who also produced the album), and a signing to the Mid West Flawless Entertainment record label, Ellen’s return course seemed set when, in 2010, she met producer T.L. Brown.
Discovering a musical connection that seemed to be heaven-sent, the team began collaborating on song writing. The classically-trained college professor and the self-taught singer/songwriter/producer may not seem the likeliest of pairs: but the Wilson/Brown songwriting partnership has created a sound that bridges generational and cultural chasms with the ease of old friends.
The new album, released nationwide on August 14, 2012 on the TMG record label, showcases the Wilson/Brown songwriting synergy that bridges musical styles, an ideal venue for Ellen’s vocal versatility. Ellen’s lyrical singing has been praised for its angelic quality and heart-felt earnestness, well-underscored by the ensemble playing of the musicians.
When asked why people of all backgrounds and ages were identifying with her songs, Ellen replied, “Everyone likes a song they can identify with. And T.L. and I decided to write songs for this album that talk about deeper truths and ideas that people need to hear at this time. It’s all about connecting, and we all have a deep desire to do that at any age.” The new album can be purchased or downloaded at iTunes, Amazon, or directly from TMG: http://www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=847726006288
Ellen M. Wilson is a solo artist who performs with other musicians for different types of venues.
Ellen M. Wilson - vocals
Armin Harrison, classical and acoustic guitar, backup vocals, also electric guitar and bass
Ellen M. Wilson, vocals
Scott Leader, keyboards and vocals
Robbi Sherwin, guitar and vocals
Michael Levin, classical cello
Joel Gottschalk, bass
Jack Sterbis, drums and percussion
2012 - Destiny, TMG Records
2011 - Singles: Someday, Alone, Shelter Me
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Treat your nerves to a vacation. Ellen M. Wilson’s Songs of Ascent is the perfect album for tense li...Treat your nerves to a vacation. Ellen M. Wilson’s Songs of Ascent is the perfect album for tense listeners in tense times. If you are frayed by looming debt, housing concerns, healthcare inadequacies, by any or all of the plagues of our times, Songs of Ascent is a balm that rarely comes packaged in CD form. The compositions are all based on Jewish liturgy, but the arrangements and message transcend religious affiliation.
Songs of Ascent opens with “Modeh Ani,” a grace said upon awakening. Wilson infuses the melody with haunting Middle Eastern tones reminiscent of the muezzin’s call to prayer. The second song’s lyrics, “Eil Na R’fa Na Lah,” are composed of Moses’ prayer for his sister Miriam’s healing. Wilson’s simple yet soaring melody feels as if it actually could have healing properties. In fact, the same can be said of the entire album.
I have seen Songs of Ascent labeled as “new age”, but I disagree. Rather than 'new', Wilson’s arrangements and heavenly voice seem ancient in the best sense of the word. The music and words are delivered with quiet passion as one imagines they were originally intended back in the day when religion was more universally viewed as a source of strength and communion. For example, anyone who has ever been to a synagogue service has heard “Oseh Shalom,” but not like this. This prayer, asking God to bestow peace on the world, has never been so wistful, so heartfelt and so, well, harmonically catchy. I now find this tune running through my head like a reflexive and soothing mantra. And unlike most “ear-worms,” which tend to be as pernicious as the “Meow Mix” song, I welcome this one. It is flat out gorgeous.
Last year at this time, I was exhausting my iPod battery with Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas album, Wintersong, alternately wishing there were a Jewish equivalent and also not caring if there was because while listening to the music my spirit rose and cartwheeled, no religious affiliation necessary. Yet this year I got my wish. Ellen M. Wilson’s sound is much like McLachan’s and with just as broad an appeal. Wilson’s voice is truly ethereal. She could sing programming code and still induce a Zen-like well-being in the listener. “Pitchu Li,” a request for justice, demonstrates this remarkable vocal ability, gliding from Mariah Carey highs to Pink-like contralto.
Songs of Ascent is a blend of Middle Eastern melody, traditional Jewish liturgy, impossibly beautiful harmonies, and a bit of jazz and soul. Since most cantorial albums feature men, it is an added joy to have this work by a female artist. In a world where more and more of us are reverberating from the harsh echoes of economic crises, violence, and fears for the future, one may wonder: is life still worth celebrating? Songs of Ascent answers this question in the affirmative, and in doing so, truly lives up to its name.
El Pasoan reimagines Hebrew music
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EL PASO -- Ellen M. Wilson is Jewish, and most of her new CD, "Songs of Ascent," is sung in Hebrew. ...EL PASO -- Ellen M. Wilson is Jewish, and most of her new CD, "Songs of Ascent," is sung in Hebrew. But don't for a minute think its familiar, Psalm-based songs and messages of healing and spiritual transcendence are just preaching to the converted.
"I didn't want it to be just about religion," Wilson said. "I wanted it to be very transcendent."
"Songs" may take its text from biblical Hebrew phrases and Jewish liturgy, but musically, it has an ethereal quality to it, with lush, layered harmonies contrasted by Wilson's soaring coloratura soprano.
It's a warm sound that recalls Enya's soothing Celtic incantations and Loreena McKennitt's haunting medieval resurrections. There's a little Tori Amos thrown in, plus touches of jazz, contemporary folk-pop and traditional Middle Eastern strains.
The CD came at a time of transition for Wilson, a voice lecturer at UTEP who grew up in Illinois and lived in North Carolina before moving to El Paso with husband Steve in 2001. Their son, Zach, was born a year later.
Wilson, who has a bachelor's in music from the University of Illinois and a master's from Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., has sung in classical and musical theater settings in the past.
She's also a classically trained singer who has been a cantorial soloist at Temple Mount Sinai and in Across the Ages, a duo specializing in Baroque and Renaissance music.
But she longed to do something different musically. A variety of elements fell into place, some good, some heartbreaking.
Pivotal was her meeting with Scott Leader, a young up-and-comer in the Jewish rock music community who helped Temple Mount Sinai produce a CD.
"I loved what he did and ... you know how it is when you kind of click creatively with someone who is like-minded," she said. "All of the sudden, the potential for a really exciting project was there."
Leader said the Enya approach was by design. "Our original thought was to make something to show that she can take her classically trained opera voice and bring it down to a more folk level," Leader said by e-mail. "As we decided on which songs to do, I realized that they were all very well-known melodies. This brought up the thoughts on how to make this CD different than the 9,000 other versions of some of these songs out there."
While kicking around those ideas with her Phoenix-based producer, Wilson was moved by the movie "The Secret," TV veteran Rhonda Byrnes' inspirational message about how to tap into one's spirituality for self-improvement. Wilson had studied with the film's featured speaker, Bob Proctor.
"He encouraged the participants to ... create a really big goal," she said. "Just having met Scott, I began realizing that the next big project for me musically was to make this CD."
Wilson was also mourning the death of her father, Alex Pollak, a Holocaust survivor who died last year, soon after the recording of Wilson's five-song, Leader-produced CD, "T'filat Ha-Adam: Prayers of the Heart."
"That further spurred me on just to make something really special in this year of mourning," she said. "In Judaism, you mourn for a year for a parent, and a friend said I should distinguish this year in some way."
Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai had encouraged her to branch out musically.
"He had me singing repertoire I hadn't sung before. I usually do a more classical repertoire. This was more poppy, contemporary stuff," she explained. "It made me feel as if I was coming full circle because in my high-school days and when I first went to college, I was in rock bands doing all kinds of naughty things sopranos aren't supposed to do."
She's referring to her voice.
For the Beatles-loving woman with the classically trained voice, it was the right time to make this record.
"I really felt -- and I know it sounds crazy -- that everything came together in my project, using the lyric approach, training in the classical lyric technique, in service of this music that felt really spiritual to me."
The CD is being promoted nationally. Wilson has a publicist in Boston. She's starting to get some airplay, including "The Jewish Show of Houston," which aired her version of the folk song "Lo Yisa Goy," prompting host Shawn Daniel to rave about her "amazing voice."
Reviews are starting to roll in as well, mostly from various music Web sites.
"Where there seems to be a division made with current artists between the vocal and the instrumental, Wilson's blending of the two distinct segments creates something that is fresh and exciting," wrote neufutur.com. "There may not be a driving drum beat or guitars shredding their way through the tracks on 'Songs of Ascent,' but the intricate vocal arrangements that are par for the course on 'Songs of Ascent' will get listeners excited and eagerly anticipating the next track."
A reviewer for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange (acousticmusic.com/fame) wasn't very enthusiastic about the religious and spiritual themes, but praised the songs as "very tuneful, keeping away from New Age-ry by virtue of a folkish and lightly classical resonance, and Wilson has a soothing, beautiful and uplifting voice well-backed by a number of accomplished instrumentalists."
Wilson is happy to get good reviews, but seems more inspired by the reactions she's getting from people of all faiths.
"I've had such great feedback from friends who are Catholic, New Agey and not religious at all, all across the spectrum," she said, obviously pleased.
"I think the melodies and performance at face value are very good and can be enjoyed even without thinking about the Hebrew texts involved," Leader added.
"That's very much who I am and what I wanted to express -- something very spiritual," Wilson said. "It's the same idea as Enya singing Celtic songs. It's not meant to be religion music."
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“Songs of Ascent” starts out with “Modah Ani”, a track that has a contemporary sound, albeit one tha...“Songs of Ascent” starts out with “Modah Ani”, a track that has a contemporary sound, albeit one that is tinted with a Middle Eastern flow. When Wilson’s vocals begin, they operate more as an additional instrument instead of going forth and furthering a narrative. This shift in the role of the vocals represents just one of many things that Wilson changes and does differently on “Songs of Ascent”, an album that stands out due to the uniqueness of its character. “Eil Na R’fa Na Lah” has a heavy flute and piano presence to its opening, before Wilson’s vocals give listeners something more tangible with which to grip on. Wilson’s heavenly vocals have a classic feel to them: one, after listening to the track, could easily envision Wilson singing in 1608 as much as she fits singing in 2008.
Where there seems to be a division made with current artists between the vocal and the instrumental, Wilson’s blending of the two distinct segments creates something that is fresh and exciting. There may not be a driving drum beat or guitars shredding their way through the tracks on “Songs of Ascent”, but the intricate vocal arrangements that are par for the course on “Songs of Ascent” will get listeners excited and eagerly anticipating the next track. “Pitchu Li” opens up with a piano line that sets the mode for the track, leading in to Wilson’s vocals. The vocals and piano walk hand in hand, each bolstering the other to a higher level than would normally occur.
Where a number of the tracks on “Songs of Ascent” have a 17th-century feel to them, “Pitchu Li” elicits comparisons to the Renaissance period. The piano line expands upon that sound, adding a pinch of Tori Amos influence to the overall composition, creating yet another reason for listeners to pick up “Songs of Ascent”. “Songs of Ascent” touch upon the past, present, and even future in music, with each subsequent track on the album adding to the rich tapestry that Wilson and her band began with “Modah Ani”. If you are a fan of classical music, make it a point to pick up “Songs of Ascent” when it is released; if you are in the El Paso area, check her web site to see if you can attend any of her live performances.
Women's Rising Music Review
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Beautiful, swirling awakening of transcendent vocals spanning the ages. From giving thanks, to heali...Beautiful, swirling awakening of transcendent vocals spanning the ages. From giving thanks, to healing, to ending war; Songs of Ascent, is a moving collection of what are obviously songs of divine inspiration, culturally folk, and mythically tuned.
Whatever your faith, Wilson’s tribute to ancient verse and prayer may just awaken the age-old soul within, enticing ancestral memories to rise and lead you on your very own soul-ful journey to the wisdom that guides us all. Wherever you are spiritually, Songs of Ascent will take you higher.
Modah Ani to Ellen M. Wilson.
El Paso Scene Review
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Wilson's collection of Hebrew and English language songs, mainly inspired by verses from the Psalms ...Wilson's collection of Hebrew and English language songs, mainly inspired by verses from the Psalms and other books, sounds at home in the Southwest as it would in the mountainous Middle East. The easy-going instrumentals range from solemn piano and flute to jazzier saxophone, all accompanied by Wilson's clear, silky voice (with accompaniment by guest Cantor Robbi Sherwin) to give an ethereal appeal. It would be hard not to sit through flowing melodies such as "Shir Chadash (A New Song)" or the closer "Oseh Shalom (Grant Peace)" and not feel at peace. It would too easy to compare Wilson's sound to that of the Celtic-based vocalists such an Enya or Loreena McKennitt, but Wilson adds a touch of the desert and her own, rich Jewish heritage to the mix giving Songs of Ascent both regional and global appeal.
Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange Review
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This appears to be an exercise in tikkun, the Jewish mission to heal the wounds of the world. All ly...This appears to be an exercise in tikkun, the Jewish mission to heal the wounds of the world. All lyrics are sung in Hebrew, and the sentiment is one of peace and reconciliation. I'm less than nuts about the Zionistic and chosenness themes underlaying several of the cuts, but that's religion and fairy tales for ya. The songs are very tuneful, keeping away from New Age-ry by virtue of a folkish and lightly classical resonance, and Wilson has a soothing, beautiful, and uplifting voice well backed by a number of accomplished instrumentalists. Tracks like Shir HaMa-alot swim in extremely catchy refrains, and Paul Anderson's saxwork modernizes a good deal of the atmospheres throughout, though there's much to be said of Michael Levin's cello and it's return to classical mid-East timbres. Songs of Ascent manages to blend religion with art and modernity in a way that neither trivializes nor slights any of the three, and that's not an easy thing to do.
Ambient world pop that includes: Modah Ani, Eil Na R'fa na Lah, Shir HaMa-alot, Lo Yisa Goy, Pitchu Li (extended version), Mah Gadlu, Adonai Oz, Shir Chadash, Healing Song, Oseh Shalom.
Music of the English Baroque and Renaissance:
Songs of the English Baroque
Henry Purcell (1658-1695)
I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly
Music for Awhile
What Shall I Do?
When I Have Often Heard
A Song of the Spanish Renaissance
Guadarme las Vacas Luis de Narvaez (ca. 1500-1550)
Songs of the English Renaissance
John Dowland (1563-1626)
Come Away, Come Sweet Love
Weep You No More, Sad Fountains
Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard
Shall I Sue
Awake, Sweet Love, Thou Art Return’d
Flow My Tears
If Floods of Tears
The Lowest Trees Have Tops
It Was a Time When Silly Bees Could Speak
Stay Time Awhile Thy Flying
There are no upcoming dates at this time.