Hannah Ellis: Staying the Course, Keeping the Faith

Nashville

The first song Hannah Ellis ever performed in a contest was Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing.” The Kentucky native sang the massive power ballad at 11 years old, clad in red leather pants and a black cowboy hat. Just last month, Ellis—albeit in a much classier outfit—had the opportunity to open for McBride.

Following in the footsteps of her ’90s country hero, it’s been a decade since the former Voice contender moved to Nashville to pursue her country-music dreams. In those 10 years, she’s written songs recorded by a slew of both country and Christian artists, including Russell Dickerson, Carly Pearce, Francesca Battistelli and Chris Tomlin, among others. Now, after signing with Curb Records, she’s getting the chance to lend her own voice to her original songs.

Ellis shares, “If you had asked me the number-one thing I wanted when I moved to Nashville almost 10 years ago I would’ve said, ‘To get in my car and hear my song on country radio.’” Her dream is finally coming true as her introductory single, “Us,” recently hit radio nationwide.

Fresh off her Grand Ole Opry debut, the personable singer/songwriter sat down with Sounds Like Nashville to chat about stepping into the circle for the first time, writing for other artists and keeping the faith when Nashville threatened to break her spirit.

SLN: How does it feel to be a new female artist in country music right now?

Ellis: I think if you work hard and you put out great music and you have the right team around you, anything is possible. It’s been really inspiring to see people like Gabby Barrett, Tenille Arts and Ingrid Andress start stacking up these Number Ones. It feels like an incredible moment to be a female in country music, and I could not be more excited.

What has your relationship with Nashville been like these past 10 years?

In some way, shape or form we’ve all written Caitlin Smith’s “This Town Is Killing Me.” You’re in a town full of creatives, and it’s a competitive space to be in because it’s the best of the best, especially when we’re talking about country music. Everyone lives in this little 30-mile radius. Nashville will try to break you. But I think it was Keith Urban who once said, “More people would make it if more people stayed.” There’s some truth in that because, man, sometimes you just get tired of being knocked down nine times and getting up 10. But if you can push through it and focus on the good—even in the bad moments—I really think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m getting to live in mine right now.

What was it like singing at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time?

It was truly amazing. I don’t think I was prepared for how emotional I would be. I walked out on stage, and my heart was thumping; but as soon as I saw my family and my friends and just the whole crowd, I wasn’t nervous. I was overwhelmed, just so excited and so emotional. I kept fighting back tears the whole first song, and I finally said “Forget it, I’m just going to cry.” It was really, really special. My 12-year-old self wouldn’t believe it.

It’s taken you a long time to get to this point. What has all the hard work and the perseverance it’s required taught you?

I think to just stay the course. If you really feel in your heart that you’re on the path you’re supposed to be on, you just keep going every day. You get up and you do a little more work…and a little more work…and a little more work. And it really does all add up to something, even on the days when you’re like, “Did I do anything today?” You did. You really did. You wrote a song, or you just lived and gave yourself something to write about. And also, I think I’ve learned to be good to people—to continuously be good to people. It’s been really cool to see relationships come full circle.

What’s motivated you to keep going and to not give up?

I think God would just throw me little reminders of This is where you’re supposed to be. Whether it was a message from a fan telling me how some song had impacted them or being at a show and watching that look come over someone’s face where they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is me. This is my life.” Or even just the days that I would be in a room and write a song and go, “I needed that. I needed that song today.” I think those little moments all added up. And those were what I pulled from on days when I was like, “Do I want to do this anymore?” And then also the team I have around me, be it the people at my label and publishing house, or my husband, Nick [Wayne], or my family and friends. People reminded me to keep going, and they would tell me I was great when I didn’t feel great. I think that definitely motivated me.

You’ve spent a large portion of your career thus far writing for other artists. What do you enjoy most about that process?

I love being able to write for other artists, because sometimes there are things I want to write about that don’t really make sense for me to sing, but it feels fun to put on a character and to be like, “If I was a little bit sassier, I would say this.” And I think getting to delve into that from a creative perspective allows me to come back to my stuff and go, “We need to put a little sprinkle of that over here.” I think it really allows me to explore the entire breadth of my creativity. It’s like two different parts of my brain, almost.

You talk a lot about how you grew up, the values your hometown instilled in you, and your faith—both on social media and in your songs. How does your upbringing influence your songwriting?

I think I was taught by my parents to choose joy, and I think I try to bring that to my songs—even the sad songs that maybe don’t feel redemptive at the end. I think they still give hope, because even in those songs, I’m going, “Me too.” I grew up with people surrounding one another with love and understanding, and I want that to shine through all of my songs. I’ve tried to retain as much authenticity in the music as possible. I want people to feel like we’re in this together because that’s really what I was surrounded with in that small town I grew up in.

What’s the story behind your debut single, “Us”?

Going in to write that day, we were just talking about how solid Nick and I are, and how I could look down the road 50 years, and it’s not going to change. This is who we are. This is us together. Obviously, it’s my story, but as we were writing this, we realized everyone has that person, whether it’s a lover or a friend or a family member, who is going to be so rock solid till the end of time. We just loved that message and thought it was something worth sharing.

When country music fans hear “Us” on the radio for the first time, what do you want people to know about Hannah Ellis, the person?

I think I just want them to know that we’re really not that different. I have a little more makeup on probably than the average person right now, but besides that, we probably had similar nights last Friday. And I think that we probably had similar heartbreaks. And even if I’m from a different place or a different town than you, I’ve felt a lot of the same wins and losses that most people have felt. And the biggest thing that I always want to bring with my music is community. I truly think it’s my calling to build community, and music is the way for me to do that. I hope it brings people together, and I hope I can constantly send the message that we’re not all that different. That’s why I try to bring almost uncomfortable levels of authenticity to my songs, because I think, really, what we’re all craving is sameness.

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