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Interviews, Portraits

Interview + Portraits: San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone talks “Belong”, writing ballets, and opening for The National in Italy

By: Curtis Sindrey –

Photos by: Morgan Hotston – 

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 27: Ellis Ludwig-Leone of San Fermin poses for a portrait backstage at Lee's Palace in Toronto on January 27, 2018. (Photo: Morgan Hotston/Aesthetic Magazine)

TORONTO, ON – JANUARY 27: Ellis Ludwig-Leone of San Fermin poses for a portrait backstage at Lee’s Palace in Toronto on January 27, 2018. (Photo: Morgan Hotston/Aesthetic Magazine)

Produced by bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone and brought to life by his fellow performers—lead vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, trumpet player John Brandon, saxophonist Stephen Chen, violinist Rebekah Durham, drummer Michael Hanf, and guitarists Tyler McDiarmid and Aki Ishiguro— San Fermin’s third studio album, Belong, unfolds in warm, intoxicating textures that both contrast and intensify that sense of unrest. The album’s hypnotic sound is embodied in “No Promises,” a shimmering pop opus about the fear of disappointing those who’ve placed their trust in you. On the quietly frenetic “Bride,” San Ferminconveys a fear of commitment by juxtaposing the idyllic imagery of wedding flowers with a detailed account of suffering a panic attack. And with “Dead” (a song about “not wanting anybody to depend on you,” according to Ludwig-Leone), the band telegraphs defiance in a gorgeously jagged arrangement built on clattering rhythms and Kaye’s penetrating vocal performance.

Describing Belong as “a record about realizing that you can’t always live with yourself, and finding a way to be okay with that,” Ludwig-Leone also notes that the album allowed him to reexamine the possibilities in songwriting. “There was a catharsis to writing these songs, where I was dealing with stuff that had been bubbling under the surface for a while,” he says. “I don’t think writing actually fixes anything—but it helps you to name the problem and maybe figure out how to live with it, and sometimes that’s enough.”

Throughout Belong, San Fermin brings both elegance and raw passion to their performance, an achievement that Ludwig-Leone attributes to the band’s increasingly potent chemistry. “One of the nice things about this record was that, for the first time, I was writing for people I know super well and have performed with hundreds of times,” he says. “I feel like I really understand these musicians now and know what they want to do.”

In our new interview, Ludwig-Leone discusses the making of Belong, writing ballets, opening for The National in Italy, and more!

In terms of the songwriting on Belong, what prompted you to bring more of a personal slant to the album?

I was just trying a new approach. When I started writing songs, I found it was helpful to write from the perspective of a character, whether that was from a book or movie or my imagination. But for this record I was interested in seeing if I could write with any clarity about my own life. It was fun and made me feel connected to certain songs in surprising ways. That said, you still have to keep some distance, or else it gets too confessional.

You touch on anxiety pretty heavily on this album. Is that something you still deal with?

Yes it is. One of the things I like about music is that it provides a way to channel that energy into something positive. 

What are some other themes that you focus on?

Family, relationships, loneliness… I try to write songs that feel specific to my life, in a way that nobody else would or could write. 

What’s your favorite song from the record to play live?

I think “Better Company” is my favorite right now. There’s a really fun sax and violin moment that gets me excited to be onstage.

What was the meaning behind the album title, Belong

A lot of the issues on the record are about deciding where to be and who to spend your time with. There’s a line on the title track: “There’s a little piece of me that’s always somewhere else / But I’m right where I belong.” It’s about feeling both at home and estranged from your surroundings at the same time.

Since making Belong, the band has evolved to something you started by yourself to something that has a life of its own.  What was the transition like for you to write for yourself versus writing for people you have performed with hundreds of times? 

It has been pretty natural, actually. It’s almost a visual thing… when I was writing Belong I could imagine them performing the songs onstage, which shaped the direction of the music.

You’ve opened for the likes of St. Vincent, The National, Alt-J, and Arctic Monkeys. Who has been your favourite artist/band to open for and why?

There have been so many good ones! I don’t think I could choose. I will say that the alt-J tour was one of the most fun tours we’ve ever done, and those guys are really lovely people. The National show we did in Ferrara, Italy was probably the most memorable single show we’ve ever opened… we were outside a beautiful castle in the middle of the town square. 

You’ve composed five ballets for Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective. How did you get into writing for ballets, and do you approach a project like that versus writing an album?

Honestly I kind of fell into it by accident. When I graduated from college I was working for Nico Muhly as an assistant and I think maybe Troy reached out to him for suggestions for a music director or something. After that our working relationship progressed really naturally. We’re currently at work on a big piece with the author Karen Russell that I’m excited about.



  1. Pingback: A man A plan A canal » Aesthetic Magazine Interviews San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone - January 31, 2018

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