Ellis Swan, the Chicago-based folk-noir musician, emerged from the more obscure reaches of the Internet last year. A humble musician with a talent for the antique, he won significant attention as a featured artist on Soundcloud, a music-sharing site. Since then, he’s played the very occasional live show (we’ve only heard of one, at Uncommon Ground in June 2010), produced a new set of songs, and gained even more devoted followers. And yet we’re still trying to figure out just who the hell he is.
Clues to his identity are scarce; his songs recall a burdened traveler, resting in an old dive bar, drinking off the edge of a long, weathering journey. Someone who after a few pours of whiskey would open up with a canon of unforgettable stories.
Swan’s songs have patient movement: bass lines that crawl around in circles and fractured washes of texture. His weary, almost exhausted-sounding voice scrapes out a listener’s soul. Not Tom Waits muddy, though I could imagine a mutual appreciation.
Actually, Ellis Swan is far from home (he’s originally from Canada), and he’s started emerging from the woodwork of Chicago DIY folk. No label, no studios, just a guy recording himself and sharing online. For being a somewhat lo-fi home project, the sonic richness of his tracks is an impressive feat. From the acoustic guitars to occasional industrial-sounding percussion, each tone is subtle and well thought out.
After a few listens, the influences of old blues musicians like Geeshie Wiley and Sleepy John Estes are clear. Swan, who lived most recently in New Orleans, says he would often go watch the legendary Coco Robicheaux play at the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street. Despite this blues background, the enigmatic musician agrees that folk is “as accurate as any term” to describe his songs. The energy, and legacy, of New Orleans itself may be the most apt summary of Swan—a curious musical mind (with French ancestry) who traveled south to absorb the traditions of the former French colony.
“Monsieur Swan” still collaborates with friends back home (Dead Bandit) while continuing to work here. His newest five-track collection, “Buffalo Mask,” was released last month, and he’s expected to play a handful of shows next year. That is, until the flaneur decides to move on.
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist