It’s always possible to read more into the music and words of a performer than is actually there. When the first song on an album is also its title track, I always experience a moment of expectation, of the anticipation of a song sequence, of a form of musical storytelling: not quite of a concept album (no-one really makes those anymore), but of a cycle of songs, interconnected in their themes, which display a definite beginning and end. Then when I listen to an album such as I To You I soon realise that I am of course projecting concepts of my own onto the words and music of others, particularly when, as with Tawny Ellis and her songs, there isn’t an immediately noticable sense of hidden depth, of ambiguity and mystery within the songwriting and vocals.I To You is a skilfully played and refreshingly down to earth song collection, songs that express themes and ideas which just about anyone hearing them will instantly recognise.
“I To You”, the song, is brightly played, smartly crafted and unapologetically, a love song. It’s also an intricately developed melody, and with backing musicians whose CVs include work alongside artistes as diverse as the Indigo Girls, Jack Johnson, Pink, Dizzy Gillespie and Bob Dylan, it’s also only the first of a sequence of what are very high quality performances from both Tawny Ellis and her band. The musicianship never overwhelms Tawny’s own songs or voice though. Throughout, I To You is a finely produced and committed performance from everyone involved. Tawny herself remains seemingly nonplussed by the array of talents bringing added dimensions to her already luminous, deceptively inventive songwriting. Intruigingly, Tawny Ellis almost entirely avoids slipping into the lyrically involved, fragile confessional that so many of her contemporaries bring to the stage. It’s slightly underplayed, but there’s a combination of both realism and optimism in her words that reveals Tawny as a lady with both feet very firmly on the ground, one whose lyricism is tempered by her everyday experience but also has the ability to bring an added depth to even the most unremarkable events.
So, I made it past the album’s first and title track and realised that, while the world of Tawny Ellis isn’t perhaps a very mysterious or magical one, there’s plenty going on. “Erase You” is a heartfelt and lyrically strident plea for personal independence in the context of a collapsing relationship. “Tonight I Drink Whiskey” is exactly the song its title suggests, a barroom escapade set to a keening slide guitar. “She Stays” has both Tawny and her musicans developing their sound, leaving me to question whether or not I can hear a backwards guitar part amongst the percussion, vibes and cello. “Why Can’t I Be Her” shows Tawny at her most vulnerable, a solo guitar and vocal performance that’s as affecting as it’s uncomplicated, and which also reveals that Tawny Ellis could carry the entire album minus her backing band. It’s the track which very firmly asserts her own presence across the ten tracks of I To You, were that in any doubt, although anyone who has heard this much of the album will already hold both Tawny and her songs in quite some regard by this point. “Dear Muse” is a real highlight though, a softly handled ballad that’s given an added depth by some softly unobtrusive strings. Finally, “I Don’t Want To Fight” is a very different kind of song to much of what has preceded it, folk influenced, its echoing drums and swaying rhythm a notable departure from what are the mainly country sounds of the rest of the album, and it ends the album on a memorably strident note.
There’s an invention and depth to Tawny Ellis’s music that might surprise anyone. Her songs consistently surprise and captivate with their blend of lyrical realism and resonant instrumentation, and Tawny’s voice is that of an accomplished and evocative interpreter of her own words. I To You is an album that does, I’ve decided, contain a story at its centre, and it’s also almost the perfect album for one of those bright, warm late summer days that always end sooner than they should.