Lost Under Heaven, the duo of Ellery James Roberts (of Wu Lyf) & Ebony Hoorn, return tomorrow with their new album Something is Announced by your Life via their own LUH*international label. It’s a gorgeous record that is a natural evolution and step-forward from their previous work, seeing them tap into something cinematic and quite uplifting and inspiring along the way.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Roberts over zoom, discussing the new reocrd, from his partnership with Hoorn, everything that led up to the point from the influence of the pandemic, films, and even reflection on his past – including his time with Wu Lyf.
You can find the fully transcribed chat below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Will: Hey Ellery Where are you currently located at the moment?
Ellery: We live in a town that is just north of Manchester, in the countryside just where the city starts to become the countryside – the hills, lots of green and lots of trees.
W: Are you a football fan?
E: I used to be more so, I can’t say I watch or follow it now.
W: I ask just cause right now it’s a good time to be a fan of Manchester City.
E: Yeah Manchester is a big football city, divided between City and United, I sort of stand in the middle. Most of my friends are either or, so I don’t hold any strong allegiance.
W: How do you feel leading up to the release of the record?
E: It’s been interesting. We are doing everything ourselves and it’s our first time releasing a record entirely ourselves. Even when I did the Wu Lyf records 10 years ago, we had management and a team of people doing things, whereas this is just me and Ebony wearing many hats and doing different things. It’s been an interesting experience, a lot more of things that take you away from the creativity. I think in the future I’d like to get more of a label or a team involved, but it’s just one of those things where we’re both headstrong in sticking to a vision, and even if you try and develop the vision as you go, you’re trying to not be too fixed and you realize what you do enjoy and don’t enjoy by doing it. It felt important for us to just strip everything back to the essentials and take everything into our own hands. It just felt like a moment where we were doing that a lot in many aspects of life, so for better or for worse, we have pursued that line.
W: You sort of touched upon my next question on the process of doing so much on your own on both sides. While that must be incredibly freeing. That also sounds daunting.
E: Having that autonomy and being able to work spontaneously and just kind of follow what you feel like you should do is very freeing and an energizing aspect of that. But the counterbalance to that is like you’re doing several peoples jobs all at once. Each of the jobs has value to be done in fullness and it’s one of those things we would’ve potentially made different decisions if we were in a different place last year.
But in all truth we had been funding things through Patreon and Crypto and I’m not sure if you’re aware of the Crypto world but it took a plunge. This time last year we had a good bit of money banked in Crypto to spend of the album campaign and then that disappeared and sent me into a bit of a state of confusion but we had already set the thing in motion. Potentially at that point maybe a wiser thing to have done would to have been finding people to help us out with this. I was really intrigued of what you could make happen on your own, just using human to human connection and without being in this industry, this “machine of working.” It aligns with a lot more of my beliefs and ways where humans can interrelate.
But then on the other side, I think people are quite blinkered in this standard pracedutre of way things are happening. In some ways I think we in some ways have gone so far underground and below the radar that people have ceased to notice what we are doing. But it’s hard to say really. It just feels that way from my perspective but maybe that is because things I had done in the past have had more hype around them and now years down the line that has dissipated some more.
W: That’s a good point – with Wu Lyf you guys came really hot out of the barrel with the level of buzz. And now you’re starting at a different point as you say. How does that inform your music or your creative process?
E: There were a lot of amazing opportunities with Wu Lyf that I didn’t really appreciate or understand at the time, because that sense of hype, it all felt shallow. And though I think the record has had quite a sustained popularity and people who connected with it have in a deep way, I think everything around it felt quite superficial or gimmicky. So what I’d say now is we are very rooted and everything we do comes from a genuine heartfelt interaction and gratitude for what we get back. And just the fulfillment of doing something that you believe in and when thats mirrored back to you. It’s a much richer experience and in general I’m much more present to the good and trying to nurture the good.
W: You mentioned using Patreon where you have built your own community with your fans. Do you see this along with the independent nature of handling everything as the future going forward?
E: It’s interesting, as a couple of musicians I know have reached out about my experience with Patreon, even people quite established – I won’t name any names – but people I’ve become friends with over the years. And even for them the reality is they aren’t making very much money, even though it seems like they have the reputation.
So initially we funded the entire album sessions through Patreon to be able to do two days in the studio a month and that is how we recorded the album over a sequence of four or five months between doing stuff at home.
Will other artists use it? I think Patreon feels clunky and old, I do think there will be something new that comes along that is much more effective for artists. Patreon takes a big cut of what you make every month and obviously they’re providing a service, but in the scheme of things I feel its not quite balanced. And I am still very grateful for how its set up and enabled us to do our thing. But everything is in constant motion.
If you have an audience that is engaged with your work and is willing to pay 5 pounds a month (and people pay more than that in a coffee shop most days) if you have a 1000 people doing that, its more than enough to live off and be creative. And that’s really small, that “1000 true fans” idea. Even if 100 people did it, it’s something. There’s a bigger conversation here that I could go on for ages given the nature of the world we’re living in and direction. People being able to live within their means and create is the way forward – rather than having superstars with billions and then you have everyone else in abject poverty scraping and fighting for scraps.
W: So a bitcoin you received for playing a gig back in 2018 helped fund the label and the strings on the record. When you received the payment at the time, did you guys have a feeling of what it would eventually become? It’s a fascinating story.
E: It’s funny really – it was a person who became a really good friend of ours and mentored us through the crypto space and paid us to do the gig in Los Angeles. Ebony was more excited about it than I was. I was like “I can’t buy artist visas with a bitcoin, what am I meant to do with this?” But it was an opportunity and we embraced it in that moment. I think when we received it, it was worth 5000 pounds and within a month it had dropped to 2000 pounds and I was like “ah shit, we were just paid and lost a majority of it.” So at that point we were just going to have a savings mentality and not even think about it. Then at the end of 2020 it had an amazing run and it felt surreal, as we spent 2020 living off Patreon and government support as we had zero income and then suddenly we had more money than we had in years (in crypto). Our friend Thomas helped us reinvest the Bitcoin into different projects and a bunch of them were lucrative enough to keep us rolling with it for two years or so. So it was incredibly fortune to us to have that happen.
W: Seems that the pandemic really had a hold over you guys as artists. Whereas a lot of bands seemed to have just slowed down the release cycle of their music, it seems to have morphed your artistic/sonic worldview. Can you talk about how it helped informed this record and you guys’ big picture?
E: I think by the end of 2019 we had a series of experiences, some quite tragic and heavy. A lot of feeling like we were going to make significant changes in the way we were going to approach life and creativity. We had some plans of what we were going to do but then the pandemic happened and all the plans we had disappeared and suddently we had nothing to do and we were back in this small town Ramsbottom, which is the town I kind of grew up in until I was about 16. It’s a place that I always resented and always wanted to escape. But it was cheaper to live than in the city and for me, I had been running from my demons, my shadow, things I didn’t want to think about or deal with, those repressed emotions, in that window of time during lockdown there was nowhere to run to. Just sitting with it all, it was almost that moment that you decide that you have to act upon everything that you had been thinking about. So for our creative process, it was a lot of inner work and transformative and radically different perspective emerging from that period of time.
It’s hard to talk about because its such a vast and strange time, felt like a long lucid dream and deja vu. But in the midst of it, the new songs came together with us being in the house. And the main difference with this record between the previous two is that where in the previous two there was always this sense of antagonism and this sense of “the world is wrong and we need to change the world…” and though I feel there is still a sense of desire to be a positive impact in the world, it now comes from a place of wanting to relate in a truer way to people. A humility and humbling perhaps. Some people may roll their eyes at that because people always say our music is so grandiose. But for me our music comes from a place of acceptance and understanding human fralitiy, rather than critizing it.
W: The strings are amazing on the album – they feel like your third member. Such as the opening of “I Surrender” is so cinematic, sounds like the opening credits of a film. Did you go in writing with adding them in mind or did it sort of happen organically?
E: On previous records I had this desire to have everything feel “dystopion” and as we started to develop these songs, there was a newfound desire to try and pursue beauty and a lushness, a cinematic sense that takes you somewhere else. Ebony was also studying sound therapy and she is now a qualified sound therpaist. Just becoming more attuned to the effects of sound on your state of mind, body.
We had also met a cello player named Gam (Gamaliel Rendle Traynor) back in 2019 when we remade “Black Sun Rising” a song off our second record. We made this new string arrangement version with him and so having this contact when we had cash when Bitcoin went up so it was perfect, as I had written all these string sections but they were VST plugins, they weren’t real. But having this money we were able to get Gam who is a one man orchestra, he multi-tracked ciello and violin and built it all up. It was a beautiful thing that came together.
W: The album trailer that you recently shared has a very Terrance Malick influence and feel to it. Were any films that you were watching that influenced the record?
E: (laughs) I laugh because Terrance Malick was of course the main touch point when we were shooting and ediitng it, I absolutely love his films. So actually ‘A Hidden Life’, which came out in 2020, it felt so powerful for the moment, I related with it on so many levels, particular in that sense that we were in an isolated little milltown in the hills with all this madness unfolding in the world. Ebony and I are continuously watching films, there is this film ‘Another Earth’ that was one of many very inspiring – there were several films, I should really make a list of the film that we were watching at the time because the imagery was in my mind later when I’m composing. There was a film we watched whose title escapes me, with a young boy who could see into another dimension – the end scene of that film really inspired me for “Lullaby” (*the film turned out to be ‘Midnight Special‘*).
But yeah Malick for sure. Anyone who watched our trailer could tell they like Malick.
W: Compared to your other records, you took your time recording these songs – can you talk about how your songwriting process has evolved over time since Wu Lyf?
E: I would say my songwriting process is more lethargic than prolific. The actual songs they just live in demo-notey sketch forms, or they had in the past for years really and then suddenly they’d come together. We worked on the first two records with a producer and they have a frame of time where you’re making this record and you decide what it sounds like and that’s what it is. It’s not something I spoke about much before but the second record, I was almost at a point where I wanted to pull the whole record, I did not like the production on it at all but the label and our management at the time liked it and the cost of making a record and flying us out to L.A., there’d have been no more money to make another record, so we just went with it.
But that experience informed this process, it was the first record I produced entirely and the nature of the creation process and being in this strange purgatory of lockdown and a pandemic, there was time for me to play and experiment. And me and Ebony being set up in our house and allowing songs to evolve more of a dialogue, whereas previously I had written it all, presented the song to Ebony, she learned the songs, and it felt more prescriptive, where this time there was more interplay, which I think really benefits the music.
W: When your partner is also your bandmate, what’s the process like of drawing a line between the two worlds of just being partners vs artists creating?
E: It’s something that we are also navigating and staying present to, because yeah, it can become all consuming. So we try to make specific plans where we do things together where are banned from disucssiing or doing anything to do with LUH or creativity. But I think by our individual nature, we are both quite loners and independent self sufficient people, so our collaboration, we’ve always been this nice image of two separate trees where we are shared by the roots but we’re standing alone. I think we’ve become much better at it. In the early years we would argue about stuff a lot more and it felt like there we were so immersed in the world where we create and zoned in and focused for the past six/seven years on creating Lost Under Heaven. But with Ebony she has been doing sound therapy, which is her own thing, and I’ve become more developing writing and storytelling. So Lost Under Heaven still exists, but we are taking our individuating paths a bit more as well.
W: How has your songwriting process or evolution as a songwriter changed now compared to with Wu Lyf?
E: I mean all of Wu Lyf’s music, other than two songs (“Puppy” and “Concrete Gold”) I wrote on my own. Everything else just came out of jamming together and molded over time into songs. Coming out of Wu Lyf I used Ableton a lot and I didn’t really feel like I knew how to write a song, I just knew how to make sounds on Ableton and structure them. So I think the process of working with Bobby (The Haxan Cloak) and John Congleton really helped me develop in terms of songwriting and clear vision on the feeling of a good song, like a real song.
I’m really interested in songs that are sort of long form and moving and taking you somewhere but also have enough hook to keep you taken away with it. It’s an interesting pursuit, songwriting. Without sounding too pretentious, I feel like its a noble pursuit, great songs are some of the best art that humanity has made. But obviously we live in a time where its swarmed and complete crowded out, there’s so much noise with popular music and you get lost in the haze of what the point of it all is. So in that way, I guess I’m old fashioned and appreciate art and the creative pursuit in the way of aspiring for something great. So that’s what keeps me at it.
W: You did some reflection on your past with Wu Lyf at the end of the recording. It has now been quite some time since the band dissolved. It seems that you have a different outlook on that time from when it ended (with the release of the reissue and book).
E: I think for me that’s a large part of what I meant when I said I was running from everything and stopping and sitting with it. I felt like there was a real sense of betrayal that I had held onto there for years and shaped my attitude to make things. I felt a betrayal of the people I held closest around me and that I had betrayed myself – I had this ambition and vision of something and I was going to create and them I burned it all down in one quite impulsive action. So there’s always those feelings lingering, they’re hard to let go. So there were several other things, but reconnecting with what that drive and energy was in those early years of my creative life. Over the years I’ve became friends again more with the other guys from Wu Lyf and there is a really sweet relationship there that felt quite like siblings, brothers, that had fallen out and gotten back together with mutual respect.
And the demand with repressing the vinyl (of Wu Lyf’s debut) as people were selling them for silly money on discogs, so we agreed we should reissue the record and with the boredom of the lockdown I decided to look into a hardrive that I had of Wu Lyf stuff and realized there were so many things that were not on the internet. Through conversation with friends who are graphic designers, they mentioned we could turn it into a book and suddenly we were writing memoirs (laughs) and over a couple of months it evolved into this different thing. It was a big undertaking and I didn’t realize how much it would open things up for me, in terms of repressed emotions, feelings and thoughts.
So we had finished the Wu Lyf book project and in a way it got in front of this new album and it was a lot to process and that is still where I am in this moment.
W: I did appreciate that you mentioned that you were open to speaking about your time with Wu Lyf as you don’t know in interviews if it’s appropriate to mention past projects.
E: It’s something again that in all past interviews, I declined to speak on anything with Wu Lyf for the past how every many years. And now I just feel like its part of my past and interviews tend to have a reflective quality to them, so why not.
W: And finally – when can we expect you guys to return to us here in the States for some live performances?
E: The short answer is there is the intention to, we got a live band together. We started working with live agents and it’s expensive to get visas for America. I really want to, I’ve always loved playing in America, the energy and there’s a certain connection that somehow feels different than it does in Europe. But there are some obstacles on the path so we are going to try and overcome them. Me and Ebony have been playing really acoustic and stripped back and is much cheaper, so maybe we will come back in some form just maybe not a full band.