Since time immemorial there have stood two pillars which one must stand astride to ascend to the Kingdom of Rock; two blazing fires to be grasped and consumed by, only to rise again as a phoenix. To suffer and endure. What doesn’t kill you only gives you something to sing about later. David R. Elliott’s album ‘Sunshine’, released earlier this summer, is a testament to the experience; his song-writing process has been a battle with those twin paradigms of Rock: a lifestyle fuelled by drugs and alcohol, and, as he puts it, “Girls. Most of it is about girls.”
He’s been described as a ‘country punk’; growing up in Southern New Brunswick’s rural Evandale, turning Urban-rocker, hasn’t blown all the straw from his hair. As you’d expect from any good kid growing up in the ’90s he’s well versed in Nirvana, and has a natural affinity for country music. What comes as a surprise is his love of rap, passed down from an older brother. His career as a musician began on the Evandale ferry, a location chosen for a specific reason, “That’s where I used to free-style rap when I was a kid, on the ferry where no one can hear you.”
The trouble comes, as it does for most young men, during that special time of life when his mind began to turn to other matters. Almost like clockwork, or the changing of the seasons, with the maturation of the adult male comes an interest in members of the opposite sex, and a lemming-like desire to impress them by any imaginable feat. Romance, desire, and rejection have all been more than just lyrical fodder, but the very impetus of musical inspiration since the dawn of time, and more recently, the crux of David R.’s existence, “I think I’ve always been a little romantic. Some of my earliest memories are of pursuing girls. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I remember in kindergarten trying to get with this girl, and she rejected me. We were going to get milk for the whole class and I tried to hold her hand, and she pulled her hand away from me. I was five, and I was crushed. It just never got better from that.”
David R.’s long-standing history as a romantic is no more heartbreakingly poignant than in his standout track ‘Real Love’. The bittersweet love-song-gone-wrong is steeped in a tangible sense of longing, for which he recruited fellow Saint John singer/songwriter Babette Hayward (of Vogue Dots), to put together the original demo (later sung by Kim D’Ambrosia on the album), “I wanted to hear her voice saying, ‘You rip my heart out when we touch’. I just wanted those words to come out of that good of a voice, because I can’t sing like that. I wanted to make this beautiful love song that wasn’t depressed. I didn’t know it was going to be that good when I started working on it. When she agreed to do it, I was like ‘Oh fuck, I actually have to do it now’, then I was like, ‘What things do I want to hear her say out loud?’ Once I started with that idea, it’s like this shit was writing itself. Just writing down the things you want a girl to say? There’s no end to those.”
“We did a demo, where she was holding this dollar store computer microphone, it was like our second try, and that’s it. I was obsessed with it afterwards. It was the shittiest sounding recording; just Babs and I singing into a shitty microphone. I listened to it like a hundred times a day. Couldn’t stop listening to it, because I was like, ‘This is the best thing I ever did.’ This recording, at this point in my life, this is my highest achievement. I don’t think I probably ever felt that way before.”
As a song-writer David R. Elliott adopts the techniques of a method actor, emulating great writers that have gone before him, which isn’t a bad way to learn, until you get addicted to cigarettes. “All my heroes smoked, so I smoked. My dad smoked. Johnny Cash smoked. All my fucking heroes smoked. It’s like you write, and you have a smoke and a drink. For a couple years, I was obsessed with Hemingway. I had a typewriter, and I was smoking cigarettes. My last girlfriend stopped that; she was pissed at my smoking in the room with her. That was a hard adjustment. It’s funny to think about it now, but not being able to smoke while I was writing? That was a hard thing to do.”
Not to say that cigarettes, heartbreak, and music are gateway drugs, but they’re not the innocent monsters everyone always make them out to be. By the time David R. was twenty-three he was living on Saint John’s Elliott Row, doing pills, suffering from depression and experiencing panic attacks, “I don’t do drugs anymore. I’m trying to quit smoking. I don’t smoke weed. I’m not on any medications. I couldn’t do coffee because I have a panic disorder. I had to stop. I was a really emotional person. My panic disorder was completely out of my control. I was having six hour panic attacks and going to the hospital. The girl I was with at the time, I was constantly terrified she would leave me, and then she did and I went off the rails. It was this whole disaster thing.”
“It got to the point that 50% of the time that I got high I would have a terrible time. Instead of being baked and listening to a record, I’d be trying to deal with a panic attack. I can’t pay $20 a day to have panic attacks.”
“I realised that I have to start changing some shit to get better. My goal has been to be able to every once in a while have a couple beer, and besides that just be happy and healthy.” With the support of his girlfriend he’s kicked the habit, kept the stories, and come out wiser for it. In crisis he’s found an opportunity, turning pain and experience into song, “My two favourite things in the world are country music, and rap music. No one wants to talk about it, but they’re super similar thematically. Poor people music. It’s working class music. It’s narrative music. I don’t think Cam’ron would have made as many amazing records if he hadn’t have lived through what he did when he was young. I know for a fact that Johnny Cash wouldn’t have written most of those songs if he hadn’t have grown up in Dyess picking cotton. I don’t think I’d be able to write about the human condition, or love, or relationships, without having dealt with extremes of joy and heartbreak. I’ve done the depression and the substance abuse, and I loved someone so much that I felt like I couldn’t breathe when they weren’t there, and then they left. Now I feel okay because I did that, and it’s done. I have a sort of peacefulness with it. I think that peacefulness, you can write there. You can go there and write because you can look back and sort of feel okay with it enough that you can dig into it without getting upset.”
David R. Elliott will be embarking on a Maritime tour this fall that extends as far as a Ontario. For more information visit his Facebook page.
In the meantime here’s the premiere of his live acoustic video for ‘Real Love’ performed with Kim D’Ambrosia.