Lindsay Ell’s second studio album, heart theory, arrives almost exactly three years after her debut effort, The Project.
Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault.
It’s been a period of substantial personal transformation for the Canadian country-rock artist, and the record plays out accordingly.
In some respects, heart theory hews to the sound of contemporary Nashville – there are anthemic choruses aplenty and a lot of fine guitar work from Ell – but it also spotlights her intimate and often revealing lyrics.
“It was about halfway through writing this record that I was like, you know, I’m writing these songs in order of my process right now of transformation,” Ell says. “As humans, we all go through moments of transformation in our lives where we’re forced to feel every step of that process and every step of growth so we can fully process whatever we’re going through.”
Such moments of transformation can be set-off by things like heartbreak, getting out of a difficult relationship, losing a loved one, losing a job or moving to a new city. Once Ell realised her new songs were charting this journey of transformation, she was able to articulate the record’s conceptual backbone.
“I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I finished a record around the seven stages of grief?’ The seven stages of grief is just one of the ways you can talk about the process of moving through these moments of transformation in our lives,” Ell says.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the first to define the different stages of grief in her nonfiction book On Death and Dying (1969). The list has expanded from Kübler-Ross’ original five to now include seven – shock or disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance or hope.
“I’m a huge nerd about these kinds of things,” says Ell. “And so I wrote a record and I wanted to keep it in order of stage one starting at track one and then moving through each stage, all the way down to the last stage of grief being acceptance.”
That’s expressed via track 12, ‘ReadY to love’, which Ell describes as capturing the moment where you’re able to “fully look at yourself in the mirror and accept yourself for everything that you are and everything that’s happened to you in your life.”
It’s a hefty task, encapsulating the seven stages of grief within a record of radio-friendly country rock music. To pull it off, Ell knew heart theory would have to be more openly vulnerable than The Project. The most conspicuous example of Ell’s brazen intimacy is the album’s penultimate track ‘make you’, in which she reflects on being raped as a young girl.
While the song doesn’t go into explicit detail about the experience, in a recent People article, Ell explained that she was raped when she was 13 and that it happened again when she was 21.
“It’s always been a part of my story, obviously, and I never really wanted to talk about for it to become a publicity stunt,” she says. “But three years ago I went to a place called Youth For Tomorrow to help them launch their music program.” Youth For Tomorrow is a US-based nonprofit that works with kids aged 12-18 who have been victims of rape and sex trafficking.
“And so I sat in a conference room with 12 little girls and I told them my story, and then they told me their stories. As I talked more, they felt like they could talk more and it was a very powerful moment. You would hear stories, like this 12-year-old girl was sitting beside me and she was like, ‘Lindsay, my parents sold me to a sex trafficking company when I was little.’ Horrific stories that you only think happen in movies.”
Ell left the Youth For Tomorrow campus knowing that she needed to talk about her rape and recognising she was in a unique position to help people who’d been through comparable trauma.
“I truly believe this happens far more in our own community than we really want to admit. And I think that being able to talk about it takes that shame and guilt that you feel as a survivor sometimes and lets you normalise it.”
As well as writing ‘make you’ and going public with the song’s background, Ell has started her own foundation, the Make You Movement.
“I am focusing on disenfranchised youth, specifically survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse. I really wanted to be able to put my money where my mouth is and show that I want to help kids specifically, but any survivors who are looking for that extra level of healing and that extra level of getting to know themselves and getting to own who they are and claim that with so much pride and brilliance.”
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