- Ellen Cherry, mid-leap. Photo: Daniel Bedell.
It’s hard to write about ellen cherry, because Word keeps telling me that “ellen” must be capitalized. Word will have to take that up with ellen cherry, the Baltimore-based singer-songwriter who's the artist-in-residence this February at the Strathmore, because she spells her name with all lowercase letters.
No, she isn’t a belle hooks devotee or obsessed with k.d. lang. cherry discovered the name in a Tom Robbins novel. The character, from Skinny Legs and All, was an artist traveling across the country.
“I loved her life,” says cherry. “I thought she was this amazing spirit. I thought this would be a great way for me to set my sights on something artistic.” She took ellen cherry as a stage name as both a source of personal inspiration and a way to conquer occasional stage fright.
“You kind of put on your role, and you’re able to perform,” she says. The lowercase letters, she feels, are a reminder to have humility.
“I’m not, like, gigantically tall,” says cherry (she’s 5’10”), “but I’m taller than average. I can be seen above a crowd. But I want to make sure I remember, when I look at that name, I’m a small part of the system. It has to be to keep my ego in check.”
The lowercasing makes for interesting conversation with copy editors, whom cherry frequently has to battle. “People ignore it all the time,” she says. Even if a reporter records her name as “ellen cherry,” a copy editor frequently gives it the uppercase treatment. cherry doesn’t mind the clash because it’s a conversation starter.
cherry’s not about to pick a fight with a stubborn newspaper employee over some letters. “If they do it intentionally, it’s like, who cares,” she says. “There’s bigger fish to fry in the world.”
And there’s plenty more to ellen cherry than her novel name. The Emmy-nominated singer performs a sort of folksy-pop hybrid with lyrics inspired by history and her own diaries. “Pop music for history buffs,” cherry says, is how she’s been described, and she thinks it’s a good fit. “I help people nerd out on history.”
Indeed, there is something delightfully old-timey about cherry. Her favorite song, “1933 to California” was inspired by Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photograph Migrant Mother. To get inside the mind of a Dustbowl-era mother struggling to save her children from starvation, cherry “got really into hobo culture.” Her 2005 album Years was composed of six songs about women’s history.
For one of her two shows at the Strathmore (Feb. 1 and Feb. 22), cherry will write songs based on primary sources—diaries, photographs, and historical documents. The second show will feature another old-timey delight: a shadow puppet piece.
“It’s called a cranky,” explains cherry. “You crank the paper across, and you have the shadow puppets behind it. It’s very whimsical and cool.”
cherry has been composing for shadow puppet troops since 2008, when she was approached by Baltimore group Nana Projects to write a song for them. “We wrote a piece based on a historical circus train wreck out of Chicago in 1918,” she says. Her shadow puppet work has become a third of her compositions. “It’s really quite an interesting world,” she says.
As cherry’s work has moved through history and into the world of shadow puppetry, it’s also dropped a few decibels. “I play very quiet music now,” she says. Part of that, she thinks, is just “the nature of a songwriter as you grow.” The other part is protecting her ears, about which cherry is adamant.
“I’ve always been really careful about my hearing,” she says. “The peak of our hearing is 12 years old. Your hearing decreases every year after that.” She wears balanced ear plugs, which allow her to hear conversation but eliminate very high and low notes, to every rock show she goes to. “Even sometimes the movies,” cherry says. “Movies are really loud now. Because people complain that they can’t hear because they’re going deaf.”
cherry isn’t all old-timey all the time. She’s displayed some modern business sense by dipping her toes into Facebook and Twitter, both of which she uses for promoting show dates and info rather than for revealing personal information.
“If you want to know more about me, you should come to show and I’ll play you some songs,” she promises. She acknowledges that she knows several artists who’ve had great success with developing their brand on social media, but isn’t willing to pour the heartfelt material that goes into her diary onto her Twitter feed.
“I mean, maybe I’d have this amazing following if I put all this bizarre stuff on my Twitter feed,” cherry muses. “Maybe, time permitting, I’ll get more into it.” We hope so, ellen cherry.