Love is a tricky thing that's been called everything from a bitch to the only thing we need. Texas songwriting legend Joe Ely has made it the main focus of his newest album, Love In The Midst Of Mayhem. The ten track album was released digitally in mid April and will be available physically July 3 on Ely’s own label, Rack Em’ Records.
As the world began shutting down and Ely’s touring plans began to get canceled along with everything else, he uncharacteristically worked on and released the album quickly during the pandemic, seeing as his chance to stay busy and contribute something during this strange time.
“I keep thinking that time has altered,” says Ely from his home in the country outside of Austin. “I’m almost thinking that I should wake up in a motel room on Interstate 10 and then I realize, no I’m at home. I look out my window and it's my yard, but it feels like it's just a different place.”
For a man who is usually on tour playing different cities every night, this rare downtime provided him with the opportunity to focus on songs that were in pieces before the shutdown. Ely assembled songs ranging from six months to 30 years in age and got a helping hand from his wife Sharon on sequencing the songs and putting the project all together.
“All of a sudden I started finding little mirrors that were kind of reflecting back at myself and I started taking those ideas, putting them together and then recording. A Lot of times they didn't have any words or melody, it was just kind of a structure like bass and a drum. As I worked on it, more and more energy started building in it and I thought, wow these are things that I left behind,” says Ely.
Though the process of making Love In The Midst Of Mayhem was unlike any other of his albums, Ely does have a habit of breathing new life into older songs. The essence of his legendary band The Flatlanders was built on lost and ignored recordings which later became evidence for what fans who were lucky enough to see them in the early ‘70s had been saying all along.
“I’m always writing, putting stuff away, bringing it out later and finishing it or adding something to it. I seem to work better that way. I just kind of applied that way of working to a whole ten songs.”
For Love In The Midst Of Mayhem, Ely focused on a feeling everyone has experienced and also one that the world desperately needs right now. The album opens with a positive promise in “Soon All Your Sorrows Be Gone” with accordion wizard Joel Guzman lending his talent to the track and throughout the album.
“He added so much to the mood and kind of a mystique of it all with that lonesome accordion,” says Ely of Guzman. “It’s a kind of an instrument that lends to emotion in a big way and that really fit in here.”
Guzman and Ely can usually be found on tour together where both men balance each other onstage representing Texas and border music. Ely has long been open about his appreciation for Mexican music and culture and the influence it has had on his music. He added the Spanish lyrics in the studio for the Clash’s hit “Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now” when Joe Strummer asked him to translate the verse.
Love In The Midst Of Mayhem does not focus solely on romantic love, but love in the more global sense, bringing to light the importance of appreciating and respecting one another. The album ends with the booming and circus themed “Glare Of Glory”, a track that shows Ely’s real rock and roll roots.
“That just seemed like it was just the drama to close it with because we don’t know what's going to happen with the times we're going through and how it's going to close, flip over and change. It has that surreal kind of feeling, which these times are very surreal so I thought well, I might as well drop it at the last and close out with a bang,” he chuckles.
Many years ago Ely traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus and he holds tight to his memories of his time with the circus and the influence it had on him on many levels. “When I was with the circus I took care of the llamas and the world's smallest horse. In the afternoons I watched the trainers break in a new tiger or something.”
Ely describes how the sounds, colors and unexpected nature of the circus combined with the works of Italian director Federico Fellini’s movies have always inspired him. “The circus has a strong feeling for me. That was a long time ago when I traveled with the circus, but it influenced my melodies and rhythms of songs a lot.”
Throughout the pandemic Ely and his wife have decided to stay safe, stay home and mask up when venturing out of their home for essentials. He currently counts CVS frozen food and canned goods aisles as his base for staple foods. He admits a sting of fear and unease when he sees people not taking this virus seriously.
“There must be a reason for wearing a mask for something we can't see, feel or touch. I’m going to err on the side of caution instead of just believing what I want to believe.”
Ely says he has already begun working on his next album and a project involving his drawings accompanied by songs. He also has plenty of film footage to organize as he has been filming his life since the ‘80s. “It’s just one more project that I need to do,” he says.
Ely is part of the batch of renaissance men and women to come out of the flatland of Lubbock. It has historically produced some of the most influential artists to come out of the Lone Star State such as his band mates Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock as well as the highly creative and celebrated couple, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen.
“It has been described in a lot of ways,” says Ely of his hometown’s mysterious ability to inspire. “I always described it as a big emptiness that begs to be filled up and music is really the only way you can fill up empty space. Most of the time before I start a new record, I like to go up and drive around West Texas and just drive on some of those roads that look like they go forever and just a good song will fill that space better than anything. I love to drive by myself in my car and not have a destination you know, just watch the fences go by.”
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Lubbock is one of the deep rooted connections the artist has with English punk rockers The Clash, who he took on a Texas tour which included a stop at the University of Houston. “It was so funny, out of all the places they could come in the United States, to tour Texas was on the top of the list and it was because of those gunfighter ballads that they listened to when they were kids and all the movies that were connected to the Alamo.”
The Clash insisted on playing Lubbock because it was rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly’s hometown. “I was glad that we did shows together and got to hang out. I showed them Lubbock and they kind of looked around and one of them said, ‘Ah, it's an incredible waste of space.”, because it's so flat and there's not a single hill and hardly any trees he made that statement,” Ely remembers with a chuckle.
Ely and The Clash also shared a sense of social justice and deeper messages in their songs encouraging people to look around and take notice of what is going on around them. Love In The Midst Of Mayhem does this as well, encouraging all of us to consider the power of love and a deeper understanding of one another.
“So many times people get complacent in their world and I've always thought that if you feel something strong enough, you should speak out on it. These times that we are in, they need to be spoken out on. I guess growing up in the ‘60s, that was kind of part of writing songs was making sure that they fit in with the times.”