How San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone Found His Voice

San Fermin stops in Phoenix.
San Fermin stops in Phoenix. Allen Tate
Update: San Fermin have rescheduled their April 28 concert for September 24.

In a family of painters, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the bandleader of the indie group San Fermin, committed a small act of rebellion. He became a musician.

But it’s not like the Brooklyn-based performer’s family threatened to disown him if he didn’t ditch his guitar for a paintbrush. Instead, they supported his pursuit of a career in music. The Yale graduate started out composing pieces for classical ensembles, which he continues to do today, but the immediacy and intimacy of rock music allured him.

“The whole song has to support the feeling that you want the person hearing it to know,” Ludwig-Leone says. “When writing for an orchestra or ballet, it’s more about the formal construction of the music. With rock, you can hear a person talk to you through the lyrics.”

Divergent emotions are the running theme in San Fermin’s third release, Belong. Ludwig-Leone wanted to steer away from the concept-album architecture that was the foundation of the chamber-pop band’s previous work. Instead, he focused on the internal contradictions he felt when his life changed drastically as a result of San Fermin’s success two years ago. He sat down and slowly unpacked the insecurities and excitement from his subconscious.

“It was an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, which had not happened for a while,” he says.

Composing music is a reclusive affair for Ludwig-Leone. But, as Belong’s title suggests, San Fermin has allowed him to create another family of sorts, not of painters but musicians. They include lead vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, trumpet player John Brandon, saxophonist Stephen Chen, violinist Rebekah Durham, drummer Michael Hanf, and guitarists Tyler McDiarmid and Aki Ishiguro.

The fears, desires, and responsibilities that come with this unusual arrangement are manifested in the rhythmic synth track “No Promises.” Ludwig-Leone describes the song as his struggle trying to navigate the conflicts and vulnerabilities that come with caring about others and reconciling those emotions with an internal life that isn’t aligned with the people around him.

“[Tate] talks me down from a ledge about things,” he says, “If I get really upset about the way something is going or if I think I’m failing, he will bring his own perspective.”

In reviewing San Fermin’s long list of players, you may have noticed that for all his talk of expressing himself, Ludwig-Leone is not listed as a vocalist. He doesn’t step up to the microphone because he doesn’t feel he has a great voice. And he likes the poignancy Kaye and Tate bring to his words. The singers add a new dimension to Ludwig-Leone’s lyrics that might not have been there when he wrote the song. For example, Ludwig-Leone didn’t realize the uptempo Southern rock song “Cairo” was as sorrowful as it was until Tate interpreted his lyrics.

“That process of sharing music with someone, not just with an audience but also with a band — they are bringing their own thing to it,” he says, “There is something really intimate and cool about that.”

Belong ends with the folk track “Happiness Will Ruin This Place,” a song about feeling joy but longing to be “two places at once.” It encapsulates the internal emotional conflicts that run through the album and its writer. He finds his exuberance quickly gives way to unease and concern.

“I have to constantly remind myself to appreciate things as they are happening,” he says, “Often, I find myself not enjoying them when I should be.”

San Fermin were scheduled to perform April 28 at Valley Bar, but they've rescheduled the show for September 24.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil