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Spotlight: San Fermin

Matt Inman | May 15, 2017

On "Belong,” the title track of San Fermin’s new album, Allen Tate sings, “There’s a little piece of me that’s always somewhere else/ But I’m right where I belong.” And while the tune is filtered through Tate’s voice, the words emanated from band songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who says that this new collection—the third studio effort from San Fermin—features his most personal set of songs yet.

“I’ve realized that, of the songs I write, the ones I connect to the most aren’t afraid to look at what’s going on in my life,” Ludwig-Leone reflects, explaining that “Belong” was written about the dichotomy of being in love with someone and still feeling a strong sense of isolation.

The introspective themes kick in right away on Belong’s appropriately titled lead number, “Open,” which Ludwig-Leone says became the cornerstone for the whole album—setting the emotional groundwork for the rest of the compositions. The songwriter employs his other lead vocalist, Charlene Kaye, on the selection, which includes lyrics like, “I am a ghost at the controls” and “I know you’re capable of terrible things and we’ve been here before/ Don’t act so alarmed.”

“That song is like the voice in the back of your head going, ‘Hey, you’ve got some shit to work through here. And maybe you’re not the best dude,’” Ludwig-Leone says. “And that spurs this kind of exploration over the course of the record.”

Elsewhere on the album, Ludwig-Leone’s penchant for repeating themes—a habit, perhaps, learned from the musician’s background in classical composition—comes through with the recurring image of the “little blonde ghost.” This appears both in “Bones,” one of the album’s understated highlights, and the contrasting next track, “Dead," which allows Kaye to showcase some of her more bombastic vocal talents. Ludwig-Leone says the lyrical motif of the ghost comes directly from a book by English novelist Alan Hollinghurst, but he points to a larger idea of impermanence and the everyday dichotomies in life.

“I really like that image of this ghostly figure that’s pulling you toward being an adult, having grown-up responsibilities,” Ludwig-Leone says. “There’s a lot of feeling like you’re present and not present [on this album], and the ghost imagery played into that.”

Despite some recurring themes on Belong, LudwigLeone says he was trying for a less composed project this time around, focusing instead on each track as its own entity. “On this record in particular, I was interested in the songwriting craft of it,” he says. “That sounds obvious, but on past records, I was thinking about it more as a full, sweeping thing with interludes and every song playing a role in this larger thing. That’s still true but, on this record, I wanted every song to stand alone, and I did away with the interludes and thought, ‘OK, here’s a chance for me to work on writing songs that stick with you.’”

Along with San Fermin’s continuously impressive arrangements and bursts of indie-pop beauty, Belong finds Ludwig-Leone delving into his own life for inspiration more than ever before. With tracks like the aforementioned “Open” and “Bride,” which pulls from a real-life aborted wedding Ludwig-Leone witnessed, the songwriter has slowly begun to shift his lyrical focus more inward.

“I don’t know that it’s a good or a bad thing, necessarily, to try to write in that way— in a more personal way,” Ludwig-Leone says. “But, for me, it was growth because it opened up a whole new way of thinking about writing a song. I just felt ready to talk about those things and that I could be a little more direct in the way that I tried to write. When I was writing the first or second record, I didn’t feel like I could do that. I didn’t feel like I had that kind of perspective about myself to write songs that weren’t bad, basically.”

Even with a newfound personal touch to his lyrics, Ludwig-Leone remains more of a behind-the-scenes bandleader and composer at heart. (He still dislikes the “bullshit” and “stressful, ivory tower” connotation that can come with the latter designation.) “Even when we perform live, I stand of to the side,” he says. “I don’t really look at the audience. I’m fairly in my own head about a lot of stuff.”

That’s also why he’s happy to cede the centerstage spotlight to dual vocalists Kaye and Tate. Both have released their own solo work, and Ludwig-Leone praises the individual strengths that each brings to the table. When Kaye took over for Rae Cassidy in 2014, Ludwig-Leone says that the band’s live show “went to a new level” because of her onstage presence and guitar skills. (She also played with Guns N’ Hoses, the Brooklyn-based, all-female Guns N’ Roses tribute act.)

Tate, on the other hand, has been playing with Ludwig-Leone since before San Fermin’s formation. The two have been friends since their high school days, and Ludwig-Leone, who produced Tate’s 2016 solo debut, says the singer is still always the first one to hear anything he writes. “Our relationship is the thing at the center of all this,” Ludwig-Leone says. “It’s so crazy to think that we’ve been working together for 11 years, since we were kids.”

He adds, “It’s an invaluable resource to have someone who has known you basically your whole life, who has followed your entire music career since the very beginning. Who calls bullshit any time it’s bullshit.”