Andrew Ellis (‘18) is majoring in Political Science and can play the piano, guitar, ukulele, accordion and (synth) drums. If that’s not enough to convince you of his musical talent, in just the course of this conversation, he began writing two new songs. He makes music under the moniker DummyFresh (show him some support!) and is inspired by a global cultural icon admired for his determination, Naruto — oh, and Beethoven. Look out for his album dropping soon.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing the piano when I was really young because there just happened to be one in my house. By four or five, I was taking lessons…so really I should be much better than I am actually [This is false. He is an exceptional piano player]. There were definitely times where I didn’t particularly enjoy going to lessons but things changed in fifth grade when I fell in love with Beethoven’s music, and from that point, I started practising more on my own accord.
What specifically drew you to Beethoven?
Honestly, as a kid, I just thought he had a cool vibe. He’s angry and super extra.
Earlier you played me your favorite chord. How does one choose a favorite chord?
Debussy uses it in Clair de Lune — The way Debussy plays this chord, it is just slightly different from the usual way it is played and in Clair de Lune, it ends up just punching you in the gut because it is so unexpected, like “Where’d that come from?!” I actually wrote a song on my upcoming album with the same name that uses the same chord progression. It’s kind of subtle, but the influence is there and maybe, if somebody was looking out for it, they could pick up on it.
How did you make the transition between playing music to actually making your own music?
Well, I’ve always liked composing and would consider myself more of a composer than a performer or a piano player, even though I do both those things. Sometime around seventh grade, I started writing short pieces on the piano influenced by all of the classical music I was playing at that time. Soon after that, I quit lessons and started teaching myself to improvise. Part of the reason why I wanted to learn how to improvise was due to the fact that I was really bad sight reading. I wanted to be able to play music every time I sat down and not carry pages of sheet music everywhere. Ultimately, I found it more rewarding to be able to show a thing I made, rather than play a thing that already existed. With that being said, I definitely still love playing classical music because they wrote some damn good songs; that’s why we still listen to them today.
Is there something unique that inspires you when you are making music?
I enjoy watching Naruto. If I’m working on music, it’s always on in the background — if not Naruto, then Seinfeld or Dragonball, or sometimes the Carmichael show. Even though I have headphones, I’ll look up from time to time and catch the subtitles, which are a great source of inspiration. Otherwise, I don’t know, I’m inspired by love, loss and literally anything. Even, you know, that feeling of nothingness.
It’s funny because most people would call this ‘nothingness’ writer’s block, but I’m like “Wait, no, this is cool; let’s figure out what’s going on.”
Interesting. Do you ever get writer’s block then?
For lyrics? Yeah. But for music? No — I could literally just keep writing and writing, and writing. In fact, there was a time where I was writing a song a day, at least the musical notation parts. One thing that I am grateful for is having a relatively large harmonic vocabulary. Having a good understanding of how to combine different chords together is really helpful because it presents you with endless combinations.
What drove you to put together an album?
Well if I am totally candid, I did it for the chicks. You know, like most people these days, for the women and money. Apart from that, I hope that people listen to it and enjoy it.
Especially wealthy women?
I am curious about whether musicians have a favorite song they have created…or is it difficult, like having to pick your favorite child or something?
*Laughs*, I hate all of them! I’ve literally spent the past few weeks trying to perfect the songs, and even before that, I had already listened to them too much. I mean, at one point, I liked them, but if you listen to any song enough times, especially one that you created yourself, you end up just focusing on all of the imperfections. You have to be hard on yourself but also it is also important to remember that very few people will notice a missed beat or a wrong note. In fact, I think that in jazz and improvisation in general, it is these small imperfections that make things interesting. Sometimes you just have to hit the wrong note to come up with something fresh.
Who are your musical inspirations?
Good question. In terms of classical music, probably Chopin. That guy is so goddamn good at writing songs, it’s crazy. One of my favorite pieces of his is “Farewell Waltz”. For jazz, my favorite musicians are Horace Silver, Red Garland, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Lennie Tristano….there’s so many. Sarah Vaughan has the voice of an angel. And Billie Holiday, she’s the greatest singer ever. Despite not having that large of a vocal range, she manages to pierce my soul with every word she sings. Ahmad Jamal is really interesting because his process of creating music juxtaposes the typical characteristics of jazz music. Usually, we think jazz is about improvising and experimenting. In contrast with this, Jamal arranges his stuff quite a bit — nothing ever feels out of place.
Do you think that the quality of music is subjective, or is it possible to definitively call a piece ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
Personally, I think it’s totally subjective. This subjectivity is what makes a career in music strange. If I was able to make exactly the music that I wanted to make, then the album would sound quite different. You definitely have to negotiate with yourself. Overall, music is made to be enjoyed. I think that it is important to create music that is enjoyable to yourself and enjoyable to others. For example (had I not spent a year analyzing the songs on my album), I do think they are songs I generally enjoy and would listen to. Even though it is important to try and connect with the audience, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice too much of who you are in the process.
Everything with music is subjective. I don’t understand it when people try to claim that certain artists or genres are better than others. In the end, it’s all just a bunch of sounds.
I think it’s interesting to think about how the amount of manpower behind making music has increased over the years. I’m definitely no expert, but it seems that making music used to be a very intimate process involving an individual or a small group of band members. Whereas nowadays, numerous parts of the process, such as writing, producing, instrumentals, can be totally outsourced. Do you have any thoughts on this change?
I guess I am kind of in the middle of being for and against this change. It’s cool to hear the product of an army of people, especially when each contributing person is the best at what they do. The end product tends to be very impressive. At the same time, there’s also something intangibly great that arises from music that is truly the personal creation of one person or a few people. In these cases, you can really understand the vision behind the music. There is also something special about the rawness that makes the music truly unique.
Okay, onto the generic questions. If you had to recommend something to someone…
Listen to DummyFresh. If you’re having a bad day, just listen to some DummyFresh. If you can’t get a date, listen to some DummyFresh — you still won’t get one but that’s okay.
Aside from listening to DummyFresh, my recommendation is to just be nice to people.
What do you appreciate about Penn?
This is pretty obvious but there are some really cool people here.
Right, but what do you mean by ‘cool’?
Creative people who do things that aren’t the norm. Filmmakers, musicians, artists, poets… At the same time, there are also just a lot of people you can have good conversations with. Also, there are a lot of opportunities to make good connections.
What’s something you would like to change about Penn?
People also suck here. There are people who I feel like have been on a narrow path all their life and don’t see anything beyond themselves. Coming to Penn, I just assumed that because everyone was smart, they would be very open-minded too but this has not been the case. I’ve met a lot of narrow-minded people; however, I am also extremely open so this feeling may just be magnified on an individual level.
Who should we talk to next, and why?
Adam Ginsberg. He’s the guy who made the Claire de Looney Tune’s music video and he is also working on a movie about a girl dealing with boredom and finding ways to pass the time.
I would also recommend talking to Michael Pearson, or really, anyone in the band Peachy. They are all very cool.
Any last words?
Henry Ford said that “If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”