Ella Vos —The Evolution of an Artist
Ella Vos looked familiar to me and it nearly drove me crazy. All I believed I knew about the singer-songwriter before I spoke with her last month was that she survived cancer and her latest music video, Ocean made me want to talk to her. Watch and Wait her recent EP dropped January 25 just ahead of her North American Tour. Her music gets to me and passes the Gen-Z test (I consulted my 19-year-old expert). Being an 80s kid, my music taste is solidly Gen-X (meaning The Clash, The Go Go’s and Frank Zappa were all in the Billboard Top 100 the week that I started high school. Say what you will about Gen-X but I think a quick study of Billboard’s Top 100 explains our reputation for lack of direction. At least Zappa’s Valley Girl song legitimizes why I still punctuate my sentences with “like.”
Ella Vos feels too timeless and expansive to be categorized as Indie Pop but I’m going with it. We chatted on the phone so I could find out more about the artist, her music, and dealing with cancer as a touring musician. I’ve never met a person who has had cancer who hasn’t thought of their lives as before a certain date and after. A major health diagnosis doesn’t have to be life-defining but it would be trite to say that it doesn’t at least alter one’s priorities. The EP aptly titled, Watch and Wait, is what cancer survivors do the rest of their lives.
We spoke while she was sitting in her car in a Whole Foods parking lot in Pasadena, California. It was her second trip there of the day. I laughed when she told me, “I pretty much have been all over the US and I don’t think I could live everywhere else. I grew up just outside of LA and so I am very much southern California girl to the core.”
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity:
On Being a Legit Classical Musician
I started playing classical piano when I was five and was very anti not going to be in a band. All my friends would start bands and they would be like, come join my bands and play keyboards. I always said no, I’m a legit classical musician. And then right before my senior year of college, I was applying to get my master’s in music theory or something boring and I was asked to be in another band and I was like you know what? I will just try it, it’s different.
I had always written piano songs, but I didn’t sing that much and I didn’t play my music for everyone, it was just like a secret side hobby. But I joined this band and they were like you have to sing if you are in our band because everyone sings harmonies. I used to be in choir so I can sing harmony. So, I started singing and over time I went from being this back singer in that band to being the co-frontperson. And I loved it, I just fell in love with it and eventually, things didn’t work out with the band. It was pretty … I don’t know—it was a traumatic relationship, not abusive, but it was pretty traumatic.
So right around that time I also got pregnant, which I wasn’t planning, and I thought I don’t know what I am doing with my life, I have given so much time to this other band, and I was also touring with BØRNS around that time as well for like a year.
JP: At that moment I realized that Ella Vos looked familiar because I watched a video of her playing keyboards with BØRNS at SXSW in 2015. She flawlessly played the cover of Bennie and the Jets. It rained throughout the set and she looks like she had a blast. It’s a performance worth checking out. I watched this video several times before I interviewed BØRNS last summer. Mystery solved.
On managing being in two bands, touring and being pregnant.
I love touring but I didn’t know if I could keep doing that, I thought that I definitely had to get out of this other band. I guess the only other option was writing my own songs, which up until then I was really terrified of. It was either this or start over.
My whole life had been revolving around music, it was like okay this is the next step. So, I started working with this producer and writing and yeah, that’s how this began, I guess. And then right after I had my son I was still writing and recording whenever we could, trying to figure that out and I wrote White Noise when my son was six weeks old. I didn’t know till a couple of months later, but I was going through serious postpartum depression and White Noise is kind of like my cry for help.
It is kind of like the song and the lyrics for it made me reflect back on why did I write this song, what am I going through, is this serious, do I need to do something about it? And so, I did, I guess actually talking about it and going to therapy and ever since then, songwriting has become that tool to bring things from unconsciousness up to consciousness and discover what I am going through. And make sense of things.
Thirty is Not the New Twenty
Yeah, the age thing is … okay, so I am 32, everyone thinks I’m like early 20s. (She looks like a teenager.) A lot of people think I’m a single mom, which is interesting and I have used both of those to my advantage, over the past two years, but it’s just beginning to get weird for me now because I feel I am so honest and open about everything. I will meet up with other artists and I know they are 20, 21 and I am always like in my head I’m like they are probably going to get really freaked out if I tell them I am 32, they are going to be oh this is weird, so I don’t, but I am trying to care less about it this year and yeah. I’m trying, we’ll see. It is. Yeah, the age thing, being married, having a family, having any of those, I don’t know, I feel like old, it just feels old.
When Mom body turns out to be…
So right as I was leaving on my tour last spring at the end of February, I went to the doctor to get a flu shot and I had been having this weird bludge in my stomach that I only noticed when I worked out or ate certain foods. I was actually was just joking with all my friends, oh I think this is just what happens when you get older and after you have kids, I will just have the “mom belly.” I am really really skinny so having any kind of weird bludge in my stomach was pretty noticeable, at least to me. So as I am getting my flu shot, I ask this doctor who I have met one other time, I’m like can you look at my stomach, something is going on, I am working out all the time and I’m not getting a flat stomach, am I just old, did I tear my ab muscles apart, am I never going to have abs, this is what I am concerned about it.
At first, she was like, you are fine, I am like no, no, you need to feel my stomach. So, she feels around, she says, oh, yeah, you have … there is like a hard mass on your left side you need to go get an ultrasound right now. Of course, I wait a week because I have rehearsals and stuff and then a week goes by and I’m like I’ll go get the ultrasound, I go get the ultrasound and they are like you have multiple masses in your abdomen you need to get a CT scan. I get that done, find out that my spleen is super enlarged and that I need to go see an oncologist. So, I go see the oncologist and now it’s like the day before we leave for tour.
Could It Be Malaria, a Weird Parasite or Cancer?
I do all of this research before the tour: I could have malaria, I could have mono, I could have this weird parasite, I could have this infection. She is like yeah, but you could also have this cancer and I want to do a biopsy. I am like I am leaving on tour; can’t we do some other tests? She is like you need to do a biopsy, so we pull out my tour calendar and figure out when I have off days and when I can fly back for biopsies and check-ups. And I am like, I don’t know how freaked out I should be and I don’t tell too many people because I don’t want to cause alarm.
I leave on tour. I try to take care of myself a little bit more than I normally would have just because I had been feeling really really tried. So, I am taking care of myself. I go get this biopsy done. It’s awful and I had to play a show 24 hours later and I could barely twist my abdomen around. The end of the first week of tour my doctor calls and she just cuts to the chase. I pick up the phone 8:00 at night and she is like, “hi I have your results back, you have Lymphoma non-Hodgkin’s, it’s slow growing, it’s called Marginal Zone Lymphoma, you should write that down, it’s in your spleen and I need you to come do a bone marrow biopsy, do you have any questions?”
It was just as matter of fact as that. I’m like, no, sounds good, I didn’t know what to say or even what to ask. I really didn’t believe that it was going to be anything serious, and yeah. Just like in the back of our tour van, we are in the middle of Florida, we still had four hours to drive at night and trying to figure out how to tell everyone I am in the car with, including my husband. He was playing guitar with me. So, it was a really weird night of going one by one through the van, telling people and watching them cry and I secretly cried by myself before I started telling the rest of my crew because I hate crying in front of people.
I got all my crying out and then went and told them, told most of them at a gas station somewhere. So that was last March. I got to finish up the tour. I didn’t need to rush back and start the treatment. I had to go back for more tests and stuff and had been planning to write. I was just going to come home in April and start writing because we finished the EP that I was working at the time.
If You Have to Time When You Get Cancer
It’s not like I had a bunch of stuff coming up that I had to cancel, I was going to do some summer tours but timing wise it ended up it wasn’t horrible. I don’t know it was still kind of terrible actually, I came home from tour and a couple of days later started treatment. The treatment was a version of chemo, I didn’t lose my hair, I mostly felt like I had the flu for two months. But I still wrote, I recorded and I wrote most of this EP during that time. I just would write a lot of lyrics, sitting in the treatment room and then would take them to a session the next day.
I did that whenever I could, it ended up being a dragged-out process because I ended up getting sick in between so I had to learn how to keep going even though you don’t feel like you are doing 100 percent which is really [frustrating]. I have serious sinus issues like maybe I need sinus surgery right now and I have to keep recording because if I just keep waiting till I’m better I don’t know when that will be. I’ve just been learning how to do what I can with what I have and make the most of it. I don’t know if I can do the surgery yet, but I probably need to. I don’t know it’s so weird to have health issues. I grew up almost never getting sick and not really having to deal with that kind of stuff and now I have all these food allergies and I started doing this awful elimination diet, just stuff I have never experienced before. Donuts are really hard because I love donuts, and cheese and everything … yeah.
Yeah, but it’s interesting, it’s been really interesting with all these things to see like where I can find fulfillment and enjoyment in other things. In a lot of ways my cancer and being sick and trying to figure out how to stay healthy has made me a lot better at knowing what I want to do with my career. I can finally get a little more specific about my goals. Whereas I think at the start I was very green, and I wanted to do everything. Everything was a yes, and now I am like, this thing would be [what I want], I want to go after this one specific thing and I feel comfortable saying no to everything else.
On Music and Empathy
I know a lot of people will say … a lot of cancer survivors will say their cancer was a gift, but I would tell myself I am not going to change, I am not going to let this change me, I am not going to let it affect my future and now I am a little bit more, I don’t know, it’s changing me in a healthy, positive way. Even just with songwriting, I just feel like a little bit more of a barrier has been broken down where I can tap into other worlds and things that I would be really uncomfortable writing about before. So, it’s been cool.
I feel like if someone listens to my music, I want them to have that sense of, what’s the word? Like I want them to feel seen and heard, but also know that there is some hope or some peace, that it doesn’t have to stop, the anger part, I guess.
On Touring Just One Year after Diagnosis to Promote Her New Album
I’m doing a tour right after the album drops actually—a North American album tour, and that will be interesting, and it will be really exciting. I already have so many fans that I met last year that they told me that they got VIP tickets and they can’t wait to see me again so I feel like it will be a lot of homecoming moments. My fans are really really open with me as well. I think because I share so much, I think fans are like that with the artists they like anyway but mine will really tell me their whole story of what is going on in their lives not looking for therapy but they share a lot. And I like to read and write back so I know so many of their stories and what they have been through this past year. So, I feel the tour will be emotional. I’ll probably cry a couple of times.
The rest of us might too. Ella really is extraordinary. Don’t miss her tour.