In an interview with writer Enrique Olmos, soul-rocker Elijah Russ reflects on road trips, honing his guitar chops & the joy of video games as he prepares to front a 16-piece, all-star ensemble at Wealthy Theatre.
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I was supposed to meet Elijah Russ at the new Sparrows Coffee inside Kingma’s Market on Plainfield Avenue in Grand Rapids. Russ lives nearby and it’s one of his go-to’s.
But they were closed, something to do with Easter, or the snowy spring weather, or maybe because it was Monday. So we caravan through the flurries down Plainfield and land at Gaia House.
With help from an all-star ensemble, Russ releases two studio records back-to-back on Sunday (April 24) at Wealthy Theatre. One of those releases is an all-out rock album; the second is a foray into lo-fi.
When I walk in, Russ is seated on the very end of a couch, framed by floral wallpaper. He’s sporting all black: jeans, hoodie, wide brim fedora.
“You know, it’s like one of the albums is really big. It’s got a lot of strings and voices and other instrumentation on it. So I had to figure out how to organize all that and write all those parts into sheet music for other people to get the show organized. It’s a big record, with a lot cinematic rock elements,” Russ says.
“Sandcastles” also boasts an impressive musical cast, including Da’Veonce Washington on drums, Ben Steer on bass and Adam Parada on keyboards. Special guests include Alicia Scott on harmonies, Jordan Hamilton on cello and Dutcher Snedeker on keys, among a host of others. The album was recorded between Chris Newberg’s house, Russ’ place and the Fortress in Grand Rapids.
The second record, the lo-fi leaning “Wandering,” took shape while Russ was traveling. He spent his downtime experimenting and simply “having fun” playing music on his own. The record features Russ on guitar, bass and keys with Jay Roberts on lead guitar for Track 2.
“It just hit me in such a way where I was like, ‘I’m gonna just try this and it was really really fun.’ Like I just was having fun making music again. It had been a while since I’d made music without trying to meet a goal or something,” Russ says.
“I don’t like to be classified into one genre. I know that that’s advantageous in the industry. But that’s just not who I am. If somebody finds a lo-fi song, and then goes and looks through the rest of my catalog and finds a cinematic rock song, that could be a cool moment.”
A TWO-PART RELEASE SHOW FEATURING A STAR-STUDDED BAND
After releasing a single in 2018 and a live EP in April 2020, Russ will celebrate his new recording projects with an ambitious live spectacle.
Sunday’s two-part release show will begin with a performance of “Wandering,” at 7 p.m. and conclude with a performance of “Sandcastles” with a 16-piece ensemble featuring a string section, a horn section, a small choir and a full rock band. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Get tickets and details online here.
In addition to Russ on guitar and keyboards, the ensemble will feature drummer Da’Veonce Washington, bassist Ben Steer, keyboardists Adam Parada and Dutcher Snedeker, guitarists Zack Volkers and Stefan Schwartz, saxophonist Nathan Hansen, trumpeter Geoff Hansen, trombonist Becky Haine, singers Alicia Scott, Sarena Chandler and Merrin Bethel, viola player Josh Holcomb, violinist Lexi Terrian, cellist Maddy Peters and percussionist Aaron Ross.
We eventually steer the conversation out West, retracing Russ’ steps from a summer 2020 road trip. He tells me about the formative voyage between sips of coffee. He trekked out to Colorado, swung up to Arches National Park and made stops in Tahoe and Crater Lake.
Eventually, he landed in Snoqualmie, Wash., just outside Seattle, where he connected with a couple (Jay Roberts and Danica Roberts) who ran an Airbnb out of their home.
On his first night there, Russ spotted a guitar hanging on the wall, then another, and another after that. He followed them like bread crumbs down the stairs to the basement where he stumbled upon a professional home studio.
LISTEN: “Brilliant Mind,” Elijah Russ (from “Sandcastles”)
“This dude just blew my mind. Like, from the first notes, it was just absolutely mind-blowing. He was doing everything that I could ever imagine wanting to do. Just all the sounds, like all the good stuff. I was like, ‘Where am I?’” Russ says.
That night, he jammed with Jay and Danica; they asked if he’d play for them. When Jay eventually picked up a guitar to play, Russ was enamored. He ended up staying with the Roberts for two weeks, concluding most evenings with a laid-back jam session. They still keep in touch. Jay has turned into somewhat of a guitar mentor for Russ and even played guitar for a track from “Wandering.”
TEACHING, PLAYING WEDDING GIGS AND VIDEO GAMES
When he returned to Michigan, Russ, who’s originally from Grand Haven, landed back in Grand Rapids, where he’s lived since 2017. He weathered the pandemic by playing wedding gigs in the summer, teaching guitar at Guitar Haven and writing music.
He also took another trip out West. While in Montana, he hung out with Van Morrison’s guitar player for coffee and a jam session.
Russ also got back into playing video games after years of “barring himself” from doing so to focus on guitar.
“I got a PlayStation 4 last summer. I hadn’t played video games for over 11 years. I was doing it too much when I was like 13 or 14. And I was trying to get good at guitar. So I made a deal with the universe: make me good at the guitar and I’ll quit playing video games,” Russ says.
“Then last summer, people had been asking me if I had a hobby, you know, and I was kind of thinking about it. I would find myself watching TV, trying to relax with some tea and I’m like still sending emails or whatever. I was like, ‘I need to have something that I just do for fun.’
“So it’s been really nice to kind of switch off and play some video games. I’ve been playing a lot of Ghost of Tsushima. It’s super dope, super stealthy, strategy kind of stuff. And Spider-Man. A lot of Spider-Man.”
From the looks of it – or sounds of it – that deal with the universe seems to be working out for Russ — your friendly, neighborhood guitar slinger.
VIDEO: Elijah Russ Collective at Dogtown Studio (2020)
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