- Sean Daigle
- 'When I look back on that time,' says pack leader Ellis, 'it's like watching a television show about a character who wasn't me.'
When shooting their first promo pics for a new label, artists typically don't want to show up on set with an iridescent black eye. But Austin, Texas, native Sabrina Ellis is not your usual artist. That's why she was proudly sporting a shiner in the shots of her scruffy punk combo A Giant Dog, fresh after the group signed to hip indie imprint Merge Records.
"I'm not the most tailored, groomed female anyway, so when it was time for our photos, I was like, 'Well, here I am — this is what I look like,'" the feral-throated frontwoman recalls. "And you know, you only get a black eye so many times in your life, so you might as well document it."
The group's third album Pile is highlighted by rapid-fire anthems Ellis co-wrote with her guitarist Andrew Cashen. Among them are "Creep," "Sleep When Dead," and the aptly-dubbed "I'll Come Crashing," wherein she wails "Nothing in my nature tells me not to do bad things." After all, that ocular injury didn't happen by accident. In December of 2015, Ellis was in her pickup truck, driving faster and faster as she grew angrier and angrier. "I had a real rough night, and my rage got the best of me," she sighs. "And I drove 90 miles an hour down a really curvy road, and threw my pickup off the road and into a light pole and a tree. I broke my left hand and got that nasty black eye."
Waking up in the hospital — where the nurses informed her that she had suffered brain hemorrhaging, but luckily with no lasting effects — the 30-year-old bandleader knew her life had to change drastically. After forming A Giant Dog with Cashen in 2008, she first started to experience panic attacks in 2011, in her day job as an apprentice cook in a local five-star restaurant, where she lasted only four months in the high-pressure position. As her band became more popular, and her stage performances more chaotic — even physically dangerous — the internal pressure mounted. The crash was her final wake-up call.
"When I look back on that time, it's like watching a television show about a character who wasn't me," says the singer, who at last acknowledged her serious rage issues and sought therapy. "I was under so much stress that I was becoming a caricature of a person who was trying to become a successful musician, like something Ricky Gervais would write or play. My life was demanding that I be administrative, civilized and organized, but my natural makeup had never equipped me for that. And I was trying too hard to step into that role."
Ellis and Cashen also have another outlet, a spinoff pop band called Sweet Spirit, which just released its sophomore album. "It's music that's easily accessible, that gets us onto stages where A Giant Dog would never be welcome," she explains. "So we have our cake and we eat it, too."
That said, Ellis doesn't feel like they've got it all figured out, at least not yet. "I'll call when we actually have it all together," she promises. "I feel like we need a few more years, and then we'll start living like adults for the first time in our lives."