It took Daniel Ellsworth quite a while to become comfortable in his own skin as a musician. And a lot of that had to do with giving up on being a solo artist.
"I had been doing the solo singer-songwriter thing for the better part of three years, and I realized that I hated it," says the frontman of the Nashville-based Daniel Ellsworth & the Great Lakes. "I had always wanted to be in a band, and so it was just a matter of shifting gears and finding the guys to play in a band — and then taking my solo songs and rebuilding the compositions from the ground up."
Formed in 2008, the band features Ellsworth on vocals, keyboards and guitar, as well as guitarist Timon Lance (who took over for original guitarist Ricky Perry), bassist Marshall Skinner and drummer Joel Wren. The group's 2011 full-length debut Civilized Man was co-produced by Mark Nevers, who's known for his work with indie luminaries like Will Oldham, Yo La Tengo and Lambchop. Packed with the kind of quirky-but-catchy indie rock that college stations go crazy for, it went on to make Amazon's 2011 lists for Best Songs and Best Albums.
Since then, the band has more-or-less toured nonstop, releasing two singles and videos (the upbeat "Shoe Fits" and decidedly odd "Bleeding Tongue") and playing several showcases at this year's CMJ Music Marathon in New York. "We did five shows in three days at CMJ," says Ellsworth. "We're still recovering from that."
And then there was the 14-hour shoot for their "Bleeding Tongue" video. "We shot it in Nashville the day after we got back from a two-month tour," Ellsworth says of the fairly grisly 5½-minute video that does justice to the song's title. "We wanted something a little darker this time, a little weirder."
If all that weren't enough, Ellsworth also managed to find the time and energy to appear as part of an a capella group called The Collective on Season 3 of NBC's The Sing-Off. They made it up to the sixth episode.
"We didn't know what the hell we were doing," Ellsworth admits. "It wasn't something I ever saw myself doing, or thought I would be able to do. But the opportunity just sort of presented itself, and it all happened before we started touring behind the album this year, so it was perfect timing."
Timing has played a big role in Ellsworth's career. Sticking it out in Nashville as a singer-songwriter for three years — and enduring all the attendant criticisms and suggestions from people who felt they knew better than he did — gave Ellsworth the drive to prove otherwise with Civilized Man, an album that's compulsively listenable and offbeat in all the right places.
"'Bleeding Tongue' was sort of a middle finger to everyone in the music industry that thinks they know what's best for you," says Ellsworth. "So to have the record come from that sort of place, and then to have had all the good things happen to us that have happened this past year, feels really good."
So what got Ellsworth started on this anything-but-certain career path in the first place?
"Because we love being broke," he jokes. "There's nothing else I can imagine myself doing. The idea of doing something else sounds miserable to me."