With music on her mind and money in the music industry, Lena Ellingwood is, in two weeks, due to release her fourth album – View through the cellar door. From busking on the highstreet to signing record deals with legendary producer Luther Johnson, Lena speaks openly to SOUND magazine about her life in the music industry.
'I was told I had chronic asthma'
My birth, I'm told, was special. I was born a month and a half early, just under six pounds with Bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a chronic lung disease which meant that I needed a mechanical ventilator for the first week of my life. My mother held me in her arms for the next two weeks after that, not letting go, just rocking me back and forward. When I was older and able to understand, she sat me down and told me that I'd have tests periodically, to make sure there was no permanent re-occurring damage. It was the day after my fifth birthday, once the candle wax had dried up and the cake crumbs littered the kitchen that I was told I had asthma, which, if left undiagnosed could have led to Pneumothorax, a collapsed lung.
I always knew I wanted to be on the stage. From a very young age, I'd steal some of my mother's clothes, high heels and of course, a generous amount of lipstick and put on a catwalk-style show to my two baby brothers. They never complained. My closeness with Freddie and James meant that I always had someone to talk to, they always had my back, my first day of secondary school was no exception.
'Run from Lena!'
The gates stood tall in front of my younger self and they terrified me. I hadn't made many friends through primary school, my clothes were always boys' hand-me-downs or charity shop finds with other children's names sewed into the collar. I remember own clothes day, a treat for all my classmates, but not for me. That day I became Lena Smellingwood, laughed at and eventually taken off the playground in tears after a particularly nasty game of, 'Run from Lena!'
My nickname followed me to High school and on the second day, a ginger boy with a broad smile came over to me while I was reading a beat up copy of Smash hits and shouted, 'Smelly Lena Smellingwood, oi, smelly, Lena Smellingwood.' I tried to continue reading but tears fogged up my eyes. He just kept repeating it. Over and over. Other boys were joining in, laughing and jeering. Then they just stopped. There was a sharp crunch of gravel and when I looked up, James, my elder by two years was grappling with the ginger boy on the floor and Freddie, older by just 7 months had two others by the scruff of their shirts and was jostling them back away from me. All four got two weeks of lunchtime detentions for fighting but as they were led away, James just looked back and winked at me.
I wasn't pushed into music. I see a lot of kids that were. Given private dance lessons, going to competitions, they miss out on birthdays, school trips and other opportunities. Once they take a step back, they realise they're chasing their parents' dreams rather than their own and they become dangerously unhappy. I wasn't one of them.
I was surrounded by music from an early age, my Dad for instance was a record enthusiast. Keeping boxes of vinyl in the loft, as you climbed the ladder up there you would be greeted by the smirk of Muddy Waters, Leonard Cohen's thoughtful glare and Fleetwood Mac, dressed in their eccentric finary. Behind these there would be hundreds of concept albums and original recordings from when he worked for Trident Music, a studio famous, he says for the recording of David Bowie's Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. I think my Dad always regretted being behind the glass rather than under the spotlight but he'd never admit it.
'I was coming out from the darkness into the bright spotlight.'
Spending hours in that loft was not unheard of. My mother would be cooking, listening to her radio programme, Dad would be at the allotment and I'd lose myself, just gazing at the sleeves, their album art leaving a lasting impression on me. I explicitly remember lifting out a Queen record called Queen II, the men on the front cover were in darkness with their faces illuminated and their hands crossed.
This impression repeated itself when I signed my latest album with EMI. I was coming out
from the darkness into the bright spotlight.
The day I went global, signing with Luther Johnson at EMI, Kiss FM was playing through the building. From the bright red and white lobby through to the toilets, into the meeting room, Maroon 5's “Sugar” echoed out. I remember thinking how clean everything was, and also how everything I touched seemed to be branded with Global's logo. I signed the contract with a pen that read, 'Turn up the feel good.'
This, you can understand, felt a world away from standing outside BHS with my acoustic guitar, selling home made CD's for £5. I'd sing mainly covers of songs I'd heard on the Sunday night Pepsi chart show, however, sometimes I'd play something original and people would smile as they shuffled past my guitar case. I usually made enough money for the bus home.
'Here's my card, I could do great things for you.'
It was Peter Brookes who changed my life well before Luther did, he took me from being a highstreet hooligan musician to a polished, refined product that could be marketed to music executives, both nationally and internationally. He introduced himself to me after a night supporting another local artist at the Glebe bar. My asthma had been playing up in the week before the night and as I was packing my guitar into its case, he said to me, 'great performance, shame the sound guy fell asleep, here's my card, I could do great things for you.' I rang him two days later (my breathing problems having settled) and one week later I was on his label, Tiny dog records.
This early period of my success was blunted heavily with a phonecall on a night out. A sobering voice came through my handset, 'Miss Ellingwood? Can you hear me? I'm Doctor Sabiene from St. Leonard's Hospital.'
My mother always said to me not to worry, she'd have sayings like, 'worrying is like sitting on a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but doesn't get you anywhere.'
The afternoon I got the phone call from the hospital I'd just finished an acoustic set on John Kennedy's X-FM radio show. Myself, the producer Chris and his researcher Louis decided to go into town and have some drinks to celebrate the end of a radio week and my thrust into the public eye. After too many drinks, we stood in the queue to Vibe nightclub. With drunk people, like myself everywhere, I felt my phone vibrate through my jeans. I took it out and the screen was lit brightly with the words, 'unknown number calling.' I rejected it twice before stepping out of the queue and answering. The Doctor told me that both my brothers were involved in a car crash and I'd have to return to Stoke immediately.
The worst things in life blind-side you. They appear when you're thinking about them the least and my reaction to the news was, perhaps due to the alcohol and the time, a little strange. I laughed and swore for the first time in my memory. 'Fuck off,' were the words that flew out.
'Wearing his seatbelt saved him.'
James had, with Freddie's encouragement, gotten behind the wheel drunk. Both on a night out, they had decided it a good idea to just get in the car and come and see me. They'd heard the XFM broadcast and Freddie told me that was their motivation. Doing 70 in a 20 zone, James swerved to avoid a rabbit and crashed into the side of a house. Freddie lost both his legs, being crushed by the footwell, wearing his seatbelt saved him. James was in a medically induced coma for 3 weeks before being declared brain dead.
I'd told Peter Brookes after a bottle of whisky to myself, by voicemail that I hated music, that it had ruined my life and I signed it off with, 'Fuck off dirty Brookes.' The next morning flowers were delivered to my flat. The label read, 'You're hurting, my thoughts are with you and your family. Whenever you're ready, I'm here for you. PB x.'
I spiralled out of control emotionally at this time. I felt both guilt and anger. I thought of my success as the very thing that had caused the crash and I started to back track through different events. If X didn't happen then maybe Y wouldn't have. Both my mother and Father told me I was wrong. The strongest disagreement they could muster. I found solace in music and it was really the thing that dragged me through my pain.
'It's good to see you Lena.'
Walking into the studio, trying to find Peter eight weeks after the voicemail incident, my stomach was twisted and I felt sick. He found me staring up at one of many platinum disks. His defining words to me were, 'It's good to see you Lena, let's create something James would be proud of, come on, we've got work to do.'
James' death pushed Freddie through a world of pain and the darkest times but he got through it. He fronts a cold water shock campaign to educate young drivers about the dangers of drink driving.
My experiences have shaped both my life and music. I'll never forget James and I'll never forget the kindness of Peter Brookes. He is what the music industry should be.
Lena's latest album View Through the Cellar Door is available on 16th October in store, on Spotify and iTunes.