COLUMBIA — Local singer, songwriter and guitarist Elaine Townsend took a break between her last album and her new EP. A 20-year break.
Her last album, “Redemption,” came out in 2000, and after the touring cycle for that album ended, so did Townsend’s music career, as far as she was concerned.
“I toured on “Redemption” for a good two years,” Townsend said, “the highlight of which was playing at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest. I got to the end of that period and thought, ‘I’m going to go out on top.’ I’m not 15, and at this stage we were still sleeping on people’s couches. It just was time. I haven’t really played out since then.”
Townsend didn’t plan to return to music, but 2020 has been a turbulent year, and as a hotly contested presidential election approached, the 58-year-old Townsend found herself inspired again.
“I just felt so passionate about the upcoming election,” she explained, “and I wrote a song called ‘Never Can Believe.’”
Recorded and mixed by Jay Matheson at Columbia’s Jam Room studio, “Never Believe” is completely different from the acoustic-guitar-driven folk-rock that Townsend played on “Redemption.” It’s a slow, sultry horn-spiked jazz tune, a New Orleans-style strut that roasts President Donald Trump with style.
“There's a guy in Washington / Tells little lies and great big ones,” the lyrics proclaim. “Supposed to be the president but there is doubt / You can't believe a word that comes from his mouth.”
And did we mention that Townsend herself doesn’t actually appear on the track?
Townsend wrote the song, but singer Desiree Richardson handles the lead vocal, The horn section is Mark Rapp (trumpet), Ben Eidson (clarinet, alto sax), Brad Jepson (trombone) and Lauren Meccia (baritone sax), and the rhythm section is bassist Sam Edwards and drummer Brendan Bull.
It’s the same story for the other two tracks on “VOTE,” the three-song EP that grew out of “Never Believe.” Other than a lead guitar line on “Go Joe,” the pro-Joe Biden rallying cry that opens the EP, Townsend serves as a writer, not a player. A host of vocalists and musicians handle that for her.
Townsend tried to handle the first song herself, and decided that she wasn’t doing it justice.
“I went and recorded ‘Never Believe’ as kind of a country blues,” Townsend recalled, “but I just wasn’t happy with that. I’m 58 now, and I knew there were better players out there and CERTAINLY better singers. It was all about serving the song, and I love that sultry jazz sound of New Orleans.”
And it wasn’t enough to simply bring in horn players and aim for a Big Easy sound. Townsend wanted authenticity. So she reached out to Tim Stambaugh, a veteran New Orleans engineer, musician and producer with more than 100 releases to his credit, including work with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Nightcrawlers.
“I just cold-emailed him,” Townsend laughed, “and as it turns out he had just returned from his vacation at Edisto Island. And I think the reason he wrote me back was to tell me how much he loved Edisto Island. But he also gave me some really nice pointers on recording and mixing horns.”
Townsend wrote the two songs besides “Never Believe” on “VOTE” — “Go Joe” and the percussion-driven, tribal-sounding “Vote Chant” — after congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis died in July.
Townsend said that her goal with the “VOTE” EP was to make “joyous protest music.”
“I wanted to add to the canon,” she said. “I wanted to add a different angle. Whatever emotion I was expressing, I wanted it to not just be, ‘Here’s the problem,’ but, ‘Here’s what I think is part of the answer,’ which is voting. I feel like we need a change, and I’ve got to stay in a place of hope that it WILL on Nov. 3.
As for what comes next, Townsend doesn’t plan on making the “VOTE” EP the first step in a comeback.
“This is temporary,” she laughed. “I worked very hard on it, I think it sounds very good, I’m very proud of it, but it’s obsolete after Nov. 3. And that’s kind of a cool thing.”