Joe Ely has been performing his own distinctive musical mix of Americana, Tex – Mex, country, blues, and rock and roll since the 1970s and has either toured with or shared the stage with the likes of Merle Haggard, Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, The Clash and more. Having been emotionally moved by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences, he recently felt inspired to dig into his collection of unused love songs from over the years to fashion his latest masterful record, Love In The Midst Of Mayhem. By phone, we spoke about his new album, his inspiration to do it, and what he hopes his listeners will feel when they hear the songs from it.
Americana Highways: How did you arrive at the title “Love in the Midst of Mayhem”?
Joe Ely: You know, I really can’t remember how we came up with that specific title. I remember thinking that this is such a strange time that we are all going through and that at first sight, everything appears to be perfectly normal. Its just kind of hard to shake those disturbing thoughts in your head, though, that something is going on and that everything is standing still, almost like the world has stopped spinning. I think the whole notion of mayhem partly comes from not knowing what to do about those thoughts.
There were some other working titles, that I don’t even remember now, but when we came up with “Love in the Midst of Mayhem” everything just seemed to fall into place. The title just seemed to fit with the songs on the record that are all about love in one form or another, and with this whole notion of all of us being frozen in time right now. It is that stillness that I was just talking about vs. what is really going on in the world like the stock market crashing, people losing their jobs, and people getting sick and dying which I also believe is part of the mayhem that we are dealing with and have been dealing with for months now.
So, I think when we combined those two things- the nature of the songs on the record and what is going on in the world right now, that’s how we came to choose the title.
AH: You have been quoted as saying “I wanted these songs to be heard now rather than in six months.” What did you mean by that?
JE: Well, I think there’s just a lot of people that kind of need somewhere to lean or something to lean on and there’s nothing like a song to give you a little bit of stability. I think that’s especially true now when there is chaos and craziness going on all around us. Again, it’s like it was when 9-11 happened when we were all kind of frozen in time. I just thought the songs should be a part of this time we are in right now because of the way that they started leaning when I was writing and putting this record together. As I said, I was just kind of watching everything and thought people needed something to help hold themselves up.
So, with that in mind, I found myself going in a whole different direction with my song selection for this album than I had originally planned on.
AH: When you chose these songs is it correct to say that they were in a ” demo” state? Or even further, were they just lyrics?
JE: I would say that each one had a different history and there were all in different states and all from different periods of time.
Some of them had a melody and I thought “Boy this would be a good one to find some words for”, so I just wrote the lyrics for them, and some of them had been written many years ago.
The great thing was that they just all kind of fell into place for the record.
There are songs from all different eras of my life on the album and when I look back at it, I think that kind of makes it interesting because you can have a song that can mean something different to different people. With a lot of these songs, I thought well maybe, someone can find a perfect place for it in their life.
AH: Can you briefly explain the process of how you brought the album together after you chose the songs?
JE: As with any album, there were a lot of questions. Questions like the sequencing of the songs, like which song should open the album and which song should close it, and there were other questions like what should the songs be about, what key should they be in, and whether the record should go up or down in intensity as it progressed. My wife Sharon and I figured out all of that together.
I think the biggest chore with the songs themselves were having to add choruses or verses to some of them and sometimes figuring out how to open or close one of them with a verse or two. That part was kind of difficult for me because I have never written like that before.
I can say after all that, though, we are now actually looking at releasing another album later this year. It just depends on where we all go from here, of course, but we’ve been talking about it.
AH: Would this new album you are talking about consist of new material or more songs from your personal archives like Love in the Midst of Mayhem?
JE: Well, you know its just one of those things that we just have to wait to see which way it goes. With everything up in the air and us being bound up in this whole new way of working, everything has to be completely in the moment because we don’t know what the next moment might bring. So we are just trying to stay focused and we will see what happens from there.
AH: Your wife Sharon, who as you said helped you select the songs for the album, has called the songs on the album ” healing” songs. This is really what they are, aren’t they?
JE: Well yes, they were chosen with healing in mind. That includes the way they were healing me when I was writing them.
But, I also think more than that, they also touch upon a spiritual place within all us.
After looking at all the things going on all around us, I focused on finding songs that can give us all a little hope and understanding and at the same time ask some serious questions of us too. I believe with the songs we selected, we do just that.
AH: Some of my favorite lyrics on the album are from the song “There’s Never Been.” The lyrics are “There’s never been a season yet that didn’t have an end,” which is really one of the main messages of the album, isn’t it?
JE: Yes, it is. I think that’s a good observation on your part. That’s exactly how that feels to me and that’s exactly how I want people to feel when they hear it.
AH: What do you want the listener to walk away with after listening to this record?
JE: Well, I would just like everyone to feel like these songs can provide a kind of a backdrop to their lives right now and maybe make them feel a little safer because there is so much uncertainty with everything right now. That’s why I went looking through my unused songs for songs that I thought could help people live through these crazy times that we are all living through.
Also, I think I would want everybody to look at everybody else like we are all part of the same human family, for everybody to feel like they should help everyone they can and for everyone to realize that we all have to have a love for our fellow beings because we all share the same planet and that’s never been more apparent than right now.
Love In The Midst Of Mayhem by Joe Ely is now available on his website .