© James W. Thompson

Life and Art…

…it’s all the same thing to Luca Ellis.

In Part 1 of  my Conversation with Luca Ellis we focused on where Luca is today and what is coming on the horizon for him in the near future.

We go back to the beginning in Part 2 and discuss how and where Luca got his start in the music business, and how that start influenced his view toward performing for an audience, and and to some degree, his “organic” life philosophy.

During his performances, Luca shows great deference to the artists that precede him, and to the composers and songwriters of the Great American Songbook.

In Part 2 we also discuss in some detail how important it is for Luca to pay tribute to the great talents that paved the way for him to sing the great music that has become his passion.

It’s a fun view inside Luca Ellis and his take on the performing life he’s chosen.


Luca’s start in the music business…

Steve: Stepping back to your start, I read that you used to do personal performances like Robert Wagner’s house and other parties and events around the Hollywood area. Is that where you kicked things off?

Luca: It was actually Heather Locklear’s house. It wasn’t Robert Wagner it was, who was she engaged to? …it was the other Wagner guy, Jack Wagner! Yeah Jack Wagner. It was his 50th birthday party.

Steve: That’s where you started developing your craft as it were?

Luca: You know it was actually Mastro’s Steakhouse. I started work for them as a food runner. They had live music every night, and I was like, “I can do that … and still pursue my acting here in LA.” It took about six months of begging and whining before they finally gave me a [singing] job. Then I just worked my craft gigging … doing four hour gigs three nights a week, four nights a week, sometimes five nights a week.

I had a hunger for the songs … learning and falling in love with these songs, and having a playground to reinterpret these songs was the best thing in the world to me. It was like a drug! I had the hunger to keep doing it … I was improving without even realizing it.

Appreciating the Great American Songbook songwriters and performers…

Steve: Luca, you’re clearly enchanted by this music … I noticed that when you introduce songs at your Bar Nineteen 12 show, you pretty much always mention the songwriters, the arrangers and maybe something anecdotal about the music. Did that grow out of your Hoboken to Hollywood experience or did that … it almost sounds like it’s always been with you.

Luca: Honestly, it was just observing my predecessors and how much credit they gave the songwriters. Especially Sinatra … seeing how much credit he would give to the composers and lyricists — the authors of the songs. It does feel good to respect the material, and I try to take a selfless approach to it as much as possible; as if I’m an instrument conveying the story that the writer intended.

I think that if you focus on that [telling the story] more than anything else, everything else just follows. Mentioning who wrote the song is certainly a good place to start … and maybe even what year. To me, it’s astonishing how different pop culture is today versus back then; it’s important to note who created this masterpiece of a song, that it’s so well-constructed, that it still stands today … so well-built that it even touches me — a guy who was born in the ’70s.

Luca’s “organic” go-with-the-flow performance philosophy…

Steve: I caught your regular Thursday night gig, at Bar Nineteen 12 at Beverly Hills.  It was very cool.  It was intimate … very nice acoustics and overall a really enjoyable experience at a neat venue.  But that night, in particular, it was a tough room. There was a big engagement party overflowing in from the pool area, but you seemed to actually enjoy the energy that was brought to the room and just powered through.  You never really lost your concentration or got knocked off stride.  Do you feed off of that energy?  Is that your “bustling restaurant singer” heritage coming through?

© James W. Thompson

Luca: I think so.  It just really makes for a more organic experience. The crowd is different every night, and I think it’s important not to just do the “plan”  … I think when you’re an entertainer, it’s very important to read the room … to get a feeling from the crowd, and reflect whatever the energy in that room is giving off.  I actually enjoy it! It’s great to be able to play with that and roll with those punches, so to speak. In the tradition of being a saloon singer, I don’t think you should let crowds bother you; even if they’re loud and noisy … it just means they’re having a good time.

Numerous times throughout my career, I’ve had people come up to me and apologize. They’re just having a blast … having a great time celebrating a wedding or whatever the occasion, and they come up and say, “Please don’t think we’re not listening to you.  We are.  We’re just having such a good time,” and I always tell them, “No, come on, that’s okay.  This is your party and we’re here for you guys.  You guys aren’t here for us.  We’re here for you.  That doesn’t bother me at all.”  If anything, it’s … just take it as it comes. You don’t want to necessarily over-prepare for something.

Some singers won’t even talk the day of a performance. Modifying your every day life that way, I think you’re over-thinking something and you could be unconsciously putting tension on yourself. By the time the curtain hits, you’re so wound up — because you’ve been thinking about the curtain hitting all day long — that you actually get nervous, and you get stunned by it or rattled a little bit.  It’s like self-rattling!

Steve: Yes, planning and prepping is good but going overboard with it lays the groundwork for getting all jittery when things don’t go to plan.

Photo credit and © – James W. Thompson

Luca: Right.  And I think that it can affect your performance.  Just like life, if you over-plan something … you want something to go exactly to plan, but very seldom does it really work out that way.  If you stay open, then you could have more of those amazing “spur-of-the-moment” moments. If you’re open to it, there might actually be magic in there that happens … that you’re allowing to happen by allowing yourself to stay flexible and maybe to play around with it and to make it even better than it is on its own.

You become a part of it I think. I know most singers like to have set lists predetermined before they do a gig, and I have had a lot of musicians look at me in a peculiar way, [and say] “Wow, that’s great that you don’t do set lists…” and I just tell them, “First of all, I don’t know how long you guys’ solos are going to be.  One song might be five minutes when it’s supposed to be two-and-a-half minutes, and also, I like to feel the room.’

Early on I had a couple of musicians talk about reading a room, and what they said is true.  I think that the last thing any entertainer learns is how to read an audience.  That’s a whole language in itself, and once you understand that and you’re listening to the audience, and you see what they’re reacting to, then you call the tunes that you think are appropriate.  I think it just gives you a heightened sense, a heightened awareness, of what is going on around you. I think that is very important for a musician, not just listening to the other musicians; or for a singer and entertainer to not just to listen to the band, but to always be in touch and be communicating with them, making eye contact, and know what they’re doing, and being involved with what they’re doing.

Not just that … I think the next step — an evolutionary step from that — is to be in touch with and connect with your audience. Making eye contact with your audience, so they know what you’re saying to them, and also that you’re paying attention to them.  You’ll make better musical artistic choices throughout the evening, and I think that’s what makes every evening special. Because every audience is different, for me every gig is different.

Steve: Yes, I saw you.  You had a big wire-bound notebook that you were flipping through and making your set list decisions on the fly during the Bar Nineteen 12 gig.  It really worked, too, because the room was asking for some specific numbers, and then, like I said, the whole dynamic changed as the party picked up and you were ebbing and flowing with the energy in the room.  It worked out great.

© Stephen Cox

Luca: Yes, when that party was going and the energy was high and we were swinging hard, it was very exciting for anybody that happened to walk into the room.  They’re not going anywhere!  That is, ultimately, when I’m doing my job, because I’m making it desirable for them to want to be in that space.

Steve: It worked for me, that’s for sure.

Luca: That’s good, you were on vacation!

Steve: Well, it was a working vacation — I came out to see you.  You at Bar Nineteen 12 and Robert Davi out in the desert at Soboba Casino.  I hadn’t seen you before, and it was really a kick.  It was a great time, a great evening.

Luca: I’m glad that you got to see me in that setting, because that’s really my favorite … that’s what I really love the most, when I can sing whatever songs I feel like singing that night.

Doing shows like Hoboken to Hollywood are great — I did 90 shows without an understudy over a six-and-a-half-month period — and as good as the songs were, to have to sing the same songs over and over, gets old. What I like about my [Bar Nineteen 12] gig, is that I’m able to try new songs and add them to my repertoire. I never get tired of doing this, because the material is always semi-new and then six months later I’ll re-discover a great song. It’s always nice to revisit that old friend … be touched by it again and say, “I forgot how sweet you were, old buddy, old pal!”  “Put Your Dreams Away,” oh man, I forgot how good this song is! And a lot of times, I will turn to my musicians and say, “We’ve got to do this song more often.”… but there’s never enough time.

Steve: I know.

Luca: That saddens me, that saddens me.  There’s never enough time.  Life is short.

Steve: That’s what makes it all the sweeter while it’s happening … gotta stay in the moment.

Luca: That’s true, that’s true.

 Look for Part 3…

… in the new year.We’ll chat about Luca’s long term plans for albums and touring!