Elles Bailey has been cutting her own path with her distinctive style of blues and roots music. Her third album Shining in the Half Light – that was recorded during lockdown when she was six months pregnant – has made people from all backgrounds sit up and take notice. Featuring her distinctive smoky voice, hard-hitting lyrics and a mesmerising mix of rock, blues, Americana and gospel, it has opened all sorts of doors.
Elles has just finished a tour supporting the legendary guitarist Walter Trout, she recently opened for Van Morrison at Kew the Music and she’s supporting Don McClean later this year. All in between playing at a variety of blues, Americana and rock shows. Oh yes, and she’s just got her own Elles Bailey radio show on Planet Rock Radio.
I’m standing opposite an open door of the Fiddlers venue in Elle’s hometown of Bristol. It’s a few days before Elles’ gig with Van Morrison. I know I’m in the right place because the distinctive smoky, bluesy voice of Elles Bailey is rolling down the street. A raucous seagull scolds as it wheels above me, a motorbike roars past, but neither of them make a dent in Elle’s soaring voice. It’s a ridiculously beautiful moment for such a random setting.
A trendy looking couple walk past, a scruffy little dog loitering at the end of a long lead. They break their necks to look into the door of the venue. The guy looks at me, clocks my hat and saunters over.
“What’s going on? Are you part of this?” He asks. “Can we go in and get a drink?”
“That’s Elles Bailey,” I reply. “I’m just about to interview her, she’s doing soundchecks at the moment.”
“No way! That’s not someone actually singing now?” The guy is shocked. I shrug my shoulders as if it’s an everyday occurrence, but secretly I’m just as impressed as him. We have a bit of a chat and I convince the couple to come back in the evening.
A bit later Elles appears. She’s dressed casually in jeans and munching an apple. She gives me a welcoming smile and I tell her how amazing her singing sounded outside. She looks a bit mystified, but is impressed by my boast of getting extra punters for the show.
She leads me into a large back room that functions as a dressing room. It features a whole lot of brown with some tired looking armchairs and a portable dressing screen loitering in the corner. It’s a reminder that the rock’n’roll lifestyle is not necessarily glamorous. Elles’ drummer, Matthew Jones makes a quick exit and we get the interview started while Elles starts to put on her make up
The iconic Elles Bailey Shining in the Half Light photoshoot
Elles recently released the video for ‘Who’s That?’ featuring behind the scenes footage of the Shining in the Half Light album photoshoot. You can see Vera – and Luke – in the backgrounds, keep an eye out for their distinctive hats!
Vera and Elles planned the Shining in the Half Light shoot around their joint motherhood experiences. Elles’ son Jasper was a few months old and Vera’s son Bobby was due in a few months. They agreed on a date in September, two months before Vera’s due date, but Elles received a phone call from Vera before the shoot saying her waters had broken. Bobby was born three months early.
“I couldn’t even comprehend what she was going through when we did the shoot! Bobby was still in hospital and we were just talking a lot about kids. Jasper was five months, Bobby was two months and Vera and Luke were going through the most nuts time of it all.
“However, she made me feel relaxed even though I was incredibly nervous beforehand. I remember messaging Vera about what I looked like at the time, because no-one had really seen us. When you have a baby in a pandemic you just hide away. My hair had got really dark and she suggested I had highlights. That really wasn’t me but I thought – sod it – and got my hair highlighted and now I can’t believe why I didn’t do it earlier!
“My hair was quite short and Vera suggested I wear hair extensions. I always thought I wasn’t the sort of person to wear hair extensions, but I’ve used them twice since and I felt very proud of myself! I wore them once on the Walter Trout tour and I’m probably going to wear them when opening for Van Morrison.”
Vera and Luke (and young Bobby) caught up with Elles (who was wearing her hair extensions!) at the Van Morrison gig.
“Paradise by way of Kensal Green was such a stunning location and I’d never done a shoot like that. There were just so many hats to choose from. Vera made this white one and I remember messaging her two days later saying, ‘Yeah, right. I’ve got to have the white one!’ I had already picked another black one, but I got the white one as well!”
Photos of Elles Bailey from this shoot were featured on the cover of a number of magazines ERB magazine, MNPR magazine and Blues in Britain. I was interested in how Elles felt going from feeling insecure to seeing these iconic photos of her on magazine covers.
“The one on Blues in Britain was so striking I felt like Dr John! I would never have done that without Vera Black; I would never have put those clothes on. I’ve never really worn a blazer, I’ve now got blazers in every colour and I’ve just ordered a load more. That blazer was custom made for the photo shoot by KoKo Blazer. Vera went to Camden market and found the designer and she made it for me.
“I remember I was wearing these cowboy boots that were too small for me, so my foot is half in them. I’ve got my legs up and the boots put about four inches longer on my legs. I was like, look at those legs! She pushed boundaries with me, massively, and it made this really iconic kind of look which fits.”
How did the cover design for Shining in the Half Light come about?
“That’s a funny story!” Elles exclaims as she stops doing her makeup and leans back in her chair, hugging her legs. “I’m at Middle Farm Studios and the nearest loo was a walk through an office and obviously being six months pregnant I needed to pee the whole time. The office belonged to Alica Raitt (Lis) the girlfriend of Pete Miles, the engineer and studio owner at Middle Farm. Lis is a graphic designer. I could see her amazing work on the walls every time I came through. I put a plan in place to see if she could design me a T-shirt for the record. Once the album was finished we had a lovely chat, came up with a plan and she designed me a super cool T-shirt, but the moment I saw the design I knew she had designed the album cover too!
“I showed Vera and Rob the album cover when we were talking about the styling and they used that as the starting point of all the other pictures we did. The best thing is that I sent the photos back to Lis and she designed all the other singles covers out of the pictures from the photoshoot. So Lis inspired the photoshoot which in turn inspired the rest of the single covers!
Elles is known for her Vera Black hats and you can see the whole range of our rock n roll hats here.
We’ve pulled out some of the hat styles that are closest to Elles’ look in the photo carousel above. Elles is also known for her feather headpieces and feather hair clips so check out these links for instant kick-ass colour. If you’re just browsing at the moment take a few moments to sign up for our newsletter. You’ll get the best deals and the latest stunning products – plus more inside information from our ambassadors in all sorts of creative industries.
Vera is available to style you, bring you confidence and help you feel amazing. It could be for a wild idea, a photo shoot, a wedding, or just because you deserve it! Fill in our Customs Designs form here to start creating something new.
Taking photos for the socials
I remark that Elles seems to keep a very natural vibe for social photos and wonder if this is a conscious effort.
“Social media is a very complicated beast and I’ve found it really hard to keep on top of it since becoming a mum. Most of the time I’m wearing no make up with my hair scraped back and I probably haven’t washed it for a week! And then I have to think ‘Ahh! I’ve got to announce that I’m opening for Walter Trout and I need to look pretty!’ Sometimes I’ll just share what I look like. Although often it will probably be a selfie taken before a gig; where at least I’m wearing some make up.
“I’ve had an email in my inbox for about a month asking me to do a video about a festival I’m playing! They chased me the other day and I replied with a photo saying – this is what I look like today. I can’t do a video because I look like shite! I’ll do it on Friday because I’m doing a gig and I know that backstage I’ll be wearing makeup and I’ll be in the mind frame of Elles gigging, rather than Elles with poo all over me – not my poo obviously!
“It is like being on all the time. I love getting back to my fans, but sometimes there are days when I just can’t do it and that’s real life. I’m exhausted at the moment as I’ve rolled off the Walter Trout tour, straight into my son having a horrific chest infection and croup. I’ve been working every night until about 10.30 sorting out the Planet Rock stuff, sorting email admin, and making sure my socials are up to date. I’m knackered. I know I’m fighting off some bug, but I just can’t get sick!”
What messages were you keen to get across in the creation of the Shining in the Half Light album?
“I don’t think I consciously was trying to portray any kind of message. I remember a lot of the pre-release reviews describing the album as emotional and creating a real feeling of hope. I found that quite strange. I remember when the album was finished and we were discussing when it would come out; the whole team around me were saying 2022. And I was like ‘No way! No one is going to want to hear songs written in a pandemic in 2022.’
“Little did I know that we would still be in the pandemic when the album came out! There was barely any touring because of omicron. I think I had a plan a, b, c, d, plan z for the album release. I had four tours cancelled before they were even announced. It was crazy!”
How was it different recording the album in the UK rather than in Nashville?
“It was really different. In Nashville you go into a studio and you make an album in two days. It happens very quickly without much time to breathe. It’s incredible. You just watch the thing burst into bloom. Over here I think we tracked it in over seven or eight days. We made sure we had a bit of time to really think about the tracks and if we thought something wasn’t working, we’d go back in and record it again. It was great.
“I loved Middle Studios, working with Dan Weller was amazing. We came from very different worlds with his heavy metal kind of thing. I looked through his credits when his name came up as a possible producer and it really didn’t seem like a marriage that was going to work. But it totally did! I think first and foremost you just want to get on with your producer and we did. It was just a very relaxed, wonderful atmosphere in an incredibly strange time.
How does it feel to be nominated for awards alongside your heroes?
“I’ve felt massively honoured. This year I was nominated for ‘artist of the year’ in the UK Americana Association and I was completely stunned, I was nominated alongside people like six times Grammy nominated Yola!
“I’ve been in the industry a long time and it’s really lovely to see so many of my friends really start to get traction. It’s a really beautiful scene; we’re all in our 30’s. A lot of them are women, like Lady Nade and Lauren Housely . I’m so into championing women, so it is great to see all these different voices getting discovered.”
Now you’re playing with the likes of Don Mclean, Walter Trout and Van Morrison!
“The Don Mclean tour was an amazing thing to come through, but it’s also very daunting, as it will be the longest tour I’ve done for three years and the longest I’ve been away from my son. It took me a long time to decide whether I was going to do that or not.
“I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like opening for Van Morrison all my career! I’m so ready for this. The email from my agent basically asked if I was free on July 5th to open for Van Morrison, 8,000 people – it’s basically sold out. I sent her a photo of me with a huge smile. I quickly followed it up with a grrr face after I phoned everyone in my band only for none of them to answer the phone to confirm they were available! Fortunately most of them did in the end.”
I saw a video of you and your band jamming with Walter Trout on stage. How did that happen?
We did it in Holmfirth and it was a really last minute thing with him going on stage and saying, ‘Are you going to come up and jam with us tonight? I said ‘Sure – We’ll do a Bonnie Raitt song in E.’ And then he went straight in.
“It was so great, but especially for my guitarist Joe Wilkins. I’ve worked with Joe for eight years now, from the early Elles Bailey band days when we had to rough it, sleeping on pub floors. Thankfully we have progressed to Premier Inns now!! He is a huge Walter Trout fan, growing up he had a poster of Walter on his wall. So all of sudden he is getting to jam with his hero!
“However, on that night we were staying in an AirBnB and when we walked off stage we realised we had to get some breakfast in. I looked at the time and said ‘Sainsbury’s going to shut in 10 minutes!’ We literally dashed across the street, me all dolled up in my heels and Joe’s like ‘I’ve just jammed with my hero and now I’m having to buy milk!’ It was so funny!
As we’re talking we can hear the heavenly soulful voice of Hannah Williams bursting through the building as she does her soundchecks. It seems a good time to ask how this gig with Hannah Williams and the Affirmations came about.
“I got a message a week ago asking if I could do it. At that time I didn’t really have a band around so we were going to do it as a trio with drums and guitar, while Hannah was going to sing with her full band. Two days ago I got a call from my dep bassist Tom who is meant to be gigging with someone who had gone into labour so he was now free. My organ player Jonny Henderson was playing in Venice, but he said he was flying into today and he would just roll into the gig and set up his organ and play. So we were back to having a full band.
“Then I got a call from my agent telling me that half of Hannah’s band is down with Covid, and asked if I could go on last. So I was yes, no problem. Now I’ve got a full band and Hannah’s doing a heavily stripped back thing.
“Then I got a call from my agent telling me that half of Hannah’s band is down with Covid, and asked if I could go on last. So I was yes, no problem. Now I’ve got a full band and Hannah’s doing a heavily stripped back thing.
“Then this morning I got a call from Jonny to say he is stranded in Venice as his flight has been cancelled. This was followed by a call from my main bassist Matthew Waer to say he’s got Covid and can’t play our festival tomorrow. So now I’m playing piano tonight and I’ve hardly played for about two years, apart from a couple of songs on the Walter Trout tour. So it’s been a stressful morning!
“As for Hannah, well…” Elles pauses as Hannah’s voice reaches an unbelievable crescendo next door and we both laugh. “Hannah is just amazing! She is such an incredible vocalist, I don’t particularly want to follow her on stage!
“However, although we both have big voices, I think we’re different enough that it’s going to be okay. Apart from the fact that she is the perfect singer and I’m definitely not. But it will be fine. I feel very privileged they asked me to do this show and now I’m doing the later slot. It’s also massively sad that their band is not here as I’ve gigged with some of them before and I’ve not seen them for a while.”
I can hear that Hannah and (not many of) the Affirmations are starting to wind up their soundchecks so I move to some quickfire questions.
Can you still make the big time while being a mum?
“Yes! I don’t feel that being a mum hinders you. It just changes your outlook. It’s harder. Try to get as much help as possible. I really feel like a village raises a child and that is how we’re raising Jasper. In Western society we kind of put up walls, but actually, the more people involved with your child’s life the better. The person who is looking after my baby can run the day however works for them, because you need to do what works for you when you are looking after a baby.”
How do you find your unique voice?
“I think it’s all about finding what you want to say. I remember being massively insulted by a friend in 2014 when I wrote a song for my brother’s wedding. He said ‘Elles, you don’t sound like you.’ At the time I thought ‘How Rude’ But he was so right! Because I hadn’t found my voice as, in what I wanted to say as an artist.
“It took me until about 27 or 28 to really find out the artist that I am, but that is also ever evolving. The artist I was five years ago is very different to how I am today and I’m sure in five years time I’m going to be very different again.
At the moment I’m trying to write a record and all my other albums came together really easily. Road I Call Home just happened overnight. Shining in the Half Light ended up being a record of hope by accident. But I’m sitting here thinking, shit, what’s this next chapter going to be about? But it will just happen. You just have to work at it! I’ll write 40 songs and 10 of them will get recorded. The hardest part about writing with a child is finding the creative headspace as I just don’t have that anymore.
Do you have any tips on getting in front of key people?
I think networking is really important. It really helps to be part of the bodies around your work. For me being a part of the Americana Association in the UK has been massive and I now sit on the board for the UK Blues Federation. And I’m also part of the rock world which has kind of come about by accident, like me having a slot on Planet Rock Radio. You need to get involved with your scenes, meet people and be open to listen to others and for possible collaborations.
So how did the Planet Rock radio show come about?
It was totally out of the blue. Obviously they massively championed this last record and I was one of their most played artists in the last half of last year, which was amazing! When I did My Planet Rocks with Liz Barnes I was very open about talking about women in rock. I’m quite vocal about the type of representation, or lack of, that women have and I think more needs to happen. They asked me to sit in to cover Bernard Doherty and do an International Women’s Day feature and then two months later I just got a call saying “Would you like a show on Planet Rock?
“It’s nuts because as an indie artist you hustle all the time, you’re always hustling. A lot of people have said to me ‘Elles you should do radio’, but I’ve always responded that I am not going to hustle for that, I don’t have time. It’s been one of those things that just came to me. It’s my first show tomorrow! Hopefully people will like it. I’m way more nervous about that than the Van Morrison gig!”
I ask if she is going to be championing anyone in particular on her show?
Elles leans back and thinks for a moment before replying with a smile: “You’re just going to have to listen and find out!”
You can listen to Elle’s radio show on Saturdays at 12pm and you should expect to be entertained. Elles is very expressive and dynamic when she speaks. She sounds just like a radio presenter on the recording of our interview.
Where did the name Elles come from?
“I made it up! My first name is Eleanor and was Ellie and then Elle, and then I decided I was going to be Elles, because there are not many Elles.”
It’s at this point that I make my first complaint as I point out that her name confuses the hell out of streaming services when you ask them to play ‘Elles Bailey’.
Elles just laughs and reaches for her phone. She pulls up a series of videos of her asking Google to play ‘Sunshine City by Elles Bailey’. Her young son Jasper looks up in hope each time she asks – apparently it’s his favourite song. However, Google fails to get Spotify to play the requested track every time. Sometimes it picks a completely random song, others it just fails to deliver at all. This happens repeatedly and poor Jasper toddles off to find some other entertainment.
Finally, on the 10th attempt Sunshine City blasts out and Jasper jumps up and has a little boogie with excitement. It’s great to see that Elles’ smallest fan is also her biggest fan.
The interview draws to a close as the depleted Affirmations return to the dressing room, their soundcheck completed. I stop my recording and leave the room only to see Hannah Williams striding down the corridor towards me.
“Ooh hello!” I say, my attempt to be cool let down by my throat deciding that a squeak would be much more appropriate than my normal voice. “I’m really looking forward to the show tonight.”
Hannah gives me a beaming smile. “Me too.” She says. “I hope you enjoy it.”
Hannah Williams and the Affirmations
A short while later I’m back in the venue, this time by the bar with my wife who has joined me for the gig. It’s all very relaxed. There’s a wide range of ages in the crowd and we’re trying to work out which people are here for which band. They might be there for both. There’s a high turnout of locals for this Bristol event.
I look round to see Hannah striding, barefoot, towards the stage. She is dazzling everyone around her with her megawatt smile. She looks completely relaxed, as if she’s going to meet some friends at the bar rather than sing with barely any musical accompaniment. Her two band members don’t seem quite so relaxed about it.
I’d checked out Hannah Williams and the Affirmations music before the gig. Their Late Nights and Heartbreak and the 50 Foot Woman albums have an old time soul feel with the band driving forward Hannah’s beautiful voice. Hannah has stated before that she doesn’t want to be a solo artist, she wants to sing true soul with a band. I’m intrigued as to how this stripped down version is going to sound.
Apart from her (and her band’s) obvious talent for devastating soul music, Hannah is probably best known for being a semi-finalist on The Voice, championed by Tom Jones and for her beautiful Late Nights & Heartbreaks song being sampled by Jay-Z on his famous confessional track “4.44”.
Hannah starts with a bit of chat explaining why they are not appearing as a full band and thanking us for supporting them. Later in the set she jokes that they are actually a five piece band rather than a three piece as she is pregnant with twins. After her introduction she sings.
I’ve often wondered what it’s like being in the audience for shows like The Voice. You see the crowd go wild when someone has a truly wonderful voice. Hannah’s voice is just astonishing and it was born to sing soul music. Right from the first note, Hannah sings with a glorious intensity. If I was sitting in a fancy red chair with my back to her, I would spin it round in a heartbeat.
All this with just the skillful accompaniment of guitarist Adam Holgate and backing singer Alba Torriset who has a glorious voice of her own. Yes, there are minor issues. For example, they start at the wrong tempo for one song leading to the quip ‘So that’s what a drummer is for!’ But the crowd knows we are witnessing something special with the combination of Hannah’s insanely talented and varied voice and the pure soul passion in the lyrics of the songs.
Hannah and Elles hanging out in the dressing room before the gig.
Yes, they play the hits including Tablecloth, 50 Foot Woman and of course Late Nights & Heartbreak, but we also get a sneak peak into what drives Hannah’s soul. She sings two of her favourite songs, the ones that truly turned her onto soul music, one by Aretha Franklin and one by Bill Withers.
She quips that no, she’s not playing Respect or Lovely Day and there is a faint ripple of disappointment in the crowd – me included. I want to hear Hannah performing those classics. Instead she sings the hugely complex ebb and flow of Ain’t No Way by Aretha Franklin and the hauntingly simple Hope She’ll Be Happier by Bill Withers. These songs are packed with emotion and I’d be surprised if anyone in the world can sing them better than Hannah. The audience are thrilled and we all feel blessed with a greater insight into what drives the Hannah Williams and the Affirmations soul machine. A special mention should probably also go to the acoustics of the Fiddlers venue.
Follow that Elles!
There is a break between the acts and we do actually need a break after all that emotion. To be honest I’m thinking of Elles Bailey, who is also known for beautiful voice, having to follow that performance. No doubt there are two types of professional singers when it comes to following Hannah Williams on stage, those who admit to being petrified, and liars.
However, when Elles does appear she seems relaxed and confident. She also looks fantastic rocking a bespoke fedora hat with distinctive feathers, complete with stunning feather hair clips in her hair, and yes, a blazer, worn over a long flowing skirt that swirls around her as she truly makes the stage her own.
She blasts into The Game and Stones from the Shining in the Half Light album, Joe’s got his guitar humming and the crowd know they are in very safe hands. Elles’ admission that she was nervous about following Hannah on stage gets a genuine reaction so I know I wasn’t alone with my concerns. No-one is worried now. Grins are plastered on bobbing heads as Elles works through her set, singing What’s the matter with you?, Medicine Man along from the Road I Call Home album as well as her latest hits.
Her powerful bluesy voice suggests she drank a fair few Jack Daniels while chain smoking cigars since our interview, but it’s beautiful too. She moves easily from raw choruses to delicate emotion and demonstrates exactly why she is building such an impressive fan base. You can tell the people who came to see Hannah Williams as they are nudging each other and nodding. Elles is converting more fans.
I spot the couple I encouraged to come along earlier in the day and they both have dopey smiles as Elles follows Hannah’s lead and gets the very best out of the venue’s acoustics.
While Hannah’s stripped down set moved people, Elles and her band are making people move. Then she takes things down with her turn at the piano for acoustic versions of Walk Away and a beautiful cover of Wilson Pickett’s Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.
They then power on to the end, finishing with a blazing rendition of Sunshine City – a song inspired by a drunken night out in Bristol. It’s been a long gig, they’ve run over time, but the crowd really want more when Elles leaves the stage. Then we see Elles calling Hannah over from the merch stand, they’re having a chat, there’s lots of nodding, but it’s obvious there is no clear plan.
The crowd is buzzing when Elles and her band return to the stage with Hannah. Elles decides to sing Howlin’ Wolf, her tribute to the musical greats that have inspired her. She sings, Hannah provides backing vocals and the crowd urge them on. The band members – Tom Kuras, drummer Matthew Jones and guitarist Joe Wilkins (who has his own vocal fan group) each play a solo winding the crowd up further and then the true magic happens.
It’s very respectful and polite to start with; Hannah starts with St James Infirmary before she starts ad-libbing, singing about the blues power of Elles, who responds when she is sure Hannah has finished. However, with the crowd urging them on they both pile in. Two stunning voices vibing off each other. I can’t describe it, other than it was hair-raising; a moment in time that no-one there will ever forget.
I’m not a music industry expert, but Elles and Hannah really need to sing together again – soon!
When I’m waiting to have a quick chat with Elles after the show I remember Elles’ voice rolling down the road during her soundchecks. I know that no-one else is going to believe it was a magic moment. Except for the couple and their little scruffy dog. It’s just a shame the dog didn’t get to return to experience the full glory.
Later when I see the photo of Elles and I taken in dark conditions with the bright light of Elles’ merch stand behind us, I realise she really was shining in the half light.
This article is part of a series looking at the work of our Vera Black ambassadors as we seek to share useful tips for the creative people of all types that make up the core our off wonderful customers. When you become a Vera Black customer you become one of the team! Check out our latest kick ass designs here.
Have you seen our feature on Troy Redfern: The King of Slide Guitar?