From the dynamic stages of Toronto to the bright lights of Nashville, Elyse Saunders has followed a path of steadfast determination and artistic inspiration to a place where she effortlessly captives fans with her powerhouse vocals, engaging live show personality, and interactive charm.
“Country music has always felt like home…” Growing up in Peterborough, Ontario, your mom played the guitar and wrote songs. What music was on repeat in your family home?
We listened to a lot of Country and pop because of my mom.. it would be a lot of Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Patsy Cline, Garth Brooks as well as Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Tracy Chapman, but my dad was more on the soft rock side, so I also listened to a lot of The Eagles, Rod Stewart, The Beatles, oh and Elvis of course!
I thank my parents for exposing me to a lot of different kinds of music when I was young. All of them had such beautiful, definitive voices with a lot of depth as writers and as performers. It certainly rounded out my ear for songwriting melodies and vocal styles, while teaching me a little bit about performance at the same time!
Your dad bought you your first karaoke machine. Favorite songs to sing along with?
He did! I would be on that thing for hours. He bought a variety pack of a whole bunch of classic songs I had never heard in my life till that point — haha. So I would listen to the songs and learn them and then go sing them on the karaoke because it was just so much fun to learn new songs! I loved singing along to the movie soundtrack for Grease as well as Shania Twain, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You”. Dolly Parton wrote that tune and it’s still one of my favourite songs!
Best advice you received from fellow Canadian producer/songwriter Cyril Rawson, your first mentor, who recorded your self-titled debut album?
To find my authentic style and voice as well as a singer and how to use my voice in subtle ways in order to tell the story of a song, line by line. It was never good enough to just be a pretty singer — it had to be a real performance and one that would sell the song. And I’ll be honest, Cyril took me under his wing but was never easy on me! He would be very straight with me and kick my butt until I got it right. I always wanted to meet his standard, as I looked up to him so much. He always told me that you to have thick skin in this business and that the only way to sing a song was to make it my own and to tell the story. He really changed the way I would vocally interpret a song and believe that it’s vital for any recording artist to think that way when they’re in the recording booth. I’m very grateful for his stern but professional teachings early on. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today if it wasn’t for him as a mentor.
Read that one of your first big breaks was opening for ACM artist Deric Ruttan. Can you describe what it was like to perform in front of 10,000+?
Oh my goodness! It was surreal! At that point in my life, I had only been performing for probably about 2 years, so I was such a baby in the business. The most amount of people I would’ve performed for at that time was maybe 500 for a showcase. It was my first real professional show and on a level that flung me into the real world of the industry. I had just got back from Nashville where I was recording my first batch of songs for my very first album, and this opportunity came up to open for Deric in my hometown. Cyril had just had a writing session with him, and he called me up and was like, “Would you want to open for Deric Ruttan?”
I was shocked but excited at the same time and said, “Heck ya!”
I remember practicing every day for 2 months to get ready for my first real big show. And when I hit the stage, it was like I became a different person — the entertainer in me came alive and I did it, in front of 10,000 people! I just remember looking out at a sea of people that it was a blur, but in the front rows were my family and some friends that I didn’t even expect to see.
By the time I was done, I had a line-up of people wanting my autograph and picture — it was so strange haha! But it felt natural. And from that point on, I knew that it was my journey and that I could do it. It was a huge test so early on in my career, but just what I needed to make this thing a go.
Your 2017 song “Rise” had been chosen to be played during the television broadcasts of the 2020 Olympics. How does your song, inspired by Canadian Equestrian Olympian Jessica Phoenix, capture the spirit of the athletic competition?
It was based on Jessica’s story of determination, strength, positivity and unstoppable attitude. She was crushed by her thousand pound horse leading up to the Olympics and even had doctors telling her that she might never be able to compete again. But she didn’t take “no” for an answer and did everything she could to get healthy again and came back winning silver!! Having become friends with her, I can say that she’s truly inspirational and someone I look up to. Her incredible amount of willpower and positive mind-set really impressed me and I’m truly grateful to have been a part of this project which had us cross paths! Jessica’s story and the song “Rise” share a message that is fiery, powerful as well as motivational and is exactly what I imagine athletic competition to be.
What inspired your 2019 song “Feel You Leaving” that was selected as a semi-finalist for the International Songwriters Competition?
A dream! It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s pretty special! I will hear songs in my dreams which are usually when I’m half-awake and I won’t realize it’s a song I’ve created in my dream until I wake up. I’ve learned as soon as I wake up that I have to put a voice note in my phone or else it will be lost forever. And trust me, I’ve been so upset when I haven’t made a voice note when it happens because it’s totally lost. Any time it does happen, it’s a song that I know I’m supposed to write. So this was one of those songs!
I heard the big soaring vocals and the “ooohh’s” and I heard the lines “let these waves crash over me, wash away our memories”. So I tucked that away until my next writing session and that was with Shawn Moore and Doug Folkins. We were going through a few ideas and then I showed them this one and Doug was like “we have to write that.. and crazy enough, I think I have a title and some verse ideas that would fit perfectly with that!”
So the write was meant to be and here we are today! I had submitted it to the International Songwriting Competition just for the heck of it and was super excited when I heard that it was a semi-finalist out of over 5000 submissions. It was judged by many respected industry, so it was a great thing to see how far the song reached since its early stages of just being a dream.
You penned “Free” with Shawn Moore. Did you have a specific event in mind to write about coming into the co-write?
Yes I did and not with any real specific event in mind. We wrote it about a year ago. I had this melody and song idea that I knew I wanted to be a summer anthem type of song — something that would celebrate life and those vivid memories in the summer. The verses are all snapshots from my youth growing up in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario and the message of the song is to be able to look back at those times when we’ve all felt free, in the moment and the feeling of having no responsibilities. Those times can be fleeting but I think it’s important to still stop to look around and smell the roses once in a while and really soak in the moment with your friends or the ones you love. This song is all about that! Strangely enough, the message and lyrics of the song are very timely with our events happening right now as we’re all experiencing the feeling of wanting freedom again since the pandemic. Songs can sometimes have a funny way of finding their place at the right time.
“Free”. “Life can be confusing — especially right now — which makes it even more important to slow down and enjoy quality moments.” How are you living the ‘free’ life during the quarantine?
When the pandemic first happened, my life was turned upside down just like everybody else’s. It took me a solid couple of weeks to adjust to the new “normal”.
I’ve been finding ways to keep my mind busy, so that I’m feeling proactive and working on a purpose. So I’ve been doing YouTube vlogs which share a behind the scenes look at my life as well as some how-to and self-help videos based off of my own experiences as a songwriter and as a person.
It’s really helped to free my mind but at the same time, I’ve also been weirdly busy with all of my new efforts and all of the promotions as well as the content I’ve been creating. So for me, it’s important to schedule in those days when I can take a break from the online world and find a place to refill my batteries. My mental batteries of course — haha! So that’s usually in nature. It could be going to the lake, going for a hike, playing basketball, going for a swim. Anything to get me out in the fresh air and the sun!
“I believe there’s something really beautiful about celebrating life and just taking in the moment.” Can you share some positive moments you have experienced during the past few months?
I would love to! Being around a campfire, watching the sunset, canoeing, camping on an island and really being excited about sharing my new song and seeing how much it’s connecting to people!! It’s been streamed over 400,000 times on Apple Music and we even had the opportunity to create an official music video. I was also finally able to head back to Vancouver to finish the job and record the rest of my songs for the album. These past few months have definitely been different and pretty challenging but amazing at the same time.
Working with producer Dan Swinimer along with co-producers Paul Shatto and David Wills. Producers and songs have been compared to directors and films. Can you describe the production process your new song went through in the studio?
Every producer has a different process and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several producers on projects and it’s been magical to see how each of them work and who has what in common and what each producer uniquely brings to each song.
Dan Swinimer’s process is all done remotely, so the pandemic never affected his recording process. He usually likes to build the bones of the track from his home studio all on his own. It gets to a strong representation of the song, so that I can come in and record my vocals. For me, it’s great that he builds the track to such a strong point before I come in to record because it inspires the energy that I’m going to bring to my performance. We then track the vocals at his studio and spend a lot of time really capturing the best performance and honing in on any spots that need a little more style or emphasis and then depending on time we will also spend some time putting down harmonies. Dan has an amazing ear for vocal production and really knows how to find the right performance. I really respect that as vocal production is super important to me! From there, he will comp a vocal mix for me so that I can approve all of the vocal edits, and then he sends it off to his favourite musicians so they can lay down a bunch of parts and variety for him to work with. They record it all from their own home studios and then send it over to Dan. From there, he will fill the song out with all of the parts and edit until perfection. The last steps are to send it to a secondary mixer for special attention and details and the mixer will send it back for both Dan and I to listen to. We might have some small tweaks but once that’s approved then it’s sent to someone to master. The mastering process is the final icing on the cake and brings all of the levels and sound to a sonic level that is ready to go for radio and the commercial online market.
That’s the process in a nutshell and it’s how “Free” came about. To see and hear a song be built from the ground up is a pretty magical collaboration to be a part of! I loved it.
A day in the life of a country artist video post. How has keeping a daily schedule helped you during self-isolation?
It was especially important for me in the early stage of self-isolation. When we were forced to shut everything down and stay inside, I had lost a lot of my motivation. I was on a roll with a lot of momentum during the early part of the year, so when it all came to a head, it felt pretty confusing and devastating all at once. I was also really worried about my family and like many others, I had bouts of depression. I had to find a new daily routine to me back on track again, so that I wouldn’t get stuck in my own head and so that I could start feeling mentally and physically active again. One foot in front of the other, I was able to find my place in the new environment and work on things that would give me purpose and take my mind off of worries. Now that things are starting to open back up again and my single has been seeing some success, it’s all been keeping me busy that I don’t need to follow such a routine schedule in order to feel motivated. If there’s anything that self-isolation taught me, it’s that the best way to get out of a slump is to create a schedule to lead me back to feeling motivated again. I hope that by sharing these YouTube episodes that it helps others when they’re needing it.
*NEW @youtube EPISODE DAY! [[PREVIEW]] The music video for my song #FREE has only been out for 6…
Started filming YouTube episodes to help others while we all social distance. How do you choose the video topics?
It was based off of my own interests and things that I’ve watched on YouTube before, but also just the kind of topics that I felt confident to speak about based on my own experiences. I wanted to share a variety of topics that would be more personal to me and then others that were more focused around my experience as an artist. I spent some time thinking about what would be realistic and authentic to me and then I just did it!
Releasing new music for radio. Besides the vlog, how are you promoting your single during the pandemic?
I’ve been doing the occasional Facebook live to chat with my fans as well as some online shows. Video content and posts that invite my fans in on my journey are really important right now because I believe people are looking for more connection than ever. So I’ve been spending a lot of time creating my own content that I think people might find interesting. We also released the song to Canadian radio and created a music video for it! Radio is a slow climb and because we can’t do a radio tour right now, I’ve been finding unique ways to introduce myself to people at radio who may not have known about me before. In the early part of the pandemic, I had created an at home lyric video that would be engaging for my fans. I recorded myself dancing and singing on my phone and then had someone edit it all together with some life clips and beautiful stock footage, so that we could create a memorable lyric video. We recently found a 2-week window to get the music video recorded, edited and released in time. It was unique to film a video at this time but we made it work within the necessary precautions and I’m so happy that it worked out. It was just released and people seem pretty excited about it already!
Staying in touch with fellow artists. How does participating in online writers’ rounds, like the one with Dave Woods, help keep you focused on career goals?
They’re a great way to stay connected with my industry and to feel connected to other artists who are all going through the same things. I love being able to share a show with them and then setting up virtual writing appointments afterwards. Not having live shows was pretty difficult on me so by getting to do something that still gives me a bit of a performance outlet has been good. Although I’ll say that it’s not quite the same having to sing to a screen… there’s nothing like a live crowd!! I also just love hearing what other people are up to and what they’re creating. It’s always inspiring!