Elia Einhorn got a lesson in music journalism with the release of his first album under the banner of the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir six years ago. The Welsh born/Chicago reared singer/songwriter found some interesting feedback in a local review.
“One critic here in Chicago, who I had idolized and loved his column, hated it and the reasons he didn’t like it was he thought we sounded too much like other groups — specifically Belle and Sebastian — and he said it was too British a record for a Chicago band,” Einhorn says with a laugh. “He was right about us being too derivative — here it wasn’t a negative thing, it was almost paying homage — but I realized I wanted to be my own songwriter, so that was a positive.
"But the negative was that I realized this guy was a shitty journalist as far as following up and asking questions. He had all our contact information and he just assumed we were a Chicago band. I spent a third of my life in Britain. That’s where I come from musically. I realized that a lot of journalists are passionate people but not the most thorough writers. I developed this method of interviewing where I would take over the interview from people I felt hadn’t done their research.”
Born in a small village in North Wales, a stone’s throw from Liverpool, Einhorn migrated to Chicago with his American father as a baby, but split his time between countries. His subsequent musical experience was equally divided.
“Here I listened to Pop radio when I was Scotland Yard Gospel Choir a little boy, like Casey Kasem’s Top 40,” Einhorn says. “Over there, I had a friend from Manchester who had a summer house in my village, and he used to bring me all the Manchester stuff. So I grew up listening to Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays and even the Stone Roses’ earlier stuff. So I kind of lucked out that in my formative years I had great music to listen to.”
Einhorn’s luck ran worse as a teenager, when his drug addiction spiraled out of control and consumed his young life. After rehab, he suffered from debilitating panic attacks and found only one solution.
“One of the only things that would calm my mind down was playing guitar,” Einhorn recalls.
“I would sit around the house, writing songs and playing guitar for hours every day. I really began wanting to do it then, although I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to.”
It’s interesting that Einhorn cleaned up first and then found music. So often, in this part of an artist’s VH-1 Behind the Music special, making music will inspire the addict to get clean, not the other way around. At the millennium’s turn, a clean and sober Einhorn recorded a 23-track album that he pegs as a cross between Smithsonian/Harry Smith archival Folk and acoustic Magnetic Fields. The album was never officially released; its distribution was Einhorn giving it to friends and fans.
In 2002, Einhorn crafted the first official SYGC release, I Bet You Say That to All the Boys, done basically for free through DePaul University (the engineer presented his album work for his final grade). Einhorn self-released it in 2003, selling several thousand copies and earning good notices.
“We were getting write-ups in Billboard, and it hit the top of critics’ lists in Chicago,” Einhorn says. “It was thrilling, because we figured we’d sell a hundred copies if we were lucky. We were getting orders from Europe and Japan and we were like, ‘How is this getting out there?’ Looking back, I think it was our attempt to recreate the songs of artists that we loved, and it had the makings for what the band would later become.”
Einhorn’s vision on the band’s sophomore album was to make SYGC — which is more of a collective than actual band; at least 50 musicians have passed through SYGC over the years — a chamber Pop summit meeting between Morrissey and Stephin Merritt, a swinging big band with indie Pop aspirations and Midwestern Americana leanings. When Bloodshot Records reps heard the results, they were keen to sign the band.
“We found out that Sally Timms was a fan and that she’d come to one of our shows and it had been sold out and she couldn’t get in,” Einhorn says. “I was a massive fan of her Cowboy Sally record, and I couldn’t believe she’d come to see my band. I contacted her and said, ‘Anytime you want to come in, you’re on the guest list forever.’ We got to talking and it came about that she sang on the second record.”
Through Timms, Einhorn met Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Conner (“The triumvirate of Bloodshot sirens ...”) and they all sang on the SYGC sessions. Meanwhile, Einhorn was working with former Chicago chanteuse Edith Frost on a Country side project and contacted Bloodshot’s Nan Warshaw about the recording the aggregation, but Warshaw expressed interest in SYGC instead.
“She said, ‘We like to work with our artists on everything they do and we don’t want to just be an Alt.Country label,’ ” Einhorn remembers. “I said, ‘Nan, I don’t think you’re going to want to put it out but I’m going to send you what I’ve been working on.’ So I sent her the rough mixes and they loved it.”
Bloodshot invited Einhorn to its CMJ showcase, which led to a contract and opening slots for Arcade Fire and Tegan and Sara, among many others. The whirlwind of attention has been flattering in the extreme for Einhorn, who is currently working toward the third Scotland Yard Gospel Choir album.
“Artists were showing up and flipping out over our stuff,” he recalls. “I was backstage at a Bright Eyes concert, and I got cornered by Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie — we’d played a show together before and I’d given him some rough demos — and he said, ‘I fucking love your record! I can’t stop listening to it. You’ve got to release it.’ It’s so exciting to have stuff like that happen.”
SCOTLAND YARD GOSPEL CHOIR plays a free show Saturday at Northside Tavern with Cash Flagg and Nathan Holscher. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.