By Jessica Breznick
I first heard Eli Winter playing guitar during a set at McCormick Lounge winter quarter last year and was taken back by the serendipitous discovery of his music. He played a couple of songs with dexterity of a seasoned performer, conjuring images of sunlight shining onto the dappled ground of a conifer forest, creeks tumbling down hillsides, a car weaving through a country highway, in a complex tapestry of sound woven together with rippling arpeggios and finger-picked rhythms. A Houston native and second year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Winter has been playing the acoustic guitar for about six years now and, though he may deny it, has developed some serious talent along the way as a soloist. By the age of 20 he has played gigs across Houston and the Dallas area as well as in Chicago’s Northside, Southside, and Hyde Park, has released a single, “Take No Notice/Woodlawn Waltz.” He is currently working on an album to be released later in 2018, and plans on touring during the summer.
Curious to know more about his music, I sat down with Winter in Logan Cafe last quarter to talk about gigs, song-writing, and his experiences as a young musician trying to break into the Chicago scene.
JB: How did you first get into music?
EW: In high school, because there wasn’t a music program, I picked up guitar, I sort of just started teaching myself. I saw people shredding, and I thought, “I want to do something like this!” It’s not anything I would want to play, but the technical aspect, getting that good, really stuck out to me. I was listening to a lot of ‘90s indie-rock music like Pavement, people who were involved in the D.C. punk scene in the ‘80s – music I couldn’t learn on an acoustic guitar because I couldn’t replicate the distortion and other aspects. So I turned to learning acoustic music instead.
When I was listening to your older stuff and then to your latest single, ‘Take No Notice/Woodlawn Waltz,’ you can tell the technique has evolved. There’s less strumming, more finger-picking.
Oh totally. I’m not that good, but I’ve gotten a lot better [laughs]
I was wondering what the story is behind the single you put out. Is there some sort of meaning you’re trying to convey?
You know, sometimes there is, but here actually there wasn’t. The ‘Woodlawn Waltz’ song just came to me five minutes Fall Quarter, and the song before that I wrote with the intention of being an introduction to ‘Woodlawn Waltz.’ And I smashed them together at a show and I opened with it. That other song took on a sort of life of its own, which is to say that I think of it and I can understand it as evoking anxiety; I mean it’s called ‘Take No Notice,’ and there’s this really loud part four minutes in…Those songs, they kind of just came to me. It doesn’t always happen, especially with that ‘Woodlawn Waltz’ song just sort of naturally, where you write a song and you work on a piece and it feels for the first time that it’s my work, it’s my own. I hadn’t had that happen before, and it happened there, and it felt great.
I don’t have an elevator pitch; I just tell people I play guitar.
Could you talk about how your specific style of playing and songwriting and how you developed it?
I don’t really know how to describe it. I say it’s experimental because I don’t know what else to say it is. I say it’s American Primitive, which is sort of a nebulous way of playing guitar that John Fahey developed. He would set blues songs to solo guitar without singing, and he would mix it up with raga and Middle Eastern elements and things like that. Fahey I actually don’t really care for, but I know a lot of people who listen to Fahey and were inspired by him. I pick up things more from them than from Fahey himself.
That sort of American Primitive style is what a lot of guitar people, now myself included, really sort of try to shy away from, because you don’t want to be limiting. It’s just a genre tag. Maybe the music website calls you a post-rock band because it’s easy for fans to think of, but the musicians who play the music aren’t going to think of themselves as post-rock, they’re going to be thinking of themselves as coming from all these different disciplines that get filtered through your psyche and then however it comes out, it feels right. I don’t have an elevator pitch; I just tell people I play guitar.
So you don’t have the intention to create a certain type of music?
There’s a lot of music I want to make, and I sometimes think about how it would be if there was a machine that could translate the sounds as you hear them inside your own head into music, and you wouldn’t have to do anything, and it would be really good. I have a lot of really good things in my head that I don’t generally have the means to expand on. Because I’m working with my means. I have an acoustic guitar, I have a very cheap electric guitar at home, bass guitar and drums I could learn if I wanted to, but I work within what I’ve got. And for now that’s a lap guitar, a six-string guitar, and a twelve string guitar if I can finagle one from my friend.
It’s just a matter of playing whatever feels right to you. I would feel like I was lying to myself if I played anything different. That’s probably why I don’t sing, because I’d hate for it of have to feel forced. It’s easier to tap into whatever head space I’m having at the moment with the music I’m playing now, at least at the moment. Which is generally instrumental guitar stuff. But it’s not from trying to limit myself, it’s from whatever feels right, and this is what feels right.
One of the things I like about playing the guitar is that I can listen to it and it can resonate with me across headspaces. Good days and bad days, difficult stretches, that sort of thing. If it can resonate in all these different ways in different situations but it’s still the same song you hear over and over again, it has that sort of interpretive power. Would you say power?
Yeah, maybe versatility. It has this emotional ambiguity where it’s not a song that makes you feel sad, but it’s a song where if you’re feeling bad and you listen to it, it can help you. Or if you’re feeling good it can also be a sort of expression of that or it can roll into that.
A lot of my favorite music tends to be music that has a kind of emotional ambiguity because I’m still learning to detach the emotional effects it might have on me from the song itself. If I can listen to a song and it can connect with me and help me, it can validate how you’re feeling, speak to how you’re feeling in a number of ways, it has a sort of emotional range that can resonate with you on a number of different levels and head spaces and stretches of time, then there’s something about that. There’s a power to it, shit I don’t know! I’d like all my songs to be like that.
When you’re about to write a song or you have an idea, what is that process from the beginning to the finished song?
I’ve learned how to write stuff for a standard six-string guitar, and I’m learning how to do that for the lap guitar where it feels like it’s coming from yourself and not a collection of people who you listen to or are influenced by. As I’ve learned to do that, it’s felt like beating my head against the guitar until I can string enough thing that sound cohesive and good put together that I can call it a song.
Most songs, the bulk of it comes really easily, other songs take a lot of time to write. Or they might feel like they take a lot of time to write because you have a very short amount of time and you have to work with a lot more focus.
It’s strange to talk about learning how to write music because it’s something you learn by doing. I’ve tried to be an active and critical listener for a long time. I’m really horrible about keeping up with TV or movies, but I am always trying to soak in music, to marinate, to bathe in it – all these food analogies, you know [laughs].
I was also interested in how you started playing gigs. Just to go all the way back to your origins, what was your first gig like, playing an original composition in front of an audience?
The first show that I played solo, holy shit, was in this placed called Super Happy Fun Land in Houston. I have this theory that Super Happy will let literally anybody play there. I’ve seen some really cool music at Super Happy Fun Land, I’ve seen some of the worst music I’ve seen in my entire life at Super Happy Fun Land.
Photo courtesy of Houston Press
How old were you then?
This would have been the summer after junior year of high school, June something or other. I would’ve been 18. I was just starting to get comfortable with playing guitar in front of people. But it was fun, it’s a very strange place. I think it’s a place that literally defies description. It’s a very dark and musty place where they sell beers and they also have a very greasy pizza shop food-truck-like store. It’s one of those places that have to be seen to be believed. It’s a very strange environment, they don’t really promote their shows.
That Super Happy show was interesting. After that it was a lot of sad coffee shop gigs. Houston is a car city, and I didn’t have a car. And it also takes time to get plugged in to different scenes. I didn’t get plugged into Houston’s scene, but now I know I have venues and friends that know, I have friends who’ll organize shows there.
It’s definitely a large learning curve, learning how to inhabit a stage, to both be yourself and also acknowledge the fact that you are performing for people.
So things have gotten better?
In a sense. But it takes time. I don’t know how to market this music, if all I can tell people is that I play the guitar. That Super Happy show, I told them I’d play for free, I just really wanted to play. I brought in 200 bucks [in tips] but I couldn’t collect it [laughs].
What about in Chicago? How many shows have you done here?
Not as many as I want to, not as many spaces as I want to because I’m not 21, because we are on the South Side, and we’re on the southeast part of the South Side. So it’s difficult to get up cheaply on a student budget to places like Ukrainian Village or Logan Square or West Town where they’re more receptive to the kind of music I play.
Where have you performed?
One of the places is a space called Silent Funny in Humboldt Park. It’s an art gallery multiuse warehouse kind of space. I played there at the closing reception of an art show and I was playing in a room that had Saddam Hussein’s plates in it. I’ve played one or two DIY spaces on the Northside, I played a Vans shoe store, I played a lot of stuff on campus.
I’m not totally sure how to get out there, I guess few people really are. But I’d like to do a lot more of it. There are spaces that I think will be receptive towards this sort of music when I’m 21. But for now it’s been a mixture of DIY spaces and places around the university. I’ll play anywhere but a coffee shop [laughs].
Back in Houston you toured with two other musicians this summer?
I toured the Dallas area with my friends Will and Cameron. We did a couple of shows. It was pretty short notice, done sort of haphazardly, a week after Harvey hit, so we were all super scrambled for that.
There’s an image you get about touring that it’s the coolest thing on earth. But like everyone who’s toured I found out that there’s just kind of a lot of driving [laughs]. But it’s a fun time, I really enjoy playing music with people. That’s what I want to do.
Actually, I was billed as a headliner but I was only opening for them. People can’t do their work or something. It’s strange to see, you write an email to this space and say ‘Hey, I’m going to be opening for my friends who just put out a really great bluegrass record,’ and they say ‘Let’s do it!’ And you get to the place, and it’s billed as ‘The Eli Winter Band.’ And I’m like, ‘What the fuck, I don’t have a band!’
What was it like learning to perform in front of an audience?
It’s definitely a large learning curve, learning how to inhabit a stage, to both be yourself and also acknowledge the fact that you are performing for people. To be yourself in such a way that understands and works with the fact that you’re in a sort of nervous tension. Which I tend to shy away from in most settings, but here I don’t mind it because music feels natural.
So performing also feels natural.
Totally. I feel like I can lock into a part of myself that I want to be reflected more often in my day to day life. That’s warmer. And some people are going to be reading this and say, ‘What the fuck Eli? You’re like an oven!’ [laughs] 425 degrees. Something like that.
Playing feels like I can access a part of myself that I want to see more often and recognize more often. It’s not like I look myself in a mirror after a show and say, ‘I feel like a different person!’ But in many respects I feel more comfortable playing for people than I do just on the day to day.
I think of playing guitar and working on music like I’m climbing a tree and I’m reaching for the next branch, the next thing or level. I guess playing, it kind of fast tracks that. I feel comfortable in my own skin playing for people. I feel comfortable in a way that I don’t always feel when I’m not, and playing more I feel like I can learn how to incorporate that sort of ease where I can just exist in my day to day.