Bruce Dennill
3 minute read
2 Apr 2014
6:00 am

Meaning , message and music mashed together ahead of Tree63 tour

Bruce Dennill

Hugely talented singer-songwriter and guitarist John Ellis has become adept at shooting himself in the foot in terms of marketing his career since the demise of Tree63, the band he formed and helped take to the top of the Billboard charts in the US.

BACK IN BLOOM. Tree63, from left: Darryl Swart, John Ellis and Daniel Ornellas. Picture: Supplied.

His latest PR faux pas was saying, just ahead of Tree63’s upcoming reunion tour (and on a popular national radio show) that the band were “not a Christian band” and that they were “forced to write those songs”. There are contextual statements that make those utterances less outlandish, but those weren’t included in that interview…

“I’m naive,” Ellis says.

“My nature is to over-intellectualise everything. I’ve always been like that. I’m continuously searching for meaning. When I find it in something, I try to develop my understanding of it as much as I can – and I’m fully committed to it. But if or when I find something new that convinces me of its validity, I commit to that, and it’s like what came before never happened.”

This puts some of Ellis’s fan-angering statements in perspective, but it doesn’t completely explain an apparent disregard for their feelings.

“I never say anything just to push a button,” he insists.

“I genuinely don’t understand how what I do will affect others. I like to approach things with humour, but I’m learning that what I think is funny may not be so for others. So I said on the radio that the Tree63 reunion is about money, which was meant as a joke. But then I started to over-think it: if I was doing it for the money, I’d be like a politician – all smarmy; working the crowd. But I didn’t do that…”

No – working the crowd with a cheesy grin on his face is not Ellis’s style. But then, neither is telling the whole story about what put the kibosh on Tree63 in the first place.

“When I became a Christian, I was already a rocker,” he begins.

“My lifestyle changed because of my spiritual convictions. But I wasn’t aware that ‘Christian music’ even existed. Getting involved in that genre was never something I planned. I actually broke up the band after the first album, but then reconsidered, because people were really loving the music. Then I broke it up after Treasure [the Billboard number one hit] again, because I felt everything that was happening was distracting from the meaning of what we were doing.”

Momentum kept the band going, however.

“Meaning affects unit sales,” Ellis shrugs.

“That’s a difficult conundrum for a guy seeking truth. That desire for truth has cost me everything – my career, my marriage, my credibility…”

He pauses.

“If I had a chance to do much of it again, I might say yes instead of no. But Tree63 was a band of guys who happened to be Christians –which is different to a ‘Christian band’ – dedicated to getting better at creating great music, and we gained some hard-won respect for that driving around the US. When we came back to South Africa and the music was being ignored because of the message, that hurt. Bono said something I identified with at the time: ‘Everyone wants a hero, but if you accept the job, you get crucified’.”

Ellis confesses that he didn’t have much of a clue about what was going on in the early days of Tree63.

“Too many people get thrust into ministry as they become Christians,” he points out.

“That’s not necessarily legitimate. The early message to me was quite judgmental. I became a very good, legalistic Pharisee. I had to unlearn a lot of that poison; to hold on to the baby’s foot as I was throwing out the bathwater. The songs I became well-known for were not based on experience. Treasure was taken more or less straight out of Scripture, so that couldn’t be wrong, really. The Christian music industry is pushing out musicians, but the focus is on their sounding good, not on the meaning of what they do.”

Ellis smiles.

“I don’t like being wired like this all the time.”

A shrug.

“Here endeth the lesson.”