Hi, my name is Ulrich and this is my story. It’s not the filtered, smoothened press text you’d expect in a bio section, and it’s not the heart-wrenching story of a guy losing everything until music saved him.
I was born and raised in Austria and was lucky enough to receive a throughout musical education, partly through my mother and then through my own ambition. Conservatory-trained on the piano at an early age, I was fourteen when I picked up the guitar for the first time – and never put it down again. First bands, self-booked shows, band contests, girlfriends and parties – suddenly I was in the middle of all of it. I didn’t have a clue but I knew this is what I wanted, who I wanted to be. I took my music very serious, composed my own pieces and songs, practiced for hours everyday – and lost a few relationships on the way. Almost like in the movie “Whiplash”. Just out of high school, I passed the admission tests to study Music production at the prestigious University Of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna. I wanted to be the next Quincy Jones.
Let’s fast forward a few years: after paying my dues and recording my debut record, the golden opportunity gets dropped in my lap: a scholarship to study jazz guitar at the University Of Austin. What that meant was giving up everything in Austria and move to a strange place where we didn’t know anybody – because fortunately I was not alone: if I did this, my wife Sabine and our German Shepherd Hammy needed to come, too. When we arrived in Austin in the summer of 2007, we had 2 suitcases, an old dog with diarrhea – and no money. For ten days we were stranded in a Motel6 off IH-35, no car and 100 degree heat every day, and some very shady figures lurking around. So was this it, the result of following our dream?
We fell on the good side of things: we met some great people, the scholarship money came in, and through luck, talent and hard work both me and Sabine were playing full-time within 6 months. I was still in school playing in Big Band when I learned I won a Downbeat student award, that got me a UT scholarship and enough funding to complete my second year. I graduated with a MM in jazz performance in 2009. But I’ve always wanted to do my own music and follow my own vison and never planned to be in school for that long. Had I missed the train? I was already in my late twenties now and knew so much about music – too much for my own good?
School of hard knocks
I quickly learned that in order to be successful in this business, I needed to start from scratch. The two Masters weren’t gonna help to get people to my shows. DIY – the magic phrase? That’s it. I can do this! I found some mentors, did some research, and started booking my own shows. I listened to my gut and went back to my musical roots for a more rock and blues-oriented sound. I took vocal lessons. I wrote songs. Dozens of them. I played with some great band leaders where I learned tons both musically and business-wise. My look changed, the hair grew, and my sound got more Austin-like, rootsier and cooler.
It was 2011 when things really started to dawn on me. I prepared a Kickstarter campaign for my upcoming album “Lose Yourself”, my first songwriting album. I had been doing everything on my own, writing songs, recording rough arrangements, shooting little videos, composing artwork….. when suddenly I realized that by myself I am nothing. I had started the campaign – and very little happened. It was crushing. I felt so naked and vulnerable. That’s it, people don’t like my music! Then I realized: I could be making the greatest music on earth – if nobody listened to it, cared about it, lift me up and also support the creation process, I wouldn’t be able to make this album. I need supporters, a Tribe. I needed to go and start my own artistic journey by focusing on the people that cared about my music and making them part of my extended family. Alternatively I could sit around and wait for a record label or some other opportunity to drop in my lap. Discovering that I had a whole bunch of people in my corner that wanted to hear this new album was a revelation. Not only was I able to reach my Kickstarter goal of $7000 but I was also encouraged and inspired to use music to actively reach people. This campaign changed my way of thinking.
It was shortly after that I started calling my band “Ulrich Ellison and Tribe”. It just made so much sense after the experience I had made. It’s one thing to rock a stage and be awesome and all but another thing to be successful in advancing your career, producing new music and reaching more and more people. I had the musical skills and knew enough to be dangerous but not enough for a breakthrough. Not just by myself.
Reverse Engineering, manifestation of a vision
In 2012 when we did our first US tour and I didn’t know anything about booking a tour, I just had this fixed idea that I wanted to tour to Chicago and back. So I went and googled for some mid-sized Chicago club venues and found one that had a ring to it: “Goose Island” (yeah, that’s where the beer is from!). I used this fictional anchor gig in my booking pitch I sent out to 300+ venues via indieonthemove.com (check them out if you are an artist touring the US!) Since I had used that club name in so many emails I finally decided to send a booking request to Goose Island, and the weirdest thing happened: they booked us for exactly that date that I had made up in my booking pitch! It just shows you the power of faith and ample imagination.
Since that tour, I’ve booked 8 more US tour runs completely on my own, I found a European booking agency, and this year we played a total of 32 shows overseas. Our album “Dreamchaser” is played on many blues rock radio stations and got great reviews. It will be even better next year, I know it. We are selected to represent our native home Austria at the European Blues Challenge in April 2016, where we will play in front of promoters, label owners and press people from all across Europe. But: there are also a lot of challenges in front of us.
We are about to record our next record “BOLD”, and just like with all albums before, I know we can’t accomplish it on our own. We don’t make enough on our tours (yet) to just be able to finance a record that costs anywhere between $7k-$50k to produce. Again, we will need our Tribe. I still feel vulnerable asking for assistance, but much less than in 2011. Sometimes as artists it feels like we are all fighting for our own good. It takes so much willpower to practice an instrument for hours every day, play shows and master the countless business aspects. I can get very self-absorbed and lonely to keep “chasing the dream” – ask my wife. I am extremely lucky to have her, my band – and my Tribe. All I can do is invite you to become part of that Tribe and help us to get our new album recorded. If you want to learn how, click this link: http://ulrichellison.com/mytribe
There is a great saying from the African Massai Tribes that stuck with me since the first fundraiser in 2011: When you go on a journey and you want to travel fast – go alone. When you want to travel far – go as a group.