Singer-songwriter Ella McDonald’s new ‘Wedding Song’ is a ‘wake-up call’

by CINDY STAGOFF

ELLA McDONALD

“I’m feeling optimistic that music can change the world with the right song in the right place,” Graham Nash said last year, in an NJArts interview.

After I listened to “Wedding Song” by singer-songwriter Ella McDonald, a Montclair native who now lives in the Boston area, I thought about that quote.

Like Nash, in his anthem “We Can Change the World,” McDonald expresses her belief that songs can encourage us to make a difference. Her delicate and gorgeous tune represents her yearning for our planet and ourselves to heal. While Nash’s song is confident, McDonald’s — which will be released on Sept. 15 — is more tentative about the future, reflecting her generation’s awareness of the climate crisis.

You can listen below to McDonald’s video of “Wedding Song,” filmed earlier this month at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The song can be pre-saved here.

The song’s catchy, elegant melody reminds me of some of the first songs I heard her sing when she was very young, including 2015’s “Wake Me Up.” (watch video below)

In addition to “Wedding Song,” she shared two original songs with NJArts.net, “Avalanches” and “The Gardener” (watch videos below), which will be featured on her upcoming album and spotlight her evocative voice and fresh, folky and sincere sound.

She packs a lot of serious emotions into her tunes, but like Freedy Johnston, she writes upbeat and beautiful melodies for her solemn lyrics. This young woman has a lot to say, and she says it eloquently.

ELLA McDONALD

“ ‘Wedding Song’ is both a lullaby to usher listeners into sweet dreams of a better world and a wake-up call to all of us to take little and big steps every day towards that better world,” said McDonald. “I hope that this song can serve as a sort of balm for people of all ages who are feeling stressed about the state of the world right now, and the world we are leaving to future generations.”

She sings in “Wedding Song”:

I don’t wanna hear about death and destruction
Save it for another day
I just wanna hear of a life that’s worth living
And a promise we’ll make it that way
May you dance at your granddaughter’s wedding
May you share in the cake and champagne
May the song that they sing be an old melody
That’s given new meaning that day

McDonald hopes that her song encourages us “to really think about what beautiful experiences the far-off future might have in store for us, and then a rallying cry to fight to make those experiences possible.”

One of the thrills of parenting has been watching my kids and their friends develop into soulful adults with an awareness of social injustice and a desire to make their mark in changing the world to make it more inclusive and equitable.

I have watched McDonald, from a young age, develop her songwriting skills, including when she and my daughter shared their first piano teacher to when I helped produce her first band, the Cliff Notes, who performed at the Concert for Haiti benefit in Montclair. I watched her write poems in my kitchen and recall seeing her in her first play in elementary school. Her mother is an energetic force of positive change in Montclair and beyond and Ella has inherited from her a deep sensitivity to and concern for our planet and for those suffering.

McDonald wrote “Wedding Song” in January 2020 when she took a gap year from college to travel around the country organizing young people to work for climate justice with various organizations, including the Sunrise Movement.

Ella McDonald campaigned for Arati Kreibich in New Jersey’s fifth congressional district in 2020.

She worked five election cycles in four different states over the course of a year. She worked on voter outreach and education on college campuses, using climate change as a litmus test for all the different candidates.

“It was an incredibly uncertain time for me and I was looking for something to grasp onto, some glimmer of hope that the intense organizing work that I was about to engage in would be worth it,” she said. “I felt like I needed to give my all to climate change organizing in 2020 so that I could go back and focus on my education knowing that I had done everything in my power to fight for a better future.

“The first seed for the song came to me at a holiday dinner with my extended family, when my Uncle Vinny gave the toast, ‘May you dance at your granddaughter’s wedding.’ Although it was directed more to my parents and their generation, the words really stuck with me, and I started to wonder what it would feel like for young people in my generation to look that far into the future and feel hope.

“That felt really radical to me. I know that for me and many of my peers, it feels hard to imagine having children, bringing kids into a world where the climate crisis is ever-worsening.

“The crux of the song is the line, ‘may we make it that way.’ May we take little and big steps every day towards a better world, even when the end goal seems absurdly far away.”

McDonald, who works as a livestream technician at Club Passim, has played at the venue many times, starting during her college years at Tufts University.

“It’s been one of the most positive experiences of the past few years, getting to work there and becoming embedded in the Passim community,” she said. “I remember being so struck the first time I played on the Passim stage, because the audience was quiet. Not because they’re disengaged, but because they listen intently to the performance. After years of playing noisy bars, restaurants, coffee shops and rock clubs, it felt so powerful to not have to shout to be heard.

“I feel really seen when I perform there. I feel like people are listening to my lyrics and really opening themselves up to feeling what I’m conveying in my music.”

McDonald started writing songs when she was 11. The ukulele was the first instrument to inspire her. “It was the first instrument that I learned because I wanted to, not because someone else told me to,” she said. “For the first time, I really started to play music for fun.

“I think all that middle school angst was a huge part of the reason that I turned to songwriting,” she said, adding that “middle school is a nightmare for nearly every kid who goes through it — so many big emotions and you’re just starting to learn how to communicate and process your feelings in healthy ways.”

In 2016, after three years at Montclair High School, she completed her senior year of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan.

The cover of Ella McDonald’s album, “February.”

She released her debut album, February, in 2018, when she was a first-year college student. “It was entirely self-produced, -mixed and -mastered,” she said. “During that time, I was becoming really interested in audio engineering, so I taught myself through a combination of books, YouTube videos and messing around with recording software.”

She said the most important part of her songwriting process “is silencing my inner critic so that I can just honor the words and music that come out of me. I find structure and deadlines — even just self-imposed ones — to be extremely helpful, because when you’re working with a limited amount of time, you have to pick the first or second idea that comes into your brain and just go with it.”

She said she writes her most promising songs when she allows herself “to truly be creative without fear of embarrassment or hurt feelings, and without trying to impress anyone. I need to create a safe space in my brain, in my notebook, in my voice memos app, where I know that I am the only one listening. Where I know that I will share only if and when I want to share, and that I can be my true, honest self.

“The best songwriting advice I ever received was when you’re feeling stuck, ask yourself what it is that you’re afraid to say. There is always something you could write, but maybe you’re afraid it sounds stupid, or unoriginal, or cliché. Or maybe you’re ashamed or embarrassed of what you’re feeling. I’ve written some of my most powerful songs when I’ve allowed myself to push past that fear and write something so vulnerable that I’m not sure I even want to share it.”

McDonald sustained a serious concussion in late October 2022 from falling on uneven asphalt and has been in recovery from it since that time; her song has a personal message, too, for those combatting illness.

“It doesn’t often feel clear what my recovery path is going to look like, how long it will take, what I’ll endure, how I’ll grow,” she said, adding that “Wedding Song” reminds her “that even when the way is uncertain, there can and will be a point where all the hard work and perseverance will be worth it.”

ELLA McDONALD

She is working on her next album and will release additional singles in the upcoming year. Her concussion recovery takes precedent. “I’m listening to my brain and body and doing the work on this album slowly and meaningfully without pushing beyond the dynamic limits of my injury,” she said.

Her concussion “completely changed pretty much every aspect of my life,” she said. “All the sudden, I couldn’t listen to music or even read or write a few lines without intense headache, dizziness and nausea.

“One of the hardest parts of that early stage of my concussion was that I had lost my ability to express myself through music and writing, while simultaneously experiencing extremely intense emotions that I had difficulty regulating.

“I turned to art, literally just sitting on the floor of my bedroom with all the shades drawn, scribbling and painting about all the things I was feeling. I made a ‘Bad Art Gallery’ on the inside of my closet door that I still add to. Although it was a really tough experience, getting through that initial stage of my concussion ultimately did help liberate me from this idea that I need to make ‘good’ art, or that art is only valuable if someone else thinks it sounds or looks pretty.

“For me, art is survival. It’s my way of sorting through my emotions, of connecting with other people, of letting myself be vulnerable. Making any kind of art reminds me that it is a valuable endeavor to express your emotions, to spend time with them and share them with others, even if you don’t think that they’re ‘good.’ ”

She shared with me another concussion-related note. “This was completely unintentional, but I realized today that Sept. 15, the date I’m releasing ‘Wedding Song,’ is National Concussion Awareness Day,” she said.

Sometimes there is magic in music.

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