Eleri Ward became enchanted with the songs of Stephen Sondheim when she was in high school. A student of musical theater at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, her teachers, Pat Rusk and Andy Robinson, put on a show every year in Sondheim. They also did a thorough study of his songs.
“I felt like I had discovered musical theater in a totally different way since no material had ever struck me with such humanity, complexity and obscurity”, shares Ward who is a musician, singer and author- composer. âIt was refreshing to feel that theater could be more than light tunes and hands of jazz, which when you’re only fourteen your theater experience is pretty much all of that.â
She found her happiness unearthing stories about the “demonic barbers, marital feuds, and giants of Sondheim that were more honest than any other play I had ever encountered before,” she explains. . The layered rich music combined with their deeply deep lyrics keep stretching her.
âMy growth as a human being trying to understand myself and the world around me never stops,â she adds. âSondheim writes music that has meant and continues to mean something new and different depending on where I am in life. And that aspect of endless discovery in one songbook really lights my fire. “
In 2021, she sparked many sparks when she began posting videos of her sung acoustic versions of Sondheim songs on TikTok. (She had posted them on Youtube as of 2019.) Her hauntingly beautiful arrangements with her luminous voice have caught on. The videos gained traction and eventually went viral.
âAs I posted each one, I had received more praise and attention to these covers than I could ever have imagined,â said Ward whose video for âJohanna (Reprise ) “has collected over 42,000 views. “Comments like” I never knew I needed this “and” These are my two aesthetics in one video “made me realize that I had an audience that could not have been able to. achieve without this app.I’m so grateful for that.
One of those viewers who were completely captivated by Ward’s renditions of these songs was Kurt Deutsch, founder of Ghostlight Records. âI was deeply moved by the sheer creativity and the way it blends Sondheim with a singer / songwriter aesthetic in a totally modern way,â Deutsch said. Ward, whose legions of TikTok followers had asked him to make an album, had already recorded the songs in his closet during the lockdown.
Deutsch emailed Ward to tell him that he liked what she was doing and asked him what he could do to help her. âI was delighted that I even got this email in the first place, I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of releasing the album through Ghostlight Records,â Ward said. “I was so excited that the music I made in a walk-in closet was getting this kind of attention.”
Ward ended up joining forces with Ghostlight Records when the label released the album, “A perfect little death.” A harmonious marriage of musical theater and independent folk music, Ward sings succulent versions of “Pretty Women”, “Finishing the Hat”, “Johanna (Reprise),” Send in the Clowns “,” Losing My Mind “,” Sunday “and Continued.
Ward, who frankly shares her struggles with auditions and roles she didn’t get on TikTok, remains emboldened by the exuberant response to “A Perfect Little Death.” She says her deep love for her craft, combined with her runaway self-confidence and ability to act throughout her career, has kept her fearless.
âI always knew I had a goal as a storyteller. I never knew where my goal was going to take me, and I still don’t. But I promised myself to go where the doors open to try and find out, âshe said. âI’ve never had any opportunities or jobs in my field, so it’s a no-brainer for me to create those opportunities myself, whether or not someone is paying attention. “
What remains most important is that his unique arrangements of these classic songs were born out of his joy. As she explains, “this identity comes from a place of pure passion and play.”
Jeryl Brunner: When did you know you had to be an artist?
Eleri district: I think maybe I have always been an artist. When I was two, I approached my mother telling her that I wanted to play the violin. She told me that when I was learning to read she would put me in violin lessons, to which I replied with discouragement “Well, I used to play …” which was good. confusing sure coming from a toddler. But I did learn to read as fast as possible so I could get my hands on a violin, and when I was five my mother put me into a music school where I started violin lessons and piano.
And if I no longer play violin, viola, or alto saxophone, the piano has always marked me, because it was my first path towards songwriting. During that time, I had always been involved in theater, from creating plays with my sister in the living room when I was little, to my first musical when I was nine. Once I started doing theater, I never stopped. So, I really feel like this artistic fire has always been in me, but it was just about finding my place, making it, and embracing it.
Brunner: What inspired you to go to TikTok and share your songs there?
Room: As someone who has actively avoided creating a TikTok account, another social media app to learn, I really wouldn’t have joined the TikTok verse without the persuasion of my dear friend, Chloe. After telling myself several times that I had to put my videos on the platform, I finally took Chloe’s advice and took the plunge. And once I started I couldn’t stop.
Brunner: You are also a composer. Can you talk about the songs you write?
Room: I write pop songs! I’ve been writing since I started piano lessons at the age of five, and it’s a part of me that I have continued to nurture throughout my life. It wasn’t until high school that I really started to get started, which led me to choose Berklee College of Music, which specializes in songwriting for college. I had spent four years studying musical theater in high school and never focused on my songwriting, so that’s what I chose to do. Although I eventually transferred to the Boston Conservatory for Musical Theater, Berklee gave me a whole new perspective on my writing. Fortunately, the Boston Conservatory offered songwriting as a focus on my junior and senior years, which prompted me to write in all kinds of different ways.
Regardless of my education, I have always written and I always write from a very emotional place, and take aesthetic inspiration from my greatest musical influences: Caroline Polachek, Sufjan Stevens, Lianne La Havas and Andrew Bird. My music is not like any of these influences, but rather a conglomeration of textures, sounds and genres that coexist on my pop base. It ultimately looks like a child in love between Sara Bareilles, Dua Lipa and Maggie Rogers who explores conflicts and relationships of all kinds. My songs seem to come out of the ether, because no matter how much technical skill I have in the field, I always attribute it to magic.