Joining the 2014 cast of The Carolina Opry is a homecoming for Bibis Ellison.
Her family moved to the area when she was 7, and she stayed long enough to perform at the Opry with the “Socastee Singers,” graduate from Socastee High School and The Academy of Arts, Sciences and Technology in 2000,” and do “a brief stint at the Crook and Chase Theatre in Fantasy Harbor.”
Then it was on to North Carolina.
In Chapel Hill, she taught music in a pre-school and played original material with her sister, Katie. In Wilmington, she became a full-time musician.
“I put together ‘The Bibis Ellison Band’ and built a name for myself reinventing songs,” she wrote. The band also picked up a few awards: “Encore” Magazine’s Band of the Year 2010 and 2012 and was a multi-year nominee for Wilmington’s “Star News” Shore-Pick. In Raleigh, she got married and started a new band “The Purchase,” while still traveling with her eponymous band.
If you do the math, Ellison has packed a whole lot of livin’ into 13 years and those experiences are reflected in her musical maturity. Her performances, even when delivered via YouTube of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” have that poignant beauty that eludes even the finest of performers. She has that soulful energy the “I don’t know what you went through, but I believe you,” sound of heartbreak and loss of Joplin herself.
What can folks expect from a Bibis Ellison performance?
I’d like to think they could expect am honest connection. I’ve always fed off of an audience for energy. There’s never really a “fourth wall,” if that makes sense.
Why is now the right time for you to join the cast of The Carolina Opry?
I’ve been playing with my cover band, “The Bibis Ellison” for five years now. We’ve built a name for ourselves by reinventing songs. It was time for me to take that strength and give it a bigger, brighter outlet. I wanted to take a step away from the business side of things (I’ve been booking and managing our band for the last two years) and focus purely on performing.
How have you prepared for that transition from a traveling musician, performing throughout the Southeastern U.S., Mexico and Japan, to a same venue, ensemble performer?
I don’t know that I’ve “prepared” so much as I’ve made the conscious choice to be still for a little while. I’ve traveled for years now. I’m fortunate to have been given the opportunity to perform on a stage that will welcome me back night after night. I can put roots down at the Carolina Opry.
You seem to have an unbridled performance style. How will you channel that energy for a more reserved setting?
I’d like to think that I can adapt well to my audience. I’ve played just as many wedding cocktail hours as I have dark, loud clubs. My hope for this season at the Carolina Opry is to take some of the energy that I’ve got as a performer and give the audience a chance to feel that with me. That being said, just because there are seats at the Carolina Opry doesn’t mean that people stay in them. It’s a great show!
What inspires to write music? What is your process?
I sing constantly. I sing to my cat. I sing to my breakfast. I’m inspired by everything ... which gets a little confusing when you’re trying to choose a song topic. I normally have a melody that, if it’s good enough, will stick around in my head for a few days. From there, I shape words and music around it. It’s a daily part of my life.
What is your cat’s name?
Molly. She’s a rescue and at the shelter she was named “Hot Tamale.” I tried to rechristen her using names from songs or obscure art references that was me trying to establish some artistic credit. She preferred her nickname.
Does she like your singing?
I would think so. She seems to still consider me a part of her pack.
How else do you express yourself creatively?
I love to write. I do it purely for myself. I have notebooks upon notebooks of writing. I also love to cook. I’ve always really enjoyed the thought of a meal and how it brings the family together. There’s something really special about that. And creatively – spices are magic, you know? Your entire meal can be reshaped with a little cumin.
How do you feel when you sing?
Strong. Empowered. I’m relatively shy until I sing. I’m introverted and quiet. It took me years to get over really terrible stage fright ... when I did, I let music make me feel courageous. I think, in singing, I let myself be moved by an audience’s willingness to listen. Like, they could be anywhere, you know? Listening to anyone. And they let me have their ears and eyes for a little while. I’m flattered by that. I try not to take it for granted.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
My dad played music while I was growing up. I learned everything from him. He is, and always will be, my biggest influence.
What are some of your fondest memories of your career?
I played original music for an audience the very first time here in Myrtle Beach. I sat on a stool and played acoustic guitar at the Lazy Eye on Seaboard Street in a room full on my friends. I didn’t know what to expect – and suddenly, everyone was silent and really listening to me. I knew, at that moment, the importance of music in my life.
Later, when I started doing covers ... I was playing at the Palm Room in Wilmington, N.C., and my mom was there. The band and I had learned “Fallin’ ” by Alicia Keys because it was her favorite song. When we started playing it, she busted through the crowd and sang with me from the front row. It was an amazing moment for me.
Also – I crowd surfed while playing, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” haha. That’s a pretty good memory.
Do you listen to your own music?
Never. I’m very, very critical.
Do you have a song that you sing at every gig?
I can’t think of a single song that I always sing – but “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen as a tendency to follow me around.
What audience does your music typically appeal to?
This is a tough one! I’ve done shows for almost every crowd imaginable. I taught music to preschool kids for a while ... I’ve performed at country clubs, the chamber of commerce, business meetings, festivals, big and small venues ... and everything in between. So I’d like to think that musically, I appeal to whoever is there? Haha.
What advice would you offer aspiring musicians?
I played a show with my original band, “The Purchase,” a few nights ago and had a long talk with a boy who asked me for advice. I told him to stop being afraid. I spent years being terrified of audiences and the potential “what-ifs” of performing. I learned, only recently, that if you can learn to TRUST your band, the audience, the people who are there with you, then you can really let go and be that same performer you are in your mirror at home. I’ve been so, so fortunate to play music with people that I can count on. When I stop thinking about the mechanical process of music and just let myself feel it ... that’s when I put on a good show. So, aspiring musicians, learn to trust. Let yourself be confident. And practice every day.
What has being a singer taught you about life?
Everything. Like I said before, I’m very introverted – I’ve learned to communicate and connect with people through music. I’ve also learned how important it is to work hard for what you love. I put my heart on stage every night. I really mean that. I’m grateful for the opportunities that have come my way, most recently this BIG one at the Carolina Opry. I consider the people who have believed in me along the way just as responsible for my success as I am. I think singing, and the people who have come out and supported me, have taught me to be thankful in a way that I wouldn’t have been before.
I have never forgotten this Joni Mitchell riff on the life of a musician. Can you relate? “That’s one thing that’s always, like, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.”
I can totally relate to this. There’s nothing tangible about a good performance. Putting my heart out there is only good for that one night – that one second when someone connects with me and has a moment. You can’t capture a live performance and relive it, no matter how good your camera is.