Sound Stories: Reading into the Music w/ Sur Ellz

I have been waiting for the moment I get to shamelessly promote Sur Ellz for quite a few months now. Sur Ellz is one of the most talented individuals I have ever had the pleasure working of with, regardless of what the subject is. He is a singer/song-writer, dancer and visionary living here in Denver, Colorado. I had two separate experiences meeting Khalil (Sur Ellz), and both were unique in completely separate ways.

One night Nick asked me if I wanted to go check out this live comedy show called ‘Show Ya Teef Tuesday’, at the Atlas Theatre. I love comedy, but live comedy is not something that is frequently in my life. We go to this church in Capitol Hill, and I became skeptical. We went downstairs into this ghetto home made theatre- I was even more confused. Turns out, we ended up laughing our asses off and having a great time. There was this extremely witty individual who was having an improvisation battle with the rest of the comics, and nobody could beat him. He was so good on his feet and maintained his composure so well. I was captivated by his performance. This was a group of kids here in Denver, ages seventeen to twenty-three, and they had me dying. I began to inquire about their endeavor and was soon admiring their whole situation. This was a group of creative kids called the ‘Black Actors Guild’ that got together to perform. Soon they found a space they could rent and put on these shows and rehearse; it was their center for creativity that they had established in the basement of a church. A group of ambitious kids that are taking their goals into their own hands.

I introduced myself to the improv champion named Khalil. He was very nice and told me about his background in music. He had a vocal looper he would perform on whenever he had the opportunity around town. Opening for ‘Show ya Teef Tuesday’s’ at the Atlas theatre, or performing at coffee shops around town. I was very intrigued, and spit the all too familiar line among creatives, “We should get together sometime and work on some shit, or whatever.” I cannot tell you how many times I have said, or heard, that line to a fellow musician, and nothing actually happens. Nobody really wants to do shit and collaborate, it’s just something you say as a matter of course. Anyway, I didn’t hear from Khalil until I ran into him at a session I was hired to do in that same church.

A girl named Kayla Marquee was recording a live acoustic video. I show up and see that her two back up singers are Kid Astronaut and this kid Khalil. Could your back up singers get any better than that?! We finished up the recording and I was blown away by Khalil’s singing ability. The timbre of his voice was so pure and enticing. He blended so well with what was happening around him, and his harmonies were so incredibly amazing and impeccably in tune. Again, I was captivated by his performance. We exchanged the familiar phrase of possibly getting together and working on something, and this time he reached out, just not to me. I was doing the session to help my good friend Lawrence out, due to my experience recording live performance and video. Khalil reached out to Lawrence after this session. I am so grateful he got with Lawrence rather than myself, because what those two did in the coming months was nothing short of genius. I would not have been able to do his music justice.

Khalil began recording with Lawrence in the spring of 2015, and they remained hard at work throughout the entire summer. At the time Lawrence and I were operating out of the same location. I say ‘location’ because calling a basement, which was nothing more than a room with speakers and a microphone in it, a studio seems blasphemous at best. Hearing these two’s creation will be a memory I will always cherish and brag about. Not only was Khalil a great comedian and singer, but he also wrote and produced his own shit. He wrote everything! Harmonies, beats, chords, lyrics, melodies, the entire fucking song. For those of you not familiar with the music world, that is extremely rare. Most musicians specialize in one area of performance or writing. Being a jack of all trades is too much effort for most artists on the scene. Most artists just want to be artists, and all the other shit is too difficult to bother with. To put it into perspective, and not piss too many people off with my broad over-generalization — Taylor Swift is an artist who writes a massive amount of her music, and is very talented in that regard, and she still has producers and writers to help bring that shit home. 1989 had the most talented writers and producers of today collaborating with her. Khalil did it all. Take somebody that is that talented, and has that much vision with his art and combine it with a producer with the same work ethic and vision- watch out.

The relationship Lawrence and Khalil had in regards to making music is what every artist should seek in a producer. The amount of trust Khalil had in Lawrence’s abilities on that side of the board is necessary for the process. Frustration kills a session, and destroys creativity. Having a team that an artist is comfortable around really brings out the full potential of the project. Khalil had written half of the songs as long as four years ago. He had spent thousands of dollars trying to record his music, only to be frustrated by the end result. He was never satisfied with the finished project. That is how important your relationship with your producer is. Lawrence was recording in a basement, with affordable gear, not a million dollar studio and a budget. The difference was the chemistry, and Lawrence brought his music to life. Finally Khalil had found someone he can trust on the production side of his music. The songs were coming out better than he could have imagined. These two buried themselves in that basement for hours at a time, multiple times a week all summer. Lawrence would spend hours on top of that editing what had been recorded. The dream team had been formed.

Listen to ‘Magic’ and you can hear the attention to detail and care that was put into that album. Khalil masterfully pours his life experience into his music. His lyrics are so powerful and moving. His struggle and his grind is understood on a deep, almost spiritual, level. He takes you on his journey. He put everything he had into this project. This was the culmination of his life up to this point. All of his hard work coming to fruition. That is something so many misunderstand. The success of an artist is not mere accident. It is not catching a break. It certainly is not luck. It is a culmination of a life on the grind. The results you see are the fruition of an artist’s hard work, not talent. Yes, Khalil is extremely talented, but he did not rely on talent, he worked on it for years. Magic was created in three months, but it was in the making for twenty-three years. Success has everything to do with commitment and work ethic. Talent gives you an edge, but does not ensure survival.

When I was asked to master the tracks, I was blown away. I was so nervous to fuck up these incredible mixes. Working with these two guys was an opportunity I did not want to miss. It is such a massive difference working on a project you are passionate about. How you feel when you are working on it, and the level of pride you have in the finished project. That is the Magic we all get addicted to.

Having Khalil perform at Tattered Cover Bookstore for Reading into the Music was a no brainer. Khalil had been asking me if he could perform for the series for months. I cannot express how great it is to work with artists who genuinely want to work with you. With this series we try to focus on exposing the vulnerability behind writing. We want to give the audience a perspective that you don’t typically get into the writing process. We want to break down the disconnect between the artist and the audience. We consume music we can relate to. That music is created by artists and their experiences we can relate to. We want to facilitate that conversation. Khalil’s music has the kind of vulnerability I am talking about, and he is not afraid to expose that. His performance was nothing short of captivating.

Check out Sur Ellz EP Magic, and his performance for Reading into the Music. I promise you will not be disappointed.

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