Halley Elwell is a songwriter whose memorable melodies, vibrant imagery and wit pull the ear somewhere old and new. Elwell boldly exhibits this in her song Sisters on the J Train, recently named a John Lennon Songwriting Contest finalist in the jazz catagory. Elwell wrote the song after riding the J train in San Francisco with a group of praying nuns. “At the time I was a confused and somewhat lost 20-something observing the colorful but divided lives of people in San Francisco. At the beginning my first instinct was to bristle and question, but ultimately the prayers of the sisters on the J train ended up being an unlikely gift that morning.”
Weaving tales of travel and nostalgia into lush and layered rhythms, Elwell’s upcoming EP, Last of What I Know, pays homage to the sounds of late 1960’s and 1970s songwriters like Laura Nyro. Elwell found a kindred spirit in producer and drummer Dave Brophy, who brought together a cadre of Boston’s best for the socially distanced sessions over 2020. A native of Hallowell, Maine, a small town with a thriving arts community, Elwell grew up with an artist mother who had all of her children drawing, painting, and singing from an early age. When Halley was 11 she was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to grow on nerves and found herself seeking out music and journaling to work through the complexities of living with a condition with no cure. Because of the tumors, Elwell’s right ear canal is collapsed, causing what she calls an “in-ear monitor situation” when she sings. The result is a keen awareness of her sound and its vibration. As a child she played bass clarinet and piano and was active in her school’s choral programs. It was the songs that her aunts and mother sang that had the most influence on her. Irish ballads, the blues, musical theater, and protest songs all shaped her musical consciousness and opened her up to a wide world beyond the shores of Maine.