San Fermin: Double Crested Orchestral Rock

On The Cormorant I, Ellis Ludwig-Leone explores the darker side of life, love and growing up

Photo treatment by Ron Hart

Ellis Ludwig-Leone created San Fermin to give voice to the dual aspects of his musical life – the rock music he played in high school and the classical training he got at Yale University.

“I was in rock bands when I was younger,” Ludwig-Leone said. “For the most part, I played a peripheral role. I wrote my keyboard parts, but didn’t contribute songs. When I started studying classical music, it gave me an interesting lens to look at rock music through. I played in rock bands while I was in college too, and began blending the two impulses into a cocktail that’s specific to me. The first mature songs I ever wrote appeared on the first album for San Fermin.”

Ludwig-Leone thought his debut as San Fermin would be a one-off project. He wanted to write classical compositions, scores for dance companies and musicals. When he was offered a record deal after his first album was released, he put together a band and started touring.

“I recorded San Fermin with a group of musician friends, so it sounds less like a band and more like a sprawling kind of thing,” he said. “My last album, Belong, was more pop, with individual songs. This time out, the music was written as one piece, with interludes and orchestral sounds.”

San Fermin The Cormorant, Sony Masterworks 2019

The album in question is The Cormorant, an intense collection of songs. They explore the feelings young people experience as they think about the onset of adulthood, death and loss. Not usual subjects for a rock band to explore.

“My songs are always a mixture of fact and fiction, and maybe a bit autobiographical,” Ludwig-Leone explains. “I often think about death. That keeps the fire lit under me. Knowing you only have a certain amount of time in life turns the pressure up a bit. I’ve also been thinking about getting older for a while now. I don’t know if I’ve ever adequately dealt with it. To some extent, being creative is staying young and unformed. When you’re on tour, it feels like you’re quite literally running away from the bigger questions and issues we all face. Touring for years in a row can make you feel like you’re in suspended animation.”


VIDEO: San Fermin “The Hunger”

The music on The Cormorant is cinematic in scope, both musically and emotionally. The album opens with the title track. A female chorus and twinkling piano dance over the sound of children laughing in a playground. The music remains bright and uplifting, even as the voices echo the warning of the ominous bird that sings – “On this morning you will die.”

“I was writing the music for this record while living in a little town in Iceland,” Ludwig-Leone recalled. “I went on a walk everyday. I was staying in a spooky fishing village and two cormorants were always there, strange looking birds that got stuck in my imagination. I didn’t look up their symbolic meaning, but they’re ominous looking. They dive deep in the water, then pop up out of nowhere.”

The songs on The Cormorant include the moody, cello interludes of “Cerulean Gardens,” orchestral rock tunes like “The Hunger” and “The Myth,” a ballad featuring classical harp and female vocals. The band’s singers include a rotating ensemble that includes Allen Tate, Claire Wellin, Karlie Bruce, Sarah Pedinotti, Samia Finnerty, Eliza Bagg and Molly Netter.

“I don’t sing on the album,” Ludwig-Leone said. “I’ve never been enamored with the sound of my own voice. Allen, Claire and Karlie have wonderful voices. They inspire me to write great lyrics and melodies. I like the distance I get when someone else sings my songs. I found my identity as a songwriter when I stopped being a singer/songwriter and started writing for other people. Singing my own stuff, I always felt a bit overblown and melodramatic. When you write for another voice, it goes through a different filter. I don’t feel the same pressure to be so confessional and it adds a layer of distance my music benefits from.”


AUDIO: San Fermin The Cormorant I (full album)

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste,,, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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