Inspiration from Isolation
August 9, 2018
Hicksville, Ohio, seems an unlikely place for a pair of musicians to have formed a bond, or for that matter, a band.
But that’s where Hilary Armstrong and Ellen Coplin met some eight years ago and started playing music together before forming their band, elle/the Remnant.
elle/the Remnant are a six-piece, all female, folk/Americana-tinged group propelled by exquisite vocals, harmonies, and musicianship. Their all-original songs are driven by Armstrong’s rhythm guitar and Coplin’s clear lead vocals and cello, and their live performances are something to behold.
On Saturday, August 18, elle/the Remnant join the Rock the Plaza lineup for a night of music. And though elle/the Remnant may not exactly rock the plaza, they will certainly make it ring most beautifully. They’ll be playing songs from their 2018 release Skies I’ve Learned How to Love.
Coplin and Armstrong met through Armstrong’s husband, Ben, and soon found that music was a good way to make the time pass.
“I met her like eight years ago when I lived in the middle of nowhere and she did, too, and we had nothing to do but play music,” Armstrong said. “She’s really musical. She comes from a really musical family.”
Coplin’s younger sister, Edith Coplin, plays bass in the band. Jessica Becker (harmonic vocals, guitar, accordion, percussion), Jen Foster (harmonic vocals, violin), and Kelsey Schneider (harmonic vocals, guitar, percussion) round out the lineup.
Coplin and Armstrong are the main songwriters for the band. They share music-writing duties while Armstrong, who has a master’s in English literature and teaches at PFW, writes the bulk of the lyrics. Coplin is a trained musician and teaches piano, guitar, and cello at Sweetwater and PFW.
The pair soon discovered their musical ideas needed more room to develop, so they started collecting friends. First to join was Jessica Becker who played with Coplin and Armstrong for about a year, followed by Jen Foster.
“I was really interested in Goat Rodeo, Yo Yo Ma’s band,” Coplin said. “I was listening to that and they had strings and guitars and ukulele, but no drums. Their rhythm is created by their instruments and I think that’s kind of what kicked us off. Instead of singer-songwriter stuff with some sad piano music, we began really trying to explore the guitar and the strings. So I started playing the cello in the band which I hadn’t done up to that point. And we found our violin player, Jen, who was singing backup with Pink Droyd. We said you play violin, you should really be playing with us. So we stole her.”
“After we got her, it really started connecting more, because her violin and Ellen’s cello really started to make some awesome sounds,” Armstrong said.
“And the way Hilary plays guitar is really rhythmic, so a lot of structure of the rhythm is provided by the guitar rather than a drum set,” Coplin added. “But having drums is nice. And though none of us is trained in drums, we roped one of our singers into pounding on the drums.”
And then, as happens, Coplin and Armstrong (along with husband Ben) decided the next move was to take a year off to teach English to South Korean kindergartners.
The move to South Korea was akin to living in Hicksville in that the language barrier forced Coplin and Armstrong to spend time writing songs.
Prior to Korea, elle/the Remnant had put out two CDs, the first one they don’t like to talk about because “it’s no good,” Coplin said. “We just sort of patched it together with our stupid songs.” The second one, Morning Light, was “more thoughtful, more intentional,” Armstrong added.
But while in Korea, the pair found inspiration in the isolation they felt. They had each taken a guitar with them and Coplin picked up a cheap cello and a keyboard, and their songwriting blossomed.
“We wrote six songs in Korea,” Armstrong said. “The first three songs we wrote were about homesickness and about how beautiful home was, like here in Indiana. Then the last three songs we wrote were about drowning. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to live in a foreign country and not speak the language. It was hard. So those are some of our best songs. The drowning songs.”
Upon returning from Korea they got the band together, added Kelsey Schneider as a permanent member, and headed into the studio. And that’s where they’ve spent most of their energy over the past four years.
Because of the strong vocal harmonies, comparisons to the three-piece Canadian vocal band Wailin’ Jennys come easy. But Coplin and Armstrong said there are differences in their band’s approach.
“Their (Wailin’ Jennys’) vocal harmonies are so beautiful and are so unashamedly harmonious the whole time, there’s not one lead,” Coplin said. “It’s like everybody is singing together. And I think that’s what I really tried to take away from them and felt inspired by. They’re all just singing all the time.
“We have the vocal power for that, we’re all just so busy doing other things that sometimes it gets lost,” Armstrong said. “We have a few songs where the vocals and the harmonies really standout, it’s just that we’re playing other instruments as well. It’s a really hard balance to find.”
“Instrumentally there are so many things we could do and vocally there are so many things we could do,” Coplin added. “But we’re all doing so many things at the same time. So it’s like we’ll say, ‘At this point, we’ll all just sing the best we can, or at this point, we’ll all play like mad and not worry about the vocals as much.’ We often try to sort that out by just doing everything all at once. Our practices get kind of crazy.”
Since returning from Korea, both Coplin and Armstrong bought homes in the Lakeside neighborhood in Fort Wayne and are within walking distance of one another. And despite the lack of new songs (just four completed in the four years since returning to the States) the pair constantly work on new material in their collaborative, quirky way.
“We have a lot of ideas on the table,” Coplin said. “We work on different ideas until they take shape. When we first started writing together we would just whip out song after song because we really didn’t care if they were good or bad. We could do that now but we just care too much.”
Coplin, because of her training, sometimes initially views Armstrong’s chord progressions and source material skeptically. Armstrong doesn’t disagree.
“I was talking to her the other day and I said I think we should do something based on ‘Hall of the Mountain King,’ by (Edvard) Grieg and she said ‘That’s a terrible idea.’” Armstrong said. “And then she’ll come over to my house and she’ll start playing something that sounds like that and then I’ll just wait for her to tell me what to do.”
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