Elle Winston | Singer-Songwriter
Five years. That’s how long I said I’d stay when I moved to New York in the fall of 2011. I had just finished my Master’s degree and my wife and I sold nearly all of our belongings from our apartment in Tempe, Arizona and got on a plane. No job. No place to live. We had an Airbnb rented for 5 days and thought, “let’s get on the ground and figure it out.” That first winter was tough. Frankly, the first 3 were tough! But it was also right about that time, that three-year mark, that I hit my stride. New York strangely and serendipitously opened up and things started happening.
Prior to New York, I’d spent my whole life playing in school orchestras, singing in choirs, acting in musical theater productions, jumping on stage at local open mics, performing with bands at dive bars and writing little songs in my apartment bathroom. I needed a change – a big one. I arrived from Arizona, set-up shop in a little apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and started meeting musicians, as well as playing at local venues. I’d quietly released two EP’s up until that point and was desperately trying to figure out the next step.
Over the next couple years I played countless small bars and clubs around the city, many shows with 10 or less attendees. I was working during the day at a public defender office as an assistant and recording short videos for Youtube in my bedroom by night. It was right around 2014 that I was hit by what I now affectionately call my personal “great recession.” I hit a point where I didn’t want to create. I was feeling terminally uninspired. I didn’t want to get up and go to my day job every morning, but I didn’t want to gig anymore either. I couldn’t see where I was going and finding it hard to recognize what it was that I was doing all of this for. I kept saying to myself, maybe this person you thought you were, you really aren’t. I became engulfed in this feeling of mediocrity and I was completely paralyzed.
It was at that low point that I started reading. I started listening. I started asking myself, what are the missing pieces here? What can I add or subtract from my circle in order to build an environment that inspires and sustains me? I changed my day job to one that put me around music all the time. I also knew that I needed a project, so I reached out one of the guys in my band and told him I needed help to make my first full length album. Without hesitation, he agreed to co-write and co-produce it with me. We started writing and slowly, I started feel my perspective shifting.
Though I was making all of this effort to modify the things that weren’t working in my life, I ran into new challenges. The new day job was more demanding than I anticipated and it started consuming a lot of my time and energy. I was gigging with these new fresh tunes and feeling great, but also rarely making money, so paying the band members, paying for rehearsal space, promoting the shows, creating the merch – all of that was coming out of pocket. Balance felt impossible, but I couldn’t help but also recognize that all of this positive synchronicity was happening. I was making connections in the music industry through my job and building a following through my performances. These two parallel paths, though draining, were also helping me garner some exciting attention for my music.
That leads me to today. Nearly 5 years here and I’m still growing. I’m still working my day job and working on my music every possible moment. I’m still struggling with the self-imposed shame that comes with not being able to sustain myself on my music alone. I’m still struggling with how being black and being a singer, people feel comfortable confining my music – “oh she’s R&B” – yeah, I am that, but I’m also rock. I’m also blues. I’m also folk and funk. I’m struggling with how being a woman and a singer makes some people see me as frivolous, or somehow a less serious musician. At the same time, I feel such immense pride about how far I’ve come up to this point. With no manager, no agent, no label, just hard work and an incredibly supportive family and friend circle, I’ve been able to see some of my biggest goals realized.
Just this year, I’ve played the biggest performances of my life, I’ve heard myself on the radio for the first time, I just finished recording my debut album which myself and my writing partner, Alex Smith, wrote and produced independently. I’m in a position to be selective about the performances I play. I feel more focused, more full of purpose and more in control of my career than I ever have. I’m constantly creating a path that is mine, as well as my own measures of success – that, a few good songs along the way. It’s coming up on that five-year threshold and I’m definitely not leaving yet. Feels like maybe I’m just getting started.