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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Ellen O's Sparrows And Doves
Irina Shtreis , November 17th, 2023 10:30

This reissue of the 2014 debut album by Ellen O, says Irina Shtreis, celebrates the life of the late dream wave artist, and reminds us there is much more to her story than the tragedy of her death. C/W: this article contains discussion of suicide

The last post on Ellen O’s Instagram is a slow-motion clip with her sitting in what looks like a 50s-style diner, smiling and wishing her followers a happy New Year. Nearly two weeks later Ellen and her friend, the musician David Koenig, took their own lives at the Yotel Hotel in Manhattan. They were 30 and 33. The contrast between her social media presence and her choice to end things is undeniably unsettling. Yet, the music serves as an intermediary between these two representations, perhaps, revealing the real Ellen O’Meara.

Born in South Korea, Ellen O’Meara grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and then moved to Chicago to study composition at Columbia University. The musician subsequently moved to New York and went to Brooklyn College in 2010. The following five years turned out to be most prolific with the releases of her solo full-length albums Sparrows And Doves and You/Sonata. Both feature O’Meara as a composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist on flute, tenor sax and keyboards.

On 14 January 2019, a few days before she died, Ellen O put out what would be her farewell work. The Air Is Passing EP is a sequence of five dreamwave tracks each suggesting a transition between the tangible and invisible. The final composition, 'Gloss', is dedicated to Eleanor Koenig, alias David Koenig, who was in the process of gender transition.

Some of the tracks from the aforementioned album were performed at C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn on 17 December 2018. It was the last show the artist ever performed. One song, in particular, stood out. Featuring a wash of keyboard and slowed-down vocals, the five-minute ruminative piece 'Mind' is subject to a sequence of tempo changes producing a strange hypnotic effect. “I remember we all looked at each other and agreed that she was on top of her game”, says Dave Ruder, the founder of Gold Bolus label, who was also on the bill with his band that evening. “So I heard some of the songs but I didn’t know ahead of time that she was planning on releasing her album.”

Gold Bolus Recordings became home for Ellen O’Meara’s debut album Sparrows And Doves. Released in 2014, the record summed up her approach as a versatile and melody-led composer working in classical, jazz and art pop music settings. Following her graduation from Brooklyn College with a degree in composition in 2012, O’Meara had been experimenting with electronic gear and a microKORG synthesiser. The resulting collection of ten captivating tracks on Sparrows And Doves balances haunting beauty, playfulness and dreamy allure – perhaps, a kind of balance suggested by the artwork that refers to the Two of Swords tarot card. The album bridges the otherworldly sound of Grouper and the earthly sensuality of Promise-era Sade. With its misty sonic facade, Sparrows And Doves seem to tie in with vaporwave, the genre that defined certain tendencies in music and visual art in the early 2010s. A younger sibling of hauntology, vaporwave draws from cultural memory, blending music influences from the past such as early 70s smooth jazz, R&B and mellifluous 60s sunshine pop.

Although the label vaporwave might be applicable, Ellen O’s music reveals the talent of an idiosyncratic songwriter extending beyond the scope of established genres, either conventional or hip. In the liner notes accompanying the reissue, Brooklyn-based musician Joe White recalls their collaboration: “Ellen was a master of chord progressions, form, arrangement, and harmony, and she could dash off an earworm melody with seemingly no effort. She could blend traditional timbre, and indefinable sonic texture in unique and ingenious ways, and make even low-quality iPhone demos sound incredible. An avid reader, and diarist, Ellen also created dense, fascinating, and clever lyrics, as she drew from her rich, literary imagination”. Matthew Merryweather Wylder, who played bass in Ellen’s band before she moved on to the solo project, says that he barely “ever heard anyone draw from sources as diverse as avant-garde classical, Chicago footwork, early bebop or Nirvana-adjacent songwriting in a way that felt so natural”.

Giving Sparrows And Doves another play now on the occasion of its reissue, it’s hard not to think about the auteur’s last release as well as her passing. The downward modulation on the opening 'Odd' strangely evokes the aforementioned tempo changes on 'Mind', while the microKORG intro on the album’s title track conjures up the memory of the sinister synth moan on Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise’s 'Falling'. Elsewhere, there are poignant melodies galore with mild gothic overtones, such as the ghostly whispering on 'Teanose', with the lyrics, “Your eyes have changed they’ve turned into glass by your teanose / Your smile has changed a little beneath your teanose”. The final track 'Heaven Looks Like Flowers' starts with a line that resonates with the album’s name suggesting a balance between life and death: “I’m shaking, where's God? / Hold me and I’ll survive”. Despite the overtones of sadness and crepuscular sound, Sparrows And Doves conceals warm hues and tenderness. To a degree, it sounds comforting. Heart-rending too.

Talking about the reissue, Dave Ruder underlines the concern that narratives of artists' lives often colour our perception of their work. “Most people who die by suicide have wrestled with depression, and yes, that is a layer in their work. But it’s also something where it becomes easy to miss so many of the other themes. For instance, Elliott Smith has a song called 'Waltz #2 (XO)' which is about his memory, of singing karaoke with his new lover. Until I read a book [about Elliott Smith], I assumed that was a really sad song cause it sounded sad and it made me reevaluate it. When I was coming back to Sparrows And Doves, which initially we didn’t frame as being sad, I realised that most songs that are obviously about death are the ones that she didn’t write. The final song 'Heaven Looks Like Flowers' was written by her friend Adem Chapman. Of course, she chose to include this song. But I would say that a flip side of this on the album is a song about love and friendship, 'GMGF' [Good Morning Grandfriend – both a reference to her previous band Grandfriend and bandmember Adem Chapman], a beautiful loving letter to a friend”. To Ruder, the album builds on a juxtaposition of dark and light; joy as well as sorrow.

The recollection of Ellen O as an amiable and friendly person also helps dissolve ambivalent emotion generated by the details of her sudden death. One of the reissue’s producers is the artist’s brother Connor who describes O’Meara in the liner notes as someone “who laughed a lot and who people wanted to be around”. That said, there was no intention from her to be popular or seek attention. “She would be making these small jokes almost to no one”, says Dave Ruder. “I was in a band with her and six other people and sometimes she would make an aside comment only to you but it would be the most on-point and funny thing”.

A similar communication style defines Ellen O’s music where she seemingly lifts a lid on her beautifully complex inner world. This is done very subtly as if the artist was conversing with her listener in private. “She was very bold, particularly in her art but she didn’t need to say things at a high volume and to communicate how well-constructed and thoughtful they were”, Dave Ruder elaborates. Ultimately, for Ellen O’Meara, music was a means to tell and show who she actually was. “Her music is an invitation [for a listener] to know her and understand her mind through that medium which is one of the ways that she felt most comfortable sharing who she was with the world”.

Help is available for those struggling with suicidal thoughts via the Samaritans, and they can be phoned for free on 116 123, or emailed at

All profits from the vinyl reissue of Sparrows And Doves go to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. It is released today by Gold Bolus