Nevada City singer-songwriter Elena Powell proves the old Confucian adage: Perseverance furthers
Some people are naturals. You know the type:
They pick up a paintbrush or a guitar, and a week later they’re turning out stunning art or making beautiful music.
Most of us have to work harder at it. Take learning how to write songs and play them in front of an audience—one must go through a difficult period, a chrysalis of novelty, before emerging as a solid performer.
Elena Powell, a singer/ songwriter from Nevada City who divides her time between there and Sacramento these days, falls in the latter camp. Not that she was a complete greenhorn; when a classically trained violinist picks up a guitar for the first time, she’s going to be a bit ahead of a kid who doesn’t know chords from choruses.
But the secret to making anything happen comes down to having a good old-fashioned work ethic, which Powell has amply demonstrated over the past four years. (A disclaimer: I’ve known Powell for a while; she’s married to a longtime friend.)
Raised by academes, both of whom played classical music, in Madison, Wis., a 6-year-old Powell was strongly counseled to pick up the violin; she stayed with it through high school, with its daily regimen of three-hour practices. That rigorous self-discipline served her well.
At 17, Powell studied at the Royal Academy of Music in the south of France. But a career in some orchestra pit was not to be. As she puts it, “You reach that point in classical music where you either commit your entire life to it, or you just back off completely—which is what I did.”
Why? “Classical music never seemed to have a satisfying creative angle to it,” she says. “It’s so technique-oriented.” Later, she adds, “Of course, it took me another 10 years before I found that thing that was really worth all my time.”
“That thing” was writing songs and performing them. Before discovering her true calling, Powell had moved to L.A., had studied ancient languages (“It’s a thrill to read Homer in Greek,” she says), theater and filmmaking at UCLA. She’d also married musician Jeffrey Clark, who moved to L.A. from Lodi in the mid ’80s to form Shiva Burlesque with Grant-Lee Phillips. After Clark and band parted, it changed its name to Grant Lee Buffalo. He soured on music as a career.
In 1996, Clark and Powell moved to Nevada City. “I was 28 and I had my master’s,” she says. “I knew no one. It was kind of like having some sort of breakdown, where I didn’t even want to talk to anyone for months at a time.”
Powell found solace near her house. “I would walk over to Gypsy Falls,” she says. “And I would sit there and just feel the vibrations of the water coming down. It was like a white noise erasing all those thoughts, all those tape loops I had. I would do this chakra toning—I didn’t know that’s what it was, but other people said, ‘Oh, that’s when you start low and move up.’ After 20 minutes of that, I would be feeling so amazing. And one day, this song came completely out of nowhere.”
She played it for Clark. “I couldn’t really play guitar,” she says, laughing. “And I couldn’t really sing.” Encouraged by her husband, Powell got a guitar and started taking lessons; she found a voice teacher as well.
Four years and two CDs, Fractal Hoedown and Left of the Moon, later, Powell has come a long way. Now she plays her literate, willowy folk-rock songs with a loose amalgam of friends, the Glitter Folk, or solo with acoustic guitar and violin. One Saturday a month, she and her band stage a theme night at Luna’s Café in Sacramento; a recent one had a Schoolhouse Rock theme and culminated in a coloring contest—with crayons, on an outline of George W. Bush nicked from Tom Tomorrow. She’s also begun playing the Bay Area and Oregon regularly.
Determination will get you a long way.