Eliza and the Bear didn’t plan to be a band. Not a real band, at any rate. The Essex quintet had no intention of releasing records, never mind making an album. They had no wish to play gigs, let alone tour. When they got together in the autumn of 2011, all five had given up trying to make it as musicians, their teenage dreams of pop stardom crushed by too many five hour drives to play to ten people. It was time, they decided, to return to real life.
Hence, the band began as a hobby, a weekly meet-up of mates now in their early 20s who still loved making music, but only for fun. Which is important to know because it’s key to understanding their sound. It’s why their songs are so joyous and their lyrics life-affirming. It’s why their trumpets are triumphant and their strings soar. It’s why their all-inclusive choruses demand to be sung back, why festival audiences adore them and why their singles have been synced everywhere from Sky Movies, a Masterchef final and the BBC’s Olympics coverage to a cider advert and a daytime TV gardening show they’d rather not discuss. It’s why, whether you know it or not, you’ve heard their music.
“The biggest difference with this band and the ones we were in before,” explains singer James Kellegher “is that we’re making music that makes us happy. We write songs that we enjoy singing and playing. It’s the sort of pop music we like listening to.”
If that sounds odd, bear in mind that all five were in their early teens when they formed their first bands. By the time they left school, James and keyboardist Callie Noakes were taking their grunge group seriously. Guitarist Martin Dukelow, bassist Chris Brand and drummer Paul Jackson were in a screamo outfit they truly believed would make them millionaires. In retrospect, that neither was successful doesn’t surprise them.
“We were terrible,” laughs Martin. ““All we cared about were guitar riffs and sounding loud. But we were young. It was fun…. for a while.”
Having packed away their pop dreams, they got jobs – or, in Callie’s case, went to college. James ran a recording studio in a school, Martin and Chris worked on building sites. Paul, rumour has it, became a bingo caller. But all five soon got bored of not being in bands. Fortuitously, over summer 2011, they bumped into each other enough times to suggest they meet up to make music.
They never once sat down to decide on their sound – a mix of indie and folk, shimmering guitars, big drums and brass. There was no master plan. Their strange name sums up their lack of commercial intentions. Eliza and the Bear comes from a collection of poems by Eleanor Rees. Had they known how many times they’d be asked which of the band is Eliza, they’d have chosen something simpler.
The first song they wrote was a folksy tune called Trees, which they posted on Facebook to show their friends what they’d been up to in their spare time. When they were immediately contacted by a label, they laughed.
“It was a small label that asked us to send them more songs,” recalls James. “We told them we didn’t have any.”
Still for fun, they kept writing and posting the results on Facebook. Their rockier second song, the jubilant, horns-soaked Brother’s Boat, was picked up by blogs, raved about and passed around. Ditto the glorious It Gets Cold, which would later make its way to Masterchef and the Sochi Olympics.
The anthemic Friends became a fan favourite and went on to soundtrack a Bulmers cider advert. Whatever the band posted, lots of people loved. Management companies began getting in touch. Still they hadn’t played a single gig.
In 2012, it finally dawned on Eliza and the Bear that they had become a real band. They rehearsed twice a week, after work, in a grotty room in Essex. They booked their first gig, at London’s Bull & Gate.
“It was awful,” laughs James. “I’d spent years in a grunge band with my guitar slung low, trying to look mean. I hadn’t even considered how I should move on stage to pop songs.”
A few gigs later they got in to their groove. They supported Athlete on tour and that autumn played a Communion show in London that saw them tipped as Ones To Watch. In spring 2013, they played to 4000 people in 24 hours, supporting Little Comets at Shepherds Bush Empire and Imagine Dragons the following night at The Forum.
“Our previous biggest audience was 100 people,” says Martin. “It was proper scary, chucked-in-at-the deep-end stuff. But we loved it. It’s what every band wants – to walk out on stage to see thousands of faces. At the time, we thought we’d made it, but six months later, we still had our day jobs.”
A summer of ecstatically received festival slots and a six-date arena tour supporting Paramore, at which audiences sang back their songs, led to a flurry of major label offers. Eliza and the Bear saw out the year with a headline tour and a deal signed with Capitol Records.
Their lives since have been a flurry of writing, recording, playing to ever increasing live audiences and releasing EPs, including last summer’s Light It Up and the recent Make It On My Own. The latter’s euphoric lead single, on ode to self-determination, was written just days before Eliza and the Bear decamped to Nashville for seven weeks to work with three times Grammy Award-winning producer Jacquire King (Kings Of Leon, Of Monsters and Men, James Bay) on their eponymously-titled, debut album, due out early next year.
“We wanted to get out of London, get away from distractions and concentrate on making the songs as good as they could be,” says James. “Jacquire brought in a string quartet, a gospel choir and a couple of brilliant brass players.”
“We went with this clichéd preconception of what Nashville would be like – and we were right,” laughs Martin. “Every bar has a band playing, the men wear cowboy hats and boots and take the piss out of people like me wearing skinny jeans. We loved it!”
Among the songs recorded are a couple that may surprise the band’s longtime fans – the beautifully broody, strings accompanied I’m On Your Side and the stripped-back, piano-driven My Body Was Against Me.
“I’m On Your Side is a completely different sound for us,” says James. “Because we’re known for upbeat, happy songs, we decided to write the opposite – a slow song that’s quite dark and angry. The lyrics are about an ex of mine who was playing the field and I found out about it. It’s not all negative though. I’m saying I understand why she did it, which I think is pretty decent of me!”
“It’s a strange song because halfway through, when the strings come in, it totally changes. That’s not something we’d normally do, but Jacquire encouraged us. It’s one of his favourites on the album.”
Included, of course, are fan favourites that have long been part of the band’s live set, among them Brother’s Boat, album opener Friends and Upon The North, a song inspired by a spooky drive.
“I was driving home on my own on the motorway one night and when I got to the turning I wanted, I almost didn’t take it,” says James. “I suddenly wondered what would happen if I just kept driving. What if I went missing? Who would miss me? I have no idea why my mind fixated on that because I’ve never had the urge to go missing.”
Cruel and I’m On Your Side feature a gospel choir, while sumptuous strings have been added to several of those older songs. Lion’s Heart, a future single and surefire festival anthem, has been sped up from its original recording and made rockier. The uplifting song, about self-belief, James wrote for his sister, but it’s also a motto for a band that began when they thought their dreams were over, only to discover that they had what it takes to achieve them.
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