A Conversation With The Early November’s Ace Enders

The first line that Ace Enders sings on Lilac, the new album from the Early November, is, “I will always be there.” It’s the introduction to blissful, effervescent opening track “Perfect Sphere (Bubble),” the kind of pop/rock song that feels like it’s suspended in mid-air, falling slowly, easily down to earth. Never again does Lilac feel as unburdened as it does on “Perfect Sphere,” but it always maintains that level of earnestness and empathy, even as it ventures into darker territory. 

“I will always be there” has been Enders’s M.O. for nearly two decades. As a solo artist (sometimes operating under the I Can Make A Mess moniker) and with the Early November, the New Jersey songwriter has rarely gone more than a year without releasing a record. For all that time, Enders has never released a song with a less-than-wide-open heart. Still, he’s never been as direct about some painful topics as he is on Lilac. On first single “Hit By A Car,” he bluntly sings, “Depression has become my old friend.” Over the course of the album, the narrator tosses and turns in bed, begging for sleep. They sink into boozy nights to avoid their troubles. On one song, Enders yells, “Where are those pills I decided to hide?/Teasing my mind.” 

Enders describes this newfound directness as therapeutic, a means of facing his own difficulties head on. “I think the reason I’m more direct is because this way there’s no hiding behind it,” he says from his Jersey studio, The Lumberyard. “It made it easier to deal with and realize that you don’t have to be perfect all the time.” 

But for all the struggle documented on Lilac, there’s a light on the horizon. The stormy “Our Choice” sways violently between pain and hope, but it lands with a fighting spirit intact: “Every morning, I will try.” The title track ends the album in a quiet, peaceful meadow, facing some morbid imagery in a kind of blissful tone: “The needle in my hand is coming down/Drilling through my chest, but its oil they found.” The poppy “Ave Maria” sails smoothly, buoyed by harmonies that ring like a choir. There’s hope to be found, hiding in the corners of these songs. 

A much more cynical and conceptual version of Lilac was finished more than a year ago but held up in the release process. “It was a very heavy album and I had built it around the idea of trying to help someone through that dark phase—and not being able to help,” he says. “It ended up that you were in the same exact position that that person was in.” The delay in releasing the album gave Enders the time to reflect and refocus the LP on pulling through it all. Now, he hopes Lilac will help others who struggle with depression or addiction to keep fighting. “At the end of the day, if it can help someone find that inner strength, that’s what’s more important to put across,” he says. 

MAGNET: I wanted to start by asking about Lilac. Can you give us any insight into the recording of the album and how the process might have been different from past records?
Enders:
It actually was a very different approach. Usually when we do a record, I find whatever moment I’m in at the time and just turn out a bunch of songs. If it’s with the band, we’ll jam on it a little bit together or maybe they’d each work on it separately. That’s all usually consolidated into a month and a half. This was different because the record was done well over a year ago—it was finished twice. There were things along the road that would prevent it from being able to come out or get slated for a release date. That happening really made me think about the album, and so I just kept adding songs. I did some things I had never done with the Early November before, which was really exciting for me. I would start in the early conceptual phases of the song with a beat that would inspire a completely different type of rhythm or melody than I would naturally come up with. I would make the melody first and then I would build things off of that. It was kind of cool to see it all based around melodies instead of being like, “Oh, there’s a rock part here.” I do a bunch of co-writing with artists, and that’s usually how a co-write starts, we’ll play a loop for a half hour until it feels right and they have something that they feel good about.

What changed from when the album was initially finished?
When I first finished it, it was a really dark record. Not sonically dark, but it was just heavy. It was very much built on dark themes, inner demons and addiction and mental health and all that stuff. It’s no secret that when you’re in the music business and you have to survive on your ability to create, it makes you crazy. I think a lot of people in the music industry and any type of entertainment industry, you can sort of see how it can make you question everything about yourself, your life, all of it, all the time … After the record got held up the second time, I had been sitting on it for about a year and I decided it needed a change. It needed to go in a different direction. So now the record kind of reflects the side of pulling yourself out of it … I don’t want to contribute to the dwelling. 

I noticed some of the darkness on the record. I also noticed that you’re a little more direct than you have been in the past—some of the songs address addiction and depression by name.
Yeah, and I typically don’t do that. When I went into this, I think I hit a point in life where I felt like I couldn’t be human if I didn’t take a certain thing. I couldn’t communicate with people. I couldn’t have a normal conversation with you, I wouldn’t be able to go into a room or a co-write and be able to do anything valid to help push my career forward and support my family. For me, I think it was a big help to say, “Look, you’ve said it. You’ve put it out there.” I think it definitely helped me move forward from a lot of it. 

I also can see in the record where you sort of take that turn with songs like “Our Choice.” That’s one that, to me, is very emphatically about deciding to work through the darkness. Is that a song that came later on in the process?
That was actually the very first song that was written on the record. I was in an angry place when I wrote that song. That’s what started the whole idea of the concept to me: not being able to understand how we get stuck in these places. You can be successful and make money or whatever, but I’ve run into so many situations where mentally you’re putting up a front. Being depressed or sad always felt like a warm blanket that I could throw over me and find comfort in. When I felt like I wanted to be like, “Oh, I’m the worst and everything I do is awful.” I don’t know if it comes across like that, but there are many moments that are like me arguing with myself. It does make sense, you can be all right, and figuring that out is hard. I think that’s what I wanted to take away from this, and that’s why that song is at the back of the record. 

It feels like a turning point in the record.
I think it was a turning point in my life. If I’m looking at other songs that came after that or directly after that, including “Hit By A Car,” they all came sort of around the same time. That moment, writing “Our Choice,” it made me reflect on that turning point, and that’s why I decided to go with a conceptual theme. Originally, all of the titles were different, too. I had the titles in sequence so they formed a long sentence and you could clearly get an idea of the concept. I decided to just leave it as a loose concept and not so tight. Because I’ve done that before, making a triple disc, and I decided, “I’m not gonna try and do all that again.” 

Do you remember what the sentence was?
I do not. I have it written down somewhere, but I don’t remember off the top of my head. Like I said, that was a year ago. 

I was kind of surprised to hear that you were thinking about a concept album, since I know the band went through a whole lot while working on the triple disc.
It originally was gonna start as a double disc, and I thought, “Well, I’m saddling up again.” But then I was like, “AYou know what? I don’t think I can handle it.” I could handle it, but I have to wait. Maybe the next one, not this one, though. 

You mentioned “Hit By A Car,” which was the first song you released. It has a subtitle. What’s the significance of that?
The idea behind it is right before the last chorus, I always imagine myself laying down, and I put myself in that place and—the whole record is me talking to myself—I’m telling myself, “It could be worse.” I’m telling myself to please try and get through this for everyone. That moment right before the last chorus I always imagine myself laying on the ground right after I got hit by a car or something like that. It’s that moment of release of all of that baggage. In that song, I also talk about depression as a physical thing and tying it to myself and letting it fall to the bottom of the ocean floor. Nobody can see it, but it’s tied to me. It’s about that moment of laying there and everything goes away and you’re in that euphoric state. 

“Hit By A Car” was the first song you played live and the first one that you released from Lilac. Why did you think this would be a good introduction to the record?
I think collectively everyone—the label, the management and the band—decided that it made sense to go with this song because it attaches itself enough to what people know the band is and it allows itself to be something fresh for people who don’t know what the band is. It’s sort of an easy transition. There are some songs on the album that I know some people will be like, “Oh, that’s way more structured and chorus-heavy.” This one sort of allows it to be a bridge between both worlds. Especially coming from the last record that we did—that one, it’s like there’s not a chorus on that album. It’s all just jamming; it’s just rock. This one, I knew I wanted to do an album where I’m allowed to sing a little bit more. So this was a good bridge between the two. Because the record is noticeably different. 

There are a lot of songs on the record that are pretty different. Some of these songs pick up from where some of your solo work left off, especially Hiraeth. Does your process usually involve trying new things out on your solo work before bringing them in to the band?
You mention that record (Hiraeth), and that was just something I put out. It’s not even on a streaming service. I’ve never really released a record where I tried to do some stuff that had real choruses on it. For some reason, and I don’t know why, the Early November has just never done that. We’ve had a few of them, but never to the extent of what it is now. We had an opportunity to do it, so why not? 

So there’s a lot of emphasis on the chorus this time around?
I hate to say chorus because that’s so vague. I hate to say the more “pop” side of things, but maybe the more “fun” side of things, maybe that’s the better word for it. We never really do things that are fun, like sing-along fun. But I had this moment right before I did the last batch of songs where you’re constantly doing something that’s going to turn the wheel a little bit more for your own career. When I’m making a record, I think about it when I wake up, I think about it throughout the day when I’m working, I think about it while I’m sleeping, nonstop. Because obviously, I wanted to be able to keep going, I wanted to be able to be successful with it. I wanted to be able to keep it fresh and valid, not just going through the motions. I had this weird dream about this chorus—it sounds cheesy maybe—but I had this dream about what the chorus should feel like. It felt right and it made sense. I had the dream when I was on a trip somewhere and I came back and did the last batch of songs and finished it. 

I wanted to talk about the title track. A lot of Lilac is sort of bombastic and has a lot of different sounds, but on that song you go back to what a lot of people know you for, which is just you and a guitar. Was it a conscious decision to end on that note?
Yes. The reason it’s called “Lilac,” the meaning of that flower has to do with purity. I think that track is just supposed to be stripped down purity. It’s a very honest, open track. I thought it was a good way to cap it off.

Beyond just that song, why do you think it was important to attach that flower to the record as a whole?
I forget the exact meaning of the flower, but it basically has something to do with purity. I wanted to go with that name because while it’s alive the lilac is this beautiful thing and then it shrivels like anything else. That’s what the album meant to me at the time, back in the dark stages. It was very much about wanting to hang onto that pure moment. 

At this point, you have a few rotating members who tour with you. Who was involved with the recording of the album?
Jeff (Kummer, drums) is always gung-ho for everything. Our newest guy, Nate (Sander), who has been touring now with us for a couple years, he did all of the strings and most of the piano work. He’s an incredible musician. Bill (Lugg) still tours all the time, and sometimes he’ll play bits and pieces here and there on the album. When he has something he feels good about, he’ll step up and do it. He has great ideas. But a lot of times I’m just jamming through things when it comes to recording.

There’s a lot more trumpet on this record, kind of a throwback to the triple disc.
I know! That’s our guy Nate. He did trumpet on a ton of tracks. He was very essential when it came to a lot of the cooler things like the violin and the trumpets and the pianos. It was cool. I love having all of that stuff. I think it brings out such a personality, especially with a lot of the grander-sounding choruses. It definitely supports that and just pushes it along. 

The album pulls in a few non-musical moments too, like a breathing sound on “You Own My Mind” and a heartbeat sound on “Our Choice.” What was the thinking behind that?
The breathing one is representative of someone having an intense dream, and you’re trying to figure it out from the outside, and all you have to go off of is that breathing. The heartbeat—at the time, I was thinking of how I could give you something that makes the song feel the way it feels to me. You kind of have to focus on it because it’s not loud, it’s very low. And then when it hits, it strikes you. It’s like you’re really concentrating on something and it just smashes in, gives you a little bit of anxiousness, which is what I feel like the song is doing. 

Is there anything, music or otherwise, that inspired you while you were making this record?
I always have a hard time answering this question, I don’t know why. I listen to a lot of news and NPR all day, and it just puts me in weird places. I have records that I love and I love the way they sound, but when it comes to the inspiration of everything, I think it’s just from listening to too much of what’s going on in the world. That usually inspires me to either highlight how I’m feeling or to write about something. I try and stay active now that I’m becoming … you know, I’m not as young as I used to be. I try to stay in shape; I go to the gym at five in the morning every day, and I listen to NPR news while I’m working out, and it’s the weirdest thing to listen to while you do that. I’ll also listen to podcasts sometimes. But I never listen to music. I think it’s from too many years of extremely loud music every single day. 

Are there any songs on the record that you’re excited to start playing live?
I think “I Dissolve.” That’s one of my favorites off the record. Probably after that, I have to say I’m looking forward to playing the song “Fame.” I think that’s one of my favorites as well. They’re both these floaters that are very fun to play. 

What do you hope that people—whether they’re already fans or it’s their first time hearing the Early November—are going to get out of listening to this record?
To be at all able to impact someone’s life in one way or another—especially in a way that can help them overcome something—it means the world. So I think one thing I hope people take away from this is that it’s OK to have those dark times when you’re not sure what is right or wrong or up or down or if you’re going to make it. Hopefully what they take from this record is that it’s all right and you are gonna make it and you shouldn’t do something drastic. I think that an important theme of the record is that it’s OK to feel that way. Don’t let it destroy you, though.

—Jordan Walsh