San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone grabs life by the horns

February 6
In another life, San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone would model the latest in Warby Parker eyewear. (Windish Agency)
In another life, San Fermin’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone would model the latest in Warby Parker eyewear. (Windish Agency)

After graduating from Yale in 2011 with a degree in classical music composition, Ellis Ludwig-Leone was paralyzed with post-collegiate anxiety. Unsure of his path as a professional musician, he escaped to The Banff Centre, a secluded artist residency community in the mountains of Canada, where he found a respite from his uncertainty.

Instead of worrying about his future, he just made music.

“They give you this cabin, and it’s pretty isolated except for some classical musicians who are there,” Ludwig-Leone says of his six weeks at Banff. “It’s really gorgeous. There’s something about writing a song and then climbing a mountain at your lunch break that’s a little bit insane.”

Reinvigorated and inspired, Ludwig-Leone channeled his angst into writing an hourlong, 17-song chamber-pop record — think parts The National, Sufjan Stevens and Dirty Projectors — under the pseudonym San Fermin.

The name, taken from the Spanish festival famous for the Running of the Bulls, served as a thematic starting place for Ludwig-Leone, who needed a release from his restlessness.

“I was really looking for a jolt to the system; I was kind of numb to new experience,” the 24-year-old says. “I sort of romanticized [the Running of the Bulls] as this massive ritual in which this massive throng of humans put themselves in danger just to get their hearts beating a little bit.”

An image of a bull occupies the record’s cover, and the animal serves as a model for the album’s quixotic, overly masculine male protagonist and his overwrought search for meaning and love in a confusing world. The self-titled album takes the shape of a long-winded conversation between the dramatic male character and his sassy female foil as they make sense of their mixed-up romantic feelings. Recurring lyrical motifs come and go like classical movements.

“It’s just two people having a conversation — loosely,” Ludwig-Leone says. “Sometimes with each other — or even just with themselves. You get to know them as you listen through.”

A 22-piece orchestra performs the compositions, while members of the New York band Lucius — Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig — assume a singular role as the female vocal lead. Allen Tate plays the male lead.

Ludwig-Leone, who has only ever written lyrics for others to sing, is fascinated by how his words’ meanings can mutate in another vocalist’s hands.

“It really shows you that [the lyrics] have a life of their own,” Ludwig-Leone says. “Whatever feeling you had when you were writing these lyrics or writing this melody gets sort of bonded in this chemical way with whatever is going on in the singer.”

How San Fermin Comes Alive Onstage

San Fermin’s pared-down live show features just eight musicians performing the entire album: Allen Tate and Rae Cassidy (in place of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig) share lead vocals, Rebekah Durham sings and plays violin, Stephen Chen plays saxophone, John Brandon is on trumpet, Mike Hanf plays drums and Tyler McDiarmid plays guitar. “It’s more of a rock show,” says songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who plays keyboards on tour. “We free it up. It’s a little looser, with a lot more energy. And there is more room for elaboration.”

Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; Sat., 8 p.m., sold out; 202-388-7625.

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