Fox Elipsus Shares Music, Fun, and Serious Messages on Free US Concert Tour
In many ways, Fox Elipsus reminds me of a wandering minstrel from the days of yore. He travels alone from town to town, singing and playing his music to delight the local folk. He is also a messenger, sharing serious thoughts about the environment, peace, education, and so much more, mixed in with light-hearted fun, engaging banter, and an awesome musical performance. And he does it all for free.
Joe and I were privileged Monday night to attend one of Fox’s 250 concerts on his 2010 Momentum tour — his third annual tour, with many more to come. His shows are all held in coffeehouses, bookstores (we saw him at Borders in Davenport, Iowa), and other congenial meeting places that allow him to set up and play without charging him for the space.
Born and raised in Oxford, England, 29-year-old Fox Elipsus (born Fox Salehi [SAL-uh-hee]) was caught by two fevers as a very young boy — music and the state of the planet.
“When I was about three or four,” he told me in a phone interview on his way to his next gig today, “I was extremely concerned with what is going on in the world. And I was crazy about a musician who concentrated on environmental themes. So I started writing my little four-year-old songs about the environment. I was also really into the Live Aid Concert for Africa.
“Throughout my education, I was motivated to try to fix the world. I found so much that was depressing, and I wanted to do something about it. As long as I can remember, it has been an innate need. And, now, I want to inspire other people to help, too, through my music.”
Several of Elipsus’s songs have serious themes, and he weaves these skillfully in with comedy (“Anderson Brown,”), love songs (“I Could Go with You”), impersonations (“Avril vs. Brittany”), and storytelling that includes members of the audience by name. And it’s a strategy that works.
We walked in as the singer was setting up. About 25 people were in the Borders Café, some with the obvious intention to watch the show, others reading or working on their laptops. The woman sitting in front of me turned her computer on while Fox connected his Casio to his speakers. I asked her if she was looking forward to the concert. “I didn’t even know there was one till this guy came in,” she said. She pulled up Farmville and started playing, apparently not yet convinced that the show would be entertaining enough to hold her attention.
Across the room to my left, an octogenarian ambled over to an easy chair, led by a Borders employee. He sat intently and silently watched the young man prepare. (As far as I could tell, his expression never changed the entire evening — yet he didn’t get up once.) Nearby, young people in their 20s sat with their parents, and a mom with a 10-year-old boy sat down in front. Three teenage girls huddled together off to my right. Another woman in hot pink tennis shoes; a flared, white, knee-length skirt; and a black T-shirt that read “This is what a feminist looks like,” sat in the second row of chairs. She was at least in her 70s, but as interested as (and in some ways more lively than) the teens.
The room looked comfortably full, but I wondered if some of the people who had come for other reasons would leave once the music started.
Exactly the opposite happened. Fox opened with what he claimed was his “least favorite” song, the delightfully zany “Anderson Brown.” This song, he said, was prompted by neighborhood preteens who told him, “You’ll never sell a CD if you don’t have at least one rap song on it!” His rap, as it turned out, was about his cat. And it included some pretty realistic meowing. We were all in guffaws by the time he had finished. The woman playing Farmville turned off her laptop before the song was over.
Though we were laughing, too, Joe and I had been lured to the show — through brilliant social marketing — by the promise of an environmental message. Charming as it was, “Anderson Brown” wasn’t quite what we’d come for.
Then Fox asked if anyone in the audience liked polar bears. Several audience members raised their hands. Fox began talking about the inspiration behind “Head for the Horizon,” a song about two polar bears that had been in the news. They were swimming out to sea, apparently expecting to encounter an iceberg. But the ice had all melted. And the polar bears would surely become exhausted and drown. An aerial camera followed them on their journey out into the vastness of the ocean. I didn’t hear what happened to them in the end. But Fox’s song implied that they must have died.
“The water is getting colder, and there’s no shore in sight, as we swim to the Aurora,” Fox sang. “We used to see glaciers in the northern lights, now I can’t see anything out there. … We could die here, but we won’t be alone; if you go, then I go.”
To my ears, the message wasn’t just about the polar bears, but a very clear warning that the extinction of the polar bear could portend the extinction of mankind. “If you go, then I go,” he had sung. The idea was as chilling as the ocean.
But just as the heaviness of a message song would begin to sink in, Fox would switch to a light-hearted lyric or a plaintive love song. By weaving the names of audience members into his love songs, even the sad songs became an opportunity for laughter. (It’s a smart marketing technique as well as a chance for everyone to play along and connect with each other. Only one of his many “victims” actually left before the two-hour concert had finished.)
The crowd continued to swell until we counted more than 60 people sitting at tables and standing in the store aisles, listening and laughing and pondering along with Fox and the rest of us.
One of his serious messages came in a song about mass media. Mass media has “no substance,” he said. “I want my music to be like Dylan, Marley, Lennon, and Hendryx. It’s a shame those messages have been replaced by people singing about Gucci and so on. Some kids might get the impression that the be all and end all of life is about how much stuff you can have.”
Fox lives what he preaches. Though he gladly accepts $10 per CD — CD sales and tips are his only source of income, he says — he is anything but driven by money. When I asked if I might quote a line or two of his lyrics, he said, “Whenever I sell a CD or give a CD away, then whatever is on that CD is yours, and you can do anything you want with it. You can copy the songs, you can sing the songs, you can quote the lyrics, you can promote them, you can even perform them as your own and not credit me. I am completely free and open with my music. The only thing I would object to is if a company that I didn’t approve of was using my music to market their product without asking me.”
Wow. You don’t get that kind of gift from many song writers.
CD sales were brisk at the show, and roughly half the number of attendees walked out carrying one or more. At $10 per double CD, that’s a bargain for fans. And Fox signed each CD, stopping to pay attention to every customer, even when the purchase took place between songs.
His fans feel the love, and the love certainly feels genuine — from both directions. After a two-hour show, the room was still packed with more than 40 people, most of whom had been there since the opening song. As soon as he finished his last one, a line formed at the CD sales table. The store manager finally had to ask everyone to leave so the employees could close up. Undaunted, Fox met outside with eight more of us, who hadn’t yet purchased our CDs.
While waiting, I had a chance to ask a few people what they thought of the show. Shannon Heaton, a sports reporter from Moline, Illinois, said, “I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had. At the same time, he made me think.” That seemed to be representative of the general audience response.
Perhaps the greatest compliment he got was the number of other musicians who came to Fox’s show. In fact, his first CD sale that night was to a 20-something, tatooed musician in a metal band. Not exactly the kind of audience member I might have expected to enjoy a song about a cat. So much for stereotypes.
After the show, Joe and I met another musician from Muscatine, 40-ish Jimmy Hoover, who is in a metal band called Blind Alley. He and his fiancée hung around afterward to meet Fox and buy a CD.
We were joined in our waiting by Dr. Sharon Hesse, a chiropractor. I asked her later if she had purchased a CD. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I bought all three! I can’t remember the last time I spent such a nice two hours.”
The diversity of the folks at his shows is a plus for Fox. “I like to be able to appeal to lots and lots of different people. That’s one of my main goals, not to be the kind of coffee shop singer with a guitar who sings about the environment, not to be a pop singer on American Idol, and not to be a Weird Al Yankovich guy, but to be some kind of combination that appeals to all crowds that like different sorts of things.
“And in the end, the very center of it all is the message. And it’s very, very undiluted and very serious. But it’s surrounded by all these fun jokes and love songs that draw in all kinds of people from all political and social backgrounds that might not otherwise ever listen to music with serious messages like that, just because they want to hear the meowing or they want to hear the sappy love songs.
“I think it’s working to some degree, because I do get a very interestingly diverse crowd. I get soldiers and lawyers and people from the inner cities with hardly any money. And I get lots of suburbanites. I get right wing, left wing.”
With more than 80,000 Facebook fans, you might think Fox Elipsis also would be getting some attention from the music industry, but not yet. “I haven’t had much interest from labels and commercial people yet,” he told me. “But it might be to my advantage in a way, because first of all it means I’m not having my head turned by anyone who wants to tell me to change the things I’m doing. Secondly, I’ve heard a lot from fans who have made it that, if you get signed when you’re not well known, they have a lot of control over how they market you.
“Instead of them saying, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make you famous,’ I would much rather have them say, ‘You’re doing great, so we’re just going to market you.’ I wouldn’t need to change what I’m doing, which, honestly, I don’t think I would change for anyone. If the biggest label came along and said, “We’re going to give you the biggest advertising ever, but you have to turn down the political, turn down the environmental, and play up the love songs and the jokes a little bit, I would say, “Sorry, but no. It doesn’t matter how much money you offer me, the balance is right where I want it to be at the moment.” I wouldn’t give up the serious side. that was the reason I got into it. And one of the things I protest against is the lack of serious and important stuff on the radio.”
Check out Fox Elipsus’s tour schedule for 2010. Then, if you get a chance — even if you have to drive an hour, like we did — please go. Hear his message. Laugh at his jokes. Play along with the banter. Dig his music. Then spread the word about the things that matter: equality, peace, the environment, love…
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