How Ark Life Made a Promising Career Out of Drinking With Friends
When Jesse Elliott came to Denver in early 2013, he was only passing through. As the frontman of Washington, D.C.-based rock band These United States, he'd passed through Denver plenty of times. In fact, that group toured so much that Elliott hadn't kept a home address for three years.
But a week turned into a month, then three months. Elliott and Leon Art Gallery co-owner Lindsay Giles had talked about moving to New York together, but Denver drew them in. "I didn't realize how fun it is and how really unique it is until I accidentally moved [here]," he says. As Elliott describes it, he and Giles started "basically just drinking and jamming together" with some friends, including Anna Morsett, who plays bass in These United States; Ben Desoto, an experienced Denver drummer who works as a talent buyer for the hi-dive; and Natalie Tate, a gifted guitarist making a career transition from teaching to music. The musicians all share a love for old rock and roll -- in particular, the period between 1958 and 1975 -- but their geographical backgrounds give them unique perspectives. Morsett, for example, is originally from Olympia, Washington, and is inspired by the punk and DIY history there. Desoto is instilled with the blue-collar rock of New Jersey, his home state. Elliott grew up in the Midwest listening to songwriters like John Prine. The five artists' influences and personalities quickly jelled.
"It became fun enough where we were like, 'Hey, let's go play some music for people," says Elliott.
And play for people they did. They named their band Ark Life and hit the road for six months on what Elliott says was a kind of test run, with no recorded music to their name and no reputation to precede them as a band. They were able to book some seventy shows across the country from April to September of last year, with help from Elliott, Morsett and Desoto's connections to various music scenes and bands.
"The cool thing about not having one home is you really start to have 100 homes," Elliott says of his life as a touring musician. "All these people and communities...it still gets a little exhausting, but the huge benefit is that you really do feel at home kind of anywhere you go, which is a great feeling."
Still, Ark Life played in Colorado (and Denver, specifically) more than anywhere else. "I think the reason I moved here is because I was like, 'This place is incredibly supportive of live music on a lot of different levels,'" says Elliott. "I think there's a lot of fan appreciation. In my experience, in the big cities I've lived in, [music] isn't quite so interwoven into daily life for your casual, average listener or whatever.
"I've always lived in slightly bigger cities where things get a little bit more fragmented," he elaborates. "The thing I like so much about Denver is it feels like it's just big enough to be really interesting and diverse, but it's also just small enough to really feel like a cohesive thing."
After a headlining show at Boulder Theater on September 5, the band took its road-tested songs up to Hideaway Studio, situated high in the heart of Pike National Forest, to record a debut full-length called The Dream of You and Me (which you can listen to now via Guitar World. That's where it was when heavy rainfall caused the worst flooding in Colorado's history. "We could see a lot of the storms rolling in all around us, like on every side of us," Elliott says. The extremes in weather -- from epic thunderstorms to brilliant sunshine -- made for a particularly intense recording process. It wasn't until they returned to Denver that the bandmembers realized the extent of the flood damage. "We had no idea how bad it was, because when you're in the studio, you're sort of disconnected," Elliott says. "We had just seen it kind of from above."