Eli Montgomery is a 23 Year Old Aiken-based singer/songwriter. A local through and through, Eli studied Communications at USC Aiken after attending Aiken High School. Since graduating college in 2012, he has been writing and performing songs throughout the CSRA. While working at both the South Company and Books-A-Million, Eli has built a sizable body of work, which includes an upcoming album. All the while, he has kept a steady eye on his goal of breaking free from the rat-race and making music his sole career.
With his unmistakable red-dyed dreadlocks, Eli has a laid-back style that might be described as urban-hippy. His songs have a distinct neo-soul flavor (think John Legend and Lauryn Hill), with an indie/alternative edge. They take unexpected melodic turns and usually build to a soaring, hooky chorus. He tends to deliver these with an awesomely powerful voice that ranges from an appealingly raspy lower register, to pure, vibrato-laden heights. Seriously folks, he can really belt it.
We recently sat down with Eli to ask him about his influences, and his future plans:
First of all: Who are you?
I’m Eli Montgomery. I’m a singer/songwriter. I travel, I love art, music, and having a good time.
How would you describe your sound?
The one question I dread… I think it’s soul at the end of the day, but it’s a little bit of everything that I’ve grown up listening to.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to a lot of Motown, and I had a lot of variety. When the 90s came in, my brother got me into a little bit of everything, and that’s when hip-hop started to become pretty big with Tupac, Outkast, and Biggie. Any of those hip-hop heavy weights – I listened to those a lot. Then I fell into more of the 90s rock. That’s what was popular at the time.
Then the 2000s brought, you know, Nsync and the Backstreet Boys and everything like that. Whatever was out there, I kind of just soaked it in. Music was just music – it didn’t really have the genre defining it as much as it does today.
Did you come from a musical family?
My mom and my grandmother both sang in church. My mom was heavy on it. Her musical influences really kind of touched me a lot too, because she was always singing while she was cooking or cleaning around the house. She listened to a lot of the powerhouse divas, but she also listened to a lot of contraltos like Sade and Toni Braxton and those voices kind of weighed in on my approach to singing in my lower register.
When and how did you start playing guitar and singing on your own?
Guitar? Guitar came in when I was twenty. I had it since I was 16. My best friend gave it to me. I remember recording little guitar parts where I was figuring out what strings would do, but eventually, I put it down because I was so frustrated with it. I was really heavy into school and trying to figure out my social-life and who I was as a person, so that kind of fell by the side. I never stopped singing, though, so my voice improved a lot, and I started doing choir in school. Funilayo Harmon was my teacher, and she really inspired me – she was the deal-breaker. She asked me to sing a song and she was like, “Oh, you can really sing. You have something here.” So, we started playing a lot, and she asked me to join the choir.
We got to travel – went to Washington and sang for some organization that I can’t remember. We competed but didn’t place very well. I think we placed third, if that, but it was just the being out of town, somewhere greater, doing what I wanted to do, and being with so many people in the same room wanting to do the same thing. It kind of hit home for me. It made sense to me. When I’m performing or singing, that’s when I actually feel alive. Like, that’s when I feel like life makes sense, because all this other stuff, we’re just monotonously doing throughout our day. When I’m in the moment of actually performing, I feel like I’m giving the meaning back to what I’ve been doing throughout the whole day, if that makes any sense.
And how did you start playing live?
Talent shows. I started playing at USC Aiken and then when I was going to classes, people would just connect and say, “You know, you should play downtown. This place does music.” I fell into that and I did an open mic, and then they were like “Oh, we like you. Let’s book you”
That was at Playoffs. I did my first booking there, and then that changed over to the Holly House, and then I did the Tanked Moose when they were still there. Then, I started focusing on Augusta and other places in the CSRA. I saw that I could do it here, so I started to book more regionally. I started in Atlanta last year. Eddie’s Attic [in Atlanta] was the first I did out of town.
Who are your major influences musically?
Umm, they’ve changed over the years. Expanded over the years, actually, not changed. When I was younger, definitely Bill Withers and Al Green. My grandmother loved them. She played “Love and Happiness” every Sunday after church. Like, [sings the riff] you would hear every Sunday, right before dinner and we used to just dance to it, and he [Green] just became my favorite. And then Bill Withers because he just had so many classic songs. I used to get them confused – I’m pretty sure a lot of people still do to this day.
When I picked up a guitar at 20, that’s when a lot of my other influences came into the picture. Like John Mayer – he was the first. He was what I liked, and he was what was popular at the time. What was that song? “Your Body Is a Wonderland” was out and… “Bigger Than My Body.” All those songs… it was just like, hitting really hard, and it seemed like every morning I would wake before school and they would just be in my head all day. So, he was the first one where I kind of drew to his style of playing and the way he wrote. It kind of matched – it spoke to me.
Recently, I’ve been introduced to Modest Mouse. I like them a lot, and I feel like their sound is something I want to touch bases with. Eventually, I want to touch more into blues – that’s why I’m trying to get my skill up on guitar. And I like grunge a lot, from the 90s, and I like classic rock, but I would say grunge… the idea of blending grunge and soul, seems like something I want to attack on my next album.
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
I want to make people think. I don’t want to persuade anybody in any particular way to feel right or wrong about their situation in life, I just want them to actually think things out, because there’s always another perspective that you’re not seeing. I want people to be able to connect with my music and get whatever they personally pull from it, you know? My own story is my own story, but the point of when you’re connecting with music is for that other person to get what they feel is going to help them. So whatever that may be, I hope I can give that to them.
If you could choose any artist in the world to record one of your songs, who would it be?
Ohhh, that depends… Man, that’s a hard choice. I wish you gave me a song to narrow it down to. I’d like to work with Ellie Goulding. I think I could write some really cool stuff with her. I’m not picky man. I love collaboration so much, like I’m just down. Especially, you know, if someone loves it as much as I do. I’m down for collaboration.
Ellie I think could vocally give an approach to a few of my songs that would just flip them. And Sam Smith – he’s this new soul crooner from the UK. He could probably take a few of my songs and do some amazing things. Or James Blake.
What has been your best moment so far as a musician and/or a performer?
What pops in my head first is when I was in New York in 2011. I was singing in the subway station, waiting on the subway, and it was New Years, and there was this couple there… I don’t know what happened – people were just in their emotions, and drunk, and in the New Year’s thing and everyone was in a haze. They were crying and I just pulled out my guitar and I started playing and I started to sing “Umbrella” and everybody started singing with me. It was such a moment of “Kumbayah” I guess you could say, but it was something special. Everybody, wherever they came from in New York, just stopped for 3 minutes and sang a song we all knew. The guy whispered the words in his girlfriend’s ear while I was singing to them. That was beautiful because it was out of nowhere. I wasn’t trying to make a moment; it was just something that happened on its own so… Knowing that that happened, it kind of makes me never want to stop, to always chase things like that.
If you were a billionaire and/or an all-powerful wizard, what would you change about the Aiken music scene?
I’d put a few awesome venues here, pull in a few major acts to the Convocation Center – even though their seating sucks – and I would put on a few festivals. Maybe like, put more money into the BanjoBQ and the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, because people from all over the world come down here to see that. So anything that already exists, I definitely would put more promotion and marketing into. And, I would get these musicians off their asses, like, you know, put some fire behind them, because we deserve to be heard. We have our own unique sound. I don’t know what this area brings, but it brings something, and it’s special. So I would just try to bring it to the forefront, and make people more aware of it.
What’s on the horizon for Eli Montgomery?
Recording the official album, getting that packaged and touring: that’s my focus for the summer. And then, seeing what fall brings me. I have no clue, but we’ll see.
Finally, how long did it take to grow the dreadlocks?
I’ve had them since I graduated high school in 2008, so about six years.
Any other words about the dreadlocks?
[laughs] Uhhh, they’re magical