Musician Elisabeth Ellison’s Doe Records Is Less of a Label and More of a Support System

The Radiation City co-founder takes inspiration from her own career to help musicians avoid her mistakes.

Doe Records Workshop Retreat 2023 Elisabeth Ellison (second from left) sits with attendees of Doe Records' 2023 workshop retreat. (Courtesy of Elisabeth Ellison)

A few hours before I was to interview Elisabeth Ellison, the Portland artist who has been steadily solidifying her solo career in the eight years since the dissolution (and recent re-formation) of her successful band Radiation City, I happened upon this post in a friend’s social media feed: “The future of all art…is approaching the condition of poetry. Niche, esoteric, crafted by a few, consumed by a small cohort of believers.”

My friend’s comment felt like a perfect way to describe the spirit of Doe Records, the “non-traditional music platform” that Ellison recently founded to release her own music and that of a select group of artists. So much so that I read it to Ellison when we spoke on the phone recently after her return from touring as part of The Decemberists, instantly eliciting a hum of agreement.

“That sentiment…100%,” she continued. “As I get older, that’s kind of what I want to live by.”

Ellison has certainly borne that out in the work she has done building Doe Records. Less a traditional record label and more of a holistic support system for artists, the imprint was developed organically through workshops for budding songwriters she has held for the past few years that tackle all aspects of the creative process, from building a song from the ground up to choosing the right producer to work with.

“There were three people taking the class that were finishing the music they had written,” Ellison says, “and I felt this responsibility. I thought, I don’t want you to put this out and have it disappear into the ether. Not that I’m able to give it some huge celebration, but creating something around it where it does feel special.”

What Doe and these artists—singer-songwriters Emily Logan, Hannah Glavor and Rachel Rufrano—have released together all has a curatorial bent to it. The limited vinyl version of Glavor’s 2020 album So Far, So Long was pressed in colors to match both the candy-colored cover art and the sweet and sour tone of her songs. And though the music on Tethered, the 2021 release by Seattle-based Logan, is only available digitally, she is selling gorgeous art prints based on the album’s lyrics.

In the years since those releases, Ellison has continued to evolve and refine the vision for Doe. She and her team helped put together a series of live events, many of them at spaces not often used for concerts, to highlight their artists. (Full disclosure: WW Arts & Culture editor Robin Bacior performed at one of these events in 2022.) Doe has offered new classes as well that go beyond the act of songwriting, including a workshop on bookkeeping for musicians and one on music mastering led by audio engineer Adam Gonsalves.

“I think there’s so much value in knowing how all these things work,” Ellison says of the classes. “Just having people demystify a lot of things, like how to use synths or how to download a [digital audio workstation] for your computer. Part of my issue with the industry is that they make you want to think that it all seems unattainable, and it prevents a lot of amazing art from being made.”

In that last statement, Ellison reveals some of the underlying motivation behind her work at Doe Records. Having gone through the experience of Radiation City signing with a large indie label (Polyvinyl Records), she acknowledges that the band could have avoided some sizable pitfalls with better guidance. And as she continues to make and release her solo music, she is starting to more fully see how hard it is for any artist to break through in an oversaturated marketplace.

So she looks to the future of Doe, which includes upcoming releases from local indie group Sama Dams and new music from Rufrano as well as a new album of her own, under E. Ellison, that she’s wrapping up. The recent first single, “A Head,” is a compact and dense Jon Brion-esque pop nugget thick with vocal harmonies and emotion. With all this, Ellison is looking to take a more organic approach to marketing and promotion.

“I’ll be compiling a list of publications and radio stations—a top five or top 10—and writing a letter to them personally,” she says, “and trying to develop a relationship with them. I want to contact the people that I really like and see if they really like it. In my mind, that’s something that people are valuing a lot more: authenticity and genuine connection.”

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