Woodbury is rich in culture and music. From the Music in the Park series
at Central Park to the theater and arts produced by the Merrill
Community Arts Center, it’s no surprise so much creative talent comes
out of the city. We caught up with two local up-and-coming musicians and
learned more about their past, present and hopes for the future.
If you had told Daniel Ellsworth as a kid that he’d be singing on an a cappella reality show someday, he wouldn’t have believed you. Heck, if you had told him a month before he was on the show, he wouldn’t have believed you.
Ellsworth grew up in Woodbury in a musical family. His family, led by his dad Dan Mathews, prioritized the arts. Mathews is now president of the board of the Merrill Community Arts Center, a role that he achieved by being actively involved with community theater when his kids were young. “Being in shows was a great way to spend family time together,” Mathews says.
It was in those productions that Ellsworth learned how to be a performer. He played high school sports and was part of other activities, but his passion came through in his music. “He was doing a lot of jazz piano and we just knew it was something that was in his blood,” Mathews says.
When Ellsworth left for college—first to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire before transferring to Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee—it was no surprise he studied music.
After graduating from Belmont in 2006, Ellsworth set out to be a professional performer. Armed with a musical background and still living in Nashville, one of the biggest music cities in the country, he released his first solo record. After releasing a second solo record, he craved more collaboration. So he set out to find a band.
He put together a group in 2011 through his connections at Belmont. “I was looking for players who were musically trained but also understand songs and songwriting,” Ellsworth says. “It’s like finding a wife, but having to find three of them.”
Ellsworth found his three “wives” and Daniel Ellsworth and the Great Lakes was born. Ellsworth, somewhat tentatively, describes the group’s sound as indie rock with pop mixed in. The band members come from eclectic musical backgrounds ranging from bluegrass/Americana to heavy metal to jazz. “We all come from these different backgrounds and we strive to do things that are musically interesting,” Ellsworth says. “For us, the question is ‘how do we keep our inner music school nerd part of it while still making pop music the average person enjoys?’”
It was through his band that Ellsworth ended up on The Sing-Off, an a cappella singing competition on NBC. The casting directors put together a group of musicians from Nashville who had never sung together, most of whom had never sung a note a cappella. The group was thrust on the stage in front of a live audience on national television, and managed to hold its own. They ended up making it about halfway through the season, taking eighth place out of 16 teams.
“I tell people all the time that the show was an amazing experience despite the fact that it was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve done,” Ellsworth says. “My advice is if an opportunity presents itself and it’s outside the box and outside your comfort zone, do it.”
(Left: Photo by Jake Giles Netter, Courtesy of No Country For New Nashville; Right: Photo by Cami Rose, Courtesy of This City’s Full)
Finding time to do anything outside of school and extracurricular activities can be tough for any high school student. But Michael Carter Jr. found time to release his first album. Now 16 years old and a junior at Woodbury High School, Michael is an honor roll student and plays on the basketball team. Even with all that, he released The Future in 2013 at age 14.
Carter started playing piano when he was 5 years old, having caught the music bug from his father, Michael Carter Sr. Michael Jr., who loves video games, started messing around with creating his own music on a Playstation 2 game he owned. He would put together his own beats, which led to his parents getting him software to create his own music. “I played a lot of Guitar Hero and I started making my own riffs,” Michael Jr. says. His influences range from jazz to contemporary hip-hop artists such as Kanye West. Michael doesn’t perform any vocals, and he considers his first album urban contemporary jazz, with some modern hip-hop influences.
Since his album release, Michael has played several events around the Twin Cities for crowds as large as 600 people. With his busy schedule, he plays events as time allows and fits practices into his schedule when he can. “I’ll go a week sometimes without touching the piano,” Michael says. He’ll practice the piano and work on making music in his spare time, but his schoolwork and basketball always come first. Michael is hoping to work as a producer in the future, composing songs for other artists. For now, the focus is on his busy schedule and setting himself up for the future.
“The key is, we want Michael to have the exposure, but we have to balance that with his academics and sports,” Michael’s mom, Cheryle Carter, says. “He’s still a kid and this is supposed to be fun.”