The story of a 21st Century Sapphic Icon
Written by: Leolina Silkeberg
Born in 2000, Ellen Krauss is a prime example of the new generation of queer artists, having made her breakthrough with the debut single “The One I Love,” which has reached over 25 million streams on Spotify. Unapologetically identifying as a lesbian singer-songwriter, Ellen shares her reflections on her past, present, and how being queer has impacted her music in this interview.
Ellen first discovered her love for music in kindergarten when she encountered the guitar. She was inspired by a female teacher and used to put on performances for her family at home. When the family moved to Johannesburg in 2007, playing the guitar became a source of comfort for her, and she began to explore her gender expression through music. However, her parents' split in 2010 caused her to take a break from playing the guitar. During her teenage years, Ellen shifted her focus to soccer and played for a local team. In 2013, her love for music was reignited during a visit to her father's new family, who were all musically inclined.
“At the country house, there was an old and noble acoustic Yamaha dreadnought. Despite being afraid to play on someone else's instrument, he [father-in-law] was open and happy to play with me. It was strange, but I sat on the porch jamming with my father's new father-in-law. Arriving there, feeling close to nature, alone with my thoughts, and playing music were perfect together. The Yamaha [dreadnought] was there waiting for me to pick up and be reminded of that moment.”
At the age of thirteen, Ellen realized her sexuality when she fell in love with a girl from her soccer team. Despite the heartache of unreciprocated love, she was able to come out and live openly as a queer person thanks to the support of her family. As the only queer individual in her small Stockholm suburb, she channelled her energy into music, studies, and working at a pharmacy. By the time she was sixteen, Ellen had already released two songs on SoundCloud. One day, an old family friend unexpectedly approached her while she was working at the checkout.
“He came up to me and said, “I heard your song. Your mother shared it on Facebook.” I was like, “Oh no.” But he said he really liked the song and told me that he knew Christian Walz, who was his stepdaughter's soccer coach at one point. I already knew then that Christian was an amazing producer and artist. So, when I got his contact information from the guy at the checkout, I immediately messaged him with every piece of material I had. A few weeks later, Christian got back to me, wanting to meet at his studio. After almost freaking out, I replied and went to the meeting.”
The meeting at the studio was a nerve-wracking encounter for Ellen. She performed her song “New York,” which she had released on Soundcloud, live for the renowned producer and his colleague Johan “Jones” Wetterberg. They both loved it and immediately decided to collaborate. As luck would have it, they were just about to depart for Los Angeles to pitch their current projects, and now they had added Ellen Krauss to their portfolio.
“At 16, my mother and I were flown to LA to do the water bottle tour. We did thirteen meetings in ten days from LA to NY, so I have definitely scaled skyscrapers and met powerful old men in suits. Ultimately, I got an amazing indie record deal.”
Despite being a signed artist, Ellen had to attend classes in Sweden, but she skipped some to write music as she felt too cool for school with her US record deal while still in high school. Nevertheless, her journey came full circle when her first single “The One I Love” was released in 2019 at the age of nineteen.
“I have a whole journey with this song. I loved it, hated it, and loved it again. I can live with it and be proud of the song. But I remember how I was insecure to show it to my producers. If they thought the song was bad, I would take it personally because it is very personal. Eventually, I played the song for my producers, and they were immediately like, 'Let's press record, it's so beautiful.' Not one sentence or word was changed from the lyrics that came out of me when playing it for the first time until it was recorded.”
Ellen's single release marked her debut as a noteworthy artist and her coming out as a lesbian. The insecurities she felt towards the lyrics were the final step in overcoming the shame instilled in her since childhood. Nevertheless, the important people in her life always supported her when she spoke her truth. Unfortunately, many members of the LGBTQ+ community still don't receive the same kind of acceptance from those close to them. The word 'her' in the song 'The One I Love' caused Ellen immense anxiety.
“May I sing about the one I love
Without people not approving of Mother,
I love her so'
Cause she makes everything let go”
Many people feel estranged when a female-voiced artist sings romantically to a woman, as it is more traditionally seen as something a male would do. However, this is what makes the emerging queer generation of artists, like Ellen, so important. They are unapologetically expressing their queer identities and challenging the way we think about the world through their music.
“I've had mixed feelings about how I'm being categorized as a lesbian artist, but now I'm mostly proud of myself. I'm standing on the right side of the tracks, and it feels like being a lesbian is 'my thing,' even if I hate to look at it that way. But it is important because I know that I'm standing on the heads of giants, or maybe I should say standing on the shoulders of the ones who threw bricks at giants, who swept the floor to enable me to live as I am. We queers can all relate to each other. When we are walking in a pride parade, we all share something. It's emotional and also a bit melancholic knowing that everyone has a story.”
Claiming the position of an openly queer artist has been largely empowering for Ellen, yet it also carries a sense of responsibility for how her art relates to the queer community.
“I have always been afraid that people think being a lesbian artist is good PR, but frankly, the most important thing is having the right intentions with your art. This is why the producers and distributors have a huge responsibility to make sure. Unfortunately, it almost always falls on the artist to face this kind of criticism when shown in context, like this interview. For me, it would be crazy to be punished just for coming out early and expressing that important fact through the music I create. I mean, it's not like that when I listen to music. I don't actively look for queer artists, I just listen to the music. If I like it and later find out that they are a lesbian, I think, “That's awesome,” and I might buy a ticket. The artist only gets another dimension of my commitment that way. But that's just how I consume music. I don't know if there are fans who found me because of my sexuality, but if so, I find it empowering that they support me because I feel like I support them through my music.”
Ellen's music is not explicitly political but creating art about oneself can be a powerful and transformative experience for people who can identify with it. Her music is in the typical style of a singer-songwriter, with acoustic guitar and thoughtful lyrics, but as a lesbian, she brings an additional layer to her art. By exploring how we gender language, and comparing hetero- and queer-sexuality, Ellen is able to express her own unique perspective.
“When it comes to who has inspired me, I feel like I've always stood with one foot on the records in the back of my father's truck - Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Dire Straits. Old men and women playing guitar, with strong voices. But I also listened to bigger pop music names like Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, and Rihanna. I'm really into hit records for kids bought at a gas station, more than indie music. But I always preferred listening to Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer, and even though they sing from a male and hetero perspective, I wanted to sing about girls in that way too. I always had to crawl into the skin of men to be able to sing about girls, but now I can stay in my own.”
Ellen Krauss represents the new generation of queer artists hitting the mainstream, making waves by expressing their truth without shame. As we celebrate Pride Month, her inspiring story serves as a reminder of the importance of allies and representation in the music industry. As a new generation of openly queer artists rises to the forefront, they provide a platform for LGBTQ+ experiences and promote acceptance and understanding of diverse identities. Encouraging and supporting young artists like Ellen is crucial to fostering a more inclusive and supportive society.
Author: Leolina Silkeberg
Leolina Silkeberg is a journalist, producer, and screenwriter based in Stockholm, Sweden, who is dedicated to highlighting the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community through her work. She is the CEO of Onnox Agency and has also chaired various trans rights organizations in Swedish civil society.
Through her efforts, Leolina has demonstrated a strong commitment to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in Swedish media.
Photographer: Liv Lindqvist