Josh Ellis and Elanna White were thirteen when they started making music together. Now both nineteen, they have formed the band Donner Social. Talking with them it is clear that they know each other well. Often they finish each other’s sentences. Or one picks up what the other has just said, by repeating a phrase then taking it forwards.
Both were brought up in Astoria. Josh came here with his parents when he was six from New Mexico. He lives on Welling Court, at the far Western end of 30th Ave. “When I first moved to that block it was just craziness. I was a little kid and there were other little kids everywhere. Mostly from immigrant families. It was tons of fun,” he says. Then there was a period when families that he knew had moved out, others came in and people on the block didn’t know one-another. Welling Court’s annual block parties and mural-painting have changed that. “Now I know all my neighbors. It brings us together in a pretty interesting way that I’ve never experienced anywhere else,” he says.
Elanna was born in Astoria. She lives above Broadway Silk Store, which has been in her family for ninety years and is now run by her mother. Her great grandparents established the store when they came to New York from Austria. “That means I have this really rich sense of history in Astoria,” she says. “We have a basement area – like a lot of the buildings here – where there are old pictures of how Astoria used to be, with the trolley cars and things like that.”
For the final three years of high school, both Elanna and Josh were at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. After a band that they belonged to split up, Josh began experimenting with digital music-making programs. He realized that he didn’t need all the musicians for a band – he could ‘be’ all the musicians himself. “But after I’d written the songs there was a missing component. Honestly that was Elanna,” he says.
Elanna says: “He called me and said I don’t want to hear my voice on my songs any more, will you sing them all for me? I said, ok…but I’m going to write with you and I’m going to tell you what sounds good and sounds bad, in exchange for my soul!”
“I really do trust her when it comes to the sound,” says Josh. “When I’m writing music, I can lose the sense of what the music is meant to be. She just has that in her head at all times, I really trust her in that.”
They write their music whenever each of them has time. For Josh, that’s between managing a record label and a recording studio from his home and working a day job to fund his music. For Elanna, it’s between studying drama at NYU and working as an actress (she specializes in musical theater, and has been performing in Manhattan since she was a child).
“If I write something I send it to him, if he writes something he sends it to me and then we sew together the pieces,” says Elanna. “It is really like patchwork. But it works.” They both thrive off the adrenalin of having lots of creative projects on the go.
Josh adds: “When you just have a minute to record and have no other time to do it, the way that you are feeling at that moment and the things that are going on around you, you can feel all of that in the vocals.”
The importance of the vocals is what Donner Social say differentiates their music from a lot of other electronic music. “In other electronic music when you hear the vocals it’s like they are sampled in,” says Josh.
“Given my musical theater background,” adds Elanna, “everything that I write vocal-wise is very melodic. And the way that I write word-wise always tells a story. I firmly believe in art that tells stories.” Even their purely instrumental pieces aim to strike a sense of story. “A song has to bring me to a certain place that I really feel.”
That “certain place” has a lot to do with their experience roaming Astoria’s streets as teenagers. They don’t have romantic ideas of the big city, having grown up in it. “Being born and raised in New York, you kind of forget where you’re living,” Elanna says. “You have to remind yourself wow this is New York City, people dream of coming here. We spent our late childhood and entire adolescence wandering around these streets.”
“Getting lost on purpose,” says Josh.
“Getting lost on purpose, wandering around these streets, walking down the same street every day because we had nothing else to do, you know,” continues Elanna. “These endless summers and sleepless nights of just being here. And almost stagnantly. Because when you’re a teenager you can’t do all the things that we can do now. There was one summer where we literally went to the Museum of Moving Image at least three times a week. And MOMA all of the days when we weren’t at Museum of the Moving Image because we had just enough money for two subway fares and maybe a slice of pizza.”
“That’s really reflected in the music,” Josh says. “Because that kind of almost nostalgic, I’m not even sure what to call it, this feeling of having a towering city around you but almost feeling trapped in it.”
“ Exactly. That’s what I meant by stagnant.”
They know Astoria inside out but neither of them has any intention of leaving. “Ok, I would go and visit Paris for few months or something, or Tuscany, places like that,” says Josh. “And I go to Tucson in Arizona a bit because my grandparents live out there. But I don’t think I could ever really live anywhere else.”
That’s despite declaring that the “music scene is dead” in New York compared to what’s going on in places like Portland and Seattle, and compared to earlier years in New York when there were strong scenes like the punk scene. “Now those scenes have really been muddied by the random post-hardcore bands that are coming through,” Josh says.
Even so, they feel they have an advantage having grown up here. “People come here and have all these dreams they don’t even know where to start. Even if they have a connection here they don’t have that sense that New Yorkers have. We know where to go, we know the places we want to market to even, we know the scene. We’re not really competing with the other people who come here, we’re competing with other New Yorkers.”
“And you grow up a lot faster in New York,” says Elanna. “I mean I’m 19 years old but sometimes I feel so old!”
Growing up in a big city that feels small provided much of the inspiration for their first album, which is due out in the New Year. It’s called “In Suspended Animation.”
“That almost-trapped feeling is what the whole album is really about…” says Josh.
“Trying to find imagination in something that you know so well.”
“ Trying to find adventure. Trying to go down a path that you’ve gone down a trillion times and trying to find some sort of adventure in it. But there is none …”
“Unless you have the right companion,” says Elanna.