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The Root of the Question

  • David McCreary CCM Magazine
  • Published Jun 04, 2004
The Root of the Question

Speaking from his mobile phone in Durban, South Africa, John Ellis sounds euphoric. Fresh off a first-time set at a Franklin Graham Crusade, he and his cohorts in modern rock/worship band Tree63 have just been invited by Graham himself to continue performing at future evangelistic events. “It’s such an honor for us to be a part of these crusades,” Ellis says graciously.

Whether talking about ministry, his 1-year-old son, Liam, or Tree63’s latest recording, Ellis seems exceedingly grateful for the opportunities he and the band have been afforded recently. After all, the South African-bred trio has come a long way since originating as Tree back in 1996.

The group signed with Inpop in 1999, ventured out on a 40-city tour with Sonicflood and shortly thereafter released its eponymous U.S. debut. The record was a bonafide hit, so much so that it garnered Tree63 a 2001 Dove Award for “Rock Album of the Year” and a spot on the popular “Festival con Dios” circuit.

But life for Tree63 hasn’t been without some bumps along the way. The group’s sophomore album, 2002’s "The Life and Times of Absolute Truth," garnered modest sales. Also jarring was the amicable, yet untimely, departure of bassist Martin Engel, and, more recently, drummer Darryl Swart. (Engel now runs a successful multi-media company in Durban, while Swart remains active in the U.S. music industry.) Factor in the pressure of uprooting from their homeland and dealing with the challenges of marriage and fatherhood, and these guys have good reason to feel worse for wear.

But despite enduring some rough terrain, Ellis remains surprisingly upbeat. The reason for his positive outlook? Much of it involves the addition of two new band mates, bassist Daniel Ornellas and drummer Thenuis (Tain) Odendaal, both of whom hail from South Africa. “Daniel is from Capetown and comes from a long line of musicians,” says Ellis. “Tain comes from Durban, but we met in Nashville. It was really God’s provision for us to find another drummer from Africa while in the United States.”

In addition to being content with the new lineup, Ellis also takes great satisfaction in Tree63’s latest studio project, "The Answer to the Question." This album, more so than any previous effort, effectively strikes a balance between Brit-influenced pop/rock and mid-tempo worship songs. It’s a formula Ellis says the band was “born to do,” he adds. “We want to worship God for His sake, not for the sake of business or what’s popular at any given time.”

One distinction that sets the new project apart from previous efforts is the way the producers captured the essence of the band’s live sound. High-octane cuts like the title track and “You Only” resonate with full-bodied force. Even the softer selections, such as “Blessed Be Your Name” and “I Stand for You,” play as if they were recorded in a modern sanctuary. The live-in-concert effect was achieved, thanks to the production approach taken by Jason Burkum and Nathan Dantzler, both of whom have worked closely with Audio Adrenaline.

As Tree63’s principal songwriter, Ellis shares that most of the songs on "The Answer" correlate with his recent life experiences, especially when it comes to spiritual lessons he’s learned along the way. The result is the band’s most intimate album to date. “I’m not one to write doctrine but, rather, what I’ve lived,” he notes. “This time I’m commenting on what God is doing in and through my life. Any subjects I’ve written about are things that could happen to any Christian.”

Indeed, many of the songs draw from a common-ground perspective; but two tracks in particular stand out to Ellis, each for entirely different reasons. First, there’s “Overdue,” a song based on his son’s impending birth. Due to arrive last year on March 23, Liam was born a full week later. “There was a sense of waiting and excitement and nervousness and frustration that I think has a strong spiritual parallel,” Ellis says. “All of us as Christians are pregnant with possibility and with the thing that God has birthed in us to do with our lives. Sometimes, though, God makes us wait for it to finally happen.”

“Let Your Day Begin,” another intensely personal track, deals with the reality of living in a fallen world. Ellis says the song was inspired during a flight from Nashville to California when he read an entire issue of Rolling Stone. “After finishing the magazine, I had a great sense of sorrow and concern over seeing how celebrities and rock stars live their lives,” he says. “I grew more concerned that the world we live in, literally, is going to hell. The values and morals a lot of people have are shockingly anti-God.”

This is all the more reason why Ellis is so gratified when he hears about people who listen to Tree63’s music and then radically change for the better. The band steadily receives e-mail, he says, from fans who share how the music has dramatically affected the members’ lives. “I think of one girl who e-mailed and said her brother was on the brink of suicide, and then he heard our music; and God touched his life,” Ellis shares. “I also met a girl who got saved at a Tree63 show several years ago in Africa, and she’s still a fired-up Christian today.

“It’s exciting anytime we hear that people weren’t just entertained by our music, but that they are inspired and encouraged to take steps toward God, or even that their lives are transformed. We love recording and playing music; but, essentially, we’re most passionate about advancing the Kingdom of God and seeing lives touched in a real way.”

That’s certainly something worth getting euphoric about.

Tour de Force

With more than 100 live performances scheduled for this year alone, Tree63 knows about life on the road. The tour circuit can be grueling for any artist, but often it’s even more demanding for those who are married and have families. “Touring is a young man’s game,” Tree63 front man John Ellis says. “If you’re 18 and single, it’s one thing. When you become a husband and a father, it’s totally different. But God has called us to perform, and we’re just trying to be obedient to Him.”

Ellis says there are pros and cons to globetrotting. On the positive side, the guys in Tree63 have had the opportunity to visit much of the United States and Africa, as well as such distant places as Europe and Australia. “We still consider ourselves tourists,” he says. “We’ve also made a lot of wonderful friends around the world.”

Standout performances also are considered a boon. “We had an experience in Johannesburg [South Africa] where we felt we should just drop the whole Tree63 persona and just worship God,” Ellis explains. “We ended up playing one song for 10-12 minutes, and the Spirit moved. People in the audience were singing out and praising Him in a wonderful way.”

But what about the downsides? Some include being away from home, sleeping in strange places and eating the same food much too often. “We get served pizza a lot, and that’s OK,” he says before adding, “But we also have eaten more than our share of barbecue pork. That’s just something we are not fond of.”

Ellis says some days the rigors of life on the road make him contemplate giving it all up. “But then we hear that someone’s life has been changed by our music, and that makes it all worthwhile. We just want to see how God can continue to use us in this generation to inspire people.”

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