Have you ever loved a book so much you wrote a whole indie pop song about it? Relatedly, have you ever wondered what it’s like to manage a full academic course load and a rising music career during your first semester of college at Tufts, amid a pandemic? Look no further: Meet first-year student and singer-songwriter Ella Roth. As she describes in a TikTok video posted in early October, Roth, like many, started quarantine with isolation taking a toll on her mental health. But after her English teacher assigned her Advanced Placement Literature class a creative final project about any book they had read that year, she emerged from her rut with a catchy indie pop song inspired by the titular character of the classic novel “The Great Gatsby” (1925). The song is called “nothing else i could do,” and since its release in July, it has gained over 2 million streams on Spotify. The TikTok video from October has now accumulated over 2 million views. Roth, who releases music under the name ella jane, is on the path to becoming a star in the alternative pop scene.
Named after the late and great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, Roth comes from a musical family in Westchester, N.Y. Her father is a jazz pianist, and her mother is a tone-deaf but keen fan of music, according to Roth. She has been playing music since her parents put her and her twin brother in piano lessons at 4 years old.
“He immediately rejected it, but I just really fell in love,” Roth said. A self-described “nerd for words,” Roth would go on to combine her love for the piano with her love for writing.
“As I got older and started putting the pieces together that I could sing and play at the same time, that was pretty much when I started writing. I used to write a lot of stories when I was little, and that kind of transferred over there, and I’ve been writing ever since,” Roth said.
Roth released her first single, “The City” in February, at a time when many high school seniors across the country began to make decisions about what university they would attend in the fall. Roth chose Tufts because it allowed her to earnestly pursue her music career and studies without sacrificing one for the other.
“At the other schools I toured, I’d always be asking, ‘What is there to do with music if I’m not going to major in it or put a huge academic focus on it that’s not just an a capella club?’ And they were like, ‘Uh…,’” Roth said. “It was just really difficult for me to find places where I could keep going with music and explore all these different areas of interest and figure out, ‘What am I gonna do?’”
Tufts was unique among the schools Roth applied to as a community of multihyphenates, and as a student-musician, she found herself in good company upon arrival on campus.
“When I got to Tufts, it was really cool to see so many people devoting equal attention to all their different interests. I remember one of my tour guides was a double major in dance and psychology, and I just thought that was really cool. There’s really a value placed on exploring all … of your interests,” Roth said.
It’s not uncommon for young musicians to forgo higher education altogether, opting to use the early building stage of their career as a kind of college experience and preparation for a career in the music industry. Roth’s openness to finding her purpose outside of music and a true love for learning are the two factors that pushed her to continue her studies after high school.
“Part of it was a genuine curiosity to figure out what to do — and it’s such a huge risk not going to college,” Roth said about her decision to attend college. “It was a bit of fear of failure, but also, I’m a nerd — I love learning, I wanted to go somewhere where I could have more of a specialized experience and choose what I want to learn about and get a great education. I knew it was going to be difficult to juggle both, but I didn’t want to shut out any other possibility of studying something and finding out, ‘Oh, maybe sociology is my passion!’”
Roth’s course load this semester — History of Blues, Postmodernism And Film, Sex & Gender In Society and Elementary French II — reflects her diverse interests. Having the opportunity to live as a scholar and a musician this semester has been a clarifying experience for Roth.
“What [college] is proving to me is that this [music] might be what I want to pursue as a career,” Roth said. “It’s definitely hard — everyone has imposter syndrome. It was kind of hard applying to colleges and dealing with the idea that maybe I have to have a backup plan. But I think something that’s really cool about being at Tufts is that it’s shown me that getting a degree in something doesn’t have to be a backup plan, it can just be an opportunity that maybe I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
For Roth, being at Tufts is socially rewarding as well.
“It’s been really nice to see people who are so like-minded. Everyone has different perspectives, which is also nice, but I think we all look at things pretty empathetically, and people are just generally pretty cool and funny and nice,” Roth said. “It’s kind of like the social fulfillment I needed that high school never gave me, in my tiny town where there’s a lot of pressure to think similarly. I’m also just glad to be here.”
How exactly does Roth balance music and working toward a college degree?
“It’s been so hard,” Roth said. “But I think it has stimulated my creativity, because it’s really pushed me to try and find these pockets of time, to force myself to write, or work on something I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have done … I’d probably just be playing music for fun and getting to the stuff when I had to,” Roth said.
The demands of the first semester have caused Roth, who came to Tufts as a prospective English major, to reevaluate her academic plans.
“Being here and having all this focus on schoolwork, I really have to find the time in my day to work on it, and that makes me value the time I spend on music more. I knew going into it that it would be [difficult], but I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize school work,” Roth said. “What [this semester] has taught me is I might shift my academic focus a little more toward music. I might as well limit the stress I have trying to juggle the two and really get something of value out of it.”
Ironically, Roth’s love for English is most pronounced when she is making music. Writing lyrics is one of her favorite parts of the process.
“There’s something really satisfying about coming back to a phrase that I was frustrated with and then finally finding the thing that makes it click,” Roth said.
Roth said she derives much inspiration from movies and books, listing “The Virgin Suicides” (1993) by Jeffrey Eugenides, “The White Album” (1979) by Joan Didion, and of course, the novel that made her TikTok famous, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as some of her favorites.
“I’m such a nerd for words and imagery, and I just really latch onto things that are put in an interesting way or are really, really vivid,” Roth said.
Lyrics are a crucial part of a song for Roth as both a songwriter and listener.
“I can appreciate a song that’s meaningless on purpose. There’s value in a song that’s for fun, versus a song that’s aiming for something, and sounds kind of contrived,” Roth said. “But for me, lyrics really matter. My Notes app is just filled with different phrases.”
Roth cites Lorde, Simon & Garfunkel, Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers and Tyler, The Creator as some lyricists she looks up to.
“‘Melodrama’ is the album my entire identity is attached to,” Roth said while laughing, referring to Lorde’s 2017 album. “‘Melodrama’ is the blueprint.”
As Roth expands her skill set as an artist, she has grown to enjoy other parts of the music-making process as well.
“Recently my favorite part has been production,” Roth said. “I started teaching myself over quarantine. It’s really difficult, and I don’t think I’m very good yet at all, but I think it makes it so much more rewarding.”
Roth’s latest single, “AUGUST IS A FEVER,” released on Nov. 12, was Roth’s first production credit, though her other two songs had come primarily from demos she had created herself.
“’AUGUST IS A FEVER’ is the [song] I had the most involvement in,” Roth said. “It’s really cool to have a vision and execute it myself, and then see it out in the world and people liking it. [Producing] makes it that much more exciting, [seeing] my own work out in the world.”
Roth described her music style as “indie pop with a bit of ‘What is this?'”
Roth likes that her music is ambiguous. “I like the idea of music that you can’t really place under a genre. That’s why indie pop appeals to me a lot, because it really has no [single] sound,” Roth said. “So many things can be classified under that big umbrella. I like to make music that keeps people guessing.”
Roth’s songwriting and production talent have earned her music a place on several Spotify editorial playlists, where she rubs shoulders with alternative pop darlings like Clairo and mxmtoon. Fans of Ruel might have spotted Roth’s “nothing else i could do” on the popular editorial playlist “softly” when he was a guest curator for the streaming platform last month. Her appearances on these playlists are some of the accomplishments Roth is most proud of.
“After months of nothing [happening], and it was just a lot of me doing the grunt work of all the self-promotion and really shoving my songs down people’s throats … It was kind of nice that [my effort] was being reciprocated, and it was a really cool confirmation that maybe what I make is good,” Roth said of the playlists.
For first-time listeners to ella jane, Roth recommends her first single, “The City.”
“It’s a little less palatable than ‘nothing else i could do,’ but it’s the one that is most reflective of me and my music,” Roth said.
Roth identifies “AUGUST IS A FEVER” as her riskiest single yet. With its pulsating tempo, anthemic chorus and layered vocals that amplify Roth’s crystal-clear voice, it is an unexpected treat for listeners as they work through Roth’s discography, and it certainly achieves Roth’s goal of keeping listeners guessing.
Roth’s music career is in a very different stage today than it was one year ago, when the very idea of releasing music was daunting.
“The reason I started putting out music right when quarantine started was being out of high school, and realizing that I had wasted so much time worrying what people were going to say about me, and being really just afraid that I’d be judged for putting out my music,” Roth said.
Safe at home, the lockdown allowed Roth to pursue her career in earnest.
“There’s literally no point in caring what people are thinking about you. That is something I kind of had to learn through trial and error,” Roth said. “As soon as I was able to let go of that fear of judgment, I was able to let go of a lot of my own judgment for myself.”
There’s a lyric on Lorde’s “Melodrama” that has become a popular photo caption for Lorde fans of a certain age: “I’m 19 and I’m on fire.” It also doubles as a pretty perfect description of Roth’s career right now.