Ellisa Sun by Robert Alleyne

At the end of 2017, Ellisa Sun was looking for her next challenge. “My band and I got to play the Great American Music Hall, we got to play the Independent, we got to play the Rickshaw Stop; my three favorite venues,” she says on a windy morning outside Peet’s Coffee on Fillmore. “I was at a point where I could stay, and we could keep doing this, but that did not feel right.” She was yearning to do something more significant — but back then, she did not know quite what that something was.

Ellisa grew up in Southern California and got her first guitar at age 15. She would spend her time exploring the instrument casually while taking formal piano lessons. “I just kind of dabbled

[with my guitar]. I never really wrote songs or sang in front of people as a kid or [while] growing up, even though I knew inside that was what I wanted,” Sun shares. “I was just terrified of it [performing]…I was just too scared of what people would think.”

It was only when she moved up to Northern California, to attend UC Santa Cruz, that she started to express herself musically, with her sister cheering her on. “My sister…was one of the first people to really encourage me because she knew that I could do it. She knew that I had a voice because she would hear me singing,” says Sun gleefully. Her sister also knew a songwriter was hiding inside Sun’s reserved persona because of her constant journaling and poem-writing as a young woman. “A fun fact about me…the first songs I ever wrote were comedy songs,” she reveals. “My sister is a comedian, and I love comedy…the first song I wrote was technically a cover because I just replaced the words to ‘My Favorite Things’ from The Sound of Music.”

Comedy covers soon turned in to original songs. Original songs transitioned into performing and testing them out at the Hotel Utah open mic night. It was there she came into her own as a songwriter. “The Hotel Utah open mic forced me to get up on stage. The community there is so nice,” she says. “Some folks write [songs] as kids or teenagers, and then they perform later [in life]. But for me, writing and performing happened [at the same time], I would write a song and then go to the Utah and perform it that night.”

Ellisa Sun by Robert Alleyne

Sun found her stride in the San Francisco music scene, and things were going well until the frustration started to set in. “I think just getting caught in what felt like a hamster wheel.” She was playing out more and more, her band and its following were growing, and they were playing better venues, yet…she was starting to feel “stuck.” “I think that’s the best word for it. I would always think about and toy with the idea of moving to LA,” she says. “I’m originally from there. My family’s there, and the music industry’s there…that was something I always thought about.”

Sun was working multiple jobs: Yoga instructor, vocal coach, and others, and she could feel herself burning out. “I was just running around like crazy…trying to make enough money,” she explains. This sense of feeling “stuck” forced Sun to start asking some big questions at a time when her partner was feeling the same. “He had this really intense job at Tesla…and he had been there for about five years — which in Tesla years is a really long time because people usually get burned out after a year. He was just really, really, burned out and he’s always had a dream to do a cross-country trip.”

The two lovers bought a Winnebago. They put some things into storage, and they set off on an adventure. “I got really lucky with him and the fact that he was down to do this with me,” she says bashfully.

Ellisa Sun by Robert Alleyne

The reality of traveling and being on the road, however, is not always as straightforward as it may seem. “People [often say] ‘Oh my gosh, you must be so inspired by the road and National Parks and all this beauty of the country.’ But it’s like, “No, we’re like mostly staying in Walmart parking lots,” she says, only half-jokingly. Sun journaled many of their experiences on her blog while they traveled the country. Her posts are open and reflective and document to challenges of building community on the road while learning as much as you can about an ever-changing music industry.

While they have been many challenges on the road, she shares how her experience has been a positive one. We talk about what that shy, younger, Sun would think if she could see her grown-up self traveling the country now while living in a camper van. I ask: What would she say to the young woman who was afraid to share her music now, after so many days on the road?

“I guess I would tell her to try to give less fucks,” she replies. “It’s hard to be a young lady…and just being a woman, you kind of just feel uncomfortable taking up space and taking up the spotlight is scary for a lot of us.”

“[Back then] I think I just didn’t want to be seen…I would tell myself [music] feels like something you have to do,” she says. “If I didn’t do it, I would just go crazy; it’s an outlet, it’s my release. I would tell myself that if you feel that you need to do it, then do it for yourself. Don’t do it for other people,” she reflects.

A whole year touring is a long time, so I ask about what happens on day 366, the day when they finish their year together on the road. “Right now…we’re thinking seriously about buying a house together in Nashville…We would keep our Winnebago, and we would tour part-time,” she shares. “That’s been scary and exciting to think about.”

“What is scary about it?” I ask.

“Because I’m a California girl. I’m from here, and it’s just the best. It’s so beautiful. It’s like no state has been as beautiful as California. We have everything. We have the coast, we have the forest, [we have] the best weather, [and] The air is so clean,” she says. “There’s so much diversity. There are really great people. My family’s here…I’ve never not lived here in California. It’s weird to think about not living in California, but it’s also exciting.”

In the weeks following our interview Sun and her partner make the decision to move to Nashville. For the now, they remain on the road — playing shows and sleeping in Walmart parking lots. What started as an opportunity to challenge herself has, in many ways, lead to a brand new adventure. Sun is saying goodbye to a life on wheels, saying goodbye to San Francisco, and saying hello to Music City, USA.

Ellisa Sun by Robert Alleyne