Eleri Ward's new album A Perfect Little Death reimagines 13 songs by musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim through the lens of indie-pop performer Sufjan Stevens, a project that emerged after Ward went viral on TikTok with her Stevens-inspired rendition of "Johanna (Reprise)" from Sweeney Todd.
Ward takes us through the inspirations and arrangement work that went into each track of A Perfect Little Death, available for streaming and digital purchase June 4, in this exclusive track-by-track breakdown:
1. “Johanna (Reprise)” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
“Johanna (Reprise)” was the first fully fleshed out SUF/SOND arrangement I had ever done. Having come up with it in February of 2019, I never expected to have it released as a single two years later, let alone have it be the first song on a 13-track album! I wanted to create an organic flow in and out of all four parts, including the Beggar Woman. So, instead of the Beggar Woman interjecting as she does in the original sequence, I wanted her to be woven into the song, ultimately creating a verse-chorus song structure with different colors painted on each verse and chorus. The chords I use are inspired by the melody rather than taking from the original orchestration, and are in fact quite simple in order to support all four vocal parts. I believe the chordal simplicity allows the beauty in the melodies to soar, which when you’re watching the actual show, could possibly be overlooked. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that, out of context, people would never guess that the primary voice of this song is slitting throats. I believe that taking this song and emphasizing its softness and beauty brings the root of the scene out all the more—love. This song is beautiful because it’s about his daughter, who he wants to avenge by way of killing Judge Turpin. As grim as the goal is, the motive is pure. I wanted my arrangement to highlight the purity that is also reflected in Johanna and Anthony’s budding and innocent romance. The song feels hopeful without the context of the show, so I’ve extracted and amplified the light from a scene that’s otherwise grimly dark.
2. “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music
This song started it all for me. I did a short acoustic cover of it on Instagram in 2019, captioned “Sufjan on Sondheim.” I’m bewildered and overjoyed that something so small was the launchpad and inspiration for the whole album, even providing me with the title: A Perfect Little Death. This song really is the root of the entire project: exploring the beauty of darkness and how something painful or heartbreaking can also be perfect or satisfying. It is a very Stevens way of looking at it, which is what immediately had me drawing inspiration since his album Carrie & Lowell captures those swirling dark feelings so well. In my version of “Every Day a Little Death,” I wanted to capture Sondheim’s writing within the raw simplicity of my guitar and the two vocal lines. With a stripped arrangement, the heart of the song could shine through for me.
3. “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Harkening back to the idea of irony and juxtaposition between song and action, “Pretty Women” is another one like “Johanna (Reprise).” We might forget just how gorgeous this song is while watching the show because we’re so focused on Sweeney getting his revenge—but it really is such an enchanting song! The entire purpose of it in the first place is a distraction as Sweeney gives the Judge a shave. I took this song in 4/4 time instead of 3/4 because it naturally fell there for me, and I found it actually gives the song a little more space. I found I could really relish in the lyrics and draw out different notes, which is fun since it’s a tune about savoring all of the things that make women so alluring, and I get to savor each of those things as they’re sung all the more with that extra beat in each measure.
4. “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods
This is the first track on the album where I got more involved with the arrangement, adding vocal doubles, writing harmonies, and layering picking patterns on the guitar, which is a Stevens staple in a lot of his acoustic work. I had a lot of fun making this one, especially after so many people had requested this song and Into the Woods in general. I would say my rendition of “Children Will Listen” is the Sondheim sister to Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell,” minus the banjo and sleigh bells, while adding a lot more harmonies. Harmonies are omnipresent in my brain when listening to or writing anything, so when it came to answering my question of “how am I going to create everything I’m envisioning with just my guitar and my voice?,” the answer was in layering, which I had a lot of fun doing while recording. My favorite part of this arrangement is the ending section of vocal rounds that roll into one another. I couldn’t figure out the best way to end the song, so I thought “what would Sufjan do?” He uses a lot of call and response and repetition of phrases in his work, and it ended up tying up my version well.
5. “Loving You” from Passion
“Loving You” took me about a year and a half to finally settle on the right arrangement. I would play around with it, not feel satisfied, and then put it away only to return to it time and time again. I couldn’t tell you how it suddenly clicked for me earlier this year, but I’m glad it did! I wanted the chords to have a movement that constantly shifts and swirls through the song to keep up with where the vocal line goes. The harmonies organically called to me, as did the vocal interlude. It’s a short song, so I wanted to give a moment in the arrangement to stretch and pour out a release that is reflective of Fosca’s yearning. A vocal interlude felt natural in conveying that. As for the textural “ha ha” vocals that underscore that moment, Stevens adds a lot of layered feeling, or a build-up, so I took inspiration from that idea. In this instance, I also stole from Caroline Polachek’s “Go as a Dream.” All great artists borrow for their inspirations, and sometimes the thing you snag from another artist can be the thing to take your own art to a whole new level.
6. “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George
The chords I used for this arrangement are directly inspired by Stevens’ “Futile Devices.” While I do deviate from those exact chords throughout, they establish a hypnotic baseline that my take on “Finishing the Hat” is built from. George is so inside of his own train of thought, it seemed fitting to me to have the arrangement return to the same repeating phrase just as he does. While the bridges feel like a release into new chords and discoveries, they still come back to the same verse chords from the start, and the same circling conclusion of “finishing the hat.” I didn’t want that repetition to feel flat after hearing it over and over again, so I layered in keyboard and piano, and towards the end, a quarter note drone that pushes through the chords to the end. Stevens uses a lot of droning notes that connect and pass through musical phrases, but I also think it’s a cheeky way to allude to the dabbing of a paintbrush, and the nods to painting that Sondheim does so well throughout the score of Sunday in the Park with George.
7. “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music
I played with three layers of guitar on this arrangement, which was admittedly really hard, but I absolutely love how each of the tones of the finger picking ring in either ear. Originally, in 2019, I had only one rolling finger pick, but when it came to revising the arrangement, I wanted it to emulate simplicity that carries depth, just as the lyrics do. Both Sondheim and Stevens have the power to take a simple lyric, melody, or musical arrangement and have it land in a way that can tear you apart in the best way. I certainly played with that concept when coming up with my version of “Send in the Clowns.” At the end of the song, you can hear me humming the melody to “Losing My Mind,” which always comes into mind over the chord progression I came up with for this song, so I knew then that “Losing My Mind” simply had to follow in the track order.
8. “Losing My Mind” from Follies
To me, “Losing My Mind” is the epitome of a heartbreakingly beautiful song. I wanted my version to evoke that in a bare and straightforward way. This song in its original context is a type of 11 o’clock number with Sally in a gown, the lights shining brightly on her, and the orchestra swelling. The way my arrangement organically came out feels like Sally alone in her house, wearing pajamas, no makeup on, just sitting on the couch having this conversation in her head. I took the root intimacy at the core of the song and exposed it further. The guitar part organically came to me so much so that I barely had to think about it. When I was recording, the second layer of finger picking was actually done in one take because I just knew. While it remains intimate, the guitar layer builds the drama of the song in a natural way. When it comes to the harmonies, they feel like the other voices in her head as she tries to work through these emotions. When you keep telling yourself the same things over and over again, true or false, you begin to believe them, at which point it’s hard to say what’s real anymore.
9. “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies
This one was hard! It took me a couple of weeks to finally get the guitar solid for this arrangement since the vocal line moves so much. But once I knew what I wanted to do with it, “In Buddy’s Eyes” easily became one of my favorites on the album. The guitar took me so many takes to get right when recording it, I almost went insane because of the hammer-ons. Hammer-ons are when you quickly bring your finger down onto the fingerboard going from a lower note to a higher note on the same string without re-picking. Stevens uses hammer-ons all the time in his guitar parts, and they just felt right when I discovered them on this tune. It’s always amazing to me how something so small feels like it rounds out the accompaniment. Barbara Cook’s rendition of this song is my all-time favorite because of how palpably deep her emotion feels when she sings it, especially when she sings so quietly as if she’s inhaling the sound. I wanted to emulate that in my vocal performance, even while doing it in my own style.
10. “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose
Similarly to “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “Take Me to the World” took me a moment to get it right. Since the original is a duet, I needed to fine tune my arrangement to be more fluid, utilizing my singular voice in a way where you don’t quite know if it’s a duet or a solo. While I didn’t include Charles’ lines about how the world really isn’t as great as Ella believes it to be, there remains an eerie evocation in the harmonies I wrote as well as the “oooh” vocals that mimic the original orchestral arrangement. There is a hopeful tone to my rendition, but I wanted to slip in musical aspects that unnerve in an almost ghostly manner.
11. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
I think if you were to listen to the original and then listen to my version, it would be the most staggeringly different out of all the tracks on the album. Going from an epic prologue that is fully orchestrated and sung by an entire ensemble to an acoustic ballad that only has a total of five audio tracks is quite the leap! I really love the process of figuring out how to transport Sondheim’s orchestral parts into my arrangements and reinterpret them through my vocals—writing this arrangement was very fun because of that. The form that it takes on now feels more like a country folk story song, or even a sea chanty for that matter—a song you would sing like a ghost story around a campfire.
12. “Being Alive” from Company
Speaking of reinterpreting Sondheim’s orchestrations in my own way, this track is probably the most robust example of that. There are so many nuggets within the original orchestration that are honestly some of my favorite aspects of the original song. The orchestral strings typically bring so much movement to the piece, and I wanted to keep that feeling by bringing them into my background vocal harmonies. Because it’s the penultimate number in the show, I wanted to reference that with where it sat in the album and how it felt. While it’s still just guitar and vocals, I doubled the guitar and have a total of nine vocal tracks to simulate that big, whirling feeling this song always has given me, while still allowing it to maintain a sense of intimacy.
13. “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George
I can confidently say that this track is my favorite. It was such an utter joy to find the build of the song with the harmonies I came up with and to play with the movement it inherently has. To me, this track is golden hour, a sweet afternoon tea, a warm hug with an old friend. My favorite thing to do when writing any music is finding the arc and figuring out how to expand it with instrumentation and texture. This was like a magical playground for that concept, and it felt so satisfying to bring together. My rendition of” Sunday” is a faithful example of taking my two inspirations, Sondheim and Stevens, and then interpreting them through my own lens. My goal is to never imitate, but rather deconstruct my influences and then reconstruct them in a frame of my own making. It’s Sondheim’s masterful work influenced by Steven’s acoustic vulnerability passing through my way of delivering vocals and imagining vocal stacking and chord changes.
I’m incredibly grateful for the support SUF/SOND has received and I am so thrilled to be sharing this part of my artistry with the world. I hope you enjoy A Perfect Little Death as much as I enjoyed making it!
To listen to A Perfect Little Death, visit GhostlightRecords.com.