From Disney to Indie, [Sister] Trio is At The End of Everything
By: Julianne Cassidy
What if you had one last word to say? One final song to sing? What would that be… at the end of everything?
Raised in Church, virtuous sisters Amber [Hezlep], Sarah and Julia Ross revered their parents steadfast advocacy in Youth Ministry, and set out to complement their impassioned purpose, but through music. “We started writing songs completely unaware of the fact that there was a music industry,” says Hezlep. “We didn’t even know about genre lines, especially if you are a believer, and being forced to fit inside a certain box.” Naiveté became a blessing in opportunity, playing for anyone, anywhere.
Blurring stigma lines, Hezlep says, “we never intended to not claim a specific genre, but just went with whatever someone was hearing us as.” Adding, “we’re just harmony, guitar, and whatever we were dealing with (at the time) we wrote.”
Yet, their first break came via piqued interest by two independent Christian labels. Stationed in Nashville, the wholesome Ross sisters subsequently moved with their family [from Indiana, PA] to sign with Tovah/SHELTERecords, under producers Kevan Cyka [Lifehouse, Hillary Duff] and Dan Needham [Stacie Orrico, Stephen Curtis Chapman]. “We started to really listen, and hear what actual good music sounded like,” says Hezlep. “Nashville helped raise our standards.” Their first EP, Lead the Way hit radio #1 on The Fish, Pittsburgh.
As if teenage years aren’t perplexing enough, while trying to figure themselves out privately, they were dually contemplating what their creative process meant and in turn, manifesting that into a band name. Their mom proposed, Everlife. “She said, ‘it can be another word for eternity, and ultimately you’re trying to inspire hope in people,’” says Hezlep. “We’re trying to point them towards our Creator, in that way to make people ask hard questions, and open up their hearts to maybe thinking differently about things.”
Then came Disney. “Working with Disney, when you get thrown into that machine [yes, a well-oiled machine], is a shock for just about anybody,” says Hezlep. They signed with Buena Vista Music Group in 2004, a year after their Christian self-titled debut album.
Faster than a Fairy Godmother charming an old pumpkin into an enchanting carriage, Disney not only provided an instant world (literally) of performances, but also a crash-course in the vehement music industry. “They know how to teach kids the ways of the industry very quickly,” says Hezlep. “It was an invaluable experience for us to go through that, notably on the business end of it.”
And when it came to entertaining, the Ross sisters were thrilled to be working alongside other teens for once. “We had been always performing with older acts, so that was really cool,” explains Hezlep. “It was also interesting to see how every part of your career is a stepping point to the next.”
Everlife opened during a 2006-2007 six-month tour for Disney Channel superstars the Cheetah Girls: The Party’s Just Begun Tour. They were graciously invited back for an extended-leg, where they met-up with fellow tour opener, Miley Cyrus (as Hannah Montana.) “Julia actually now sings backup for Miley, and she had asked us back then to also open for her headlining [The Best of Both Worlds Tour],” says Hezlep. Which was later succeeded by an opening spot for the Jonas Brothers: World Tour, in 2009.
Fondly reminiscing, “it was one of those things where the experiences go so quickly that it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around,” says Hezlep. “So for us to have the chance to go back out again, in the same type of venue, ambiance, and excitement… it was an incredibly incredible blessing.”
Under Disney’s magic, Everlife enriched twelve Disney compilations, as well as, reaching radio #1 with “Find Yourself In You” [Hannah Montana soundtrack], and remarkable Radio Disney rotation. With fanatical world tours, and sold-out (in minutes) audiences, “it really helped us understand the magnitude of what it really means to be on a stage,” says Hezlep. “And the responsibility of what you’re creating and pouring into people’s heads.”
Humbly grateful, but not blinded by the fame (or pixie-dust), Everlife chose to revert back to independence, as Indie artists in 2007. “We were coming to a place where we felt we weren’t expressing ourselves the way we needed to, we needed to move forward,” says Hezlep. “And we’ve remained friends with so many of the people in Disney and Radio Disney that gave us so much support over the years.”
But what do you do once you’ve just opened for the hottest tween tour [estimated: Box Office grossing $54 million], signed with one of, if not the, world’s most beloved companies? “At first we thought, ‘what now,’ but we kind of just rolled up our bag of tricks, and kept on going,” says Hezlep.
Presuming being Independent would be “fun,” Everlife became crippled by their new roles, consequently halting their music. “We soon realized not only would we have to be the same creative people on the road, but put on a manager hat, and our business manager hat, and add merchandise,” says Hezlep. Yet, a tour through Europe, in desperate need of new material, was their blessing in disguise. “Our 2009 EP, At the Love Library… We realized that we needed to write for ourselves,” says Hezlep. “If there’s people out there in the world that connect with it, then it’s our bonus.”
Dredging deeper than before, with a matured sense of abandoned honesty, Everlife finally unchained their music, and their hearts. A year later, a song that they had written to themselves, “What’s Beautiful,” reached nationwide Christian radio airplay, gaining top chart cred in Australia. “It was just the three of us, the first time we released a song without a co-writer,” says Hezlep. “It was a song that we needed to write, to sing to ourselves everyday… and anytime we performed it, after we’d be like awl man, that’s still true.”
Females all over the world reached out to Everlife, in response to “What’s Beautiful,” finding personal reassurance through its empowering message. GMC also nominated the music video, where the Ross sisters filmed sans make-up, for 2010 Music Video of the Year.
After a 2011 EP release, Will It Be Enough, Everlife united together to record their last album, desiring to follow the same intimate intent used for “What’s Beautiful,” “having serious, real conversations,” says Hezlep. “That’s where the idea [of “At The End of Everything”] stems from.”
What if you were in ultimate conversation with your Creator? “[At The End of Everything] It’s honestly one of my favorites, it’s different that any Everlife song that we’ve ever done, but it feels very honest, raw,” says Hezlep. “If that’s the last thing I said, without Him, none of this makes sense. We’re just a cheap copy of what we’re supposed to be… it felt very appropriate.”
February 19th is the release date for At The End of Everything. On February 20th, Everlife will perform their last concert together, in Nashville. “It’s actually the Anniversary of the day we released our first album,” says Hezlep. “We’re going to invite all of our friends, and play the album in its entirety, and talk about the stories for each song.”
Such stories as: “What Made Us” featuring co-write: Brandi Cyrus [Miley’s older sister] who lived with the Ross sisters during college [when her family was in LA for Hannah Montana], and would cover merch for their shows. “We called her to write, and we wrote specifics, writing about all the crazy stuff that’s happened to us on the road,” said Amber. “The one line, ‘singing panic in the middle of the night,’ it’s a reference to this one Panic At the Disco song that was the four of us’ roadtrip song.” Or, “Coming Home,” the album’s debut single, written by Julia, on the last night of touring Europe  for fifty days in eight countries, homesick. Adds Amber, “that was the craziest tour of our lives.”
After a full year (their first) off from touring, just like she jumpstarted the band, Julia [lead vocal] triggered this final project last January. “We felt strongly that we still had something left to say,” says Hezlep. “Once we had that conversation, we realized we hadn’t talked about it, but all felt that way.” Somehow, they’d have to sum up their past fifteen years, in song.
Funded by a Kickstarter, At The End of Everything was “wonderful, incredibly moving, and a project made though the people who want it most,” says Hezlep. For the girls, it also turned into “one large therapy session,” which evolved into a powerful closing album.
In nostalgic comparison to their home studio sessions, and beginning recordings, stepping into the studio, this time, for the last time, was bittersweet. When kids, they were more intrigued by “what does this button do, or how can I play that chord?” says Hezlep. “It was more about going through the wardrobe and finding yourself in a Narnia situation, like, ‘I can’t believe we get to do this.’” However this session, was as easy as breathing. Having never been apart until a few months ago, regardless if past buttons are pushed, they are, and will always be family. “Every issue needs to be resolved, and you have to move forward,” says Hezlep. “Recording this way was a breeze, because we’d been through all of it and back.” This album was divinely meant to be.
While doing angst-teen Pop-Rock with Disney, Everlife never realized that they naturally drifted toward a rootsy, organic arrangement, with lusty conviction and sweet [simplistic] harmony. “So when we started to really delve into issues that we wanted to write about: lost, divorce, friendship, or the darker questions we weren’t able to access before, it came full circle,” says Hezlep. “When listening to our final mixes, Sarah said, ‘this is what we were supposed to sound like, it’s what we were working towards this whole time.’”
Released by Tone Tree [The Civil Wars], Zod Lounge produced At The End of Everything, a three-guy Nashville production company, encompassing “sibling qualities.” Dear to their hearts, the Ross sisters reveled in this family setting, and penned the album’s opening track, “Three Little Girls.” “We wrote each of the verses and choruses that were about each other for each other, Julia and I wrote the one in the middle together about Sarah, and so on,” says Hezlep. “It was really important, a healing song for us.”
It was also imperative to track, “Alleluia” by Larry Gatlin, as an album bonus. Sean Moran, of Indiana, PA and local a capella group member, took Everlife under his wing, teaching them the “dos and don’ts of how to sing and harmonize as a band,” says Hezlep. “Alleluia” was their vocal warm-up [with Moran], and after years of performing it in shows, “we realized that there’s literally one whole sentence that sums up how we’ve always felt about our faith, and why we sing.” It’s thus evolved into an angelic show staple, and a cardinal component of At The End of Everything.
Since 1999, the Ross sisters (and family) have enlisted in mission trips: Costa Rica, Brazil, “and it opened our eyes to the fact that one thing everyone understands is music,” says Hezlep. “We learnt then that maybe this needs to be for more of a purpose, then just having fun.” From there, they spearheaded a non-profit mission at home, Conduit Mission [conduitmission.org], which serves in Africa, Haiti, and also, Tennessee. Hezlep wholeheartedly explains, “it’s one of those things that I think is really important for every person, even if it’s in your own town, to put yourself aside and go serve someone who can’t possibly thank you in any way.” Adding, “it opens you up to the way we were really created to be toward each other.”
Devout in their faith, Everlife is resolute. Amidst a business who can inexcusably limelight image, instead of boosting the actual music, they’ve surrounded themselves with refreshingly respectable individuals, and affirming strength: in self, in love, in belief, and in others. “I guess I really want, after someone hears this project, or even the rest of our material, to really be inspired, to just have a sense of hope, clarity (really), in life,” says Hezlep. “Our collective hope has always been in whatever we create, to stir people up inside.”
On February 21st, Everlife will return to being just sisters. Yet, their commitment to music will prevail. Julia is engaged in a solo R&B/Soul project, while Amber and Sarah are collaborating with a handful of Nashville production teams to write for new artists. “One of our goals when we first started was to be able to someday, ‘when we have a career,’ help/artists who are just finding themselves,” says Hezlep. “We want to help teach what we’ve learned, and just be very encouraging.”
“One’s a lonely number / two’s a little strong / but three little girls will make it.” Fifteen years later, at the end of everything, Everlife has made it.