Denver student Dominic Ellerbee finds solace in guitar after homelessness

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Photo: Dom Ellerbee
South High School senior Dominic Ellerbee strums his guitar in a CPR recording studio.

Throughout 2013 and part of last year, Dominic Ellerbee and his family were homeless. They lived on the streets or stayed with friends to get by. As he and his family struggled, Ellerbee, a Denver South High School senior, wrote songs with his acoustic guitar.

Eventually, they would form the pieces of a musical that will debut Thursday night at South High School. "So Many Fish in the Sea" is written, directed, and choreographed by Ellerbee.

"With music, there's just some feelings you can't describe -- things that you can't really put into words," Ellerbee, 18, says. "So you hear it through sound and that explains everything for you. I just think that's super beautiful."

The show, which runs through Sunday, has three main characters, who are all young and learn to cope with loss.

South's drama teacher Jennifer Rinaldi has watched Ellerbee evolve as an artist over the past four years, helping him find solace in music and support from his peers.

"In the face of the challenges that his day-to-day life entails, it's absolutely astonishing that not only does he survive his life, but he thrives and produces this extraordinary art," Rinaldi says.

Ellerbee, who was recently accepted into Berklee College of Music in Boston, spoke with CPR arts editor Chloe Veltman about his show and its many autobiographical elements.

On the title of the musical:

Ellerbee: "The title comes from the opening lyric of one of my favorite songs by my favorite band, The Strokes. The song is called 'Automatic Stop.' And the opening line is, 'So many fish there in the sea. I wanted him. He wanted me. That's just a phase. It's got to pass. I was a train moving too fast.' That's pretty much what the entire play is about because that's what my life was like at the time."

On what first sparked his interest in music:

Ellerbee: "It was actually 'Guitar Hero,' the video game. I only listened to hip hop and rap [before that]. I wasn't always big on music. I always wanted to be a paleontologist because I loved dinosaurs. Or I wanted to be an astronaut because I loved space. Or I wanted to be a video game designer. But then I got this game, and I ended up being really good at it and it introduced me to all kinds of music. Then I wanted to play a real instrument."

Click the audio above to hear the full interview.