Robert Ellis on New Album, New York and Americana Snobs
There is an Anne Lamott book that Robert Ellis turned to during the writing of his self-titled fourth album. It’s called Bird By Bird: a half practical, half philosophical book on the craft of fiction, given to him by buddy and fellow Texan Hayes Carll.
“It got me into the healthy habit of just working, and treating it like a job,” says Ellis, calling Rolling Stone Country from the car in California. He’s just taken a run that morning – another healthy habit he’s come to enjoy, often to a soundtrack of rap and hip-hop artists like J Dilla – and is now on the way to film a video session for an airline, of which he jokes that all he’ll get out of it is “some old pretzels.”
“Everybody has this notion that there is some inspiration out in the world that is magical, and you have to get lucky enough so that it strikes you,” he ruminates. “I’ve found the opposite, lately: the writers that I like are craftsman, and if you just sit down and show up at the office and do your job, you get better and better.”
For Ellis, a stationary “office” has been a much more amorphous thing – born about an hour from Houston, he moved to Nashville in 2012 and lived for a stint in a house near the local fairgrounds with his then-wife, only to pick up and leave about two years later for a string of couches and sublets in Brooklyn. Even now, he only vaguely considers himself a New Yorker, instead writing his self-titled album in makeshift workrooms across the world while on tour: on the subway, in Australia, in the back of his parents’ RV with good friend Jonny Fritz.
“I don’t have a place anywhere,” he says, laughing – it’s an undefined state of being that he’s clearly not at all upset about. And though he’s talking about a physical location, the same could be said about his music, which takes his classic country and bluegrass upbringing and completely turns it on its head, favoring the pulsing heartbeat melodies of Eighties folk-pop songsmiths and unpredictable riffs of modern jazz masters like Jason Moran over any traditional Americana lexicon, backed by an ace band – one minute, an orchestral spiral; the next, a track driven almost entirely by his quick-fire fingerpicking way more Village Vanguard than Station Inn. Robert Ellis may not have a “place,” but, in his hands, it’s a home for anyone more interested in the journey than the destination.
Since releasing his first LP, The Great Rearranger, in 2009, Ellis has blended his calm southern coo, mind-bogglingly capable guitar skills and narrative writing into something keenly sophisticated and engrossing, an unusual path from his early days playing George Jones covers at his local Houston bar. Like the jazz greats he admires, his songs are capable of being a complex trip and a relaxed listen all in one shot – it just depends on how they’re digested. On Robert Ellis, there are tracks like “Couples Skate,” with soda shop lyrics that evoke an era where teenagers were told to leave room between them for the Lord, while the music itself flings at warp-speed from major to minor key like a pulsating disco light. But then there’s also “Elephant,” essentially an emotional duet between Ellis and his own guitar.
Beneath it all lies Ellis’ voice, which carries a smooth, distinct twang that doesn’t always cross over into his speaking tone. When he’s singing a “country” song – like 2011′s “What’s In It for Me” – it pops in like an easy puzzle piece, a satisfying snap into place. On Robert Ellis, with the juxtaposition of that tone against these jazzy chords or meandering key riffs that could have popped off a Billy Joel record, it’s a lot more like one of those Magic Eye pictures – it might not be as easy at first glance, but it stays much more artfully imprinted in your brain once you’ve gotten it all into focus. And with a much bigger payoff, too.
“I think it’s all a growth. The writing on The Lights from the Chemical Plant felt transitional in a way,” he says of his 2014 release, which helped him find his footing outside of the primarily classic-country universe of Photographs, the record that stated turning heads nationally. “I think I was developing a style I will be using for the rest of my career in some ways.”
On paper, maybe living Nashville made sense for Ellis, but he was restless there, and, after getting divorced from his wife, he packed his bags and headed for New York City. He liked how things there didn’t close at 10:00 PM, catering well to the late-night lifestyle of a touring musician. He walked a lot, and just paid attention: which is how the album’s opening track, “Perfect Strangers,” was conceived. It’s a city song about an imagined romance that’s a snapshot into Ellis’ musical mind: light piano plucks walk into short bursts of string arrangements or flashes of a twangy hoedown, with dissonant echoes in the background that capture the harmony that comes out of streets filled with nothing but noise.
“I started getting in the head of a character,” says Ellis about his method on “Perfect Strangers,” which actually translates to most of his work.
“I was looking at someone on the subway, and imagining what their story was and that’s where the song started. And then upon reflection I’m like, ‘Oh shit, this is about me.’”
It’s a discovery that goes back to the first chapter in that Lamott book: “Good writing is about telling the truth,” it reads. Ellis values telling the truth, but in a way that doesn’t always depend on him spelling out a literal, confessional diary of his life. Sometimes, he’s found, the deepest truths come from thinking about the lives of others. “I think we spend a lot of time lying to ourselves just so we can get through the day,” he says. “And when you are looking at other people, it’s a lot easier to say, objectively, ‘This looks like what actually happened. And it’s actually a lot more complicated than they are saying it is.’”
Sure, a lot of his divorce seeped in – there was a lot “shit flying at my face,” as he puts it – but Ellis hopes that listeners won’t try too hard to attach his own personal narrative to any of the songs.
“I did an interview, and the guy kept fucking pushing me about my divorce,” says Ellis. “I was like, ‘I know what you want me to say is that all these songs are verbatim about my life and I’m really broken up about it, but that’s not really what’s happening. I’m friends with my ex-wife, and I’m a songwriter, and of course I put my experience into what I do. But I don’t understand why you need things to be this way.’ No one was going up to [John] Coltrane and asking him about his divorce.”
It’s not that Ellis minds discussing personal things – he’s not precious or guarded, and he’s a heck of a lot funnier than most might assume. (His bio on Instagram simply reads “nudes,” and a quick flip through his stream yields photos of his and Fritz’s failed album-creating song trip to India that serve as polyester-rich proof of his sense of humor.) But he does balk at the public desire to attach a strict, personal storyline to an artist’s work: it just makes it that much harder for the music to grow and change with them.
And as much as he considers himself a songwriter, he’s also not precious about that, either. For Robert Ellis, he not only collaborated with Angaleena Presley and Fritz on tracks, he also recorded “How I Love You,” written by Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit.
“I think we have hit this weird place in Americana music where we’re like, ‘Oh, he didn’t write the song,’” Ellis says, feigning a mock-patronizing tone. “There is some sort of shitty, condescending idea of ownership and authenticity in that genre. It’s so fucking lame. All the stuff that the genre was built on was the exact opposite: Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], all the people we laud, they were all singing each other’s songs, their songs, and songs by hit songwriters. They didn’t care. One of the first times I saw Hayes [Carll], he sang ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.’ He didn’t write that, but who gives a shit? He doesn’t. Let’s just make good music.”
Lately, Ellis has been listening to a lot of Rufus Wainwright – specifically the track “Tower of Learning,” a beautiful piano ballad from 2001′s Poses. He’s known and liked the piece for years, but, recently, he’s started to hear it in a new way. Like Ellis, Wainwright’s never been one to spell out the personal details of his songs, instead using his writing to paint humanity, not diary pages.
“The right bunch of events allowed me to put myself into it differently,” Ellis says. “When music becomes less vague, it becomes less meaningful. Being able to put yourself in it is so fucking good, no?”