By Andrew Dansby
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
Sitting outside Houston’s SugarHill Recording Studios, Robert Ellis looks weary …
His eyes are dark and his voice carries a faint rasp. He needs to nurse that voice for a show a few days away, which means Ellis will regrettably miss an opportunity to record a song by the late, influential avant-garde composer and songwriter Arthur Russell for a tribute album. But Ellis tends to focus on one task at a time. On this day his job is producing a new album for Austin trashgrass band Whiskey Shivers.
“I want this thing to be perfect,” he says. “Not just because they’re my friends and I want it to be great for them, which I do. It’s my first time producing something that will get distributed and heard nationally. I feel like it’s important to prove I can do this.”
So Ellis’ weary state is self-imposed, but due more to perfectionism than the result of late-night drinking. At 25, Ellis is out to prove a lot this year. A few years ago he was a long-haired country singer whose high-energy shows were big draws in Houston. These days his hair is shorter, and his ambition is longer. As a singer, songwriter, performer, and producer, he’s looking to make a name outside his native Texas and also his adopted Nashville.
The Whiskey Shivers sessions will be followed by a lot of touring — a solo tour of Europe and then weeks of traveling around the States with his band — which is why Ellis has been pulling long days in the studio. His own album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, is on the brink of release and it will dictate his schedule for the rest of the year. It’s an expansive record that confirms Ellis’ artistic vision and abilities extend well past playing red-eyed honky-tonk for drunk twentysomethings, as he did for years in his hometown.
Having made two records most easily categorized as roots albums — somewhere in the vicinity of folk and country — Ellis is now pushing the perception of the kind of music he can make. The new album could be seen as a gamble, certainly in the short term. As country music continues to sound more like contemporary pop, a gifted young honky-tonk player is easy to market as an alternative. But Ellis isn’t interested in playing to easy expectations.
“We just don’t live in that kind of world anymore,” he says. “I know musicians who act like they’re from the fucking ’20s and they dress like that. They act like there’s no Internet. That’s just not honest to me. Everything in music is about creating a character, whether it’s conscious or not. But I don’t want to be a character that isn’t honest.”
So Ellis instead takes the long view. And The Lights From the Chemical Plant is the sort of art-for-the-sake-of-art recording that should establish him as an artist of breadth and daring. That it also better represents his talents and interests than a genre album adds a sincerity and depth to the record.
“This one could struggle to find an audience or where it’s supposed to fit,” he admits, spitting into a cup. “And there were a lot of opportunities my last album afforded us that were things I wasn’t necessarily interested in. This just felt like something I had to make now.”
* * *
The Lights From the Chemical Plant is a bracing album for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its scope. But it also captures Ellis’ voice the best of his three records. And that voice is moonshine clear, an expressive vessel for his songs, which possess both fragility and rigidity, depending on the lyric at hand. There’s a delicate beauty when he sings, in “TV Song,” “Walt Disney, you were a father to me,” and bristling venom on “Pride,” when he accuses someone of being “a kid inside a grown up body.”
Ellis has written some of his best songs to date for that voice on his new record. His debt to and affinity for Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Lefty Frizzell had been previously established with covers of their work and name-checking those country greats on one of his older songs, “I’m Comin’ Home.” This time out, the influences are further outside country music, and he’s filtered them through his experiences into a unique narrative voice.
The clarity of his voice nicely complements the clarity of his lyrics, even when he’s muddying the point of view by using a character to speak some deeply embedded thought. The themes of his songs aren’t buried. Still, they’re more contemplative than the performances that first drew Ellis notice in Houston. Years ago at the Whiskey Wednesday shows at clubs Mango’s and Fitzgerald’s, Ellis made plenty of listeners scoot drunkenly around dance floors with covers of classic country fare by the likes of George Jones, Ray Price, Willie Nelson and such. Those shows were about projecting outward assertively, by taking something pre-existing and making it his own. But with The Lights From the Chemical Plant Ellis wants to pull people in and make them listen. His new set of songs are meant to be heard and savored.
“I think his songs, they depend on themselves,” says Taylor Goldsmith, a member of the Los Angeles-based Americana band Dawes who sings on The Chemical Plant’s “Steady as the Rising Sun.” “I could sing one of his songs, like ‘Westbound Train,’ and people would think, ‘That’s a great song.’ It’s not something that requires tricks in the studio. There’s no gimmick needed. The songs can exist in a traditional way. ‘Traditional’ is a weird word, especially the way it gets used in music. But to me, to say something is traditional means it’s powerful and it will stay.”
The new album starts and ends with tunes that have the word “song” in the title: opener “TV Song” and closer “Tour Song.” The former is an account of finding relief from one’s day-to-day life in fictional characters. The latter is a raw and frank summary of a life touring with no on-the-road metaphors about turning pages or steel horses. “TV Song” presents the darker side of fantasy, framed by Ellis’ lyric about disappearing into the tube when home life gets complicated or abrasive. “Tour Song” is the opposite. It’s about longing for the sanctuary of his real home after visiting a blurred sequence of “hipster bars,” “shitty bars” and other venues that might host a young songwriter who may or may not be on the rise.
Both songs are infused with insecurity and the antagonism his line of work sometimes creates. They might not be the sorts of songs a spouse would want to hear, which is where the fictionalized narrators come in. When Ellis lifts his cup to spit his Copenhagen, the fingers on his right hand clearly bear the letters D-E-S, the first three of his wife’s name.
“I wanted this one to feel more detached,” he says of the record. “I don’t want to be one of those guys like Townes Van Zandt who was self-destructing for the sake of writing songs. Some of my favorite writers — guys like Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Tom Waits — they have personal themes in their songs, but they’re doing it through this passive other thing that allows them to be honest.”
For Ellis, that sort of songwriting construct allows him to take a mood, or a fleeting feeling, and spin a fictional narrative from it. “When I used to sit and write songs from my own perspective, it’s hard not to be honest about how you actually feel,” he continues. “It’s hard to say shitty things, because you don’t want my friends and family to know how you feel. You know what I mean? I can’t say in a song that my marriage is terrible. Then my wife hears it and goes, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ So you try to take some feelings and hide in the words of a song. That’s how I feel about a lot of this record. It’s not totally personal stuff, and I felt like hiding behind some of these characters.”
Among the aforementioned heroes, Simon’s presence is particularly prominent, most obviously in Ellis’ soulful and fluid cover of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” At solo shows he’s also been known to play a lovely version of “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War.” Not unlike Ellis, Simon’s narrative voice seemed middle-aged even when he was in his 20s. He sang songs about the passage of time from the point of view of restless and anxious characters who weren’t necessarily meant to be him. Simon wrote honestly, but fictionally, and didn’t seem to buy into the Charlie Parker maxim: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
Ellis also says “TV Song” was loosely modeled after Simon’s “Kodachrome.” There’s also the little progression in “Bottle of Wine” that sounds like a tip to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And “Tour Song” contains a tip to “Homeward Bound” when Ellis sings, “I long to be back home again.”
* * *
Home is a shifty concept when discussing Ellis. These days he lives in Nashville, though he spends hardly any time there. He moved to Music City after a year in the Texas Hill Country hamlet of Wimberley. His departure for Wimberley wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm in Houston, which has seen more than its share of promising musicians relocate to Austin or elsewhere in hopes of extending their reach. Houston has proudly nurtured a vibrant young music scene for several years now, and with that some hometown fans and early supporters can develop a somewhat entitled sense of proprietorship. What felt like an opportunity for growth or evolution to Ellis was taken as a betrayal by those more interested in territoriality than the music itself.
Needless to say, locals who were miffed when Ellis left Houston weren’t exactly thrilled with the notion of him leaving Texas, either. Two years ago, when Ellis announced during a solo show at Houston’s McGonigel’s Mucky Duck that he was thinking about moving to Nashville or Los Angeles, his comment definitely drew a few jeers.
Ellis grew up about 50 miles south of Houston, in Lake Jackson, where he was fed a steady diet of classic country music and bluegrass. His grandparents and an aunt and uncle accompanied him to an annual bluegrass festival. His uncle was a talented guitarist who taught Ellis to “liberate his thumb,” allowing him to keep time while playing more intricate melodic patterns on the instrument. By age 6, Ellis had honed in on Doc Watson, a favorite of his uncle’s, as a formative influence. To this day his clean tone on the acoustic reminds of the late, great flat picker.
He also learned to play keyboard from his mother, a piano teacher.
Ellis ditched high school after three years, eventually landing in Houston. He was still a teenager when he wrote the songs for The Great Rearranger, his self-released 2009 debut. An aesthete, he had the record pressed on vinyl with a hand-screened image of a train on the cover. Ellis didn’t assign much value to CDs. He’d keep some on hand to give away, but he didn’t charge money for them.
The Great Rearranger was bare-bones spare, just Ellis’ voice and guitar, and proved that he was more than capable of holding attention with just those two elements. With hindsight, the album also has an interesting reach into his subsequent work. Its title may be some sort of shorthand for Ellis’ diety of choice, because one album later that phrase appeared again on the song “Westbound Train”: “The great rearranger’s changin’ everything again.” And the debut’s cool, cryptic “Good Intentions” was redone with his band for The Chemical Plant.
Ellis taught guitar lessons and played in town wherever he could, not limiting himself to singer-songwriter rooms, befriending and sharing stages with more rock-minded acts. George Fontaine, the owner of New West Records, caught him because he was at Houston club Mango’s to see the glammy dance-pop/rock band Wild Moccasins. “I walked inside for a beer and there was this long-haired kid playing who sounded like James Taylor,” he says. “It was just him and his guitar, but you had to pay attention.”
Fontaine eventually signed Ellis to his label. Ellis had by that time already assembled the Boys, a band capable of playing relentlessly hard-driving honky-tonk. Their shows were built on a controlled frenzy, and also served as a primer for young listeners interested in delving deep into country music’s rich past. The value of those shows was underscored last year by the deaths of George Jones and Ray Price, two legends whose music was a big part of the band’s mix. For decades, neither Jones nor Price had played like they did in the 1950s. But neither, for that matter, did Ellis and the Boys. The feeling of their shows wasn’t retro, but rather a vital reinterpretation of something hallowed. Ellis, guitarist Kelly Doyle, and pedal-steel guitarist Will Van Horn would trade off licks one after the other on top of Geoffrey Muller’s bass lines. The band played exquisitely but with the force of a train that could jump the tracks.
For those accustomed to those live performances, Ellis’ second album and first for New West, 2011’s Photographs, may have been puzzling. It started not with a roar but rather the delicate “Friends Like Those,” a thoughtful take on the permanence of friendship, even when it seems transitory. The second track, “Bamboo,” was similarly quiet and contemplative, as was “Cemetery.” “Two Coats of Paint” was piano driven. The first four songs on the record sounded more of a kind with the modern folk of Joanna Newsom than anything meant to make people dance.
“I felt like a lot of people stopped listening by song three,” Ellis says. “And I suppose I alienated some people who are like, ‘Fuck yeah, country music!’ You can’t choose your fans, obviously, but if you’re doing this every day, you don’t want to hang out every day with people you don’t relate to. I want to be around people who inspire me to be better.”
For a perfectionist, Ellis undoubtedly had to bite his lip as he received suggestions from magazine editors and fellow songwriters and artists who found the album’s nonconformity to be something other than an attribute. Flip the sides, as some suggested, and you get the up-tempo stuff earlier. They missed the point: The narrative that runs through the record breaks down if you do that. Photographs opened with songs about youthful relationships with friends and moved into more complex fare with the opposite sex. Side two, the countrier side, moved into thistly themes like paranoia and infidelity and, ultimately, the dissolution of a relationship.
Its construction was deliberate and precise. It rewarded patience. It was a suite in an age of single song downloads.
Still, Ellis heard from plenty of people who apparently weren’t into all that — though some made a point of telling him that they did love side two. “If you can imagine the gall,” he says. “It’s essentially saying they thought side one was shitty.”
Ellis found himself in a Nashville songwriting session where a veteran writer “basically said all my songs were bad,” he says. That writer cited one segment of “Friends Like Those” in particular: “Some of my best friends, they already have children/They got lives with women, women I’ve never met/Their kids probably wouldn’t know me from chocolate puddin’ …”
Admittedly, “puddin’” is a funny word that provokes an inelegant visual. Yet as presented in the song it wasn’t jarring at all; it’s child-like, befitting a song about the dissipation of youth. Not to mention, it seems like the kind of word Roger Miller or John Prine might use — both writers who worked in tradition without conformity. To a “serious” writer, though, it sounded frivolous.
Still, Photographs put Ellis on the map outside of Houston. Since its release, he’s toured tirelessly with an array of roots-minded acts that includes Old Crow Medicine Show, Deertick, Dawes, and the Old 97’s. Depending on the tour, he could rev things into the red with the Boys or use just voice and guitar to keep crowds hushed for solo sets. All the while, he was also working up a new set of songs that lent themselves to the strengths of his band, but not necessarily in the way people had come to know them. Where the two sides of Photographs managed to split the difference betweeen Ellis’ crowd-pleasing country roots and his need to express himself outside the lines, his next record would find him all but completely done with looking back.
* * *
Ellis’ creative decisions aren’t made lightly. Each time a lyric rings in an exotic way — a jarring change in point of view, for instance — there’s a reason for it. Maybe that lyric is meant to be in quotes, spoken by a character as a loved one nears death.
He’s an attentive listener — to records or conversation — which says much about the way he makes his own music.
Listening to a test pressing of The Lights From the Chemical Plant, he could detect seemingly inaudible pops in the vinyl. Consequently, the vinyl edition of the album spans two platters, the better to maximize the sound quality. He wants it perfect.
Ellis is deeply involved even in the packaging of his records. The back cover of Photographs featured an antique pocket watch, a machine of intricate design and operation that clearly appeals to the young songwriter. Recently, he become enchanted by the work of photographer Davis Ayer, and knew Ayer’s unique style incorporating the use of projected images would be perfect for the artwork he wanted to accompany The Lights From the Chemical Plant. “It’s an album about colors, or I guess it’s more about light,” Ellis says. “But the way he shoots these is really interesting. The room is completely dark. There’s a black background, and the projector only hits the subject. I just thought it was a good metaphor for the whole album.”
The images fit nicely. The Lights From the Chemical Plant touches on life and impermanence, security and insecurity, youth and age, night and day, fantasy and reality, positive and negative space, home and not home.
Two of its darkest songs are “Chemical Plant” and “Houston,” which are quite different stylistically, though both are long on mood and both require a letting go on the part of their narrators.
“Chemical Plant” is a devastating song based in part on Ellis’ grandparents. Lake Jackson seems the obvious setting, though it could be set in any industrial town near the coast. He follows the couple from young love to a deathbed, with the titular chemical plant lights — which can make an ugly entity glow mysteriously at night — suggesting permanence until the day they don’t.
“I was interested in the idea of continuity, getting used to something and having it ripped out from under you,” Ellis says. “I guess a lot of the songs are about that. When I chose the title I started thinking about that thematic thread in all of the songs.
“I also like finding things that are unlikely,” he continues. “In ‘Chemical Plant,’ it’s about finding beauty in something that’s really ugly. ‘TV Song’ deals with some gray areas. People want to call things good or bad, but to me it’s not that simple.”
When Ellis first suggested the album’s title to his management, they weren’t sold on it. “They said it made them think of negative things,” he says, his eyes narrowing and a conspiratorial smile cracking across his face. “But I think that’s a good thing. I want people to be conflicted about what this record feels like. I don’t want it to give answers, I want it to ask questions.”
“Houston,” on the other hand, seems to be infused with some degree of autobiography. Even if it’s cast from an outside point of view, its theme of departure fits Ellis’ story. “From Houston I’m movin’ tonight,” he sings. “I’ve got to pick up and wipe the slate clean.”
The song is an acknowledgment of a nurturing person or place, this time with the lights providing a nostalgic glow: “When I think back on when I called you my home, I will fill up with pride and love,” he sings. “I will not forget all those nights that I spent, how your lights shone so pretty, just a boy in the city.”
The reach of Ellis’ band is on full display on the track. The song has an ethereal quality but it also has bite. Muller’s bass lays out a mysterious path, Van Horn’s pedal steel has a haunting whine, and the guitars simmer through the song before catching fire in an avant-garde break full of tension near the end.
“Those guys are fucking insane,” Ellis enthuses. “If you’ve seen them at Fitzgerald’s or Mango’s, you realize it’s a great honky-tonk band. But that’s not reality with those guys. They play free improvisation, folk … Kelly makes amazing electronic music. They’re multi-dimensional as people and artists. And we’ve grown together a lot. We’re not traditional people.”
He means musically in one sense, but as a millennial, he’s also talking culturally.
“We have defined ideas about sexuality and marriage and all that stuff,” Ellis says. “Without getting too far into it, we’ve found ourselves in situations where other bands think we’re total weirdos for the places we end up. We don’t play the show and then find a bar. We’re looking for the tranny pageant or going dancing at a gay bar all night.”
A member of one very popular Southern soul/rock band found himself with the band at a black transvestite show after hours. “We could tell he wasn’t into that kind of stuff, but he had a good time,” Ellis recalls. “He ended up getting so wasted he was in the bathroom throwing up all night. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but that’s a reflection on the kind of music we want to make, too.”
It certainly goes a long way towards explaining the decidedly non-traditional sound of The Lights From the Chemical Plant. It contains sax solos, bossa nova-touched tunes, and even a bluegrassy rave-up about bullying religion.
“It’s good to have a record go in different directions,” says Jacquire King, who produced the album. “It’s a better listen. It makes it a record you want to play start to finish. Robert has a lot of things he wants to say, and I think this shows his different sides. As long as you’re representing the artist and his songs, there’s your common thread. It should all hang together.”
* * *
“When we first got the demos for the new record, everybody thought they sounded strong, but there was a feeling of, ‘Where’s he going with this?’” says New West’s Fontaine. “I was the one that went out on a limb for him, so I knew he might be doing something different. To not make a country record, per se. If you ask me, this new one is like Nick Drake and Mickey Newbury. That’s what I was hearing on these songs. We didn’t necessarily know what he was going to do, but we knew he was going to make a great record.”
Drake and Newbury may be lofty comparisons, but they’re not bad parameters for the songwriting. The idea being that a third comparison would triangulate Ellis, who isn’t inclined to be hemmed in that way. That sense of freedom was why he wanted to work with King, a producer who has, for the past 15 years, assembled an admirable body of work with the distinction of being both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. He’s made albums with Norah Jones, Kings of Leon, Tom Waits, Modest Mouse and numerous others.
King proved a masterful guide. As for the sound of the album, King miked Ellis’ honeyed voice sympathetically.
“I wanted to make it feel intimate and basic,” King says. “Capture the voice, especially with Robert having such a great and distinctive voice. I wanted to make that an early building block and make this sonic palette around it.”
The two experimented with various instrumental configurations. Sometimes they tried to add more — as on “Tour Song” — only to decide that Ellis’ voice and guitar were enough on their own.
On “Bottle of Wine,” they used an old out-of-tune piano in Ellis’ house. “It’s about journey and discovery,” King says. “That piano had a lot of character. And it fit him. It wouldn’t have been the same to have him play a piano in the studio.”
Ellis’ band took on a different role than the solo swapping of their honky-tonk shows. Van Horn’s pedal steel is used to ghostly effect on the record, and Doyle’s guitar parts bristle with inventiveness, including a sublime solo on “Steady as the Rising Sun” and a free-jazz-inspired break on “Houston.” The album also features country singer Jim Lauderdale’s background vocals on the incendiary “Sing Along” and Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes contributing their lovely voices to “Steady as the Rising Sun.”
“When Jacquire first sent me an email of that one I was worried because it sounded poppy,” Ellis says. “And he said, ‘Don’t be afraid of good shit.’”
He laughs. “Which is a really profound thing.”
King says of the album, “I feel like we made a great piece of art that made us feel good.”
New West plans to push the ghostly “Only Lies” as a single. “Our rationale is nobody really knows what makes a hit single these days,” says Fontaine. “There’s no model for it. Nobody knows what’s going to take off. It seemed like a strong song that didn’t sound like anything else being played.”
And that could indeed bode well for both Ellis and the record. The industry so often tries to replicate success that it loses sight of the fact that the successes — certainly outside of mainstream pop — tend to be acts doing something nobody else is doing right now. In that sense, as far removed as The Lights From the Chemical Plant may be from the Houston honky-tonks, the album could very well find a wider audience to call its own. And Ellis is more than fine with that. As much as he wants to keep making his music on his terms, he doesn’t want to make it only for himself.
“I know a lot of musicians who are brazen and they just want to make great art and don’t care about success in a commercial sense,” he says. “I’m not that artist. I want as many people to hear my songs as possible. If I write a song like ‘Tour Song’ and nobody hears it, what’s the fucking point? I believe good art can be commercially viable. Some of my favorite stuff — Paul Simon, again — is some of the best-selling stuff of all time.
“Some of it is a personality thing,” he continues. “I’m not an introvert. I love meeting people. I love having people say a song meant something to them in some way. That’s powerful to me. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to do that on a huge level.”
But he also wants to experiment —and based on the songs he’s written since finishing the album, he’s still very much outward bound.
“I’ve been particularly inspired from being gone so much,” Ellis says. “I’ve demo’d some stuff using all electronic drums and synths and guitar on top that’s heavily affected. I hope it’s clear from Chemical Plant, that’s the direction we’re heading. Whatever ties there may be to genre, I’m hoping to betray them.”