By Richard Skanse
All these years later, the schoolyard taunt still haunts Robert Ellis, needling at his self confidence like a splinter burrowed deep inside his consciousness. It doesn’t sting like it used to, but it still tickles — and puzzles — him just enough to crack him up every time he thinks of it.
“I think I was in like fifth grade when me and this other kid got into some argument,” Ellis recalls, “and I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but at the end he said, ‘Whatever, Robert — you’re just a kid with a weird voice.’”
With 17 years of distance, Ellis can laugh it off today — and laugh again at the suggestion that “just a kid with a weird voice” wouldn’t make for too bad of a mini-Twitter bio. He may have even laughed a little at it back in fifth grade, too — though he admits the curious put-down left a mark. “It just stuck with me, the same way I remember one time in elementary school, like second grade, when somebody told me my teeth weren’t white,” he says. “When you’re a kid I guess those things can cause some insecurity, so maybe it took me about four years to get that one comment out of my head, because I never really thought I had a good voice or could sing. But I ended up taking choir my second semester of eighth grade, just because a girl that I was dating at the time was taking it and I wanted to hang with her. That’s when I found that I could hold pitch.”
That Ellis could, in fact, sing shouldn’t have been all that surprising, given the musical aptitude he’d discovered from a very young age growing up in Lake Jackson, Texas, learning guitar as early as 6 years old from his uncle and piano from his mother. By high school, he was taking varsity choir, varsity orchestra (violin) and jazz band, all the while honing his guitar and songwriting chops at home to the point where he was playing Houston honky-tonks before he was out of his teens. He self-released his 2009 vinyl-only debut, The Great Rearranger, at 20, and two years later was signed to New West Records and sliding into the national spotlight with 2011’s Photographs and 2014’s The Lights From the Chemical Plant. The understated Photographs split the difference between introspective, Paul Simon-y singer-songwriter fare on Side A and frisky, barroom-seasoned old-school country on Side B, but Chemical Plant found Ellis taking a confident leap into uncharted Cosmic Americana noir. His just-released fourth album, simply titled Robert Ellis, follows eclectic suit, deftly weaving elements of pedal-steel and Telecaster fueled country and honky-tonk with starkly confessional SoCal folk, grandiose pop, free-form jazz improv and even a hint of ambient electronica. If the justly acclaimed Chemical Plant hadn’t already made this much abundantly clear, Robert Ellis proves that the Houston kid with the weird voice has grown up to be one of the most strikingly original artists and songwriters to come out of Texas in at least the last decade.
And not for nothing, he’s also one of the most amiable, forthcoming, and patient. Our phone chat a couple of weeks before the new album’s release was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve had with an artist in more than 20 years — so much so that I actually looked forward to transcribing it. Or would have, if not for the fact that due to either human error on my part or technical malfunction on my digital recorder’s (let’s just blame the latter, shall we?), the first 40-odd minutes were lost or never got recorded at all. Fortunately, Ellis graciously agreed to make time for a do-over a week later. A few of that first talk’s more inspired bits of in-the-moment tangental riffing on everything from Leonard Cohen to bad reviews (Ellis hasn’t gotten a lot of those, but there was that one for Chemical Plant that had the whole band in stitches) were inevitably left lost to time. But for the most part, between the two of us we managed to catch and revisit the gist of it.
First things first, thanks for talking to me again. I guess you heard what happened with most of our first interview?
Yeah. That’s kind of hilarious, really. And unfortunate. But I’m glad to talk with you more.
I know the conversation won’t necessarily be exactly the same as our first one, but just to cover the essential bases, forgive me while I try to retrace some of our steps. Beginning with, where is it again that you’re calling home these days? You seem to have moved around a lot in the past few years: Houston, Wimberley, New York, Nashville …
Yeah. Well, last I talked to you I was in Los Angeles, doing a bunch of press stuff. And then I flew back to Houston the day before yesterday. When I’m off the road I’ve been spending a lot of time in Houston, mainly because my mom lives down here, like an hour south of Houston. But I don’t really have a place of my own anywhere; I haven’t had a place in about two years. So it’s kind of wherever I feel like being at the end of a tour, and lately that’s been wanting to see my family. My ex-wife lives here and her mom lives here, and we’re all really close. So this is where I’ve been ending up a lot. But I also spent two weeks in New York the last time I was off the road, thinking, “Oh, this is where I want to be.” So it’s not an easy answer, but there’s not really a place that’s home right now.
Except for “everywhere.”
So the first thing we really jumped off on last time was talking about how you produced this record yourself, after working with Jacquire King (Norah Jones, Kings of Leon, Tom Waits). You talked about how much you really enjoy producing in general, be it your own stuff or albums for other artists — to the extent that if you’re not playing a show or writing, you can often be found at the nearest studio you can get access to, recording. What is it about that aspect of the art that pulls you to it?
Well, it’s a number of things. I think we talked about logistically how it relates to traveling this much and not really having a home base, so it’s nice to be in one place for a month or two weeks and be able to focus on one thing sort of in an uninterrupted way. I mean so much of the other shit that I do is so disjointed … like I’m doing a phone interview with you right now and I’m on my way to an in-person interview, and I’ve got just a million things that you have to compartmentalize. But with recording, you get to focus on one thing: you’re dedicated, you’re in the studio, and you get a routine going. You start sort of speaking with weird studio language, because everyone’s in this together, you know? So you really sort of fall in with the people you’re with. And, too, there’s not a lot of things that we get to do in this business that have a tangible “this is what I spent my time on” result, where you can hold it up and look at it and point at it and know you really did something. But recording is one of the rare exceptions to that where you have this thing at the end of all your effort that’s real and physical. So it’s all of that, plus the fact that I’m just a nerd about the musical side of it. I like how the studio can be like a whole other instrument, and how you can really do a lot of different things in the studio musically that you don’t have that amount of control over in a live show.
Given that element of nerding out a bit, and liking that sense of control you have in the studio, was it hard to hand the reins over to someone else for the last record?
Well, no. I really like Jacquire. From our first meeting, it was pretty clear that we were similar personality types. And there was a mutual respect there. It was a really pleasant situation for me. And in reality, at the time, I don’t know if I could have done that record on my own; the amount of stress that he took off of my shoulders was huge. And just having somebody there to be like, “What do you think of this?,” just knowing that you’re not crazy, is really important. Because you can really sort of zero in on things, and get tunnel vision, and then not know how shit sounds anymore, because it’s just you. So that was definitely a new experience for me, but I was really ready for it and I’m so glad I did it. Like, I don’t think this record that I just made would sound anything like it sounds if I hadn’t had that experience with Jacquire. Everything from like sonic direction to logistics and dealing with personalities … getting him to produce a record for me was almost like getting to apprentice with him in a way, because I learned so much. And I think that at some point I want to work with him again, and I can stand to learn a lot more from him and people like him. I really don’t have much of an ego about that shit. I think that you can make a good record in a lot of different ways, and that last one just happened to be with him, and this one just happens to be just me.
In regards to the sonic direction of this new album, to what degree did you have that sort of mapped out when you started recording? Did you have a lot of the colors in mind from the start, or does that all come into focus later on?
It was definitely more thought out than other ones I’ve done. A lot of the sort of harmonic and sonic cues were already kind of there in the writing, and like in a very specific way; like, I didn’t know what synth sound I wanted to do this melody in or whatever, but there was definitely some thought to the production in the writing that I hadn’t had with the other ones. And maybe that’s just a product of doing this enough times, doing enough records that you start to be more aware of what a huge role that stuff plays. Like how the kind of reverb you have on a vocal can change a song … like “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. If that tune didn’t have those reverbs, who’s to say if it would make you feel the way it makes you feel? And I don’t know … maybe for a “songwriter’s songwriter,” that’s not something that people feel that comfortable thinking about, but that’s been the mentality with like indie bands forever now — how sound is half the writing process.
The first song on the album, “Perfect Strangers,” is one that really came together that way, wasn’t it? I mean in terms of the lyrics, music, and studio finesse all being integral to its final outcome.
Yeah. Well it was an amalgamation of a lot of different things. It started out as just a line I wrote in my notebook. I just wrote “perfect strangers,” and I don’t think I really knew what that meant. But then I was in New York and sort of walking around a lot, and over the course of a month, August of 2014, I wrote the bulk of the tune: lyrics and melody. And then it took about a month really to hone in on it. I had the words, but I didn’t really know what they meant. And this is really similar to my overall process; like I’ll come up with something, and I’ll try not to hold it too tightly to the rules of what it can mean. I started writing the first half of the song, and it was all sort of about what I was seeing, the people in the street, people in the subway, all that stuff. And then maybe halfway through the month the second verse started happening, and I think maybe the idea of “perfect strangers” took on a different meaning, and just added to the complexity of the thing. And then maybe a month later, I was digging through old voice memos on my computer or my phone or something, and I found this instrumental guitar part that I had written, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting, why did I never do anything with that?” And it just kind of clicked to me, “That would really fit with ‘Perfect Strangers,’” because it didn’t have that intro and outro section on it yet when I wrote it. So I attached this idea that was maybe three years old to the beginning and end of it, which I think is another thing that’s kind of cool about writing songs: Those ideas maybe weren’t meant to go together, but there’s a thread that connects them because they’re all part of my harmonic vocabulary — you know, those tendencies you tend to have with melodies and words. So it didn’t sound that out of the question for me to tack that old part onto this new song. And then, once the song was written, over the course of that year, we went in and demoed it a few times. At my guitar player Kelly’s house, we recorded that electronic intro and outro, and really liked the way it sounded, so when we went into the studio at Sugar Hill, instead of trying to recreate it, we just imported our demo session from Kelly’s house and then had the band listen to that electronic intro through headphones, and we tracked the rest of the song to it.
It just all fit.
Yeah. But I mean, it wasn’t easy! There were definitely parts where we were like, “Is this the right tempo?” You know, the part we kept from that demo that we had worked on at Kelly’s house — I don’t know if you can notice it, but the intro and outro are slightly faster than the middle of the song. The middle of the song is not tracked to a click, so there’s a lot of natural breathing that happens that is difficult to negotiate when you start making electronic music, because everything is pretty gridded, you know? So there were challenges, but I’m really happy with the way that it turned out. It sounds crazy to me. Kelly says it sounds like the underwater level on a Mario game. [Laughs]
Although it’s by no means an “electronic” record, your willingness to experiment with elements of that genre to add texturing to both this album and Chemical Plant is one of the things that really sets you apart from the sort of business-as-usual Americana crowd and especially from the more traditional honky-tonk scene that you started out in. You went off on a great sort of tangent when we talked last week about how some people can really get hung up on the idea of “authenticity” — like, if it’s four guys bashing out something live in the same room, that’s “real,” but coloring outside those lines in any way is considered cheating or less valid somehow. Think you can pick up on that riff again?
Yeah, sure. [Laughs] I mean,the funny thing about doing these interviews is I have no idea what I said before, but I can talk about it again, and it’s possible that I feel equally confused now as I did last week about what people mean when they say “authenticity”! You know, I don’t really know why some people get a pass and other people don’t, and why there are all of these weird lines … Like Tom Waits, who’s one of my favorite songwriters, and most people really like Tom Waits I think. But there’s some weird conversation that I’ve had a number of times about him and artists like him where, like, he’s creating a character, you know what I mean? He’s writing from a perspective, and he’s even singing from a perspective; like on Bone Machine, each song is in a different register and has a different amount of gruff … he really is kind of a voice actor the way he delivers those songs. But still most people are like, “Well, that’s Tom Waits!” But are you going to tell me that he isn’t consciously deciding to be whoever “Tom Waits” is at that moment? And the same way with production and sound and harmony and all that stuff … I’m just like, everything everyone does is calculated in my opinion. I think there are some people who maybe have a very limited vocabulary, so maybe their idea of “calculated” seems like a narrower window — you know, like what they’re able to do is not as large. But everyone is making a decision to either sing softly or sing loudly or use vibrato or not. And for whatever reason, those decisions come into question a lot about whether something is “real” or not. And I don’t really understand that, because it doesn’t make any fucking sense!
Given the extent that you didn’t seem overly concerned with adhering to strict traditionalism of any sort on Chemical Plant, were you surprised at all that it was still embraced by the Americana community at large? I mean there’s always going to be the people who are going to be like, “he abandoned his roots!” But for the most part that album seemed pretty warmly received. It was nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana awards, if I remember right.
Yeah. That was nice. Of course it didn’t win, because Jason Isbell was also nominated! [Laughs] But it was still a surprise to me. I mean, at the time, I really didn’t know what to expect, just based on my experience playing shows, especially around Texas where for years we were playing a lot more sort of straight-up honky-tonk music. And I remember this one old codger come up to me in Houston one time after a show, and he said something like, “I’m really disappointed in you. You need to follow your heart and don’t do what the label is telling you to do.” And what he was referring to was like, five minutes of free improve noise that we put in front of one of our new songs. It just seemed so ironic to me that he would say that, because you know, especially when it comes to country music, it’s the business that wants you to fit into a neat box. Really, you think we were doing that stuff because the label wanted us to free improv for five minutes? Are you fucking crazy? That is not an easy sell! [Laughs]
So yeah, when we did Chemical Plant, I just thought, “There’s going to be a bunch of those people” — the ones who had just decided from Photographs that I would be some savior of some music they felt like was lost. But I never wanted to be that, and I think as I mentioned to you before, Photographs was sort of like a concept album. Like the B-side especially was intentionally derivative: That was the character that I wanted to do for that record, because it was meant to be a tribute to all of my heroes. So when Chemical Plant came out and people, especially in that Americana world, really seemed to like it, I was stoked about it. But I didn’t really know what to expect. Now, I don’t really think about things in those terms, because the whole thinking has gotten so confusing to me that I don’t even know what people hear anymore. You know what I mean? Like with Chemical Plant, I thought, “Well this isn’t country, so they’re not going to like it.” But shit, Sturgill’s new record isn’t country, and people fucking love it, and they call it country, so … I’m just very confused now, and maybe that’s put me in a place of less anxiety about everything. Because all I can do is make the kind of music I’m gonna make, and people can say whatever they want to say about it and react however they’re going to react, and it doesn’t seem like you can really predict it.
Speaking of labels, I’ve always been curious about why artists go the “self-titled” route on albums, especially when it’s not their first. Your current bio explains that it’s your “most personal statement yet,” and later notes that “much of the record” revolves around the end of your marriage — which inevitably brings to mind the term “divorce album.” At any point during the writing or recording of these songs, were you wary of saddling the album with that kind of baggage?
Well, my main issue with that stuff is that, as lovers of music and as fans of music, I don’t think context is really that helpful for us; I don’t think it enriches our experience with music at all. I actually think it does the opposite — it takes away from it. And I think a lot a lot of that language isn’t for us, anyway; it’s for marketing guys and advertising guys. It’s a way that people can sell you things, and as someone who cares deeply about music, I find that really offensive. Because music and art and all the things that are really meaningful to me, it’s a way to really get away from language and concrete ideas, and to feel whatever that grey area between all of your emotions is. And to feel like somebody else feels it and you relate to it. It’s one thing to have somebody say, “I’m sad” and you say, “I’m sad, too,” for a connection, but it’s a different thing to see somebody who’s maybe just playing a guitar solo, and you feel something about what it is to be alive because of the notes they chose. You know? Like there’s just something so much more beautiful in that.
So all that other stuff … I understand why it’s useful when it comes to selling things and marketing things; but I don’t think it’s good for the listener. I don’t think that insight into my personal life will change what the lyrics are. And yeah, I mean, there are my experiences in a lot of these songs, but they’re all so embellished and some of the characters sort of ran away with the narrative as I was writing it. So the album’s definitely not a 100-percent true account of what I’ve been through personally; it’s not my diary. That’s why it’s a craft: you’re crafting something, you’re creating something that didn’t exist before. And as far as the “divorce album” thing goes and whatever people are going to try to read into that, well … the cover of the album is me and my ex-wife. We’re very close friends, and I invited her out the day we did the photo shoot. And part of that was hoping to get people to realize, “You know what, just because maybe you had your divorce and it was really terrible, that doesn’t mean that that’s how everyone’s is.” I just don’t think that people should be able to put that on me and make me have to live that; I feel like we should all kind of choose whatever our own narrative is for our own lives.
Let’s leave that be, then, and kind of jump back to sort of what we were talking about earlier in regards to the Americana community. One of my favorite songs on the new album is “The High Road.” I don’t necessarily interpret a line like “my enemies are passing me by” as you literally thinking of any artists in particular as your “enemies” or even necessarily as direct competition, but I just think it’s funny how there are like four or five different guys all making very good records of late, and everyone of them at one point or other over the last five years has been pegged as the “savior of country music” or the “future of Americana.” And I’m as guilty as everyone else because I outright called you the latter in a review I wrote for Chemical Plant. But what’s interesting to me is that very rarely, if ever, are you and Isbell and Sturgill and Stapleton or Ryan Bingham ever mentioned together. You’re all making great music, and you’re all different enough in that nobody sounds like they’re copying each other or chasing the same sound, but there’s almost this Highlander “There can be only one!” absolutism that both fans and the media have that really seems to sell everyone short.
Yeah. It’s very funny. And again, a lot of it just comes from this fucking culture of, you know, marketing grossness. Every thing is about buzz words and the marketing story and, “How are we going to pitch this? What touchstones do we have in the bio? What do we call this?” And maybe it’s always been that way and I just never really noticed it, but it’s so fucking gross and it’s so insidious to me to music itself. I don’t think Sturgill wants that. I don’t know personally, but I don’t think Jason wants that, or Chris wants that. I would imagine that we all just want to make songs that we think are meaningful and have people take them at face value and appreciate them. And that song I wrote specifically … I started writing it when I was out on tour with Delta Spirit. I co-wrote it with my friend Jonny Fritz (aka “Jonny Corndawg”). I said, “Jonny, help me write this song, I feel like it’s about you kind of, or it’s about us.” So we sat down and we kind of cobbled it together when we got back to Nashville over the course of a couple of hours. And it doesn’t have a repeating chorus, it doesn’t have all of those things that you’re supposed to have in a song to you know, sell records. But I’m really happy with it, I love listening to it. And that whole instrumental outro — my guitar player, Kelly Doyle, actually helped me write that and re-harmonize that melody, so it’s kind of a three-person pretty collaborative effort. And I’m very glad to hear that you like it, because it was one of those where, putting it on there, I was like, “I’m going to enjoy this, but I don’t know who else will.” [Laughs]
Since Jason Isbell’s name has already come up, we might as well address the elephant in the room …
I remember when Lights of the Chemical Plant, I tweeted or wrote somewhere that the title track was my favorite song since Isbell’s “Elephant.” And now on this record, you’ve written your own song called “Elephant.”
I think they’re both fantastic songs, and lyrically, really nothing alike apart from the elephant in the room metaphor. But the first thing that really jumped out for me about yours is the guitar part you’re playing on it. It’s a very distinctive little pattern. Was that one of those things that you had been playing around with forever and finally fit a song around it?
No, that one actually came all at once — the guitar part and the lyrics. I was on tour with Corey Chisel in Australia, and one morning I woke up early and started on it and that song more or less got finished in a couple of days. And Corey heard it and was like, “Oh, that’s awesome.” So I never really fussed with it and it never changed much. But then when we got to the studio, I recorded probably, gosh, four different versions of that song. And they ranged from like, upbeat, Dido-sounding pop music, to there’s one version that sounds a lot like Dire Straits, because I played that guitar part on a Strat. And the final version that I settled on … You know, and all of this, as the producer I kind of have to separate myself a little bit from the song, and try not to succumb to what we call ‘“demo-itis.” Like, whatever way you first did it may be cool, but it may not be the best way to showcase the song. So I tried to really push myself with that stuff to not be stuck on any one idea. So that guitar part, I played it on a nylon-string acoustic that has some rope material in the strings, which makes it sound all dead and funky. And then I recorded two of those guitars and we panned the part left and right, so they give you this like ping-pongy, almost steel-drum effect. I was trying to make it sound kind of like a kora — you know that African instrument that’s kind of like a guitar?
So that was the guitar part. And as far as the lyric goes … I remember bringing it up to friends a couple of years ago and was like, “Man, I didn’t even know Jason Isbell had a song called ‘Elephant in the Room’ or whatever.” Honestly. And my friend who’s another songwriter said, “You know, that’s like a songwriting trope that we’ve probably all wanted to put into a song, so I don’t think anyone’s going to care.” But it is really interesting, because I agree with you — I think his song is fucking awesome. So it’s interesting to see what we both do with that idea and how different they are.
Well a lot of songwriters these days participate in these pools where they all write a song based on the same word or theme. So this is very much like that. But these are both such great songs, there just must be something magic in that word.
[Laughs] Yeah. I’m really glad to hear that, because that’s another one where I was like, “Man, what are people going to think of this?” I definitely … it’s honest, but it’s a type of honesty that I think is threatening maybe. That song is definitely about my misunderstanding of monogamy and like, me sort of trying to work out “why is it like this? Why is everything so rigid, and why do people keep repeating these same mistakes for generations, and why does it seem like there’s no way around it?”
You describe that song in the same way in the bio: “my misunderstanding of monogamy,” and I wanted to ask you what you meant by that exactly. I mean is “misunderstanding” the right word you were looking for?
[Laughs] Well it’s one of those things where, you know … I still don’t really know … I think that we live in a crazy different society than maybe our grandparents did. I think me specifically and anybody else who travels all the time, we have a drastically different life. And the sort of like paint-by-numbers approach to relationships time and time again has not worked for people in my business. You know, like how many times has Willie been married? And who’s to say that that’s not because of any number of things. But I’m just saying that the duress and the stress of travel and trying to be creative and trying to get this thing going does to a relationship, I think in large part is because of these expectations that everybody has of what a relationship is supposed to be — how if you love somebody you’re supposed to do these things for them and you’re supposed to put these walls around your relationship. And don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of … like I’m very romantic, and I do really like the idea of falling in love and being with someone forever. But if that means the same thing that it meant to my grandparents, I just don’t see how it’s feasible.
There’s a couple more songs on the record I wanted to touch on. “Amanda Jane” is one that sort of snuck up on me the more I listened to the album and it’s really become a standout. It’s just a wonderful character portrait with a vivid, full-color musical arrangement to match. Can you talk about how that one came about?
That’s actually one of the older songs on the record — it was in the initial demos folder than I had for Chemical Plant. For whatever reason, it just didn’t make that record. But I spent a couple of years coming back to it every once in a while and revising it, and it ended up being what it is now. And when Will (Van Horn) and Kelly (Doyle) played their steel and guitar parts on it, it really added what I kind of think of as our band’s signature sound, where you have steel and Telecaster right and left panned and sort of not being able to tell which one is which. So that added a whole other thing to it, and it ended up being one of my favorite tunes on the record. But there was always just something about the song that grabbed me; between the melody and some of the lyrics, it was like, there’s something about this that I have to keep around. There’s some of them that do that and I just can’t really get rid of them; they’re always in the back of your mind. Because there’s some spark of something in it that’s really good, and I feel like if I don’t finish it, then I’m blowing it. And then there’s a million other ideas that don’t have whatever that little spark is, and they just get lost forever.
Or they get stripped for parts for use somewhere else down the line.
Yeah! Like the “Perfect Strangers” thing, maybe they insert themselves into some other idea later that you weren’t even aware of.
You co-wrote “Drivin’’” with Angaleena Presley. Did that come about through friendship, or was it a Nashville-style co-writing arrangement? Is that something you’ve done much of?
I haven’t really. Most of the time it’s not … I just don’t like the setup. But Angaleena was introduced to me through business channels, like her manager or my publicist or somebody. And the first time we hung out she came and sang a song with me at this sort of country jam that I did after the Americana Awards, it was called “Robert at Robert’s”; we played at Robert’s Honky-Tonk and a bunch of people sat in and sang songs with us. It was super fun. And she’s awesome; I immediately liked her. She’s really spicy and has a cool personality. So we were like, “We should write together.” But I will say that my manager really saved the day on that one, because I woke up super hung over that morning, and I almost cancelled. I called my manager and was like, “Man, can you call Angaleena and just tell her I’m sick?” And my manager was like, “Dude, don’t be a pussy. Go write. If it’s not working, you’ve only spent an hour there, and then you can go back to your day.” So I’m glad he pushed me like that, because it turned out really well.
There are only two songs on the album that you didn’t write at all: the instrumental, “Screw,” by your guitarist, Kelly Doyle, and “How I Love You,” by Matthew Vasquez. What was it about that song in particular that made you want to record it?
Matt’s a very good friend of mine. He’s the singer of Delta Spirit, and he also just put out a couple of great solo records. We were hanging at his house out in Dripping Springs, trying to write something, and he showed me that song, like a demo he had made of it, and as soon as I heard it, I went, “Man, that chorus sounds huge to me … I could do something cool with this.” I could immediately hear it being like, not “big” as in popular, but big sounding. It just feels very epic. And I liked the idea of having it on here because I think it makes for a better overall listening experience than if it was a whole album of weirder stuff — like that Kelly song, “Screw,” for instance. All of my favorite records, like Hounds of Love by Kate Bush — she’s got some crazy weird amazing stuff on that record, but she also has some really palatable, simple pop songs that are not that complicated in sentiment, and I think overall those songs make the experience richer by being simpler. So that’s kind of what Matt’s song felt like to me. I love the sentiment; it’s a straight love song, and it’s the kind of song that I don’t think I could have written, you know? But it’s not that I don’t feel that way.
Well you certainly felt that way enough to pick that song for the album’s first video.
Right. And again, that goes back to the nature of the lyrics. One of the challenges with a video is, I write really narrative songs. So if you take “Perfect Strangers,” for instance — if I did a video that line by line followed “Perfect Strangers,” I would think that was lame. I’d be like, “Why are we just recreating the lyrics?” But if you do a video which doesn’t really play to the lyrics at all, then that narrative which is an important part of the song can get lost. So this song to me is straight forward and simple in a different kind of way that allowed it to be bigger, you know what I mean?
And you know … I know there’s a thing now where some people might be like, “Oh, he didn’t write that song,” or whatever — like we were talking about earlier, there’s some kind of “authenticity” bar that people want. But I just don’t see music that way. It seems crazy to me. All the people that we love to listen to — Willie and George Jones and Merle Haggard and all of our heroes — they just sang whatever song they thought was good, whether they wrote it or one of their friends wrote it or some Nashville songwriter wrote it. And I’m pretty positive that I would rather hear George Jones sing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” than I would want to hear the writer singing it. Now, I don’t necessarily think that that’s the case with this song, because Matt’s voice is amazing, but I’m just saying that just because I didn’t write something doesn’t really mean that I can’t deliver it in a way that is good and kind of take ownership of it.
You say it’s not a song you think you could write, given that it’s such a straight-forward love song, but to be honest, I couldn’t even tell that song wasn’t one of your own until I saw the credits. And I think the same could almost be said for — on your last album, you covered Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which is obviously a pretty well known song to most people. But it fit so seamlessly in with the rest of the record that I think someone who wasn’t familiar with the original or Simon at all could just as easily have mistaken that one for your own, too.
Yeah. I swear, I remember one time I saw Hayes (Carll) play forever ago, and I was like, “Man, that ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’ song, that’s amazing!” And he didn’t write that. Some friend of his in Canada (Scott Nolan) wrote that. But Hayes wrote nine other great songs on that album, or something like that. So I don’t know; I think it would behoove all of us to be a lot less precious about music and the rules that we’re all supposed to do.
You mentioned the “weirder” stuff on the album that “How I Love You” kind of counter-balances. Apart from the instrumental track, the weirdest moment is probably the one at the very end — that long, sort of freak-out jam at the end of the last song, “I’m Not OK.” It’s a great showcase for your band. Most of these guys have been playing with you pretty much from Day One, right?
The same guys, yeah. Well, we’ve gone through a bunch of different drummers, but we’ve settled on this one guy who’s all over this record; actually there’s two drummers on the record — it’s mostly Tank (Michael Lisenbe), who is a Houston guy, and then Dennis (Ryan) from Deer Tick plays on one song. But yeah, I mean, when I wrote that song, again in the writing, I was thinking about the production. The song is about conflict, and I kind of always hoped that when we recorded it, we could say what the lyrics are saying with the music as well. I wrote it on the piano and I put all these like Thelonious Monk-y minor-second, really dissonant sounding things in that original piano version. And then the first week of recording, before we really tracked any songs, the guys in the band hadn’t heard the song yet, but I said, “Here are the chord changes, here’s the tempo, I want to free-improvise for three to five minutes, and wherever it goes, it goes.” We tracked two of those free improvs, and then I put it away, we didn’t really think about it. And then a week later, after we tracked the song itself, I went back and I just chose one of the free improvs and we tacked it onto the end of it. But the reason I did it that way was to try and set the tone for the recording process: Like, “This record should really be about improv, and you guys should feel like there are really no rules with where you can go on it.” And it was really fun; it’s a great way to start a record.
Have these guys always been on that same page as you, as far as being open to playing with all the different colors and experimentation that you’re into? Or have they actually even inspired you to really go out there like you do?
Yeah. I mean, we definitely grew together, but man, Kelly Doyle is one of the best jazz guitar players — like weirdo jazz guitar players — in the world. And he’s really responsible for getting me into a bunch of totally free (form) music and taking me to shows. One of the things about our band that I think is interesting is that we sort of found each other kind of randomly in a sea of other musicians; we were all sidemen for other people. And I think it’s part personality and part that our interests are pretty unique and align; like there aren’t a lot of people who love Bob Wills who also love Ornette Coleman, you know what I mean? So it was a weird … we’re just all weirdos and we kind of found each other, and it was like, “OK, this is safe now.” We have one another, and when we go on the road we play a lot of like gypsy jazz tunes in the green room and we free improv when we’re at the hotel. But we also love to play honky-tonk music. So those dudes are kind of really crucial to the way all this sounds. And I credited Kelly’s additional production on this record, because he was really a big part of pushing me in different directions. We wanted everything to be really improvise-y, and he really helped me kind of guide that.
You’re all like an island of misfit toys.
[Laughs] That’s a really good way to put it! Oh, and we actually have a band name now. The band is called the Perfect Strangers. Robert Ellis and the Perfect Strangers. We like it for a couple of reasons; because of the song, yes, but also because Merle’s band was called the Strangers. I like the idea that we’re somehow implying that we’re the perfect version of the Strangers.
Just to really piss off the honky-tonk purists again.
Yes! And totally, that’s said with the utmost love and respect for the Strangers and for Merle. That’s like one of our favorite bands of all time. But … yeah. [Laughs]