Robert Ellis is an artist whose youth belies his recorded and written work. His new LP The Lights From The Chemical Plant spins tales in various shades of gray, balancing sympathy and scorn along the way.
The record’s tales include those of the life and death of a small town couple, the aftermath of a relationship ruined by drugs and drink, and the discomfort of telling a friend comforting lies about someone they love and can’t leave. Ellis doesn’t shy away from painful moments: At one point, a song’s character remarks he “finds acceptance so fleeting unless it’s coursing through my veins.”
Thankfully, he isn’t afraid to lighten the mood at times with a winking line like, “Oh Betty Draper, I wish my wife was less like you.” The result is a deep and engaging listen that is destined to bring Ellis to a larger audience in 2014.
Ellis joined us for a conversation about the power of intensity, the dangers of satire, and youthful ignorance of Paul Simon as he shuttled between a photoshoot and an acoustic radio station session in Texas.
On your album Photographs, you did an A-side of folk and a B-side of country. In retrospect, which resonated most with your audience?
It all depends on the listener. Some really gravitated towards the country material. Growing up in Texas, classic country music seems like a dying breed and that’s why we made the B-side. Yet a lot of folks grew up on Simon & Garfunkel and gravitate towards the A-side. I put the folk first so people could to get to know me from those songs, then have some context for why we played the country. We wanted to pay tribute to some favorites without being too nostalgic.
Do you personally feel like songwriting is more of a gift or a craft?
Oh, it’s a craft. If you compare what I wrote at 16 with what I’m writing now, I can see a definite progression towards better songwriting. I’m constantly working on it. How can I make that line better? It’s actually hard to finish a song when you focus constantly on making it better. It’s tough to see a point where it’s done, but I wake up everyday and think about songwriting and interesting ways to say things. There’s no point if you’re just doing what other people have already done.
Was it intimidating to place a Paul Simon cover (“Still Crazy After All These Years”) right in the middle of 10 songs that you’ve written?
A little bit. It was intimidating to record, because his version is so perfect we wondered how to make it good without doing the exact same thing.
You didn’t choose a deep cut either. Everyone knows that [song].
Yes and no! My manager said the same thing, and I think most people over 30 would agree with you. But we included it because I feel like a lot of kids of my age really aren’t familiar with his solo work, and they should be. Since we did a lot of country on the last one, it was also important for association. If someone hears my name and “Paul Simon-influenced”, they are going to think differently about me than if they hear George Jones.
How did you decide how to sequence this new record? These songs are really different from one another. Was it tough to piece it together?
Definitely. Even when making a CD, I like to think of sides. It’s easier to structure two sides than eleven songs. Certain things went really well together, and others you figure out. There are three songs over seven minutes on there! We probably went through ten different orders. The opener “TV Song” felt like the best representation of all the elements of this material. It has sparse quiet parts, and country influence, and some full band work. We felt it was a good representation. It wouldn’t make much sense to put (the sparse seven-minute) “Tour Song” first.
Now that you’re in Nashville instead of Houston, does that beehive of players make you more ambitious in the studio?
Not really. The guys on the record are from Texas; we had our guys come up. There are players in Nashville, but it’s not what you think. I’m also never there. Living there has been pretty irrelevant, in some ways, to the music I’m making. I’m sure there is some influence that comes with moving and changing your life. I don’t think Nashville had a strong footprint on this record. A lot of folks aren’t there for country music reasons! It’s a nice, cheap place to live, and a lot of our friends are there.
When you do the more serious singer-songwriter material, do critics or fans make the mistake of thinking everything you write is autobiography?
Definitely. People in general do that. When you hear a song, you want to feel you know and relate to that person. I think that’s a little dangerous, at least for what I want to write, and for writers I really like. You really don’t want to think Randy Newman is a bigot. You shouldn’t. It’s satire. But people made that mistake all over the world. “Short People” got banned from European radio because of protests! That’s satire and commentary on being a bigot. But people didn’t get it. I guess you can’t really pick your fans. Some people do understand. A lot of the places we’ve been featured are in the NPR realm. That’s a more aware listenership - they listen to lyrics, and they want to go for a ride.
As your music gains a larger following, you play in bigger rooms and open for bands with big followings. Yet you’re playing quiet, thoughtful material. Are there tricks of the trade on how to engage that larger audience?
It’s a nightly thing. Some nights I can play three solo songs and everybody will be silent. It all depends on the room and the structure of the set. There are certain things that I have picked up. One is that volume is not what gets people’s attention – it’s intensity. If you are playing solo, I think there is a misconception that you should beat the hell out of your guitar and sing over everyone. I’ve found the opposite to be true. If you get really quiet and intense, people quiet down. They’re more startled by quiet than loud.
Critics have compared your songwriting to the Laurel Canyon crowd (Jackson Browne, David Crosby). Some of those folks made millions of dollars writing songs. Even when you are successful today, making a living as a recording musician is tough. What’s your favorite part of the job?
The 45 minutes we’re on stage is the best part. The rest of the shit is what you get paid for. We’d do the 45 minutes for free. Being in a van for eight hours a day and showing up to radio at 8 a.m., that’s with the money is for. You have to put yourself in the mindset that being on stage is the payoff. I wish I could just do that all the time. Recording is a similar feeling, but with a studious problem-solving element added. You’re trying to record a feeling and an energy, and working to translate that to record, which isn’t always intuitive. You can’t just set a microphone up and play your live show. I like that part a lot, too.
Robert Ellis wears Knox.