Small Town Chemical Plants and Houston Honky Tonks – The Texas education of Robert Ellis
The solitary figure of the eternal jouneyman has long been a fixture on the Texas country scene. From Townes Van Zandt to Nanci Griffith, the archetypal Texan singer-songwriter combines itchy feet with soulful songwriting sensibilities.
The Lone Star State’s own Robert Ellis takes this tradition and bends it to his own ends. Much like New West labelmate Steve Earle, Ellis has racked-up some impressive air mileage in recent years. Having visited Australian shores for the first time in March 2013 (as support for Justin Townes Earle), Ellis returned in November 2013 for his own headlining tour Down Under. And with third LP The Lights from the Chemical Plant due out in February 2014, it seems likely he’ll be back again before the year is out.
‘I really hope so!’ Ellis tells me before a gig at The Basement in Sydney. ‘This year especially (2013) I’ve really fallen in love with Melbourne, and earlier this year I fell in love with Sydney. I’m already sad to be leaving.’
For Ellis, a punishing touring schedule is part and parcel of keeping his eye on the road ahead. That said, as the singer confesses, it certainly has its drawbacks. Closing track ‘Tour Song’ from the forthcoming LP tackles Ellis’ sometime ambivalence toward the call of the road.
‘Just like anything, there are ups and downs,’ Ellis admits. ‘It definitely exhausts you. You always have to be on a plane, in a car, travelling. It can be difficult to figure out what compromises to make so as to still have some semblance of a day-to-day, normal-feeling life.’
Ellis’ particular brand of inertia was set in train when he left junior high school in Lake Jackson TX – a small town dominated by its Dow Chemical plant that Ellis describes as “football-obsessed” and “melodramatic” – to attend a year of music lessons at community college before heading for Houston to make his way under lights. As a journeyman in the Texas port city, Ellis self-released debut LP The Great Re-Arranger and took up a regular Wednesday night residency at honky tonk club Fitzgerald’s. Dubbed “Whiskey Wednesdays”, these club nights saw Ellis and backing band The Boys amass an impressive repertoire that Ellis now reckons to have included well over two hundred classic country songs by the likes of George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings.
‘Whiskey Wednesdays were so spontaneous,’ Ellis recalls. ‘It was so much fun to just blow through tunes, try things we’d never tried before. We started with a core group of about thirty songs. Every week we tried to add five new ones. Over two years, that gave us a crazy number of songs.’
The experience seems to have shaped Ellis’ unique approach to structuring his enviable live show.
‘I do different stuff every night,’ Ellis says. ‘There’s an art to the set – to structuring it in a way that keeps people interested. But if I’m having a bad day, the last thing I want to do is to have a set-list. There’s a rumour around the campfire in my band that they warn new members to “watch out – whatever songs you learn will not be the songs we play tonight!”’
Despite his honky tonk education, Ellis’ relocation to Nashville in November 2012 seems to have coincided with a new direction in the singer’s creative outlook. Forthcoming The Lights from the Chemical Plant sees Ellis refining his sound to emphasize more clearly his ongoing pop influences (in his own time, Ellis has a penchant for Paul Simon, Randy Newman, British electronica, radio rap, and R&B).
In and around moving house and making records, Ellis has toured extensively in recent years with the likes of Old Crow Medicine Show, Deer Tick, Alabama Shakes, and the Old 97s, and has opened for superstars such as George Jones, Willie Nelson and Paul Simon. He has toured in the UK and Europe, and is a regular on the festival circuit, performing at Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival, and San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
Much of the buzz that surrounds Ellis is eloquently explained by the singer’s phenomenal 2011 sophomore album, Photographs. An exquisitely realised collection of gentle, reflective country-folk songs pitched against a handful of tightly wound honky tonk tracks, Photographs ranked among American Songwriter Magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2011. The forthcoming Lights from the Chemical Plant seems sure to add further lustre to Ellis’ already glowing reputation.
Recorded at The Casino in East Nashville and produced by Jacquire King of Tom Waits fame, Lights represents a masterful expansion of Ellis’ sound. In a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Ellis noted that the new album would be a more “pop” offering, featuring – among other things – a strange brew of R&B, bossa nova, and free jazz flavours. That said, Lights is Ellis at his familiar, well-honed best, featuring beautifully crafted country and pop tracks coloured liberally with pedal steel (courtesy of long-time band member Will Van Horn), along with some new thoughts and sounds. Cuts such as the bluegrass-inspired ‘Sing Along’ with Jim Lauderdale find Ellis in all-too-recognisable country mode, while his vocal continues to bear a little of the native Texan drawl that, interestingly, is largely undetectable in his spoken register. A real highlight comes with the plaintive, saloon-style piano song ‘Bottle of Wine’.
Lyrically, Ellis has never been one for the melodramatic tropes of more traditional country fare. Populating Ellis’ songs are ordinary middle-Americans for whom day-to-day experiences serve as ciphers for life’s broader lessons. Photographs’ sweetly funny ‘Two Cans of Paint’, for instance, offers up a study of young married life set against the backdrop of a couple redecorating their new home. Similarly, Lights opener ‘TV Song’ considers the escape from daily disappointment offered by television. Ellis’ particular genius is to couple such homey meditations on apparently profane subjects with the sweetness and palatability of classic pop arrangements.
‘Lately I’m completely obsessed with Randy Newman and Paul Simon,’ Ellis explains, describing his current musical direction. ‘Newman especially – he writes about mundane things that are metaphors for wider experiences. The title track ‘The Lights from the Chemical Plant’ is about what somebody like my great grandparents might have experienced living in a town their whole lives. The chemical plant stands as a metaphor for the constancy of their relationship – it’s this thing that’s always burning bright. In the end, when one of them passes away, the metaphor is sort of turned on its head. A lot of the songs on the album deal with finding the grey areas of morality and beauty.’
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is out on New West on 8 February (there would have been something arch in delaying the release until Valentine’s Day). Ellis will tour the US extensively in support of the record throughout February and March, before taking his unique and wonderful show on the road to, potentially, anywhere – just as Texans always have.