Lately, Robert Ellis has been wishing he could go out dancing more often.
Though the native Texan now lives in Nashville, he’d taken to frequenting nightclubs while spending a month back in Houston over the holidays, a hobby he adopted during a repose from drinking (things got a little too “boozy Suzy” while on tour in Australia, and hanging around bars sober was pretty boring). Not line dancing, though, or anything you might imagine: we’re talking places where the only boots in sight are high-heeled ones worn by girls in pleather skirts. You can’t mean to stuff like Macklemore, I ask? After all, this is the same guy who once led “Whiskey Wednesdays” back in the Lone Star State, playing old-school country covers by request.
“Absolutely,” he says with a straight face, “It’s super fun, and good exercise. And I feel great the next day.” We’re having lunch at the Biscuit House in East Nashville, a Southern-style greasy spoon that sits on the dividing line between the hip, gentrified part of town and streets that see crime on a regular basis. But Nashville doesn’t have a lot of places to go clubbing, and he’s been feeling a little frustrated. A little homesick, maybe. After all, it was a great visit back in Texas: after finishing up his third release, The Lights From The Chemical Plant, he used the time to produce a record (for Austin-based band Whiskey Shivers), catch some music (Beyoncé, which was “the best show I’ve ever seen”) and yes, do some dancing.
Those who only know 25-year-old Ellis from his last LP, Photographs, might find it hard to imagine that the very man who used to perform songs like “What’s In It for Me” – a track he says “may as well been 50s George Jones” – in Western shirts, a big belt buckle and steel guitar accompaniment would rather spend his evenings in a nightclub instead of honky-tonks, but, then again, Ellis is a complicated person. And he’s a complicated artist – complex, maybe, is a more appropriate way of putting it. Chemical Plant is a work of evolution, an exploration into all the parts that make up his whole, from sophisticated pop to free jazz lines that stretch songs seven minutes long to lingering string embellishments. While it’s easy to classify it as a movement away from country music, it’s more than that. And maybe it’s because Ellis has never really been entirely country all along.
“Fortunately not a lot of people knew about my last record,” he says. “I’m hoping this will be people’s introduction to me. I think once they hear this album they can go back and listen to Photographs, and it will make more sense in context.”
Here in the pink plastic booth, he’s eating a breakfast sandwich from the kid’s menu (yes to jalapeños, no to mayonnaise), drinking tea, a can of Skoal dip resting on the table beside him. Names like Tom Waits and Randy Newman come up a lot, but so does Mrs. Carter, British chillwave artist Jai Paul and R&B acts like Miguel and J. Cole. “All my favorite artists are ones that have established themselves in their own niche,” he says.
When Ellis released Photographs, it was the keener ears that picked up on influences like Paul Simon and Newman, particularly on the first side of the record, which told a slower, more folk-oriented story. Songs like “Cemetery” and “Bamboo” showed a lyrical voice that had more in common with ’60s folk than ’60s country, but it was easy to gravitate toward the foot-stomping B-side tracks like “Comin’ Home” that slithered fast to twangy lap steel and made those who have a distaste for the modern Music Row machine a little weak in the knees.
So a little over a year ago, Ellis cut his long, trademark hair, a conscious choice to help people lose the connotations that come along with those kinds of locks.
“That was a big part of the reason,” he says, in a voice that contains no discernable southern accent. “And since I’ve cut my hair I don’t get shitty looks at small town restaurants from old men. Now I get the head nod, because I have the old school haircut.” When he posted a photo on Facebook of the change, the reactions were mixed: mostly approvals, but a couple “when’s the audition for Vampire Weekend?” type heckles.
I first realized that classifying Ellis as a country artist, or even a folk one, was way too simple when I saw him play live in New York during the 2011 CMJ festival. The show was at intimate venue the Living Room, where he shared a showcase with other New West artists, the label that signed him after his self-released debut The Great Rearranger. Toward the end of the set, Ellis and his excellent band broke down into what I remember to be a ten-minute noise jam, more evocative of jazz musicians than anything rootsy – something that this group could easily carry because of Ellis’ extraordinary guitar chops. For a moment, they evoked Charlie Hunter, Jason Moran or Pat Metheny, not Merge Haggard. The hair was still long, but it was easy to see what was hiding in plain sight.
Chemical Plant, while being a record of mostly pop construction, is not an exercise in genres. It’s not Ellis’ “diversion” record, a little detour north of the border before he teeters back into country. With the help of producer Jacquire King, it sets to establish a unique sound that is neither here nor there – something that used to be called progression in the age before hashtags and keywords. The change starts at the cover art: a profile shot with projection by photographer David Ayers looking like something that could have been released on Blue Note, evocative of old John Coltrane LPs with the artists’ face floating on a black background. This, like every choice in music or packaging, was intentional.
Ellis chose to include a version of Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” to help people digest the new direction, a sonic legend to the map of the record, so to speak. “I just wanted to help people make associations that are less country,” he says. The one song on the album that could be classified as such is “Sing Along,” a picking-at-95-miles-per-hour exploration into “the evils of indoctrinating children into religion.” He thought the juxtaposition was just too apropos to pass up. “And the flames of hell they seemed so high when I could barely see over the pew/ I was just a boy when they told me that lie but, Lord, it felt so true,” he sings with backing by Nashville bluegrass musician Jim Lauderdale.
Though Ellis did grow up with a strong, Southern Baptist upbringing, it’s important to note that while some degree of his songs are autobiographical, he’s not a confessional artist – Chemical Plant is full of characters and storytelling, and many points of view.
“I find it really irritating that people always want whoever is singing the song to be the person narrating it too,” he says. As on the opening track “TV Song,” Ellis imagines himself as a lonely man who lives his fantasies out through television, drowning out an unhappy marriage and mundane life through that fickle temptress of forced imagination.
“I’m not good at writing in an abstract, shrouded-in-metaphor kind of way,” Ellis says, trading his clean plate for a Styrofoam cup in which to spit his tobacco. “There are writers, like Radiohead, that do it, whom I really like. And sometimes I like that I have no idea what those lyrics are about, but I couldn’t do it. I’m really direct. Stories are what come naturally to me.”
For the song “Steady As The Rising Sun,” Ellis partnered up with another torch-carrier of the narrative style, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, who rewrote a verse and helped him tinker out some mixed metaphors. Ellis has been criticized, like Goldsmith, for this same tendency that makes them unique (an early co-write for “TV Song” resulted in a clash over the directness of the lyrics, and Photographs’ “No Fun,” about a misogynist, overbearing husband, was met with little humor, particularly overseas, despite its clear satirical tendencies). Like Goldsmith, Ellis prefers lyrical directness, calling out the world as he sees it.
“I think there is this whole thing that came with Pitchfork culture, where people think it’s brave to make devoid-of-meaning lyrics,” he says, his bottom lip protruding, filled with dip. “I think it’s much bolder [to write in a narrative style].”
It’s musically where Ellis takes even greater risks with his audience, weaving instrumentals drawn from jazz influences like Robert Glasper and Ornette Coleman, allowing lots of room for horn embellishment and creative arrangement (three of the songs clock in at over six minutes, two of which at nearly eight). The title track sets the palate sonically and lyrically, ushered in with moody minor-key strumming that blossoms at the chorus with subtle but powerful strings. It’s a song about “finding beauty in really ugly places,” told through the eyes of a couple inspired by his grandparents. “I feel like hopefully all the songs on the record highlight these gray areas of morality and emotion.”
“He’s an interesting writer,” says Deer Tick’s Robbie Crowell, who contributed saxophone to a “Bottle Of Wine,” “with a great depth of knowledge ranging from bebop to country to rock to esoteric deep cuts and unusual twentieth century composition, so it didn’t surprise me to hear the stylistic range on the album. He’s a bit of a phenom, not only as a musician and singer but as a writer.”