A big part of Ellis’ musical transition was recruiting King – a notable choice not only for the fact that he’s a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated producer who has worked with Waits, Kings of Leon and most recently, Dawes – but because this was his first time partnering with a producer of any kind. Though Ellis approached the whole thing with some trepidation, the two developed a close working relationship, and a friendship.
“I put Robert in the category of the best artists that I have worked with,” King says. “He’s very special. And he has a work ethic. I know that he will tour and work hard, relentlessly, to support this record.”
The two holed up at the Casino in East Nashville, the vintage-furniture adorned home studio of engineer Eric Masse. The atmosphere was a mix of serious discipline and humor (Ellis placed a selection of “tasteful nudes on music stands” around the room on the first day of recording, and on breaks they’d play cornhole out back).
“Although working with a producer was a big adjustment for him, I think it was a great learning experience,” King says. “I could play devil’s advocate. There’s a partnership. My instrument is the studio, but I’m not there to make my record, I’m there to make the artist’s record.”
Ellis concurs. “It didn’t feel like relinquishing control. It felt like having a teammate.” It was through the process of defending choices to King that he was able to see his music in a different light, distancing himself from an emotional attachment to a particular riff or lyric. The two focused a lot on tone, the “push and pull” of song length and arrangements that pivoted around Ellis’ idiosyncratic chord voicings, a style of play that shapes one of the more unique guitar sounds that exists among young musicians.
“He’s a phenomenal guitar player,” says King. “The musical ability that Robert possesses is really special.”
Ellis took up the piano back in Lake Jackson, Texas as a small child – his mother played the instrument in a community college jazz band and taught lessons in the room next to his bedroom (compositions by Claude Debussy and Erik Satie are still some of his favorites). It was in fourth grade where he “realized piano wasn’t very cool,” swapping it for guitar. His promise and dedication was instantly clear. He was so good, and so disciplined, that he took over his guitar teacher’s students – in eighth grade.
“By sixth grade, guitar became my whole life,” he says. “When you get to a certain point as a kid when you show a certain amount of promise, people start to encourage you.” His uncle was “a badass bluegrass flat picker,” an influence that can be seen clearly in his complicated finger patterns on the guitar. Though these days, he’s not so easily impressed by fancy “blues shredders.”
“I prefer a Joe Pass, or someone that does something really interesting. Maybe I’m a dick, but I don’t really like white guys playing the blues.”
Ellis gigged around Houston often, and at those Whiskey Wednesdays, eventually going on to support acts like Alabama Shakes, Justin Townes Earle and Richard Thompson, touring incessantly – something he sings about on “Tour Song,” and the painful reality of life on the road. On the track, he wonders if by leaving his wife at home alone she might be tempted to find someone else to “help with all the duties of a man.” Ellis has the first three letters of his wife’s name tattooed on his knuckles. When I point them out, he says, “I think I’m going to get more hand tattoos. Hand tattoos fade really quickly, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Andrew Dansby of The Houston Chronicle was one of the first to catch on and support Ellis in print. “I was immediately struck by how compelling his sound was just with voice and guitar. The voice was so clean sounding, but with character and color, not unlike the way he played the guitar.”
“As for where Chemical Plant might fit in, I don’t know, but I’m glad he made it without worrying about where it might fit. There’s nothing worse than chasing the tail end of a trend and this record, to me, sounds expansive,” Dansby adds.
Ellis isn’t too concerned, either. Right now he’s just focusing on getting the album out, and he’s been thinking a lot about his visuals and stage presentation – the Beyoncé show, where the singer was dangling from a trapeze, really inspired him. “I don’t think trapeze would make a lot of sense with my songs,” he laughs, putting away the tobacco as the restaurant closes up their lunch service. “But I am envious of having a show.” Gotye’s video (for “Somebody That I Used To Know”) “made me cry,” and he’d love to do something similarly mixed media. One problem: the only proposals he’s getting are predictably off-target-“Robert-Ellis-sits-at-a-bar-in-cowboy-boots” concepts. They’re just not getting him, yet. They will.
But that doesn’t keep the man up at night. A lot of things do – Adderall, which he enjoys recreationally, reading (Oliver Sacks at the moment) or playing with his new drum machine and synthesizer. “I have a lot of faith in my audience,” he says, before heading back to his three dogs in West Nashville and catching a second viewing of Italian film La Grande Bellezza. And while he can’t do it at the moment, sometime soon, in some city with more nightclubs than his current home, will be Ellis, fresh off a local gig, dancing until the sun comes up to Miguel and Macklemore.