Smile Politely

Robert Ellis: Musician on the move

Robert Ellis’ third album is something of an exploration. Although it strays from the singer-songwriter’s deeply country roots, it never goes too far. The Lights from the Chemical Plant takes a leap forward, showing off Ellis’ impressive range and musical curiosity. Although he keeps that classic country backbone in many of the songs’ lilting rhythms, with his own southern drawl he ventures off into new territory, incorporating elements of psych rock, pop and jazz fusion throughout the album—one of NPR’s favorites of 2014. His exciting live show elevates those tracks. He and his band have been playing together some time now, and exude an ease and joy onstage. Robert Ellis plays The Canopy Club with The Lone Bellow on Thursday, December 11th for a pairing that is sure to leave ears tingling. As he was embarking on his most recent tour, he took some time out to speak with me about songwriting, recording with legendary, Grammy-award winning producer Jaquire King and where life has taken him recently.

Smile Politely: How did you get linked up with The Lone Bellow? It’s such a killer pairing.

Robert Ellis: I’m not sure exactly. We have some mutual friends on the business side of things. I’m excited about it. I’ve never played in Urbana before, but I have childhood excitement about playing that city. There was this band, Braid. I was super into them growing up. They did some live video from Urbana, so I’m excited to play there.

SP: Some of the songs on The Lights from the Chemical Plant deal with the trials and tribulations of touring. What does touring offer your songwriting process?

Ellis: You know, it’s good and bad. It gives me a lot of time and stimulus for content, a lot of time in the car by myself to think about songs and ideas. The unfortunate reality is it’s time where I don’t really have a guitar in front of me. But I kind of look at it as all the places I get to see and people I get to meet. It’s filling up a well of inspiration. When I get home and get to a place of writing again, I’m thankful to get to do it.

Some people are not made for [touring]. At least right now, I’m so excited to start moving forward. There’s not really an end goal in sight. It’s the doing of it: getting on the road, getting the coffee, playing a podcast. The routine of it. This feels natural. 

SP: What is your songwriting process like?

Ellis: It just all depends. Every song is different. Here, lately, I’ve been playing a lot of piano. That’s been forcing me to go in different directions in terms of writing. It’s about tricking yourself into letting it come out. The editor in me is a pesky little guy. I get an idea and I don’t allow myself to write it, because I think, “Oh that’s not good enough.” It’s about tricking yourself into forgetting that. Sometimes you might be singing nonsense over chord changes, and an interesting melody will come out, so you write something interesting you wouldn’t have written otherwise. I write everyday, but 90% is garbage. I think if you throw enough shit at the wall, some of it will stick. The majority of it is just the mundane, you know, whatever.

SP: You’ve toured with some really sharp bands like Old Crow Medicine Show. What did touring with them teach you?

Ellis: Man, I love Old Crow. They’re a really good example. Best performers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. The thing that really stuck with me is their show is such a performance. Ketch will know something about the town and he’ll weave it into the show, and he makes it personal. He actually gives a shit about whatever town we’re in. I was really inspired by that. Seeing them, without a drummer, connect with these huge audiences. There’s something about that. It doesn’t really matter. A lot of people think energy comes from volume; I really don’t think that’s the case anymore. With just a fiddle and a guitar they can do something that makes that moves you.

SP: You didn’t use a producer for your first two albums, as I understand it. Why did you decide to use one on your most recent album?

Ellis: I produced my first two albums by myself, and I’ve produced other records for other people. It’s something I’m really into. It’s the other half. The production is a big part of a lot of my favorite records. Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, the sounds and the way it’s all put together is such a part of the experience. As a kid, I wanted to understand that and have a part of it. Due to financial constraints, I couldn’t knock on people like Jaquire’s door for the first two albums. With this last record, we had a lot more leverage. My record label had a bit more faith in me.

SP: Why Jaquire King?

Ellis: I was chatting with Taylor [Goldsmith] about him at Newport Folk Festival and how he was to work with. All the Tom Waits and Norah Jones, he’s done so many records that I’ve really really loved. He gets the whole picture. He does really artsy, beautiful things while managing to make it wildly accessible. Me and him hit it off from the beginning. I don’t get to listen to the record often, but when I do, I’m like, “Oh man what is this?”

SP: What was it like working with him?

Ellis: Me and the guys who played on the record, we’ve all been playing since we were kids, and I do write songs for my own music but we’re all sidemen for other people. We consider ourselves players and the craft of playing is really important to us, so finding someone who was equally experienced on the production side of things really added a lot. We don’t need someone to tell us the inversion of the chord we’ve been playing, because that’s something we’ve been working on our whole lives. [King] was really balancing for us. He pushed us to do things that we wouldn’t have done. He’s so good about thinking about as minute a detail as where the kick drum is in the room when he mics it. He’s able to have the foresight to see the end product. He’s a wizard. He’s insane. He’s so fun to work with. He’s concerned with making art, and making real music. He’s not a paint by numbers producer. We tried out ten different vocal mics to hear what would be the best with my voice. He’s become a good buddy and a great partner in crime.

SP: Last I heard, you had moved from Houston to Nashville? Is that still the case?

Ellis: I’ve been spending a lot of time in NYC and LA, and right now I’m in Texas. I’ve been floating around. I’ve been a little homeless for a while. With touring so much, it made less and less sense to keep a house somewhere. It’s been really good for writing, being in different places and seeing different things. In NYC, I’ll get up and get on the subway and take a notepad and just walk around the city and write. It’s impossible not to take some inspiration from it.

SP: What kind of songs does that yield? More narrative or personal experience?

Ellis: I’m kind of a mixture of both. I’m really into narratives. A lot of time when I start a song it is about a character I’m trying to create or a story that I think is cool. And one of the reasons is I can be really honest, I can be really hard on them in a way I couldn’t be with myself, and I can also take the story in more interesting directions than it went in my life. You can’t help but put your own feelings into the characters. Heroes and villains are a part of your own psyche. No one wants to say, or at least I don’t want to be brutally honest about how shitty I was in this situation. Instead, I can say, “Oh, fuck him he did that.”

SP: What’s up next?

Ellis: I’ve been writing and thinking about where we’re going to record. I’ve got tours booked up through February, and hopefully that doesn’t slow down. I like to be touring. I’m going to be in Texas in January and spend some time with family. I’ve started acting. I’m excited to see what acting leads to. It’s just about moving forward, I don’t know if there’s a goal in sight.

Robert Ellis plays Canopy Club on Thursday with The Lone Bellow.

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