The past two years have been a crash course for Robert Ellis. The Texas-born, Nashville-based musician spent most of his days touring extensively, crafting new songs, and adjusting to the daily rigors of becoming a professional musician. Despite the initial success of Photographs, his powerful 2011 New West Records debut, the 25-year-old songwriter wanted his next musical pursuit to be far different than the countrified sounds of his last effort.
“I just wanted to put myself in a place with this record where people will hear what I’m trying to do and actually hear it for what it is, rather than the genre classifications people like to throw on things,” Ellis says.
With his latest record, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, the Houston expat has pushed his creative boundaries, incorporated a wider range of influences, including folk and free jazz, and brought outsiders into the fold. The songwriter recruited famed producer Jacquire King, and asked Jim Lauderdale, Dawes’s Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, and Deer Tick’s Rob Crowell to contribute parts on his album. The result, he says, is a “stylistically ambiguous” effort that spans from folk to free jazz yet sounding distinctly like an Ellis record.
His agenda won’t be clear anytime soon. Ellis recently kicked off a hectic 40-plus show American tour that includes a February 18 gig at the Mercury Lounge. Before he hit the road, Ellis shared some thoughts about Chemical Plant, learning new instruments, Paul Simon’s greatness, and the road ahead.
What prompted your 2012 move from Houston to Nashville? It had nothing to do with the country music machine that’s here. I’m obviously not a part of that. If that was something I wanted to do then I would have made that decision before Photographs came out. I was just feeling, writing-wise, and just in general that I needed a change. I’d lived in Texas my whole life and I wanted to go somewhere and it was between Nashville and Los Angeles.
Last year, you told me you felt Chemical Plant was “stylistically ambiguous.” Do you think that’s still an accurate description? Yeah. I think the record sounds like itself. I don’t think it sounds like a country record. But I’ve been giving it to some people and having some time to sit with it. I have realized that no matter what you put behind my voice, that’s immediately what a lot of people are going to think of. And I’m fine with that. I’ve kind of come to terms with that. With the instrumentation, songwriting, and choices in production, I think we’ve definitely made a record that, if I wasn’t singing over it, you wouldn’t be like, “Oh, this is a country record.”
Your last record, Photographs, took on some pretty personal issues in your life. What’s going on thematically with Chemical Plant? I haven’t had nearly as much personal conflict and turmoil to write about. I feel like I’ve had to look outside of myself. A lot of the songs on this record [were] written from my perspective as if I was someone else. So, first-person, but they’re not about my life. These are songs that are kind of character studies of other people.
Tell me about the title track. It was Dow Chemical. Lake Jackson is a little town I’m from south of Houston. As a kid, it was a small town, and the chemical plant is twice as big as the town. We’re on the coast, but from anywhere in the city you always could kind of see this chemical plant lit up at night. It looked like a city. It looked like skyscrapers and buildings and there would always be smoke billowing out. Just about everyone’s dad works for Dow. The chemical plant served as a metaphor for what was always there and what was always consistent in their lives. Then at the end of the story, the song, she’s sitting next to him in this hospital bed and talking about losing him but using the chemical plant as a metaphor.
[Months later], I’ve realized that they’re not near as impersonal as I thought. Even if I’m not the subject in the song and I’m not writing from first person. A lot of this stuff is dealing with things that I keep inside me. With “Chemical Plant,” it’s a character study of two kind-of fictitious people falling in love that I loosely based on what my great-grandparents might have felt like. I realized later that a lot of those things that I was talking about were things I personally struggle with. It’s kind of like therapy to me. To be the therapist and not the subject, I can break apart how I feel about things.
It seems like you’re trying to create different types of music. What’s inspired you musically over the past couple of years that shows up most on this record? Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years is probably my favorite record, period. We wanted to consciously borrow ideas from that. Paul Simon, to me, is one of the coolest artists, because genre- and stylistically-wise, there’s not any one thing you can pin him down to. All his stuff is rooted in really good songwriting. At the core of every album, he plays amazing songs. [He’s] able to bring in a band from South Africa, the rhythm section at Muscle Shoals, or whoever he decides to have on the record. It’s got to be really liberating. What Paul Simon does as a songwriter is massively relatable to millions and millions of people, and I don’t know if there’s anyone else who can do that.
Where do you see yourself going from here in terms of your songwriting? I’ve written a ton of songs. I think about four or five are really good and are keepers. I demoed one of them in Houston. Recently I bought a drum machine. It’s called the Groove Production Studio. Basically it’s a really awesome drum machine and sampler that has lots of drum kits and lots of customizable electronic sounds and sequencing programs. So I’ve been playing with that a lot. I’ve bought a synthesizer. When you practice guitar a whole lot you get to where you have a bag of tricks: Every time you pick up a guitar, you naturally go to certain places. That’s been kind of limiting. So I’ve been writing a lot on piano. I’ve been trying to distance myself from instruments altogether and just write using melody — start with a drum loop and write over a drum loop.
I don’t know where the next record is going to go exactly. I think I’m still getting all the material and tools together that I need to go where I want to go. But I’m hoping the next record will be more in the direction of some of the electronic ideas that we kind of dabbled in on Chemical Plant. And hopefully a more realized idea of that. Not to say that Chemical Plant wasn’t realized; it was its own thing. But at the heart of it will always be songwriting. I’m always going to gravitate toward narratives and gravitate toward stuff that people consider probably country or very country — personal songs that have a strong narrative. It’s what you do around that stuff that I’m trying to push myself with.
Robert Ellis performs at Mercury Lounge on February 18, 6:30 p.m., $12–$15