STORY WRITTEN BY JOE SZCZECHOWSKI
For Digital First Media
Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis embodies and embraces several musical dichotomies. He sings with rich southern drawl that recalls musical influences like George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Danny O’Keefe, but his speaking voice bares only the slightest hint of a Texas accent. The sound of his current album, “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” is built on a foundation of country and Americana influences, but elements of jazz, blues, bossa nova, and rock are intertwined in the mix as well. The 26-year-old Lake Jackson, Texas native has been described by one writer as “an artist who cares deeply for tradition, but refuses to be bound by it.”
In a recent telephone interview, Ellis admitted he enjoys breaking with musical expectations. “On a personal level I feel that I’m at my best and most motivated when I’m a little bit outside of my comfort zone,” he said. “I feel most creative when I’m doing something that’s kind of beyond what I would normally do.”
Ellis opens for Kat Edmonson Sunday, March 1 at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show are $26. For more information, call 800-374-7263. For more on Ellis, check robertellismusic.com
“The Lights from the Chemical Plant” is Ellis’ third album overall. It was released on New West Records in February 2014. Ellis spent much in the past year touring in support of the album.
“Touring and everything in this business is momentum to me,” he says. “Even a year out from the release of the record I’m still pushing it. I don’t want to be the one that stops the momentum. I’m thinking about the next one, but still really working this one is much as I can.”
Ellis was raised by a single mother who is a piano teacher. His grandfather instilled in him a love of country and bluegrass music.
“My mother’s taught me piano and my uncle is a killer flat-picking guitar player,” Ellis says. “So from a very early age I really wanted to learn proper style. When I learned bluegrass, I started studying people like Doc Watson and Tony Rice.”
Ellis says he’s also a big fan of singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Paul Simon. On “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” Ellis covers the title track from Simon’s 1975 album, “Still Crazy after All These Years.”
“That’s one of my favorite albums of all time,” Ellis says. “It was one of the first records I heard that featured really great players like Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, Phil Woods and all these killer musicians that were playing really interesting stuff over narrative-based songs. That was kind of what I used as a tent pole when I was making this record. At the heart of this is strong songwriting, but hopefully we can dress it up in some interesting ways, and have some people play and be themselves, not just do the standard mandolin, banjo, fiddle Americana jam on every tune.”
Songs like “Chemical Plant,” “Good Intentions” and “Only Lies” showcase Ellis’ ability to write evocative tales in traditional county and Americana settings. In other songs on “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” Ellis uses more unexpected elements to create a unique musical tapestry. There’s the inspired guitar jazz runs that animate the final third of “Still Crazy After All These Years,” the fusion jazz break that closes out “Houston,” and the smoky saxophone solo that is featured in “Bottle of Wine.”
“I love that solo,” Ellis says. “It’s one of my favorite moments on the record. Robbie Crowell, who plays keys and sax in Deer Tick, played that. He’s just a great musician. My favorite music is stuff that is at first maybe a little off-putting. It’s challenging in some ways.”
While many critics and fans have praised Ellis specifically for his ability to defy expectations, some reviewers were put off when Ellis made musical choices that were less than status quo.
“I always find it really strange that some people’s issue with music is that it’s challenging,” Ellis says. “I remember one reviewer who said something like, ‘the saxophone solo is out of place.’ What he was saying was that it should’ve been something more predictable, more paint-by-the-numbers. That’s not what I listen to music for – to constantly be validated by what I think it’s supposed to be. To me that seems a little silly.”
In any case Ellis avoids reading reviews – good or bad – anymore. “But every now and then somebody will send me something, especially if it’s really bad, the guys in my band will text me a picture of really bad reviews just to mess with me,” he says.
On the song “Sing Along,” it’s the lyrics, not the music, that take an unexpected turn. The song, which Ellis has described as a “traditional bluegrass atheist anthem,” criticizes organized religion and the indoctrination of children.
“In terms of structure that’s probably the most traditional of all the songs on the record,” Ellis says. “It’s a really straightforward bluegrass tune; it’s got three chords the whole time. But I wanted the lyrics to be juxtaposed to that traditional arrangement. I think the lyrics are pretty nontraditional for that style. That was what was interesting to me about it – writing music that was true to country and bluegrass form, but having the lyrics be completely different.”
When it comes to songwriting, Ellis composes on both piano and guitar, depending on the style of the music. “I try to have the musical elements and the lyrics be sympathetic to one another,” he says. “When I’m writing a song I try to think about what kind of space it’s going to live in sonically and how the lyrics could best be communicated. For example, I think that with a delicate song like ‘Tour Song,’ I would be doing a disservice to the song if it had a really complex arrangement. Every song calls for something different.”
Some of Ellis’ songs are inspired by real-life experiences. For example, there is a Dow Chemical plant in Lake Jackson. But Ellis says that calling them autobiographical would be a stretch.
“I just don’t feel like my life experience is always the most interesting way that a song could go,” he says. “Some of these songs started out from a place that was based in experience, but I try to let the characters tell me what they want to do and lead me in hopefully more interesting directions. Even a song like ‘Tour Song’ offers a very extreme perspective. There are definitely a lot of true moments in that song. But it’s like a window you’re peeking into maybe one hour of the day. It’s a pretty bleak perspective, I think, and that’s not always the way I feel. In songwriting, you have to kind of focus in and explore one emotion. It would be silly to write a song that was more true to life in which you said, ‘I feel bad sometimes, then I feel okay sometimes, but I feel good other times.’”
Ellis has tour dates scheduled into the spring. After he gets off the road he plans to begin working on his next album, with hopes of recording it before the end of the year. It’s too early to say what stylistic direction the album will take, but Ellis expects that he’ll continue to push the boundaries of traditional country music.
“I feel like I have a duty to be honest and not just be a sort of nostalgic, antique artist,” he says. “Even if I’m writing with elements that are really traditional, I feel like I still have to put myself and where I came from in there. The reality is I’m 26 so I grew up with the Internet. I grew up with a lot of traditional influences from my family, but I also had everything from punk rock to grunge to free improv and jazz and all kinds of stuff. I feel like I have to represent that to be really honest about who I am and where I come from.”