Robert Ellis recorded one of 2014’s best records, the much celebrated and acclaimed The Lights from the Chemical Plant. He’s a singer-songwriter, with rich storytelling in his country-tinged lyrics.
He spoke to Weld about the stories behind many of those songs, Paul Simon and the sounds of Muscle Shoals.
Weld: “Houston” is, presumably, about your move to Nashville. But why did you choose to move to Nashville? Can you talk more about the fight you were losing in the song?
Robert Ellis: I wrote that song, actually, when I moved to San Marcos, Texas from Houston. It’s kind of about a relationship I was in when I first moved there. A lot of my stuff is kind of fiction-based; timelines are a little [expletive] up, and it’s not exactly true to what happened, but I definitely pulled from my experience. I moved there with my high school sweetheart and eventually we split up and years later is when I moved away from Houston. In writing the song, I kind of jumbled all of that stuff together; it’s sort of half autobiographical and half not.
When I sat down to write that song, I was trying to do something that summed up the way I think of the Houston music scene. The way I looked at it was moving there and getting immersed in this sort of R&B, jazz world. I had some friends that played and got me a couple of gigs. Houston is one of those cities where, obviously, there’s a very strong Southern country scene, but there’s also this really fresh scene of jazzers and R&B guys and hip-hop producers. So I wanted to write something, stylistically, that hopefully hinted at that and had a little bit of a wide range of influences.
Weld: Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
RE: Just because it was a nice place to live. I enjoyed it for a little bit, and then I moved from Nashville. I’m still fairly young, and I’m still into this constantly moving sort of thing. We toured something like 300 days last year. So I lived in Nashville, technically, but you can argue that I spent more time in Houston than Nashville.
Weld: So Houston is home again?
RE: Well, New York is kind of home, because it’s where I have an apartment, but right now, I’m kind of just floating around. I’m touring so much that it doesn’t make sense to keep a place year-round.
Weld: What is the Nashville struggle like for you? There are plenty of great folks making great country records, like yourself, but that’s not the Nashville that we see and hear on radio and TV.
RE: For me, there’s not really a struggle, because I never fancied myself a Top 40 artist. I didn’t move there with these lofty aspirations and dreams about having a hit single. I’m pretty realistic about the fact that that paradigm doesn’t really exist for writers like me anymore.
So I never really found it a struggle. I actually found the community very embracing. There is this pop country thing there, but there’s also writers like John McCauley from Deer Tick who lived there and Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller – all of these great [artists], sort of left of center, still influenced by roots music. A lot of the stuff I like, Johnny Fritz – it’s a community of writers concerned with the same stuff I am, I think.
Weld: You put horns and keys on the record, which is a bit unusual for this sound. What inspired the sound of a song like “Bottle of Wine”?
RE: I wrote that on that same piano you hear on the recording. On that recording, we took all of the equipment over to my house, and it’s this 1939 upright piano that I’ve actually had for a few years. I wrote it on that piano. It’s again kind of loosely based on a past relationship, but heavily embellished. I paint a bleak picture of this person that is not necessarily fair. We recorded the piano and we were like, “What would be good here?” And we thought, “Sax!”
So we needed a sax solo. Robbie Crowell came by, he plays in a band called Deer Tick. He came by and cut that sax solo in the studio after the fact. It felt like the right move. It was very New York City. That song, to me, always felt like a Billy Joel – kind of a more Northern pop song than a country song.
Weld: Have any of these exes these songs are loosely based on ever figured it out?
RE: They haven’t said anything. I think it’s fairly obvious that some of this stuff is rooted in the truth. But the advantage I have is that I can say a huge element of it is fictional [Laughs]. So I’m not going to divulge which elements are fictional and which ones aren’t. I think that’s one of the risks of being a songwriter or being around them. You might get put into a story without getting permission.
Weld: You cover Paul Simon on the record. Why did you choose that tune?
RE: I love the tune. That was one of my favorite records. Still Crazy After All These Years had a huge part to do with all of the writing on this record, and really, my musical development. I fell in love with that record. I had a vinyl copy of it when I was in Houston and just wore it out. And we had covered it on the road a few times and really enjoyed playing it. I also felt like it was a good sort of bridge piece for some of my fans that knew my more country stuff. I thought it was important with this record to hopefully make some new associations. The writing isn’t really straight-ahead country in the same way that Photographs was, at least the B-side of Photographs. Just putting a Paul Simon thing on there hopefully reframes where the influences are coming from. I kind of wanted to a nod to him and thank him because – that song, in particular, it’s kind of harmonically complex, the arrangement is so cool on the record, but at the heart of it is a really great story song. That’s what I’ve been into lately — the sum of all those things.
Weld: It’s a record that was cut here in Alabama at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Did the music they were making there have an influence on your music?
RE: Hugely. Paul Simon is so great – that record, for instance, it had the Muscle Shoals guys. It also had Steve Gadd on drums, Michael Brecker on sax, Phil Woods on sax – these are, in their own right, the top jazz guys of the time. They all came together to make this great, listenable pop album.
I think a lot of the stuff that happens in Alabama was totally that thing. It’s a bunch of really great musicians that figured out what not to play. So that they can make a killer pop song that everyone can relate to and love. And that’s kind of what I really want to do now – being a player, being a sideman for people for so long, I think it’s easy to let your technique and what you’ve been practicing ruin otherwise good pop stuff. So that’s what I’ve always admired about that stuff is how understated it is and how appropriate everybody’s playing is when they could all just shred their faces off.
Weld: “Tour Song” is perfect. It’s relatable for a lot of people. How authentic is it? How many relationships have you had ruined by the road?
RE: It’s pretty authentic. That’s a pretty “from my perspective” story. But it’s just one picture of life on the road. The way that I felt when I was writing that song and the way that song comes off is mostly the exception. Most of the time, I enjoy being out and seeing the country and meeting new people. There’s ups and downs to everything. But when I wrote that song, I was in a particularly bummed-out place about being on the road. It’s a focused look at just one of the ways you can feel when you’re traveling.
Weld: Is it difficult to sell a label on a seven-minute country epic?
RE: [Laughs] I think probably? I’m really blessed to have a good label that lets me kind of do what I want. And they seem stoked about it. If I was in a position where I was trying to make records for one of these majors that was concerned with me selling a million records, we might be at an impasse. My label has been really good to me. Same with the artwork. All that stuff is not particularly country and it’s not particularly familiar when you’re looking at it from a sales perspective. But I think it’s good art, hopefully, and I think that what they’re concerned with making. They’ve been really cool about just letting me do what I want.
Weld: The show here is set up kind of as a Q&A, if I’m not mistaken. Have you done this kind of setup before?
RE: Probably. I’m not super sure of what’s going to happen, but we’ve done a lot of songwriter in the round. I assume we’ll be talking about songs and where they came from and I love that. Especially with these kinds of songs, it’s half of the thing that makes people like them. That’s what I love about songwriters – knowing where stuff comes from and hearing the back story. It adds another layer to stuff.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
Weld: That’s the tricky part.
RE: That is the tricky part. I just dumped a few that aren’t American. Tony Williams. I would love to say Thin Lizzy, but that’s not American. That’s probably like, all-time bands period.
Who would yours be?
Weld: Pretty consistently, I go with R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band…
RE: Bruce Springsteen would have to be one. Yeah.
Weld: I normally put Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in there. Beach Boys. Skynyrd goes in and out, depends on if you think they tainted their own legacy.
RE: I can definitely get into Springsteen and the Beach Boys and Tom Petty. Those have got to be contenders. I don’t know what was as important. I like Black Flag a lot, but I don’t know if they’re one of the tops of all time.
They’re pretty great. That’s a tough question. You really got me there.
An Evening with Robert Ellis will be at Alys Stephens Center on Thursday, Dec. 18. The show begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20.