Robert Ellis cut his hair.
The songwriter’s physical changes stand out inside the dimly lit East Nashville studio The Casino. A cleaner, parted cut replaces his long, flowing locks. His unkempt beard has morphed into a distinguished mustache.
Two years ago, he looked like a country singer in the making. He had the look down pat in early press photos: a white cowboy hat, fur coat and whiskey-filled glass. It checked off a prerequisite box required for the road to country fame. Despite having the natural talents and pedigree, which earned him comparisons to the late George Jones, he didn’t want to remain beholden to that path. Now he intends to blaze his own trail. His groomed appearance outwardly reflects that shift.
“I obviously love old country music,” Ellis says. “It’s a big part of who I am. [But] I’ve got a lot more to say now than that.”
Ellis occasionally twirls his facial hair, as if he’s still adjusting to it. As he swivels around the converted garage studio’s checkered linoleum floors, he’s listening back to his song “Chemical Plant”—a meandering four-minute ballad that slowly builds into a sweeping orchestral affair. The songwriter has decided to sit at the computer’s helm, keying Pro Tools shortcuts and making small adjustments to better understand the recording software.
In recent years, Ellis has channeled his wide-eyed musical ambitions into the cultivation of his own songwriting identity. He’s taken a giant step closer toward that vision with his new record, The Lights from the Chemical Plant. His third collection of songs breaks free from restrictive genre barriers into a stylistically ambiguous sound. It captures his steady progression from countrified Texas roots toward something much bigger and universal.
That road hasn’t been straightforward. Nor was it unobstructed. But Ellis’ deliberate pursuit to become a songwriter in the purest sense has required that struggle. He hasn’t quite fulfilled all of his musical ambitions. But his devotion to his craft could finally start to pay off in a big way in 2014.
Born in 1988, Ellis spent his childhood years in the 27,000-person factory town of Lake Jackson, Texas, an hour south of Houston. He found life there insufferable. There were few like-minded musicians. And even fewer he related to on a personal level.
“Lake Jackson is the kind of place where people get stuck,” he says. “The things I wanted weren’t there.”
During his junior year at age 17, he dropped out of high school and moved up with his girlfriend to Montrose, an eclectic and artist-friendly Houston community that Texas Monthly once called the “strangest neighborhood east of the Pecos.” Ellis initially bagged groceries at Whole Foods, taught guitar lessons and played whatever paid gigs he could find.
Shortly after his arrival, the songwriter’s ear was caught by Will Van Horn’s banjo picking at a local show with Geoffrey Muller, who would later became Ellis’ bassist. Van Horn and Ellis hung out that night and played bluegrass until the crack of dawn. From that point forward, the two musicians became close friends and constantly played together in numerous groups and projects.
In 2009, the 20-year-old guitarist released his independent full-length debut, The Great Rearranger, an impressive traditional singer-songwriter affair considering his age. Soon after, Ellis, Van Horn, and guitarist Kelly Doyle started honing their live chops at “Whiskey Wednesday” gigs at Mango’s. Every week, the trio—and later other musicians—learned a handful of classic country songs and played onstage for about four hours every week.
“We actually started becoming a band,” Doyle says. “Those Wednesdays were when it all started coming together and when the dynamics of the band started happening, I’d say. It was a really good, natural way for a band to start playing, everyone getting together once a week and playing old country tunes.”
Although the three musicians had played together beforehand, they credit those shows with tightening up their live act. They improved as performers working through unscripted sets with classic songs such as Ray Price’s “You Done Me Wrong” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” On some nights, they’d even play full George Jones or Merle Haggard sets. Ellis says the series’ audience size swelled from five to 500 people during that two-year stretch.
During that time, the Whiskey Wednesdays vibe undeniably bled into Ellis’ 2011 record, Photographs, which includes equal parts introspective folk and classic country. The songwriter’s rich country croon, reminiscent of the late George Jones, tied the two distinct sides of his New West Records debut together. For Ellis, the poignant collection emerged from his personal struggles to relate with his loved ones and better understand himself.
“I met my wife at the beginning of writing that record,” Ellis says. “I had been in this high-school relationship with this girl for a long time. It was uncomfortable and there was some overlap in the relationships, so to speak. It was not an ideal situation. I was struggling to get my feet on the ground in my marriage and get my life going as an adult.”
Ellis continues: “My grandfather, who was a huge part of raising me, passed away when I was in eighth grade. That’s still something I think about a whole lot and still have to kind of deal with. He was the father figure in my life.”
The songwriter also addressed his Southern roots on the record’s B-side. The self-described liberal and atheist says he found difficulties navigating Texas’ conservative political and social values. Houston, he says, will always have a special place in heart. But he grew ready for new experiences beyond the Lone Star State. Starting in 2011, he packed his bags and earned his touring stripes with his loyal bandmates.
At first, Ellis struggled with the daily rigors of life on the road. He felt privileged to share the stage with the likes of the Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Old 97’s, Dawes and Deer Tick. Yet he lost the consistency once present in his daily routine at home. Long days in the van led to nights in unfamiliar cities. The lifestyle of a semi-transient performer wore on his mental state and took several months worth of adjustments before he found stability. To find that steady ground, Ellis had to travel thousands of miles, play countless shows, and learn the ins and outs of life as a professional musician. Those intense early experiences helped him find his place.
“No matter what happens [each day], I can count on that hour of playing or a couple of hours of writing to be something I know is worthwhile,” Ellis says. “It’s definitely something that I’ve had to convince myself of daily, when the car breaks down or some shit happens. Or if I call my wife and she’s having a great time and I’m in a snowstorm. It’s something I’ve had to talk myself into, but I really, really want to get good at remembering that. It’s exactly what I need to be doing.”
Along with those profound realizations, Ellis adopted an ambitious approach to touring and surrounded himself with bandmates in line with his mission. He’d occasionally play solo when he couldn’t afford to pay them—but when together, they were always moving at a fast pace. Van Horn thinks the songwriter has learned to thrive on the road, provided that he’s staying busy.
“When we were on tour together in Europe, he’d want to get back to his hotel room and practice—after shows, any night,” says Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, who shared the stage with Ellis on an early 2012 tour. “He’s always wanted to just keep giving to his music. He sleeps and breathes it.”
With his bandmates, Ellis’ constant bustle includes everything from impromptu practices to exploring new, unfamiliar cities. They play pool as much as possible (Van Horn reluctantly admits he can beat Ellis). The road has increasingly felt like home for the entire band. For Ellis, however, his performances and travels have helped him discover a deeper meaning in his work. On recent tours, he’s scaled back on drinking and partying to keep working on his music after hours.
“I’m realizing my purpose on this earth is to play music and write songs that hopefully people can relate to,” Ellis says. “That’s what I can wake up for every day, that I know that being on the road and all this shit, doing interviews, all this stuff, is so that more people can hopefully hear the music and we can feel like we understand each other in some way.”
After spending his entire life in Texas, Ellis and his wife, Destiny, were looking for a change. The budding songwriter wasn’t dependent on living in Houston anymore with his income based on touring. In November 2012, they filled moving boxes with their personal belongings and headed out to Nashville.
From an outsider’s perspective, the move to the Music City, long known for its strong ties to mainstream country music, seemed like an obvious choice given Photographs’ direction. But Ellis says he had no interest in pursuing that kind of a career despite his natural talent. Instead he points to the city’s music counter-culture as a more suitable fit. He soon befriended Deer Tick frontman John McCauley (who was living in Nashville), Jonny Fritz and other musicians.
“That country world is so far outside of that,” Ellis says. “I don’t even think about it. People that don’t live here think that it’s everywhere. You literally have to kind of go to Broadway in downtown. There is shitty country music everywhere, but it’s like, I can’t even find parking down there. It’s not like I go there and try to write a hit song with some songwriter.”
Although Ellis has technically resided there for more than a year, his intensive touring schedule has prevented him from fully getting to know his new city. He’s found himself running into Nashville-based musicians at festivals or in other cities. More than anything, he says those common experiences on the road have forged those relationships with his newer friends.
Months before the Nashville move, he met Deer Tick’s members at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. For several years, the Providence rock outfit has hosted a rowdy late-night showcase in the festival’s quaint host town once the daytime performances come to a close. Rob Crowell, the band’s keyboardist and saxophonist, remembers Ellis taking the stage solo and playing an impressive set filled with Paul Simon covers. Jackson Browne, Jonathan Wilson, and other Newport artists watched him make his way through “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Graceland.”
Ellis and his bandmates would later join Deer Tick on tour the following year. Crowell, a Nashville resident, met up with Ellis several times to play jazz together. Since meeting him, he’s remained impressed by the songwriter’s work ethic—practicing upwards of eight hours per day—and his versatile musical abilities.
“The big thing about Robert is the breadth of the ground he covers extremely well,” Crowell says. “If he was only a guitar player, songwriter or singer—he’d be a pretty stellar musician. It’s insane. I honestly don’t know anyone who can do so many things on that level.”
Not only did Ellis search far and wide for external inspiration on The Lights from the Chemical Plant, he decided to bring in a producer for the first time. He initially had some reservations about letting outsiders influence his work and heard musicians tell horror stories of producers hijacking the artistic process. When both his management and members of Dawes recommended Jacquire King—who has made records with Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse and Norah Jones—he agreed to sit down over coffee with the high-profile producer.
King says Ellis’ voice, writing style, and musical talents impressed him from the start. But he found himself even more interested by the songwriter’s desires to write original stories and create unique compositions. In addition, Ellis also expressed a desire to grow and push his abilities in the studio.
“Robert didn’t want to make a country record,” King says. “That was something he expressed a lot. He had ambitions to make something that felt more like a pop record, not necessarily modern pop, but he was referencing arrangements of songwriters like Paul Simon and Randy Newman.”
Over two weeks last summer, Ellis, King and recording engineer Eric Masse holed up inside The Casino to lay down most of The Lights from the Chemical Plant’s tracks. His bandmates, along with White Denim drummer Josh Block, flew up to Nashville to record their parts. Van Horn thinks the entire band’s experiences on the road enabled them to enter the session with greater chemistry, maturity and focus than ever before.
Dawes’ Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith as well as legendary Americana songwriter Jim Lauderdale make appearances on the new record. Crowell, who contributed saxophone on “Bottle of Wine,” says Ellis’ excitement for sonic experimentation stood out to him most. He admires the songwriter’s push to incorporate artists from Joni Mitchell to Steely Dan into his work.
“Robert generally has a clear conception of what he wants,” Crowell says. “That being said, he’s the first guy to get excited if something happens with his music. He seems very bent on doing his own thing. As much as he has that George Jones thing, there’s a lot more going on than straight early country. It’s cool to hear him push his writing out of that realm.”
With the new songs, Ellis’ collaborators didn’t receive music until the week before they entered The Casino. Van Horn and Doyle built upon the demos and tried to find space for their guitar parts. For Doyle, that timing forced everyone to work more intuitively and intentionally. But they were ready for it. He thinks the band’s “modern vibe” remains an amalgamation of their countless, varied influences in the post-Photographs era.
As Ellis’ songwriting matured between records, his musical dexterity let him paint from a wider sonic palette. The guitarist, a self-described musical omnivore, made a concerted effort to absorb a spectrum of different genres as a music listener. On The Lights from the Chemical Plant, expected folk tunes and country balladry stand alongside jazz, fusion, bossa nova and R&B elements. Longtime influences like Randy Newman and Paul Simon—who Ellis tips his hat to with a stirring cover of “Still Crazy After All These Years”—are juxtaposed with a new spectrum of inspirations ranging from Justin Timberlake to Ornette Coleman.
But his latest record is far from a hodgepodge of disconnected varied sounds. Ellis credits King for allowing the freedom to experiment while turning standout ideas into concise music expressions. He forced Ellis to defend his artistic choices in order to bring out the best possible ideas.
“Jacquire was most helpful with was just making me feel like I’m not crazy,” Ellis says. “He helped me look at the songs objectively. Jacquire was able to come in and he was able to say, ‘What do you think about getting rid of this?’ first or ‘What do you think about changing these lines?’”
Beyond a more polished aesthetic, Ellis’ songwriting looked past his own first-person narratives. Where he turned inward on Photographs to face tough issues, he hasn’t recently experienced the personal conflict and turmoil that inspired his prior songs. So he attempted to look outside himself and pen stories from an outsider’s perspective. On The Lights from the Chemical Plant, his latest narratives revolved around new characters.
With the album opener “TV Song,” Ellis explores the thoughts of a Mad Men-loving television enthusiast who faces internal conflicts about living vicariously through his beloved shows. (“Well, this may not be the healthiest, I know / But I’m happiest when I exist through my favorite TV shows”). Meanwhile, “Pride” analyzes a conceited individual who can’t admit fault at the detriment of his closest personal relationships.
Months after finishing The Lights from the Chemical Plant’s songs, Ellis sees his lyrical approach somewhat differently. Rather than being entirely someone else’s narrator, he now sees parts of himself in some songs. They’re no longer the distant and impersonal fiction works he originally thought he had written.
“Some tunes I considered completely character studies, I’m realizing that 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,” Ellis says.
That realization emerged most with the record’s title track. He loosely based the song on how he imagined his great-grandparents’ experiences living in Lake Jackson, Texas, which has been home to a massive Dow Chemical Company plant since the early 20th century. From an early age, vivid memories of looming towers, billowing smoke and company men have remained engrained in Ellis’ mind.
“All over Texas you get these cities that are basically built on the chemical industry that are kind of the heart of these towns,” Ellis says. “I started thinking about my great-grandfather and him kind of growing up and meeting my [great-] grandmother and living their whole lives in this city. It was always half a love story and half about this chemical plant.”
He felt the way his plant became this permanent fixture in his ancestors’ lives served as a fitting metaphor for their lengthy relationship. But Ellis eventually recognized that portions of his internal struggle were embedded in his songwriting. He found truth within his own fiction, which he thinks elevated the song.
“A lot of that was me working through my own thoughts on commitment and marriage, and eventually separation, impermanence,” Ellis says. “Overall, I do think these songs are character studies, but I find little pieces of me in all the characters more and more as I listen to them. I think that’s kind of unavoidable. And what you want.”
Ellis’ ambitious range of lyrical and musical styles largely defines The Lights from the Chemical Plant. But two of his most poignant works, “Houston” and “Tour Song,” embrace the power of his heartfelt candor and unadorned simplicity. The former, a seven-minute drifter, doesn’t simply describe Ellis’ changing relationship with Houston. It conjures universal feelings—the nostalgia, the somber goodbyes and the letting go—that stem from leaving a familiar time and place behind for new, uncertain life opportunities. The songwriter’s lyrics describe his souring love affair with the city. He’s left to pick up the pieces and trace back where things went awry.
“Oh, Houston I’m losin’ the fight,” he sings. “You remind me of too many things. / From Houston, I’m movin’ tonight. But it does not mean that we’ll have to part. / Oh, Houston this is not goodbye. You will be living inside of my heart.”
Above all, Ellis showcases his masterful songwriting on the album’s vulnerable closer “Tour Song.” After arriving into a college town between gigs, he sat alone in his band’s van as his friends made a coffee run. Feeling particularly down as he underwent a tumultuous period on the home front, he was compelled to explore his sadness, loneliness, anxiety and jealousy.
“You’re kind of in this grey area of emotional feeling: ‘Well, I’m sad at home, but I’m also about to play a great show,’” he says. “With that song, I really wanted to embrace this total sort of darkness. There’s no part of you that lives outside of it. That’s a really good example of that.”
Ellis strips down to just his voice, guitar and lonesome thoughts on the track. His heartbreaking questioning about whether his arduous pursuit of a professional music career—including the grueling hours, the tyranny of distance and uncertain road to success—is ultimately worthwhile. Along the way, he scrutinizes everything about his life’s music that has forced him to spend time away from his wife.
“Soon she’ll start to wonder what it is that I provide. And why the hell a husband can’t be by his woman’s side,” he sings. “It’s the choice I made. It’s the price I’ll pay.”
Now a year removed from writing the song, Ellis views touring through a different lens. Instead of longing to be back in Nashville, he’s found solid ground on the road. With a clearer sense of purpose, his worries have slowly fallen by the wayside. He’s made it through the growing pains and found ways to feel at home on the road.
Ellis has also gone to great lengths to expand his musical repertoire throughout The Lights from the Chemical Plant. Despite those efforts, he acknowledges he may never fully shake his country ties. He doesn’t think the music itself contains much of that influence anymore. But he’s come to terms with how people identify his croon—no matter the accompanying arrangements—with country.
“If they hear my voice and they want it to be old country music revived or something, that’s what they’re going to hear,” Ellis says. “I don’t think that I’m going to move so far away from that that it’s going to be unlistenable. At the same time, I don’t want to paint myself into a corner and rest on my laurels. I want to keep pushing myself to go out of my own comfort zone.”
Unsurprisingly, Ellis has already started to push his creative limits. He’s learning new instruments and experimenting with various ideas for upcoming songs. As he tests the waters, he says his new songs could include electronic elements like the ones that surfaced in a few places on The Lights from the Chemical Plant. He’s recently tinkered with both a new synthesizer and drum machine in an effort to break free from the guitar’s limitations.
“I’m just trying to get to this place where I don’t feel limited by the instrument that’s in my hand,” he says.
It’s likely that his continued work ethic will continue to pay dividends. Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith says his friend and collaborator’s obsession with songwriting remains evident. Many artists, he says, reach a certain level and settle into a comfort zone. But few musicians today fully understand the “sanctity of songwriting.” Ellis is rare in that regard, he thinks.
“The only way to have a shot at getting credit is being truly obsessed with what you do for a living,” Goldsmith says. “Plenty of songwriters are great, but don’t have the ability to not think about anything else. That’s a prerequisite. Robert is a better example of that than just about anyone I know. Robert has never been good enough [in his own mind]. And yet he’s better than everybody.”
In the coming year, Ellis says he plans to tour “as much and as long as possible” to further his craft. Starting this week, he and his bandmates will take their new 15-passenger van to around 40 American cities for shows over the next two months. Following that, a slew of festival dates and a European tour are likely to follow.
Ellis knows it’ll be a crazy year, but he’s seen how that kind of sweat equity has paid off for Dawes, Deer Tick and his other friends over the course of multiple albums, countless gigs and thousands of miles traveled. With any luck, he hopes to follow in their footsteps and carve out a wider audience with each passing show and song. He’s in it for the long haul.
“I don’t need a break,” he says. “I’d like to just keep trucking full force until the momentum slows down. I also want to do a lot better at writing on the road. I don’t want the thing that slows the momentum down to be me.”