Robert Ellis is running his thumbs over the case of his new CD, Photographs. Ornately framed vintage pictures of his parents adorn the cover, and the 22-year-old from Houston is trying to demonstrate that each frame is finely embossed. Ellis is particularly proud of the ultraviolet ink that makes what would be the glass portions of the frames look more like actual glass. The effects are understated, but it adds up to decidedly intricate packaging at a time when most CD covers are only seen as thumbnail JPEGs in online music stores.
“Little things are important to me, whether it’s the packaging or in the presentation of the songs themselves,” said Ellis, sitting in a room at Austin’s Hotel San Jose that was paid for by his new label New West Records, a well-regarded independent with a roster that includes John Hiatt, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve Earle. “Why shouldn’t the CD look like something people might want to actually have and hold onto? I’m pretty obsessive about having this all mean something.”
As it turns out, the sense of subtlety and nostalgia inherent in the packaging offers more than a hint at the music inside. Photographs features largely autobiographical storytelling across a song cycle broken into two equal, but decidedly diverse, halves: an “A” side of delicately plucked folk songs and a “B” side centered upon lushly orchestrated, yet eminently danceable, classic-sounding country music. Although both cycles reveal songs remarkably complex for Ellis’s age, more striking is that neither half sounds much like what’s going on in the indie folk scene (Bon Iver, Iron and Wine) or anything currently on country radio, from either Texas or Nashville. As distinct as those sides may be, Ellis still credits both halves of his persona to his childhood in Lake Jackson and frequent family vacations spent camping at bluegrass festivals across the state.
“For my family, there were two types of music: country and bluegrass,” said Ellis, who dropped out of high school his junior year, took a year of music classes at community college and left Lake Jackson for Houston four years ago. “For some time, I tried to rebel against that by playing indie rock, trying to be weird for weird’s sake. But to me, both halves of this record are rooted in country — loss, family, the road. I’m not sure it’s conscious, but I suppose there’s a country side to everything I do.”
There are occasional country flourishes on Ellis’s independently released 2009 debut, “The Great Rearranger,” but it largely focused on traditional singer-songwriter fare. (“I was 20 years old, “Ellis said. “There’re aspects of those songs that sound too precious now. I guess it’s possible I’ll hate everything I do two years after I do it.”) While his first album set the stage for the folksy side “A” of Photographs, the blueprint for side “B” came not only from returning to his earliest influences, but also from two years of weekly gigs in Houston, that Ellis and his band dubbed Whiskey Wednesdays. The band would add as many as ten new songs a week to their repertoire of classic (and often, obscure) country songs from the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, and Ray Price.
“It was trial by fire,” said Ellis of the popular series, which officially ended in April. “As a band, it got us used to playing in every state of mind from stone cold sober to fall down drunk and all points between. And as a songwriter, learning all those tunes gave me a chance to really deconstruct them. I became obsessed analyzing their every aspect. What I came to admire was the simplicity. The classic guys really packed a lot of emotion and meaning into songs that are really just verse, chorus, and maybe another chorus.”
At the Whiskey Wednesday shows, Ellis drew both traditional country enthusiasts and a younger audience raised on indie rock but not afraid to two-step to a Johnny Paycheck song. Given the distinct differences between the sides of Photographs, Ellis is the first to admit that it might not be as easy to find an audience that’s game for both halves of the equation.
“I suppose if you don’t have an affinity for country, some of the ‘B’ side stuff might seem derivative and kind of boring,” Ellis said. “And if you like the country stuff, you might not have the patience for the extended modern classical arrangement of track three. But to me, they’re all just songs. Take ‘A Good Year For The Roses.’ If George Jones does it, it’s country. If Elvis Costello does it, it’s pop. To me, it’s just a great song.”
Ellis, who’s currently on a 13-date tour opening for the Old 97’s, knows that quickly finding an audience for what can initially sound like a challenging and hard-to-categorize album won’t be easy. He sees Photographs less as a make or break proposition and more as the first in a series of baby steps toward settling into a consistent sound of his own.
“I want to find an audience that’s open, and most of all, patient,” he said. “I’m hoping to find people that are patient enough to follow me wherever I might go. I don’t want to be just one thing. I can’t think of anything more boring."