Is Robert Ellis the next great songwriter to come out of Texas?
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He liked the song okay, but not the last line of the chorus: “Honey, I know your love won’t let me down.” Hallmark blather, he thought. The blind optimism nagged at him. Robert Ellis’s heroes are meticulous songwriters like Paul Simon and Randy Newman, and like them he worries each word until he’s certain it’s the right one. If he’s even a little uncertain, he puts the whole song in a drawer, from which it may not ever emerge.
Thankfully, “Steady as the Rising Sun” didn’t suffer that fate. It’s the centerpiece of the 25-year-old Lake Jackson native’s third album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant (New West Records), a record that heralds the arrival of Texas’s next great singer-songwriter. A bold statement, sure, but we’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table and say it.
Ellis’s exacting work on “Steady as the Rising Sun” illustrates why. Swapping one four-letter word with another, he realized, would change everything. “Honey, I hope your love won’t let me down,” he sings on the version that made it onto the album. One word carried on its back the dark cloud of doubt that the song needed.
“For a long time, the song felt dishonest,” says Ellis. “But when you swap those words, you’ve got verses about how constant and steady your lover is, betrayed by the last line of the chorus. That betrayal made something sappy become something real.”
For a guy in his twenties, Ellis is an old soul, and a bit of a nervous wreck. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve made a series of foolish decisions,” he says. Take, for instance, his choice to divide his 2011 official debut, Photographs, into two very different halves: an A side of delicate, James Taylor–like folk songs and a B side of honky-tonk-inspired country music. The album sent a mixed message about who he was and risked alienating anybody who loved one side more than the other. And then there’s The Lights From the Chemical Plant, for which he appealed to his label to pony up extra money to work with big-name producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones). New West cut the check and got back a record with nary a song it could easily promote to radio; the album is, by design, a series of nuanced moments best digested whole.
And it’s as hard to classify as its predecessor, featuring forays into bossa nova and bluegrass; a woozy, sax-enhanced six-minute meditation on alcohol and cocaine; and a song that Ellis describes as a “seven-minute nonrepeating word jam.” The album may or may not reflect some foolish decisions on Ellis’s part, but it’s certainly going to be a hard sell.
“When we made this record, I was still dealing with the repercussions of the country half of Photographs,” says Ellis, who recorded the new album in Nashville, where, for professional reasons, he moved in late 2012. “I get a lot of die-hard country fans who are looking for a savior in this sea of shitty music, and they really want me to be that. And obviously, I’m not that guy. We’d play live shows, and I’d see the look of disappointment on some of these people’s faces when we’d do four-minute free improvs. And the folk stuff—songs I really love, songs that are maybe more meaningful—put people to sleep.
“But at the same time, seeing how audiences responded to the country stuff was really impactful to me. Jacquire and I spent a lot of time on this record trying to figure out a way to bridge the gap between the A side and B side of Photographs, so that people can come to my shows and move their heads, and I can still be satisfied as a songwriter.”
To his credit, what Ellis finds satisfying about The Lights From the Chemical Plant isn’t likely to please the purists. Texas songwriters who model their music on a love for George Jones and Townes Van Zandt aren’t rare, but few of them also love Joni Mitchell and Hall and Oates. Those disparate influences, Ellis believes, take some of the “twang and kitsch” out of his songs, which in turn instills a greater emphasis on storytelling.
In truth, he’s been trying to figure out how to merge older forms of country music and more-contemporary pop, R&B, and singer-songwriter fare since his early days in Houston, when he was working as a sacker at Whole Foods and a cashier loaned him a copy of Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). “It was very bluegrass and very modern at the same time. It really changed my whole mind-set,” says Ellis, who grew up making family pilgrimages to the Bluegrass Music Weekend, an annual gathering at the Coushatte Recreation Ranch, in Bellville. “It showed me I could be true to where I come from but still somehow make it interesting.”
Around the time he discovered Welch’s album, Ellis began playing shows in Houston coffeehouses. Much of what he knows about entertaining crowds came from a two-year gig at Mango’s and then at Fitzgerald’s, dubbed Whiskey Wednesdays. The residency, which earned him a mantel full of Houston Press music awards, featured him and his band playing as many as ten new covers a week from the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price.
“Studying the best songs ever written definitely shaped my songwriting,” says Ellis, who dropped out of Brazoswood High School and took a year of music classes at a community college before settling in Houston. “We didn’t rehearse the songs, which was probably apparent if you were a sober listener. It was trial by fire and a lot of fun.”
In early 2012 Ellis and his wife, Destiny, decamped for San Marcos for the better part of the year, and he picked up another Houston Press award in what he says was a bittersweet victory: Best Band to Leave Houston. Ellis had made his first recordings in Houston, and the city’s music scene had nurtured him and saw his departure as a betrayal, the sort he writes songs about. “When I came here I was a boy, and now I’m leaving a man,” Ellis sings matter-of-factly on the new album’s “Houston.” “When I came here I was lost, but now I know who I am.”
“It’s a great city for music, and I felt like it was in some ways better than Austin,” says Ellis. “It’s not super-saturated in a way that makes it hard to get people to come out to your shows. But I wasn’t really writing. I thought that if I changed my scenery and rearranged the furniture in my mind, maybe I could write a little bit more. I don’t think I could be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t relocated.”
Ellis says that because of his heavy touring schedule, he spent only a handful of weekends in San Marcos during the time he lived there. Reconciling his marriage with the road is at the heart of what’s sure to be the album’s most discussed tune, “Tour Song”—a brutally honest account of touring hipster bars and playing on bills with lousy bands, but also of the nagging fear of infidelity and the likelihood that his career is hurting his marriage.
“It’s a dismal song,” Ellis says. “If you’ve been drinking every day for a week, it’s easy to get emotionally run-down and look around and say, ‘What am I doing here? This is terrible.’ I miss my wife all the time. How can you protect that part of your life and yet wake up every day and be thankful that your job is to share songs with people from the stage? That’s my struggle.”
For the foreseeable future, that struggle will continue: Ellis has done the math and concluded that life away from home is the price he’s willing to pay for making less-than-commercial albums. And there are promising signs. He’s fallen in with a brotherhood of similarly high-minded acts, like Dawes and Deer Tick, who like having him on the road as an opener. The scene doesn’t yet have a name but its audience is sizable. Whether that’s enough still keeps him up at night.
“I get intimidated by the notion that this could all fall out from under me,” Ellis says. “But it doesn’t worry me enough that I would sacrifice the songs. Maybe I’m a little bit selfish and stupid in that way. But I just feel like there are other compromises that I can make without dumbing down the songs. That has to be the line in the sand.”