Audiences were just getting to know Robert Ellis as a twenty-something, long-haired Texas troubadour. Then he moved to Nashville, and instead of turning up the twang, he chopped off all his hair and put a few experimental jazz solos on his new album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant.
Ellis had learned how to please everyone from bohemian college kids to grey-headed two-steppers at a Houston honky-tonk night. That did not mean he wanted to hang onto the gig forever:
It’s like they wanted me to be their country music savior or something. Because the stuff on the radio they were hearing didn’t sound like the stuff they grew up with.
But Ellis wasn’t cut out to follow in the footsteps of Willie Nelson, or George Jones, or Townes Van Zandt. He needed to stretch his legs.
A Worn Out Paul Simon Album
There are too many sides to Ellis for him to fit any fixed mold. He’s the only interviewee who’s ever asked my permission—in his own living room—to pack his bottom lip with Skoal and spit brown juice into a plastic cup.
He set it down long enough to put his prized Paul Simon soft-pop album on the turntable and show off how worn out it is. He reacts with surprise when the record doesn’t skip in a spot where it usually does.
The point of his demonstration? Ellis has taken the time to study every inch of Simon’s album.
He’s got the top jazz musicians in the world playing some of the greatest string and horn arrangements. Pretty much every element of that whole record, down to the cover art is just perfect to me. That level of attention to detail is really, really inspiring.
When it came to crafting his new collection, Ellis agonized over melodies and chord progressions just as much as lyrics, polishing his songs to a brilliant sheen. And he took his sound uptown without shedding everything downhome about it. He even threw in a Simon cover: Still Crazy After All These Years.
Not ‘Cool’ Music
For all its virtues, Ellis says he doesn’t think The Lights from the Chemical Plant is a “cool” record:
…But you know, I don’t listen to very cool music. My favorite artists are Randy Newman and Paul Simon, who are, I realized recently, what people consider adult contemporary music, I guess. [laughs] …You know, kind of serious, adult songwriters that are maybe a little bit outside of the lines of genre.
Ellis has been into sophisticated musicianship for a long time. When he was in 8th grade, he taught guitar lessons to adults. By then, he’d already learned a rhythmically complex style called Travis picking from his uncle.
He just showed me, you know, getting that thumb to just kind of be a machine, then adding the other stuff. And I was really drawn to that, just because it seemed great that you could just bring a guitar and play a show, and not have to have a full band there with you, and still be able to kind of make it dance and move.
Ellis’ nimble finger picking is on display in this live video of Only Lies, performed at KDHX in St. Louis:
There’s always been a certain jazziness just below the surface of Ellis’s music. But he’s never unleashed it like this before. He says reinventing his public image has been “kinda scary” for his label and some of his fans:
when I cut my hair and decided to—I don’t know—just be a fluid person that changes. …I had a lot of people that were just like: What are you doing? That could ruin your career.
Ellis doesn’t seem worried.