Robert Ellis

by Dan MacIntosh

Steve Earle wrote a fantastic self-referential song, "Last of the Hardcore Troubadours." Although he may have felt like an itinerant Lone Ranger at the time, a few listens to Robert Ellis' music would have left him feeling not quite so all alone. When Ellis sings live - many times with just his voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment - he is a one lone hardcore troubadour, indeed.

Also like Earle, Ellis has Houston roots, which is where he cut his teeth musically. He earned a residency at the club Fitzgerald's and then self-released his debut album The Great Rearranger in 2009. This recording captured the attention of New West Records, who signed Ellis to the label in 2011.

Ellis' first release on New West, Photographs, is like a tattered old scrapbook. Some of these pictures may not be pretty, but all the people in them are undeniably real.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): As a singer, I kept trying to pinpoint who you sounded like. One moment I thought you sounded like Gram Parsons, and then the next moment more like Townes Van Zandt. I imagine you're probably good with both of those.

Robert Ellis: Yeah, I am.

Songfacts: Are those inspirations to you?

Ellis: Townes, definitely. Gram was somebody that I came to later - I never really listened to him. But that said, we had a lot of the same influences, like George Jones and Buck Owens. So yes, it's kind of the natural progression if you grew up listening to rock n' roll and love country music. I get that a lot, but I was never aware of Gram until a couple of years ago when somebody told me about him. And he's great. I really like him.

Songfacts: You probably feel like, "Wow, where was he all my life?"

Ellis: Totally. Yeah. Kind of made sense. I still err towards the side of more traditional in terms of the country music that I listen to, like George Jones is obviously one of my biggest heroes. And I like the Gram's stuff a lot, but I was never really into rock & roll. I never really listened to The Byrds, so I never knew about any of that stuff until I was an adult, really.

Songfacts: I had a big argument with my friend that I worked with. I thought The Byrds were the best '60s band and he's a Beatles fan, he said, "That's blasphemy to pick the Byrds over The Beatles."

Ellis: I love The Beatles. I grew up with The Beatles.

Songfacts: You mentioned George Jones earlier. Do you have any favorite George Jones songs?

Ellis: Oh, yeah. Totally. I played "The Grand Tour." "The Grand Tour" is probably one of my favorite songs. It's hard to say, there's just so many that I really love. "Good Year for the Roses," "Beneath Still Waters." Mostly the ballads - he could just rip your heart out and tear it to pieces with the ballads. I think "The Grand Tour" might be the saddest song of all time.

That's the stuff that's just heart-wrenching. I like the fast stuff, but that's what always communicated with me. You brought up Townes Van Zandt, but for some reason sad music is what's always done it for me since I was a kid. Just sad bastard type, like Townes and George Jones. Those I really I related to.

Nick Lowe originally recorded his song "All Men Are Liars" on his 1990 album, Party of One. He rhymes the word "ghastly" with the last name of Rick Astley on it. The song's lyrics include the lines: "Never gonna give you up/Never gonna let you down." To which Lowe responded, "I'm here to tell you that Dick's a clown."

Robert covered the song for the 2012 tribute album Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe, which also features contributions from Hayes Carll, Lori McKenna and Ron Sexsmith
Songfacts: You cover "All Men Are Liars" by Nick Lowe on the album. Isn't that the one that talks about the Rick Astley song in it?

Ellis: Yeah. It is kooky.

Songfacts: What made you choose it?

Ellis: A friend of mine recommended it. He said, "We're doing this Nick Lowe tribute, start thinking about a song you'd want to do." I just started listening to a bunch of stuff and that one just kind of stuck out to me. That was the one that I felt like country treatment could be really cool. Lyrically it felt kind of right.

Songfacts: Well, he has a strong country pedigree because he was one of the Carters - I think it was Carlene Carter he was married to for a while.

Ellis: Oh, wow. I didn't know that.

Songfacts: She's the Carter family, so country royalty by marriage, at least.

Ellis: Yeah, I think I did know that, actually. I had a friend who is a mutual friend of his, and I was just tickled to death that last month I saw this guy that I'd know and he's like, "Oh, I talked to Nick and he said to tell you great job on the song, he really likes it." I was just like, "Oh, that's so sweet. So cool."

I never thought I would even meet him. I guess he's a little unavailable in a way.

Songfacts: But he's one of those guys that's really aged well. You see these guys and they're trying to continually relive their youth. It reminds me a little bit of Emmylou Harris in that he's let his hair go gray and he's okay with that.

Ellis: She's so gorgeous. And just gracefully accepted the whole thing.

Songfacts: Your song "Two Cans of Paint" is really interesting. It talks about painting. Did that come from a real experience?

Ellis: Yeah. It was me and my wife moving into a new house. We were painting the house and I sat down and starting playing the guitar. I had this little riff that I'd been messing with for a couple of weeks, and then I just started writing that tune around it.

Songfacts: It seems like an odd thing to write a song about. I'll bet you never imagined you'd be writing about painting.

Ellis: It's about painting and it's about moving into a new place, but it's also a metaphor for beginning a new relationship. So the painting of the walls and the tools and everything are all symbols for me and her beginning our life together. So the chorus of that is, "I'm glad to be starting over with you," which is the meaning of the song. It's supposed to be a little playful, because it is.

Songfacts: Are you kind of a handyman?

Ellis: Yeah. When I'm home, that's what I'm into. I don't have a job or anything. I'm like a 90-year-old retired man: I just go around finding little projects to do, building stuff. My wife has gotten pretty good; a friend of hers needs some help around the house or something, she'll be like, "Robert will go over there and do it," which is exciting to me, for some reason. If I get a project to work on, I'm like, yes. Sounds great.

Songfacts: And maybe it'll inspire a song.

Ellis: Exactly.

Songfacts: I'm reading Neil Young's autobiography.

Ellis: Yeah, I want to read that. I haven't read it yet.

Songfacts: It's all over the place because he doesn't start with growing up in Canada and chronological thought. I guess he wrote it on his iPad so a chapter would be, "Oh, I decided to write this." But he likes building stuff. And I think building has a lot to do with songwriting. People always say that people that are musical are really good with math, but I think a lot of musicians are probably pretty good at building other kinds of things.

Ellis: Well, I think even further than that, building has a lot to do with life in general. I mean, you could apply the lessons of putting things together to just about anything - I think it's got some really profound symbolic meaning to it. And math is a big part of building things, geometry.

Songfacts: Are you good with math?

Ellis: No. I wouldn't sit down and do algorithmic functions or anything. But I'm good enough that I know how to use geometry for building things, and musically I understand the math of music fairly well. But in school I was terrible at math. The practical aspect of it wasn't in front of me.

Songfacts: How am I going to use math for my job?

Ellis: Yeah.

Songfacts: I have a friend that used algebra for something. I thought, "Man, good for you!" It's one thing I don't remember much of because I don't think I'll ever use it again.

Ellis: I love it when I see people do long division on paper. I'm sure I could if I sat down and tried, but I never had to.

Songfacts: I asked you about some of the songs that I like. Do you have any particular favorites?

Ellis: The first five songs on the record that I have out are from a writing standpoint my favorites. The record's split into two halves: the A side and the B side. The A side is sort of dark folk music, and the B side is a classic country tribute album.

So the A side is more from a writing standpoint a little bit more intellectual and developed. I spent more time on that stuff. And the B side I already had these templates in a way, because I wanted these to be classic-sounding songs. When I needed an uptempo bluegrass song, I wrote, "No Fun."

Songfacts: That must have been a fun exercise - to build around a template.

Ellis: Exactly. So those were a little bit more of a writing experiment, I guess. And the A side songs were more inspired.

Songfacts: Let's talk about the A side. Which song do you like best on the A side?

Ellis: The first two songs are my favorites. "Friends Like Those" and "Bamboo." They're both about impermanence and death and leaving and things like that.

Songfacts: They're country songs.

Ellis: Totally. Existential terror, those kind of things. [Laughs]

Songfacts: And then what do you like best on the B side?

Ellis: I've grown to really love the title track, "Photographs." And it's a song about infidelity.

Songfacts: There you go. More country stuff.

Ellis: It's a very country album thematically. Every song is very country, but stylistically speaking, A side has a different dressing.

Songfacts: You're probably more of an alt country guy than a mainstream guy.

Ellis: Yeah.

Songfacts: However, as a songwriter, because you've listened to so much George Jones and stuff, that is just going to come out, right? That's going to inspire the songs.

Ellis: Definitely. I'm consciously, on the next record that I'm recording, getting away from that. Because in a way I feel like I did that on Photographs, and now I want to do something else. I'm also a huge fan of Paul Simon and Randy Newman and more of songwriter folks. So the new stuff I'm writing is more of a general kind of pop stuff. So it's a lot less country.

Songfacts: Well, that's good. It sounds like you're constantly challenging yourself and doing different things.

November 4, 2013
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