“Not many Texans like country and jazz,” Robert Ellis shrugs, explaining how he first bonded with his drummer Joshua Block, normally seen over here with psych-jammers White Denim. “It was weird meeting somebody with that same set of influences. Within five minutes of meeting him, I knew we were gonna be friends forever.”
Ellis, 25, himself is certainly hard to pigeonhole: his plaintive vocals evoke fellow Lone Star son George Jones, yet this Nashville, Tennessee resident resents the country-music scene. Raised in bible-bashing rural America, he is a confirmed atheist. Find a box and this singer/songwriter will bust out of it quicker than Harry Houdini. Such idiosyncratic tastes and interests make Ellis’s forthcoming album an intriguing listen, with its seemingly confessional lyrics, character studies closer to home than he cares to admit and musical backing that ranges from bluegrass to jazz.
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is a step-up from his 2011 debut, Photographs, where Ellis presented one side of sensitive, Laurel Canyon songsmithery and another of full-band country rock. Now the Texan emigre places greater emphasis on letting the music support his words, a philosophy that, over two years on the road, has seen him forge bonds with Taylor Goldsmith, frontman of Californian folk-rockers Dawes, who co-wrote a track, and Deer Tick’s keyboardist Rob Crowell, who plays saxophone on the new album. “Even though what we do is stylistically different, songwriting is at the heart of all of it. We’re focused on trying to write songs – and whatever we do around that with the band is an afterthought.”
Though based in the genre’s capital, Ellis is reaching far beyond the confines of country. While the solo artist admits that the city is a fine place to make a record, he is happy that his hectic touring schedule keeps him away. “I’m getting a little tired of it right now. I don’t like country music in the way people mean it most of the time.”
We meet in a London office the day after the 2014 Grammys ceremony, notable here for down-to-earth country’s apparent victory over the glitzy mainstream, as feisty underdog Kacey Musgraves won two awards, while Taylor Swift didn’t pick up any. Ellis, though, remains unimpressed with the genre’s current direction.
“I grew up on George Jones and Merle Haggard. The stuff that’s out today and the stuff that makes Nashville, Nashville, is really terrible. It sounds like rock‘n’roll from the early Eighties. Kacey is great and obviously has some integrity, but even she sits on the fence. It’s definitely pop in some ways. ”
It may be easier for female artists to get ahead in the wake of Swift’s crossover success, but Ellis does not see the grass as being any greener. “Unfortunately there are two or three archetypal females you can be. Either the cutesy, young, clean Taylor Swift-type singer – or the sassy, ‘my boyfriend cheated on me so I crashed his car’-type. Especially in country music, it just seems pretty misogynist.” One parallel that Ellis has with the Grammy-winning Musgraves, though, is that both have spoken out on issues that concern them: Musgraves nods to gay rights on “Follow Your Arrow”; Ellis attacks Christian indoctrination in the hillbilly stomp “Sing Along”.
Here Ellis was joined by the veteran artist Jim Lauderdale, the song’s writer grinning at the memory. “The reason that it’s so traditional stylistically is because the lyrics are not: they’re a little bit juxtaposed. Having him on there was the icing on the cake. He’s got that bluegrass harmony thing. He’s the only guy that can sound like Ralph Stanley or Jimmy Hart, really rough and American. His father’s a pastor, I think, and he grew up really religious as well.” Ellis is quick to point out that “Sing Along” is not directed at his parents, who although God-fearing are relatively liberal and proud of their son’s career. “I was raised very religious, indoctrinated even. I have a little bit of resentment about the way people went about it and still go about it, but most musical people have a slightly different outlook.”
Ellis moved to Nashville a year ago, having spent the previous year with his wife in a more isolated spot – a trailer in the woods outside Austin, Texas. There he found the space to write about his original home, Lake Jackson, a factory town dominated by the album’s eponymous chemical plant.
Harmonically and in his use of extended improvised sections on the likes of “Houston” and “Bottle of Wine”, Ellis is also a long way from Lake Jackson. He has listened to a lot of jazz, drawing inspiration from the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Sharrock, part of a wide gamut of influences he shares with his band.
Ellis bristles at being typecast as a Texan cowpoke. “It’s easy, especially for other countries, to have this idea of Texas or Nashville... but the reality is that even if you are in rural Texas, most of the time you have the internet – and I grew up with that. So for me to be this one thing is just really dishonest, when I have the whole world at my fingertips.”
‘The Lights from the Chemical Plant’ is out now on New West Records