Every once in a while, I’ll be so excited about an interview that I’ll think there’s no way my enthusiasm is going to transfer well to the blog. I get all scattered, and all I can do is find more and more hyperbolic adjectives for “good”. Robert Ellis, a 22-year-old songwriter out of Houston, Texas, has put me in that situation. Seeing him open for the Old 97′s earlier this month was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Between the extremely high level of musicianship, interesting lyrics, and fun stage show, well– I was a little nervous to talk to the guy, to be honest.
For no good reason, it winds up. I’m excited to share our conversation with you guys– but first, if you haven’t yet, you’ve got to hear some of his music– you can get a free download of his song “What’s In It For Me” on his Facebook page.
First of all, I’m really excited to be talking to you today; your set at the Mercy Lounge was the most energizing, exciting opening set I’ve seen in a long time. You have one hell of a live band. How long have you guys been playing together?
We’ve been playing together a couple years—as a band, and individually, we’ve known each other longer than that probably. We’ve all played and were raised in different types of groups. Me and the pedal steel player played bluegrass together before, and I’ve had different incarnations of this band too.
That’s the other thing—I’ve read that you’re 22. How is that even possible? How did you get interested in this sound? The thing I was most amazed by is how does a guy as young as your pedal steel player get interested in the instrument, and then get that good?
(laughs) Well, we all— I know what the short answer is. We all really like country music. I think he just really had an interest in the instrument. We all had an interest in the instrument. One of the most beautiful sounding instruments of all time, but it’s an arduous instrument to learn, and it’s expensive. I guess he just had enough of an interest. He’s 23, I think (editor’s note: that doesn’t help) I guess the short answer is that we all just practice a lot. When we’re not on tour and not working, we get together and we play. We spend a lot of time practicing and trying to get better. It’s a serious thing to all of us. I want to be—I’m not where I want to be as far as a guitar player or a singer, so I spend a lot of time trying to be where I want to be. I’m sure I’ll do that until I’m dead.
I’m a pretty average—read, bad—guitarist, and it’s kind of neat to hear a guitarist as talented as you are say that you’re trying to get better.
The more you know, the more you realize that you don’t really know. (laughs) You look at people who are incredible—it can be kind of discouraging.
I’ve read that you had a pretty religious upbringing. Does that understanding of sin, redemption and justice still play into the music you write today?
That’s a great question actually (laughs) I’m sure it does. There’s probably some threads of that upbringing still even in my day to day life. There’s a lot that I’ve consciously tried to quell and avoid and some that I still struggle with suppressing, like jealousy issues and that kind of stuff, from the way I was brought up. I would very much like to change. But there are some things that will stick around no matter what I do. Do you hear it? (laughs)
Don’t turn it around on me! (laughs) Some. I hear it some, especially in songs like “Photographs” where there’s such an understanding of right and wrong.
Yeah, and that probably has a lot to do with being brought up religious, but I’d argue that the moral constructs are inherent in everyone, whether they grow up in a Christian upbringing, or other religion, or no religious construct. I think those things are really evolved survival mechanisms. Societal survival mechanisms that are really complicated and I don’t always understand. But there’s an element of evolutionary benefit in “right” over wrong, whatever that means from situation to situation. Probably growing up with such a rigid sense of right and wrong has a lot to do with who I am or why I’d think about that stuff.
In “Comin’ Home,” you talk about all the classic Texas country musicians—Lefty, Townes, Hank, and Willie, etc. Would you say that you are influenced by Texas country?
Texas music is a huge influence. Probably not in a modern sense—but Texas music in general, Townes Van Zant, all of the great country—Waylon, Willie Lefty—from here, but had a big national career—super influential. Probably because I grew up here and that’s what I grew up listening to, but I relate to what those people are saying because of the way I was brought up and they were brought up. Regionally, there are a lot of similarities between what those guys were experiencing when they were coming up in Texas and what we are experiencing. There’s common ground between the way we all feel and the way they all felt. Especially some of those old Waylon songs. They remind me of live shows we play (laugh). Getting drunk and honky-tonking. That has a lot to do with why we love that stuff so much.
You guys played the Johnny Corndawg song “Trash Day” the night we saw you, and from what I understand, it was pretty much impromptu. How did that come about?
He was playing with us in Texas, he played two shows earlier in Texas, and he’s just a really cool dude. I love his songwriting. It just so happened that he was in Nashville the night that we played. So—I just invited him up, figured it’d be fun, it was a good crowd. The song is straightforward, he played it, but we hadn’t played it. We just kind of ran the tune once or twice backstage, me and my acoustic guitar and telling the guys the changes. I think it went well.
It definitely did. My first Jonny Corndawg experience was when he hopped onstage with Middle Brother at SXSW, and before five minutes was up, he was pouring beer on the crowd and singing a Sam Cooke song.
That was a great show. That’s where I first saw him, actually—the Barberella show? (editor’s note: awesome). The next night, we played the Ground Control show– us, Deertick, Dawes and Tim Easton, and some other bands too. It was all a booking agency show, and Jonny Corndawg was there and that’s where I first met him.
I love Dawes. I haven’t seen them live yet—are they as good as I would hope?
Yes. Dawes is incredible live. They are one of my favorite newer bands.
“What’s In It For Me” seems timeless; from the first couple of notes, it’s clear that it’s going to be a memorable song. How did you write that?
I came—that was one of the few songs that I came up with the lyrics first. I had written a bit of it before I sat down at the piano. I already had the harmony in my head, I don’t know… but I think I might have been having a fight or something when I first came up with the idea. But then—me and my wife never fight for long, so we got over it— but the lyrics stayed in my head, so I sat down at the piano and wrote it pretty quick.
Do you always write songs on the piano?
No—that’s why that song is a different kind of song. I usually start out with melodies on the guitar even before lyrics. I start out with ideas about how a songs going to go—a roadmap of what I want to get out of the song dynamic wise—what I want it to be. Something like “Cemetery” where it’s strange harmony, dissonant waltz, or an up-tempo rockin’ country song like “No Fun”. I usually come up with the vibe of the song first and write lyrics around that. Sometimes it all happens at once, sometimes I have the lyrics first, but it’s rare that I have the lyrics before anything else. My favorites are the songs where the lyrics and music happen together—a lot of the A-side stuff was probably like that, because it’s more of a passionate endeavor when it’s all happening at once. You’re creating it, but it’s creating itself, too. It doesn’t always happen like that, it’s rare that you’re inspired. So I have to trick myself into finding ways around that. Maybe I’ll sit down and find that I’m going to write, and I’ll listen to news stories and put myself in some sort of narrative. I’m kind of new at it, but I’m trying to get better because I want to continue to write, but if things keep going as well as they’re going, I might never write another sad song. (laughs) It’s nice to find inspiration outside. I don’t want to be like Townes Van Zant who has to be constantly depressed in order to write songs. Nobody wants that. To wallow in misery, constantly. I definitely don’t.
I’ve read in several places that the divide on the record is intentional, and that the first part is supposed to be more folky, with the back half being golden country. What made you think to do that? What effect did you want to create, and do you feel like it achieved it?
Yeah! I’m really happy with it. I’m happy with the response it’s gotten, it’s been really nice. Some people take it for what it is and like the record. Some people love the A side and hate the B side, some people love the B side and hate the A side. If it was all one or the other, I’d be worried, but it’s pretty polarizing. [People] either take the whole thing and like it or take one side and love it and hate the other. I’m really happy with it.
Your guitarist is one of the best live guitarists I’ve ever gotten to watch—and I’ve never seen someone pick quite like you do, either. I spent most of the set in awe. How long have you guys been playing, separately or together, and how did you learn to play guitar? (And dorky technical question, but what do you play? What does he play?)
We’ve both been playing since we were young. I probably picked up a lot from playing bluegrass when I was younger and that’s still the majority of what I do, what I learned when I was a kid. Kelly, on the other hand, is very groundbreaking and revolutionary. He probably wouldn’t say that, but he’s fantastic. (editor’s note: “groundbreaking” is an understatement. Phenomenal live guitarist.) He practices constantly, too. Looking to different folks to learn as much as he can—guitarists, trumpet players, Charlie Parker—he’s just a master of the instrument. He plays—we both play on Telecasters that were kind of “parts” guitars—we like things to be a certain way, sound a certain way. He’s probably a little bit more particular than I am, but I haven’t bought a guitar off the shelf and been enamored in a long time. Change the pickups out, change the neck out—we’re just really particular about the way they sound and the way they feel. We’re both playing parts guitars. You can’t really get what you want when you’re that particular out of a factory guitar. Every once in a while you pick up one that’s perfect, but we also don’t have a ton of money. So if you do find one that’s perfect, it’s way out of your price range.
What’s your favorite song to play live? What’s your favorite cover?
My favorite song of mine to play is—well, changes nightly. The newer songs I like more because we haven’t been playing them as long. Brand new stuff, stuff that’s not on the record. “No Fun” is always rowdy fun to play and “Friends Like Those”—I don’t know if I like one more than the others. I like them all a lot. And “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me”, “Ruby”—those are up there. George Jones, we do a lot of George Jones. I like playing all of his songs. They’re all really fun.
What was the best part of making this record?
I don’t know. Finishing it? (laughs)
I’ve read that Photographs isn’t your first record, but that the other one is a completely different sound; how so? And how did you know you wanted to go in the direction of Photographs?
The first one is much more folk. Like the A-side but a lot different. I was younger—the songwriting from the first album, I wrote when I was 17 or 18 years old. It’s a younger sounding record to me. It’s much more folksy, minimal arrangement stuff, and my voice hadn’t developed yet. You can hear it, if you listen to it. It sounds quite a bit different. Me, but a younger me. And I think a lot of what made me want to go in the direction of Photographs is meeting the guys in the band and wanting to play with them. We started out doing country music, and I really wanted to do a record with this band, but I still wanted to do my own folk stuff, and still nerd out over the arrangements and record them the way I did the last record. Guitar and singing and adding all the parts later. The A-side, B-side thing gave me that.
I hope you guys enjoyed hearing a little more about his music as much as I did. I’ll be posting my review of the full record, Photographs, sometime this weekend– basically, because one post just isn’t enough for me to talk about how much I’m enjoying this music.