There's a sound on Robert Ellis's new LP, Photographs, that was formed on his flag-planting 2009 debut The Great Re-Arranger and could have only been forged by playing almost every Wednesday night at Mango's and then Fitzgerald's for two solid years. It's the sound of someone soaking in a city that very much seems to be his chief muse, while also enjoying his first year of married life.
On first listen, Ellis's voice is at once jarring and soothing, not filling your ears so much as your entire head. After hearing the man and his band every week and at scattered high-profile gigs around Houston, having his voice so close to you is almost alien. But as Photographs' ten tracks progress, it becomes as comfortable as your own pair of worn-in ropers.
Ellis will officially release Photographs Wednesday night — at Fitz, naturally — with support from a like-minded Virginian, the Roger Miller-esque Jonny Corndawg. By now fans have probably heard most of the album in one form or the other, either Ellis solo acoustic or with the full lineup of Robert Ellis & the Boys. Amongst the plethora of covers for which the band's Wednesday-night sets were known and cherished, "Westbound Train" has been a rollicking staple.
Ellis shared production duties for Photographs with SugarHill Studios engineer Steve Christensen, who won a Grammy last year as part of the team behind Steve Earle's album Townes. (See "Chatter.") Beginning early last year, the duo produced the album at SugarHill, Christensen's home space, and out in Laredo. In fact, once or twice, Ellis ran himself ragged hustling between regular gigs and the studio.
"I credit both Steve and myself for production, because a whole lot of what I wanted to achieve with this record was making the sonic quality of the recording itself something special," Ellis says between tour stops. "He was able to take my sometimes vague descriptions of sounds and qualities and create them."
Ellis is a huge fan of the string-laden country ballads of cats like George Jones and Ray Price. Photographs' title track is cut from the same cloth as Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," joining a proud aural tradition of the high-concept, hyper-realized country love song.
"That was my first attempt at writing and arranging strings. It's a little quartet, tracked two or three times," he says. "Some really great Rice students performed it for fairly cheap. It's a very gratifying experience to hear a group of strangers reading and playing something you wrote."
Ellis is a part of New West Records' batch of Houston signings that began about this time last year, also including Buxton and Wild Moccasins. George Fontaine, half-owner of New West and a partner in Cactus Music, is a big booster of all three bands and recalls with pride the first time he saw Ellis live.
"He was playing drums for Chase Hamblin at an in-store," Fontaine says. "The next time I saw him, he was playing solo inside Mango's during the day, and I remember walking in and seeing this longhaired kid and a guitar. I was thinking, 'This kid is like James Taylor meets Gram Parsons — this beautiful voice and these amazing songs!'"
Plenty of people hear different things in Ellis's music, from '70s singer-songwriter legends like Nick Drake and Tim Buckley to the usual country legends, but he's more wildly varied than those people realize — one of Ellis's biggest influences right now isn't even a country artist, but Paul Simon.
"He has done so many different things throughout his career, all of which I love in different ways," he says. "The common thread in all his different approaches is strong songwriting and interesting choices. There are records of his that I thought I hated on first listen that end up being my favorite.
"My copy of Still Crazy After All These Years is probably about worn down to nothing by now from listening to it so much," he continues as the band hurries to catch a flight from Atlanta back to Texas. "I feel like every time I listen to it, I hear something new."
Many Houstonians thought Re-Arranger felt more like a fully formed declaration by a burgeoning artist than a debut, and Photographs doesn't feel like a sophomore album, either. Ellis gives his take on it.
"[Re-Arranger] was my first actual release, but I had been playing and writing music for a long while back home," he says. "Somewhere there is a record's worth of tunes I wrote when I was first trying the solo thing and still back in Lake Jackson. The tunes aren't totally awful or anything, I was just young and still not sure who I was, or even comfortable with my own voice.
"I guess I wanted to hear music that sounded totally different than anything I had been exposed to."
Ellis and the Boys' residencies shaped the sound of Photographs, which is far different from what casual listeners who have only heard that they do lots of Waylon & Willie covers might expect. Just to set the record straight, Ellis says he wants nothing to do with the dreaded "Texas country" beloved of ex-frat boys in fashionably dingy baseball caps.
"No offense to anyone, but I'm not a Texas country fan, so I wouldn't want to play with any of those bands," he says. "Sonically, what we do is a very different thing. We write much more intricate songs. I don't know why those people continually write those sorts of songs. It's all regurgitating."
Now Ellis looks back on the residency days as a sort of boot camp for what lies ahead: The massive touring, the opening slots for the Old 97's, European jaunts (according to Fontaine) and the toll of the road in general.
"Well, we can all communicate blind drunk and high now as a band," he says. "I'm really thankful for the audiences in Houston and the way things were built in Houston. I don't think this could have happened in any other town. Houston is a very open, unique vibe; they aren't just staring at you cynically.
Ellis gets emotional when remembering the final night of the Fitz residency in April, when he and the Boys played long into the wee hours alongside guests including Mike Stinson, Sideshow Tramps' Craig Kinsey and fiddler Hilary Sloan, who joined the band every so often back in the Mango's days.
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"We couldn't have planned it any other way," he says. "That last one especially makes me teary-eyed, thinking of seeing everyone out there one last time. Nobody could ever do that again, re-create it," he says.
As he grows into a healthy routine of recording and touring, Ellis wants to move about an hour out of Houston and begin a family in the next few years. He's not leaving the city behind, just staking out his own spot a half-inch or so over to the left on the map.
And as far as what happens when it comes time to record the follow-up to Photographs, Ellis has something interesting up his pearl-snapped sleeves.
"The next record is going to sound totally different. I don't want to make the same record over and over again," he says. "Right now I am listening to a lot of Randy Newman, a lot of free jazz, modern classical stuff. I am in that mode."