You can take the boy out of Houston, but...well, this is part of how Robert Ellis has found himself spending his time after moving to New York City a little more than a month ago.
"There's actually a weird little honky-tonk scene in Brooklyn," says the singer-songwriter who relocated from Houston to Nashville in mid-2012 after his group, Robert Ellis & the Boys, won a fiercely loyal Bayou City following with their "Whiskey Wednesday" classic-country nights at Mango's and Fitzgerald's.
As Ellis tells it, Brooklyn's honky-tonk scene includes three bars -- Skinny Dennis, the Levee and Lucky Dog -- that offer sanctuary to Lone Star exiles, from a Willie Nelson painting to a Western swing band on Wednesday nights that Ellis says isn't half-bad. Although he notes his friend B.E. Godfrey, another Houston musician who recently relocated to NYC, makes fun of him for figuratively sticking close to home, Ellis says his Texas upbringing gives him certain advantages in the Big Apple.
"A lot of people dance, which has been really nice because girls like to dance and I don't think a lot of folks up there are into that," he says. "It's fun to grab some New York girl and make her two-step. There's a lot of improvised two-stepping going on -- people who don't know quite what it is, you know?"
Ellis, who returns to play this weekend's Untapped Houston festival at Discovery Green, sounds like he's having a ball in New York. It's rare for a night to go by without friends inviting him out to a concert, he says, naming Conor Oberst, Dawes and Old Crow Medicine Show as highlights in the short time he's been there. But he vows the city has also jump-started his writing process, and all he has to do is hop on the East River ferry or the closest subway train.
"I don't even pay attention to where it's going most of the time," Ellis admits. "I just get on and ride it until I get off and, you know, work on songs."
Ellis figures he's been writing so much because he's been practicing a technique he heard of a while back, which suggests alternating between intense focus on the task at hand and either relaxation or distracting activities (doing the dishes, say) at about five-minute intervals. That way, he explains, the conscious and subconscious parts of the brain are able to enter into a sort of dialogue with one another. Ellis says he's found walking to be especially good for that.
"As I'm walking, maybe in five minutes I'll think of something and sit down and write again," he says. "It's cool to have all this stimulus that's maybe unrelated coming at you, and to to be thinking about something that's maybe not entirely different. It's been really healthy and exciting, because I didn't write much in June or July, but in August I was writing tons."
Ellis has spent most of this year on the road behind his sophomore album for partially Houston-based New West Records, The Lights From the Chemical Plant. The constant touring can be disorienting, he admits, but it can also lead to encounters like when he was soundchecking in London and a friend of his showed up to apologize for missing his gig that night because Hayes Carll was also in town.
"I was like, 'Hayes Carll's playing?'" Ellis recounts. "She was like, 'Yeah, he's a five-minute walk away. So me and her walked over and surprised him at his sound check. I thought that was a really hilarious little coincidence."
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Chemical Plant draws on both Ellis' memories of growing up near Lake Jackson and growing interest in sounds beyond country music's relatively narrow purview, such as jazz and complex pop auteurs like Paul Simon. Its shifting styles, which Ellis simply views as his continuing development as a songwriter, drew a few critics who pined for the simpler nature of his previous album Photographs, but the album's more sophisticated tone also drew widespread praise in the media and among Ellis' peers. He was nominated for Artist, Album and Song of the Year at this week's Americana Music Association awards, although Jason Isbell and his LP Southeastern swept all three categories.
"I'm really, really proud of that record," Ellis says of Chemical Plant. "When I listen to it now, I don't think that it sounds as drastically different from anything else I've done as I did when I first put it out. But I do think it was really important when it came out to kind of highlight the differences.
"But, you know, I still sound like I'm from Texas, and we're still using a steel guitar," he continues. "So I think there are elements of continuity to it to where the average listener would hear it and think, 'Oh, that's country music.'"
Perhaps the most important people Ellis has to impress outside of his fans, the people at his record label, sound squarely in his corner.
"The critical acclaim has been through the roof, and has really helped bring Robert and this project to another level," says New West spokesman George Fontaine Jr. "There is still plenty of room for growth as far as commercial success is concerned, but it's definitely continuing to grow in the right direction."
Ellis points to his tour this past spring with his band as an example.
"It was a really, really, really good tour," he says. "I lost quite a bit of money on it, but I think it was really worth it because a lot of those markets we played, I think now when we go back we're gonna do twice as many people as we did on that tour."
Lately, when not teaching the ladies of Brooklyn the finer points of two-stepping Ellis says he has been buying drum machines and synthesizers, so his next record is likely to be as different from Chemical Plant as that record is from Photographs. New West offers a hint on its upcoming An Americana Christmas, where Ellis' version Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" is nestled alongside holiday tunes by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil & Pegi Young, John Prine, Valerie June, Nikki Lane and the Old 97's.
Recorded at Houston's Sugar Hill Studios, the song is just piano, ProTools synth and vocals, as produced by Ellis and house engineer Steve Christensen. (Rolling Stone's country wing premiered Ellis' "Pretty Paper" on Monday.)
"I'm getting really excited about separating myself from the guitar in some ways, because what I've been doing as of now has been really rooted in my guitar playing," Ellis says. "My writing has been really closely tied to my instincts as a guitar player, so it's exciting to me to be able to think of music as less tied to one instrument and more as a harmonic sort of thing."
But Ellis still knows there's a considerable difference between changing what you sound like and changing who you are. The latter is unlikely to happen, he promises.
"I'm still a sucker for stories and narratives, and some sort of traditional song form like a chorus," Ellis says. "But then how you dress that up is the part that I really want to play with."
Robert Ellis performs alongside Toadies, Bad Books, the Bright Light Social Hour, Owen Pallett, the Suffers, Featherface and BLSHS at Untapped Houston this Saturday at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney. Gates open at 2:30 p.m. (VIPs); or 3:30 p.m. (general public).
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