Robert Ellis has a novel strategy to get fans to buy his new album — a free show. So tomorrow night, the singer and songwriter will take the stage at Discovery Green on the eve of the album’s release. Perfect timing, and a cagey way to actually shift some units instead of letting accountants at his label, New West Records, have all the fun calculating abstruse streaming formulas. [Note: due to the area's recent heavy rainfall, the show has now been postponed to July 7. Still free, though.]
“When they approached me about doing this gig I was like, 'Fuck yeah,’ Ellis said about two weeks ago, sitting outside the Lake House cafe about 100 yards from Discovery Green’s stage. “It’s the day before release, but this will be the first place I'll be selling records; like I'm going to have records here. I wanted the show to be free because I wanted to get people to buy the album. Maybe there's more incentive to do that if there's not a cover.
“I like playing here,” he muses. “I hope we don't get any rain. That's the only worry.”
Actually, fans lucky enough to get into Ellis’ Cactus Music in-store at 5:30 this evening will be the very first to lay their hands on a copy of the album. Come early; it’s likely to be pretty crowded.
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Ellis’ new album, named after its creator, is his fourth overall. He began with 2009’s self-released The Great Re-Arranger, made when he was just a kid from Lake Jackson whose songwriting and guitar chops were quickly turning heads in the Montrose club scene. Also impressed was semi-Houston label New West Records, which signed him in time for 2011’s Photographs. That album split the difference between the spare folk-pop of Re-Arranger and the raucous sound of Robert Ellis & the Boys, whose well-lubricated catalog of last-call honky-tonk standards at their “Whiskey Wednesday” residency made them one of Houston’s most popular acts around the turn of the 2010s. It also helped Ellis land a 2012 nomination for the Americana Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year.
Two years and one move to Nashville later came The Lights From the Chemical Plant, which was far from another roots record; this one embraced the complex, emotionally knotty style of Paul Simon, whom Ellis says he’s always loved as much as John Prine. The album drew praise from Esquire, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed and NPR, which has become a particular champion of his. Back in March, NPR’s Ann Powers lauded the first song released from Robert Ellis, “Drivin’,” as “brilliant,” and last week the network gave the album its “First Listen” exclusive-streaming treatment. He also performed three new songs on the popular “Tiny Desk” Web series.
Like Chemical Plant, Robert Ellis feels a little like someone trying on different hats from song to song, but also like an artist increasingly comfortable in his own skin. It’s a warm, yet bittersweet album that veers from the country-ish “Couples Skate” and “Drivin’” to “The High Road,” the late-night lament of a musician who has seen too many empty hotel rooms, and “Perfect Strangers,” Ellis’s very Paul Simon-esque off-the-cuff observations of New York City street life. There are even a couple of offbeat tangents like “Screw,” an instrumental written by Kelly Doyle, the talented Houston jazz guitarist who has been playing with Ellis since the Whiskey Wednesday days.
“I think it's exemplary of what I want to do with my writing, and what I think I've been doing with Chemical Plant,” Ellis says of the new album. “I’m just trying to make stories that are interesting to me, and not necessarily being stylistically typecast. Like, I think a lot of the stuff on this doesn't sound like other stuff I've done, and doesn't really sound like most stuff out in the world. I think it's kind of its own thing.
“And if that's what I do, then, you know, I'm fine with wearing that,” he adds. “But I don't think there's like a deep reflection of my personality, you know, on this record, in the sense that yeah, the songs are not all about what happens to me.”
That said, Robert Ellis does at least in part reflect the recent dissolution of his marriage; guilt and suspicion weigh on songs like “Elephant” and “California” without crossing over into jealousy and anger. He says he and his ex-wife, Destiny, remain “best friends.”
“It wasn't like the traumatic, awful thing that I think people want it to be, and I'm definitely not like broken up, living some secluded life of brokenheartedness,” Ellis says. “That’s not what the record's about, either. I don't know. I think that's been one of my challenges in the interview world, is to like fit into the narrative that everyone's already decided that things are supposed to have. You know what I mean? I don't know. Destiny borrowed my van yesterday to go to the beach. Like I see her all the time. And she had a boyfriend here for a long time who I like a lot.”
As for himself, Ellis doesn’t even have a fixed address; now in his later mid-twenties, he’s spent at least 300 days on the road each of the past few years. It’s a traveling musician’s dream when a tour ends with a few extra days off in Byron Bay, Australia, but Ellis says it’s not so idyllic on the days you wake up and realize most of your belongings are in another town, or even multiple towns.
“I would just like to have all my guitars like in one room, and to be able to just set 'em up and look at ‘em,” he says. “Even if it's just for a couple of days, just so I can be like, 'This is all mine,' and I can feel comfortable in a space, not be in a fuckin' hotel or at a friend's house.
“This has been the first time in my life where I've truly been like on my own at the end of every day,” Ellis says a little later on. “Because even when you're touring, when you're married, you still have somebody you can call, or Skype, or even just know that somebody out in the world gives a shit about you, you know what I mean?”
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Luckily, Ellis has a wide circle of friends and collaborators that seem to be doing a pretty decent job of keeping any further existential angst at bay. Besides his band, which besides Doyle also features Whiskey Wednesday alumni Geoffrey Muller and Will Van Horn, his co-authors on Robert Ellis include Angaleena Presley (“Drivin’”), Van Horn (“Couples Skate”) and Jonny Fritz (“It’s Not OK” and “The High Road,” the latter also with Doyle). Former Delta Spirit front man Matthew Logan Vasquez wrote Robert Ellis’ latest single, “How I Love You,” whose lonely-man video (directed by Cullen Kelly) is a must-watch. Working with friends is one thing, Ellis says, but he saw enough of the assembly-line atmosphere of Nashville’s song factory to know that wasn’t the life for him.
“I’m definitely not precious about ownership, and I’m not precious about the craft,” Ellis says. “Like, whatever makes it work is fine with me. But what I don’t like is to go into a room with some billionaire in his mansion and be condescended to because he happened to have had success with some big pop eyesore. And that’s the position that I found myself in the couple of times that I’ve co-written.
“It’s like this sort of hierarchy,” he continues. “Like, because he’s made money, he knows what works or [is] interesting, he knows what sentiments work. I don’t know…it’s just revolting to me. I just feel like they’re playing a different game than I am.”