Robert Ellis Confronts Hard Truths With New Album

Photo by Dustin Condren
Photo by Dustin Condren

With last week’s release of his self-titled fourth album, Americana singer-songwriter Robert Ellis has asserted himself as one of the genre’s most underrated voices.

Ellis’ new record is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s The Lights From The Chemical Plant, an album that gave the musician some of his most significant accolades to date, with both Esquire and NPR naming the record as one of their top releases of 2014. Rolling Stone’s praise was even more glowing, calling the release “a fully realized masterpiece.”

While the singer-songwriter designation is often indiscriminately lobbed at anyone who – gasp! – writes their own material these days, Ellis is truly deserving of the title. Through his songs, he is able to convey a deep range of emotions fraught with bittersweet memories, owning up to mistakes, and addressing hard truths, among others.

Ellis comes by his consummate eloquence rather honestly, having been inspired by some of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th century. Those influences reared their heads most obviously on The Lights From The Chemical Plant, which featured an astonishing cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which served as the quintessential centrepiece of that record.

“I can’t put my finger on one precise thing that floored me with ‘Still Crazy After All These Years,’ it just pushed all the buttons for me at a time where I needed it most,” Ellis tells The Times & Transcript in an exclusive interview. “At that point in my life, I had been listening to a lot of jazz and really nerding out over song arrangements. ‘Still Crazy…,’ had it all it seemed: an incredible narrative, and a fantastic string and horn arrangement. It is really what made me go so crazy about songcraft in general.”

That admiration and respect for songwriting can be heard on virtually every note of Ellis’ new album, which isn’t to insinuate that everything about making his new record was easy.

Over the last two years, in addition to seemingly incessant touring, Ellis and his wife parted ways, but have remained friends throughout. In fact, they’ve remained on such cordial terms that she appears on the cover of his new album.

Yet as friendly as the two may be, there is, understandably, shades of pessimism that permeate the lyrics found on the new record. From strictly a musical standpoint, however, the songs appear to be more upbeat than those featured on The Lights From The Chemical Plant.

It is an intriguing dichotomy that draws the listener in while also moving the record forward.

“I think it’s easy, after the fact, to go back and create a narrative for these two albums. Ironically, when I made …Chemical Plant, I could argue I was happier than I was in making the new album. What I really wanted to convey with these new songs is that in the wake of a tragedy or disaster, you have to look forward and see the opportunities in front of you. That’s what the song ‘California’ is about: Looking at where your life can go when everything changes.”

Given the significant life changes of the last two years, Ellis won’t speculate how much of his personal life is injected into the songs on his new record. He does admit there are pieces of him in some of the material, but would rather have the listener decide what may or may not pertain to him.

“I wouldn’t say any of these songs are strictly autobiographical. I don’t know that context is always healthy for the listener. As a writer, I have always found it more interesting to allow the listener to decide that for themselves.”

All personal matters aside, Ellis says the making of his latest album came with some significant self-imposed pressure, especially in light of the acclaim afforded to his previous record.

Where The Lights From The Chemical Plant boasted the production work of Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, City & Colour), Ellis shares that his main concern in self-producing his latest effort was ensuring the album lived up to its potential.

“Working with Jacquire on the last album was great because it took the onus off me. I wanted people to like …Chemical Plant, but if they didn’t, Jacquire and I liked it,” Ellis says with a laugh.

“He [Jacquire] is a master at what he does; working with him was a huge learning process for me. Going into the making of this record, I really felt as though I needed to hit it out of the park.”

Not only does Ellis hit it out of the park, embracing unabashed pop on “California,” and “How I Love You,” holding true to his roots on “Drivin’,” while embellishing “You’re Not The One,” with a wonderful complement of strings, he defies expectations around what an Americana artist should sound like.

“I like that dichotomy, having light-heart positive songs like ‘Couples Skate,’ while the song before it on the album – ‘Screw’ – is noise set to a static melody. And of course, ‘It’s Not OK,’ the song that ends the record, has this wild improv section that closes out the last three minutes of the album. It’s all equally important as far as I’m concerned; one couldn’t exist without the other.”