Robert Ellis: Ghostly Carnival Music

Music Features Robert Ellis
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Robert Ellis: Ghostly Carnival Music

Robert Ellis, a guitar-picking singer/songwriter from Gulf Coast Texas, first made his mark as a potential Americana star with 2011’s country-flavored Photographs, his first nationally distributed album. Since then, however, he has veered off on another trajectory as less of a twangy troubadour and more of a sophisticated pop artist in the 1970s mode of his heroes Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Steely Dan.

Just how far he has traveled in five years is obvious on his new album, Robert Ellis, which goes a good deal further in the left turn taken by 2014’s The Lights from the Chemical Plant. The music is not content to be a supporting actor to the words in these new songs; it insists on being a co-star. The dramatic momentum is carried as much by the melodic variations as by the verbal narratives, the moods painted as much by the extended chords as by the lyric metaphors.

This is especially obvious on the track “Couples Skate.” Though the song describes a scene at a skating rink in Lake Jackson, Texas, in 1997, it begins with a doo-wop harmony that echoes the 1950s Bronx of Simon’s hero, Dion DiMucci. The guitars of Ellis and his two longtime comrades Kelly Doyle and Will Van Horn reinforce the bouncy, joyful tune, echoing the music heard at any skating rink, only with more sophisticated chord changes. The musical effect mimics the dizzying experience of roller-skating in circles for an hour or more. “High on soda water,” Ellis sings, “round and around we go.”

By the end of the song, though, the guitars have grown more distorted and the main melody has acquired a distant echo, as if it were being heard across a distance of 20 years. We realize that the song is being sung not by the third-grade skater but by that skater as an adult wistfully remembering a lost innocence. Such ghostly carnival music is a device often used in film scores to signal a flashback to a melancholy memory, and Ellis uses it skillfully throughout the new album.

“For me, the music is another function of the writing,” Ellis says over the phone while driving across East Texas. “You can use it to embrace the narrative or you can juxtapose it against the narrative. On ‘Couples Skate’ it was more of a juxtaposition. I remember being a kid and holding hands with a girl in third grade and it being fun. It’s sort of a happy-go-lucky ‘50s song in a way, both in its rhythm and chord structure. But something strange happened when we started playing it; it started sounding very edgy and ‘90s.”

Robert Ellis was released on June 3, but the songwriter unveiled several of the songs during his official showcase at South by Southwest in March. Sporting a trim brown beard, a pink shirt with white polka dots and cowboy boots with pointy toes, the bandleader set aside his guitar and sat down at an electric piano to introduce “It’s Not OK” with staccato chords that echoed Elton John’s signature riff from “Bennie and the Jets.”

The words, though, owed more to Randy Travis than to Bernie Taupin, as Ellis’ narrator confessed that he’d been cheating on his woman at home. He admitted his guilt on the quiet verses, but on the raucous choruses declared that he could “tough it out” and keep his double life going. When the chorus came around the second time, it was as if he were trying to convince himself more than the listener. Finally the tension between the guilt and the status quo cracked open into a wild, improvised jam that went on for three or four minutes—just as it would on the studio version released two-and-a-half months later.

“Everyone in the band plays a lot of free improv in our live shows,” Ellis says. “It’s a product of touring a lot and trying not to get bored. I never want to get on stage and feel like I’m punching a button when I play the songs. I wanted to represent that improvisation on the record. That seemed the right song for it, because the narrator is so full of contradictions that it made sense to have the music be the same way. That was the first thing we recorded, because I wanted to set a tone for the record, that everyone should feel free to play what they want.”

It’s tempting to describe Robert Ellis as the singer’s divorce album, for it was written in the wake of his break-up with his wife. It’s more accurate, perhaps, to describe it as a meditation on all his frustrated attempts at love—from that third-grade girl friend through his wife and beyond. The dominant mood is not vengeful anger but rather fond regret—so fond, in fact, that Ellis’ ex-wife Destiny agreed to participate in the album’s photographs.

“That cover was our way of turning something difficult into something beautiful,” he says. “Also, she knows I’m full of shit. She can listen to the songs and know what’s true and what’s just a story. The radio people, though, just want to prod me: ‘Tell us what was going on when this song happened.’ And I have to say, ‘I’m sorry; I can’t give you the answer you want.’

“I don’t want to give anything away as to what is from my life and what isn’t, because I don’t think it’s helpful. When I listen to a record, I don’t want any context. I just want to hear the song. Even though there’s a concrete narrative, it doesn’t matter if the narrator is the songwriter.”

Ellis’ narrators include not just the third-grade skater and the adulterous husband but also two women who view a crumbling relationship from the other side of the gender boundary. On “Drivin’,” a woman puts the dishes away late at night just to delay the moment when she’ll have to climb the stairs to face her husband in their bedroom. On “California,” the album’s best song, a woman, perhaps the same woman, is packing dishes into liquor store boxes after the divorce is final and the house has gone on the market. “Maybe I’ll move to California,” she says over a gorgeous country melody. “Maybe I’ll fall in love again someday. I’m not going to hold my breath.”

“Sometimes, when it’s hard to know how I feel about something, it’s easier to imagine what other people are thinking,” he explains. “Sometimes through the songwriting, I’ll discover what I was feeling. I’ll listen later and say, ‘Gee, I was really torn up about that.’ Randy Newman is always writing from a character’s point of view, but damn you believe it when he sings something like ‘Marie.’ You know he must have experienced something like that.

“When you go through a break-up or someone dies, you grieve and then you get over it, it’s only later that things will come to the surface that you hadn’t recognized. A lot of last year I was on a bender, because I was trying to not deal with what was going on, but now I understand what was going on when I listen to the songs I wrote at that time. That happens a lot. On the last album, for example, I thought I’d write about my love of TV. But ‘TV Song’ ended up being a reflection on my childhood and my relationship to mass culture. I never thought I was watching TV to escape a relationship, but when the character said it, I realized that was me.”

The two characters in “Perfect Stranger” meet cute in New York when the man asks the woman for directions on “how to get from here to there.” The first verse, right out of a rom-com movie, boasts more buoyant carnival music. All the Paul Simon touches are there: the irrepressible doo-wop melody, the jazz chords, the subway-station setting, the ironic lyrics. In the second verse, the narrator admits to himself that he likes strangers because “they don’t know all of my mistakes, the wounds from every heartbreak I have hiding.”

“When I started writing ‘Perfect Strangers’ in New York,” Ellis recalls, “I had no idea that second verse was going to happen. But the character said it, so I knew I had to keep it.”

The problem with perfect strangers, of course, is that they don’t stay strangers for long and are soon revealed as less than perfect. It’s “so hard to recognize you, girl,” Ellis sings in the fourth verse, “with those defeated eyes that used to dance like fireflies in a jar.” A string quartet enters; the keyboard adds jarring notes to the theme and a ghostly echo is added to the mix. The lovely melody of infatuation has curdled on the coda.

Once again the lyrics sound like movie dialogue colored by soundtrack music. The string quartet reinforces that effect on “Perfect Strangers” and three other songs. The strings do not simply bolster the chords already being played by the guitars and keys but add new voicings and counterpoint. They not only expand the size of the sound but also the arrangement’s complexity.

“The strings were something I really wanted,” Ellis says. “They bring so much to the harmonies; they create a conversation with the guitars. When you have a big ensemble like that, things begin to move and the experience goes in another direction. The records I love have those arrangements: Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Rufus Wainwright with Van Dyke Parks. On The Lights from the Chemical Plant, I reached out to Van Dyke, one of my biggest heroes, to write some charts, but when it came time, there wasn’t the money to do it.

“This time I was the producer and I knew which songs I wanted strings on. To save money, I arranged them with Skylar Wilson and Jordan Lehning and recorded them all in one day. It’s worth it, because it sounds so much better to use real strings in a real studio. It’s a matter of checks and balances, and as the producer I’m always juggling trade-offs like that.”

Those string charts are full of what his bandmates call “Ellis chords”: happy, major chords but with tension built in by adding sixths, ninths, 11ths and 13ths. That sound of happy harmonies with an undercurrent of doubt and dread fit with his recent lyrics, which are often about relationships that start promisingly but eventually stumble. Simple chord changes couldn’t communicate such ambiguity as effectively, but Ellis’ embrace of extended chords and the uncertainty they evoke makes him unusual in a pop era of unambiguous dance celebrations and macho declarations.

“Recently I was listening to an Americana playlist that I’m on,” he says, “and I’m definitely an outlier. I think there’s a real trend, not just in music but in everything in this country, toward anti-intellectualism. I don’t know if they’re afraid of it or what. What we put on a pedestal is middle-brow. If we lived in a different time, John Adams would be a pop star. But if it weren’t for grant money, he couldn’t do it, even though what he’s doing for music is very important. Someone like Drake is good, fun pop music, but it’s not breaking new ground.”

Ellis addresses these issues head-on in the song “The High Road” on the new album. “Nobody cares about songs anymore,” he sings. The effort that might have been put into crafting a sophisticated lyric and chord progression, he implies, is devoted instead to the audio and visual production. That’s fine, but a well-written song is far more likely to outlive its time period than a production style. “I’m losing the fight,” Ellis sings, “to a flash in the pan, to a thief in the night.”

“When a song’s not right, I’m an anxious mess,” he elaborates, “and I spend a lot of time getting it right. And then someone will say, ‘Have you heard this guy? He’s so cool and he’s blowing up.’ And when I listen, there’s no song there. So that line, ‘Nobody cares about songs anymore,’ is calling out our peers.”

“The High Road” was co-written by Ellis with his bandmate Kelly Doyle and their sometime tourmate Jonny Fritz. Other co-writers include bandmate Van Horn (“Couples Skate”) and the Pistol Annies’ Angaleena Presley (“Drivin’”). Two songs on the album were written without any help from Ellis at all: the instrumental “Screw” by Doyle and the power-pop first single “How I Love You” by Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez. Ellis defends the practice of co-writing against purists who sniff at any compromise of individualism.

“I don’t want to go to Nashville and try to write hits for Jason Aldean,” Ellis says. “But I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends who deeply care about the same things I do and who enjoy sharing that enthusiasm. I’ve always played with other people, so writing with them seemed the natural next step. There’s no ego with any of us; we just want to make great art. The more people you write with, the wider the circle. You’re no longer the mad scientist alone in the lab.”

Ellis tries to write for several hours every day. He might work at home, at a coffee shop or while he’s out on his daily run. He tries to document every idea—verbal or musical—on his phone or in his notepad. Periodically, he’ll troll through his old notes to see if any of the ideas have real merit. Maybe he’ll find a guitar hook that can be stuck in another song. Maybe he’ll meet a character that he wants to get to know better. Maybe getting to know that character better is a way for Ellis to know himself better.

“Of course, everything starts with your own experience,” he acknowledges, “because that’s the only way we grasp the world. But anytime I say I’m going to write a song with a particular message and ending, I end up boxing myself in and it’s not that interesting. I’m better off letting things happen naturally. So I don’t feel any obligation to stick to what really happened, nor do I feel any obligation to avoid that. I find if I let the characters do what they want to do, it’s usually way better than what really happened anyway.”