Rambling with Robert Ellis
Robert Ellis is touring the country promoting his new album “The Lights from the Chemical Plant.” Ellis has played guitar since he was a kid and dropped out of high school to become a full time musician. Most nights he is on the road singing his songs about Houston, lies, and a bottle of wine.
“Most of my songs are not autobiographical but writing is a discovery process and I think it reveals to me a lot about myself,” says Ellis. “Through the eyes of characters I am allowed to point out my thoughts in ways that I wouldn’t do on my own. You can be more honest and brutal about other people. If the songs were about my life, I don’t think I would be able to be brutally bleak.”
Your stories are full of details and real life, like a good short story. Where do your stories come from?
My stories are more of a writing exercise with constant editing and revision. It is the spectrum of extremes that are a lot more interesting than the day to day and the mundane. They aren’t about me but I can’t avoid putting myself into my characters. Most of the time I don’t feel like “Song Tour.” (On an endless string of one night stands with ok girls and shitty bands/ A good one comes by now and then but I long to be back home again. Home again.). Most of the time I love playing music and being out there.
When I start writing a story I don’t have a clear idea of who the characters are or where they are going. I start with how words sound and where they can take the characters. The story has more potential if I don’t have rigid constraints of who a character is supposed to be and I can decide why is someone going through this, what is the motivation, and where they should go.
Do you write about people you know?
Some of the songs are about specific people that I’ve known or met, but often they are embellished so there is more potential for where the songs can go. I let the songs write themselves and follow the thread of an idea down the rabbit hole.
How long does it take to write a song?
I take a lot of time to write then revise, edit and cut out the clutter. It can take up to six months to finish a song like “Bottle of Wine,” but some songs are written in an hour. Sometimes it is clear where a song should go but other times it is a tough nut to crack. Sometimes I have to live with these characters and find out who they are but at some point I have to end it and say this is it, this is the song. It is often a surprise to me where the story ends.
What is the story behind the title song “Light at the Chemical Plant?”
I grew up in Jackson, Texas and a Dow chemical plant is located there. I thought it was beautiful at night and it seemed like a powerful symbol to me. I wanted to find a way to convey that through real people with a love story and figure out how to make that symbol change through the lives of people and mean something different in every verse.
A lot of the songs were already written before this song, but when I named the record I realized this is what the record is about. I think this album represents huge personal growth but there is also a sense of youthful awe in the songs.
Do you write anything else besides song lyrics?
No. I don’t have the literature voice. There is a lot that I can hide behind in the context of a song with my voice and instrumentation and that can lead the listener to understand things they wouldn’t get if they were just reading it on paper. With music you can infer a lot from the context of where a lyric falls and that sometimes lets me get away with a general description.
Have you found your voice as a songwriter?
Finding my voice is a constant pursuit. Every song is different and there is going to be a different tone, just like there are different tones for stories in Esquire or The New York Times. Song writing is the same way from song to song. Tom Waitts changes his presentation with each song and it’s like the character writes the song.
“Only Lies” started with the lines “only lies will see you through. Just because a thing’s convenient, that doesn’t make it true.” I had something different in mind when I wrote it. Originally it was about how people define themselves to make themselves feel better but it became a story of infidelity.
We live in an age where people like to have something to grab on to and classify and categorize. In reviews for my last album, Photograph, I was often called the long-haired Texan. My hope is that people just want to hear my songs and not care about the other stuff.
You are in the middle of a busy tour that is about to take you to SXSW, and most major cities from Chicago to Portland and Houston. Do you like being on the road?
I love being on the road. I get anxiety when I have to sit at home and have to stay in one place. I would much rather be on the road.
With the name of his wife tattooed on his fingers on his right hand, Ellis is making a living playing songs that have been praised by critics and fans. “I am very happy with my life and playing music,” says Ellis. “That is another reason why I can’t write songs about my life. Being happy doesn’t make an interesting song. “
Photos by Michelle Stancil at Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, Mobile, AL