Robert Ellis has named his new album after himself and the reason is clear. The album is both his most personal statement yet and a summation of his career thus far. Robert Ellis opens with “Perfect Strangers,” a meditation on what brings people together (and how tenuous that connection can be), and ends with “It's Not OK,” a raw look at emotional compromise. Between those two powerful bookends are nine other songs that set Ellis's soaring vocals and knowing melodies against his sharp, dark observations, and that show him in full command of a vibrant set of songwriting skills—irony, distance, character, narrative, a thoughtful relationship between sound and sense.
Ellis was born and raised in Lake Jackson, a town about an hour from Houston whose other famous residents have included the Pauls (Ron and Rand) and Selena (the original Queen of Tejano, not the current pop sensation). From an early age, he escaped small-town boredom through music. At first, his tastes ran toward traditional hits. “I remember having a bunch of pop records when I was really young: No Doubt and Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks. That was when I was pretty passive as a listener—I liked them, but maybe I got to them because my mom or one of my sisters had them. The first I really got obsessed with was a Doc Watson collection. I was already starting to play guitar, and my uncle told my mom to get it for me. He was my first guitar hero.”
As he developed as a writer, though, he found himself drawn toward the smartest and sharpest of the class of songwriters who developed in the 1970s: artists like Paul Simon, John Prine, and Randy Newman. And he didn't just listen to them. He learned from them. Specifically, he learned the finer points of songcraft. “I've been a big fan of Paul Simon for a long time,” he says. “He has this capacity to surprise you with his music and his lyrics. With John Prine's songs, I grew from believing that they happened to him to understanding that it didn't matter if they really happened to him. And Randy Newman? Wow. I especially love a record like Trouble in Paradise, when there are all these artificial 1980s production techniques, but they're being used in the service of this master composer.”
That respect for tradition—but more specifically for the fact that so-called traditional artists were in fact consistent risk-takers—fuel Ellis's new record. “With this record,” he says, “I feel like I've gotten to where I can use the material of my own life as a jumping-off point. But now I can do different things with that material.” In this case, of course, the material has an element of melancholy. Much of the record revolves around the dissolution of Ellis's marriage. It's a breakup album, but not one that dissects its subject with straightforward rage and regret—Ellis and his ex-wife remain friends, and she is even featured in the album art, which was created after the divorce. Rather, it's an album that finds Ellis reaching back into the trick bags of masters like Simon, Prine, and Newman, and employing the full complement of skills that he's learned from them. “'Perfect Strangers,' took a month,” he says. “I had a notepad and walked around New York, giving myself personal therapy through the eyes of the city.”
Other songs came faster. “I wrote 'Elephant” quickly,” he says. “It's about my misunderstanding of monogamy and my complete bewilderment with some of the ideas that I grew up with. I felt that in the past year, lots of constructs I took for granted were turned on their head. But I was careful to express those ideas in a way where the gray areas got to stay gray. If what you're saying is that you're confused, you shouldn't say you're confused. You should betray a contradiction.”
Ellis isn't afraid of sophistication. The beautifully orchestrated “You're Not the One” has more complex origins than its title might suggest. “For that one, I woke up from a nightmare that was a kind of sex dream. In the dream, the faces around me kept changing. It was very eerie, like a David Lynch movie. The song has that sense of unease but also this Ellington bridge that's unrelated to the key of the song. I'm really proud of that one.” But he can make his point with simplicity also, as in the chorus to “Drivin',” a co-write with Angaleena Presley: “This don't feel like living, it's just surviving / I'm ain't going nowhere, I'm just driving.” And then there's “High Road,” the emotional center of the record, co- written with friend Jonny Fritz, a song about professional and personal insecurity that builds from lonesome shivers to almost operatic melodrama—all the while riding a lovely, fragile melody.
While Ellis wrote nine of the album's songs, he is also a generous collaborator dedicated to finding songs from other writers who advance his vision. “Once I knew that much of the record would be composed of these extremely personal songs like 'Elephant' or 'High Road,' but I was aware from the start that I couldn't have a whole record of them. Putting it together was like assembling a collection of short stories. You need different tones and colors. So that's why I included a song like 'How I Love You,' which was written by my friend Matt Vasquez, from Delta Spirit. We were hanging out, and I asked him if he had any good uptempo songs, and he showed me that one. And 'Screw' was written by Kelly Doyle, who plays guitar in our band. Listening to him work on his solo record, I was amazed by the sound. His process and palette were really inspirational to me.”
The album ends with “It's Not OK,” which holds its ground as a traditional busted-love song before hurtling headlong into a dark thicket of guitars. “In that case, because the song is about that kind of emotional trouble, part of me wanted that dissonance and chaos. The melodic and rhythmic ideas to me are a different kind of information from the lyrics, but they're still information.”
As thoughtful as Ellis is about the process, his album also has plenty of pop pleasures. “California” is a jaunty, intimate travelogue that elevates into his chorus. “Amanda Jane” has an almost bossa nova shuffle and a melody that splits the difference between power pop and '70s soft rock. And “Couples Skate” reaches back even further. “I wrote that one while were on tour with Richard Thompson. It's a green room song. I was just journaling, and I remembered holding this girl's hand in second grade. It's a nostalgic idea, which is why I reached for a '50s soul vibe. But it's also nineties, in a way—something about it that reminds me of the rock and roll I was listening to around that time.”
In the end, Robert Ellis (the album) is the most accurate reflection yet of Robert Ellis (the man). It's analytical and emotional, calculated in spots and improvisational in others, restless, peaceful, never indifferent, never dispassionate.