Robert Ellis’ new album The Lights From the Chemical Plant represents a massive shift for the Texas-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter. His previous record Photographs was neatly divided into openhearted country-folk songs on the first side and rambling country-rock numbers on the second, as though he were channeling both Townes Van Zandt and George Jones.
Lights builds ambitiously on that twangy foundation in unexpected ways, teasing out sophisticated arrangements that veer more toward R&B, heavy rock, even jazz. It’s also allowed Ellis to write less about himself and more about characters, most of whom are compellingly self-deluding or self-destructive. For example, the narrator of “TV Song” loses himself binge-watching Mad Men as Ellis’ band provides a dark, low-key soundtrack.
CMT Edge: What’s the story behind “TV Song”? It makes for an unusual opener.
Ellis: That song is definitely a character study, but elements of it are totally me. When I was writing it, I was watching a ton of television and was super-obsessed with Mad Men. I blasted through all the episodes on Netflix. Write what you know, they say.
I started with the line, “I love my TV,” and there’s a sort of therapeutic process where something takes over. … The character reveals himself to me as the song is being written. Maybe this love of TV is disingenuous. Maybe it’s rooted in escapism because there’s something in his life that he needs to escape from. As it started taking shape, I realized what it was going to be about.
Did getting away from the country sound of Photographs free you up to write more in character?
Definitely. I didn’t set out thinking this wouldn’t be a country record. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking I’m going to write a George Jones song. But I don’t think you could ever hear my voice and not think country in some way. So I didn’t want to go over the top embellishing that or give songs this throwback country treatment when they didn’t need it.
The sound of Photographs, and especially the second side, was meant to be a tribute to classic country. … If people didn’t get that the last record was supposed to be an exercise, then they might just think I’m a throwback country guy. Hopefully, if they got Photographs, maybe they’ll think I’m creating some interesting characters on Lights and not mind that those characters aren’t always so country.
One character who stands out is the narrator of “Bottle of Wine,” which reminds me of Randy Newman’s “Guilty.”
He’s a huge inspiration as a writer and as a storyteller, and that song, in particular, is a good example of how his characters are not always people you like. In “Bottle of Wine,” the bottle of wine and the bag of cocaine are metaphors for this relationship that is unhealthy, but the character can’t stop doing it. In the first lines, he’s saying he doesn’t really like this girl, but then at the end, he’s inviting her to come over.
Maybe there’s some part of me in there, but I would hope that’s not who I am. I did have someone in mind when I wrote that song, but it’s heavily embellished. The reality is not nearly as bleak as the song. I’m not a drug addict, but I definitely know what it’s like to drink and use drugs recreationally, so it’s not so far outside my realm of experience. I know a little bit about wanting something that’s bad for you.
Musically, Lights sounds like it’s rooted in country, but you’re reaching out to all these other styles — like in the Deep Purple-ish jazz-rock coda on “Houston.”
I feel like the band grew a lot from playing Photographs on the road. We’ve developed a certain level of communication that that album didn’t lend itself to. So when I was writing this record, I was very aware of how the songs might translate live and how much freedom I could give everybody.
The coda of “Houston” was a place where everybody could improvise. Every night, it could be something different. We could stretch it out and make it new. I wrote that little riff and told everybody it would be a big solo section. We’ve grown a lot, and now we’re at a place where we don’t have to be so stylistically pinned down. We can be our own thing now.
Has the band’s development changed the way you approach older material?
Completely. We’ve rearranged some of the songs from Photographs, and it’s made them more interesting. It keeps them fresh. After you’ve played a song a million times, you start to not even hear it sometimes. So I think we have to consciously do things to keep it fresh. We never want to get to a point where we think it’s good enough. Hopefully, we can get inspired to play it differently every night. Otherwise, we’d go insane.
You’ve been doing some production work lately, in particular for the new Whiskey Shivers album. How did that come about?
I produced a record last year for my friend Ben Godfrey, which comes out next month. That was when I realized that producing other people is something I really want to do. Working with [producer] Jacquire King on Lights solidified that for me. So I put out some feelers through friends to see if anyone was looking for a producer, and Whiskey Shivers reached out to me and gave me the opportunity to work with them, even though I didn’t have a whole lot of experience.
I like the idea of helping other people reach their goals. It’s a different hat that I want to wear. Having to defend your opinions to other people helps to solidify some of your own ideas. If you say you shouldn’t have a guitar part here, you have to articulate why not, and that makes it very concrete in your mind. I don’t always get that with my own songwriting. There’s no pushback there. So producing for other people has been healthy for me.