At the end of the week, a few thousand of your closest friends will all be in the same place in Newport. We got the chance to talk with Robert Ellis about his last album, which was self-titled, his process writing songs, and the special connections nourished at Newport. It was one of the best conversations I’ve had and I would urge you strongly to check out Robert’s music and his really wonderful interview with Joe Pug on The Working Songwriter.
RLR: I feel like the songs on your most recent, self-titled album, have a lot of space to explore live–that is, they’re very tight, but they are not rigid. How has bringing these songs out on the road over the past year changed your relationship with them?
RE: It’s funny, I just played some off the cuff shows in Wisconsin, with my friend Cory Chisel. It was at The Refuge Lounge and it was kind of a song swap for two nights. And I’ve been touring a whole lot, but it’s been quiet over the last few weeks – and I never sit and practice my songs. Sometimes it seems like the more space and distance I have from a song, the more I like it. So I was reengaging with a lot of the stuff from The Lights from the Chemical Plant and Photographs. When you’re playing a song every night, you get these weird notions about how it’s not working or how a line is wrong. But with a little space from it, it’s almost like it’s not mine.
Little stuff in that respect can make a big difference, like the order that we play songs in, and you start to see strengths where you used to see weaknesses. Recently, we have been starting shows with “Amanda Jane,” which has always been one of my favorite songs, but it’s always been a song I buried in the set between two uptempo numbers. But I feel like the lyrics and melodies are really strong and starting with it sort of primes people to listen; then for the rest of the night, we generally have this audience ready to hear lyrics, whereas when you start with rocking song, there are different expectations for the rest of the night. The context that you hear things in matters so much: the people you’re with, the room, the acoustics. But in starting with a song like, “Amanda Jane,” there is sort of a confidence in that. You know, like, “We’re gonna do this. Pay attention or don’t.”
RLR: You mentioned on The Working Songwriter podcast with Joe Pug that if you were to chart the songs when playing live, there would be these spaces that just say “improvise”. I feel like that is less common in the broad Americana genre than not–that many acts don’t have “improvise” if they were to chart the songs. Why do you think that might be the case?
RE: From personal experience, I have seen artists who have a whole tour where every song is planned out exactly in order, and they deliver it the same way every night, and they even have the same banter between songs, the same joke, all of that. And that’s one way of doing it. I guess it comes down to whether you think of yourself as a performer, like an actor, or not, and we just want to be as honest as possible. And that means that some of our shows are not necessarily going to be “fun,” because we want to communicate whatever we’re feeling and it allows everyone to express themselves in an honest way. You know, but speaking of Joe Pug, I’ve always said that I want the next Joe Pug album to just be recordings of his banter between songs. He’s hilarious, and every night he can just come up with this very authentic improvised banter.
RLR: And some people know that this joke or banter works to pull a crowd in…
RE: There is something to be said for constructing this thing that you know will be successful. With our method there are lulls that there wouldn’t be if we planned it out more. But I would rather have people feel that we’re being really honest.
RLR: In reading past interviews with you, it seems like dogmatic or narrow perspectives rub you the wrong way. You’ve said that you get annoyed by people who are averse to certain styles of music or to performing songs written by other people.
RE: Unfortunately, that’s not limited to music. There’s kind of an alarm that goes off for me whenever I run into that. It’s probably from being raised Southern Baptist, in this really conservative environment. There’s an angsty teenager inside of me ready to push back against that kind of thing.
RLR: On the flip side, are there any ‘rules to live by’ as far as you’re concerned–or anything you are dogmatic about?
RE: I would like to say no to that, but I’m sure there are. I try to be constantly growing and learning in life and in music. And I do experience it when I am writing a lot. Yesterday was one of those writing days when stuff was pouring out. I spent 8 hours working on a song, and in my head, I’m thinking, “I really like this,” but I’m not sure about it, because there’s nothing that is repeating, there’s no strong hook. And as a songwriter, and a lover of music, you listen to the greatest songs of all time and you notice patterns in them. It’s similar to short story writing, with the climax and resolution.
Even stuff as simple as rhyme: I’ve done some writing with Jonny Fritz, and he always says, “Don’t worry about rhyme,” and he is the king of cramming things in, and sometimes living with something being clunky, because he’d rather sing what he means than make it fit a rhyme or something. And I’m always going to defer to the musical side of things. But like writing with Cory Chisel – he could sing the dumbest fucking line, but his voice is so beautiful, it works. If I were to sing it, it wouldn’t.
RLR: You’ve cited Bird by Bird as a recent influence on how you approach songwriting. My favorite chapter in that book is “Shitty First Drafts.” Can you think of a particular song that started as a really shitty first draft – and what it was that unlocked it for you?
RE: On the most recent record, both “Amanda Jane” and, “You’re Not the One,” were rejects for Chemical Plant. I had the bones of those songs but for both me and producer, we said they weren’t as strong. And I don’t know that they weren’t “strong,” it just wasn’t their place in that body of work. After we started making the record, I put them away. Every now and then, I would go back to them, and did a ton of revising, and eventually they found their moment. My process is over months, sometimes over years. And sometimes it’s like one word that’s bumming me out in a line. Something that is wrong, and then you wake up in the right mood and find the right word.
The flip side of that is how do you know when to just put it down. Me and Jonny [Fritz] spent a summer writing in my parents’ RV. We worked on a song called “Mailbox Money.” The premise is that there are all these guys in TX writing songs and sending them in for country singers; they’re guys who went out on the road and eventually just wanted to be back home. And they’ve written big hit country songs; and they’re a dime a dozen, some guy in Conroe, TX, writing a George Strait hit. But they just wanted to go back and live in their hometown and leave this whole game behind–just work on songs and send ‘em out. So that’s what the song was about and we worked all day on it. We played it for my mom. And she’s so sweet, but I could just see on her face that she was thinking, “That’s not very good.” And we’d spent a whole day and it bled into the next day writing this song. So now, if we have an idea that’s just not working, we say, “Mailbox Money,” and we can put it away.
RLR: Probably just as useful as a shorthand line than as a song.
RE: Yeah, yeah, probably true – and the irony was that it was a song about songwriting, and that’s the real clunker.
RLR: You have a string of shows here in New England, including the Newport Folk Festival. What does it mean to you to play that particular festival?
I love it, I’m glad we’re coming back. It’s been four years since I played it under my own name. I played with Traveller two years ago and have played Deer Tick’s aftershows. And it has this ripple effect throughout the region. When we played at The Sinclair, I just fucking love our crowd. They’re into lyrics and roots music, but they’re not rigid sort of folkies.
Aside from the history, which I’m honored to be a part of, all of my best friends are in one place for a weekend. So I’m playing there Saturday, but I’m just gonna hang and go see music. Whether or not you’re playing, you want to be there.
Robert Ellis is playing Newport, of course, but you can also catch him in Fairfield, CT, Wellfleet, MA and Portsmouth, NH while he’s in New England. Tour information is here on his website.