Around the same time Robert Ellis relocated to Nashville, he also chopped off all his long hair and adopted a more clean-cut look. There are those who are disinclined to believe that was mere coincidence.
"I had a lot of fans that asked me, 'Did the label ask you to do that?' " Ellis says. "And that's really sweet of them to think that I'm at this level where I've got enough fans that people care what my hair looks like. But yeah, that's not the reality."
It's understandable, though, that Ellis' move from Houston to a two-story bungalow in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood of Music City would be interpreted a certain way. No matter how much indie pop, rock and hip-hop Nashville exports, it'll always be recognized as the city where mainstream country is king. The branding resonates so widely that New York City's country radio station is currently dubbed NASH-FM. And to think Ellis came to this town to break with his country-folk rep and cut a worldly, singer-songwriter jazz-pop album.
"I mean, the reason we moved to Nashville was because I wanted a change of scenery," Ellis says, speaking for himself, his wife Destiny and their dogs. "I think the idea of Nashville that most people have as a country music town is maybe a little counterintuitive [in terms of] how that would be liberating for me. You know, wanting to get away from the country thing and moving to Nashville seems like it doesn't make a lot of sense.
"But I think what a lot of people that don't live here don't realize is that it's not just country music," he continues. "There's also a really great scene of young songwriters — you know, Jonny Fritz, Caitlin Rose. My friend John McCauley lived here for a bit. Cory Chisel. These people that I don't think are really genre-specific artists, but really, really great young songwriters that want to do interesting things. And that's the community that I came here for. I never thought that I would come here and do co-writes and write the next Florida Georgia Line hit or something. You know what I mean?"
The Lights From the Chemical Plant is the first album Ellis has made with an outside producer. And not even the gifted guy he tapped for that role, Jacquire King, knew how far Ellis planned to travel from the down-home boho sensibilities of his New West Records debut. "I think anyone that listened to Photographs would have fairly assumed that the next thing I do would be pretty country," Ellis says. "And when I met with Jacquire the first time, that was kind of the central theme of our conversation; I really want to make this record not what people expect from me. He was completely on board."
Ellis continues, "I'm really impressed with Jacquire's ability to just listen to something and be like, 'I think that's the song that we should go with.' I kinda get emotionally attached to tunes, because I spent a long time working on a lyric or something. And I might think that it's the best song because I've put the most work into it. But he's really good at just spotting what it is that people are kind of immediately drawn to, which I've realized I'm no good at. If I like a band, it's really likely that they won't be successful."
Ellis was apparently up to his eyeballs in knotty character studies — several set in his native Texas and all rich in humanizing detail — along with refined melodies and urbane chord progressions, and he was itching to ride out a few of the latter with free-jazz vamps, since he and his band have the chops for it. There's a penetrating pop intelligence and musical meticulousness to the whole affair, which includes a strategically chosen cover of Paul Simon's mid-'70s jazzy soft rock classic "Still Crazy After All These Years." Frankly, it's a fantastic album. But it's not the easiest sell to those in the market for a variant of alt-country or otherwise fashionably disheveled music.
This is not news to Ellis. "I never thought this would be, like, Pitchfork's favorite record or anything when we set out to make it," he deadpans.
The artist behind this Pitchfork-repelling masterpiece is the kind of guy who can pack his bottom lip with Skoal and spit brown juice into a plastic cup throughout an interview and still come off as articulate and self-aware. And if that isn't an illuminating enough contrast, here's another: He'd take Simon's smoothest tracks over Bob Dylan's archetypal folk-rock recordings any day.
"I guess it says something about my personality too," Ellis reflects. "Bob Dylan is more like kinda throw together a band and barely show 'em the song, just improvise. Really beautiful things happen in that, but that's totally not my style, maybe because I'm a little too neurotic. But I relate a lot more to the Paul Simons and Randy Newmans, that kind of calculated approach."