In addition to popping by Baeble HQ to stir our hearts with his contemporary, somewhat avant-garde take on classic country, native Texan Robert Ellis also sat under the hot lights fielding a few questions about his unique new album, The Lights From The Chemical Plant. It's a title Robert hopes evokes dissimilar qualities all at once. On one hand, the plant - an actual landmark from his hometown of Lake Jackson, TX - sounds industrial, dirty, and nasty. Yet its ambiance is hazy and beautiful; a duality Ellis captures beautifully between the reels of his recordings. Ellis also takes us through a little bit of his background, the inspirations that trace across his music, and how his sound really came together in a studio in Nashville.
When I came here I was a boy and now I'm leaving a man. I won't take much of your time I just need someone to talk to. - I grew up in a small industrial town in Texas called Lake Jackson. Center of the Dow chemical plant. It's about an hour south of Houston. The names of the lights from the chemical plant, kind of, represents what I think most of the album does or what I want it to do which is kind of highlight some of this gray area of ethics and morality. I like the symbol and the image of the lights from the chemical plant because, I think, instinctively and immediately it sounds kind of, industrial. Dirty and nasty and with the song I wanted to do, kind of, exactly, the opposite. Show how beautiful they were and what a nice metaphor it is for a relationship and for a life. Then as a kid everybody's dad that I knew worked at that chemical plant or some subsidiary of it. So I think of it as, kind of, a driving force behind the town that's why everybody moved there in the first place. I think most people that grew up in a small Texas town like that, I think, go and stay of boredom because there's just not much to do there which is probably why I picked up the guitar in the first place. My mother was a piano player and teacher. So I was a little tiny kid when I started playing. I really took to it probably around fifth or sixth grade and became obsessed with the guitar and wanted to shred. When I was still in Lake Jackson I met this guy named Reese who played in a band called Roger Moray and the Disasters. Roger was in a band called Agnostic Front. I think that was my first touring gig playing base. I did a tour with them, yeah, when I was really young and, yeah, it was really weird. I had long hair at the time. I put my hair up into a little punk rock hat and, yeah, so, that was like my first real taste of, kind of, national touring just that one tour with them and I had like a high school band we did little Texas tours and things like that but I knew from an early age that's what I want to do It's still kind of where I feel my most at home. Nobody talks too loud in my hometown. Nobody stands too tall for fear of getting knocked down. - As soon as I could legally do it I dropped out of high school and decided I was just going to play music full time. I had a lot of pressure from family and friends to, kind of, go to college and go the traditional schooling route and then play music after that, but I really just didn't see much precedent for that in the real world. Most of the touring musicians that I knew, kind of, did a similar thing to me where that's all you do is try to play music. It seems counter intuitive to me that if you want to play music you should go to school for eight years and then once you're halfway through your 20's start playing music. From Lake Jackson I moved to Houston when I was maybe 18 years old. It was great. I pretty quickly found a music community of players that I really liked. I started working at a Wholefoods there and had an apartment. I moved there with my girlfriend, at the time. So we smoked weed pretty much 24/7. I'd try to play music and write songs and worked at Wholefoods. For a little while it was really fun. Then, eventually, after about a year I got a gig teaching guitar. I quit the Wholefoods thing. Me and this girl split up shortly after that and right around that time I put out my first record and started touring on that. to teach him right from wrong you can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can choose to sing along choose to sing along, sing along. - I technically live in Nashville but it's kind of just a place where I keep all my crap because I've been on the road so much. So I end up talking about it, probably more than I, actually, end up spending time there because doing all these interviews and everything, everybody asks about it. I like it. It's a cool town, I mean in Nashville because of the industry that's there made recording really great and easy. Great studios, great players. People like Kutscher King and Eric Massey who are killer at their job and how cheap it is to live there made it really easy for me to have the whole band at my house, and afford to have food, and things like that, and spend our money on important stuff. Don't speculate about the way things end. You can sit and wait for the resurrection but a child believes in whatever they're told. - I hope that people appreciate the song writing and I hope that they appreciate the relationship. I think the players and what Kelly and Will and Josh and Jeffery do on it is musically really interesting and I hope people also appreciate, sort of, ambiguity style-wise and can, kind of adhere influences that are somewhat rooted in where I come from. Country music and things like that. Hopefully, they'll also hear some of the jazz stuff we listen to, or some of the free stuff, or rock and roll, and all that stuff.
Robert Ellis is the kind of songwriter who only comes along once in a great while. With his first two albums, a promise was made. With his new record, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, that promise has been delivered and fully realized. The music, like the artist, refuses to accept the confines of a box, and burns white-hot from the inside out. But what seems even more striking about this record, this musician, even at a first glance, is that feeling of unyielding authenticity.
With every remarkable cut, with every twist and turn, Robert's life and his experience, shine through. His days growing up in a small industrial town in Texas, his move to Houston, and now as a 25-year-old man, when not on the road performing around the world, living with his wife in Nashville.
The Lights from the Chemical Plant, produced with great care and precision by Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Norah Jones), and recorded at Eric Masse's Casino studio in East Nashville for New West Records, is an album that has a way of grabbing you by the hand and pulling you in so that it can play with your soul. Alive with memories and innovation, you become absorbed in the world Robert paints with his smoky lyrics, his hypnotic voice, and his masterful work on the guitar. But then something happens. Something new. Something special. And it begins with the very song for which the album is named, "Chemical Plant." You realize that Robert's building layer upon layer of different sounds from different places and different times. A synthesis of sounds and textures that pick you up and pull you in even deeper.
R&B, bossa nova, fusion, free jazz from the rousing beat of "Good Intentions" to the floor stomping bluegrass anthem "Sing Along," you've bought your ticket and you're in for the ride. And so it goes, the floodgates standing wide open. The quiet, unexpected feel of a jazz guitar in perfect union with a steel guitar in the ballad, "Steady as the Rising Sun." And so it goes. The soulful wobble of a saxophone in "Bottle of Wine," and the dreamy pedal steel that draws you into "TV Song." These are songs about love gained, about love lost, about growing up in a place where nobody stands too tall for fear of being knocked down ("Sing Along"). These are songs about lives broken, lives healed, and moving on.
As if that weren't enough, Robert gives us his interpretation of Paul Simon's classic, "Still Crazy After All These Years," which is pure elegance, cut against the song "Only Lies" with its quiet pulse, its dusky blue lyrics, and the story of a man trying to help a friend who refuses to believe that her husband is cheating on her
Only lies can comfort you,
Only lies will see you through.
Just because a thing's convenient,
That doesn't make it true.
Only lies can comfort you.
Ellis' growth as a man and musician is clear on The Lights From The Chemical Plant. And while some may call it a musical departure from his past, The Houston Chronicle best explains: "Ellis doesn't place limitations on his music. Any perceived departure is just part of an ongoing creative journey."