There are not too many young musicians hawking a sound like Robert Ellis. A native Texan, Ellis grew up in a company town in the boonies, moved to Houston, and later shot straight to Nashville when he was old enough to know that Music City might have something in store for him. Though his latest album The Lights from the Chemical Plant bites off a whole lot from the musical spectrum (R&B, bossa nova, fusion, free jazz), this three song performance, stripped to nothing but a fit of dazzling guitar work and Robert's twangy vox, really flaunts the 25 year-old's traditional country roots. Referencing fellow Texans Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson seems appropriate; Robert's tapped into the personal, often-melancholy narratives of those who came before him, coloring his songs in rustic textures and lonely, windswept moods. It's the kind of honest, authentic, and stunning stuff all those pop-pushing suits in Nashville ought to get hip to. They could make this man a star. You know they won't though, which is just fine...I get the feeling Robert's got that last little part under control.
I won't take much of your time. I just need someone to talk to that's kind. You know all my darker shades. You know everything I keep hidden away. And whenever it seems as if nothing is going my way You will call and it seems like you always know just what to say And whenever it seems as if something's gone terribly wrong There is some kind of power in the sound of your voice and it keeps me strong You are steady as the rising sun. But like the moon, you keep on shining long after the day is done. It seems impossible to think somehow That there is a love that won't ever let me down. And honey I hope your love won't let me down. Life can drag you through the dirt. And a man can always tell you exactly where it hurts. But you've touched my unhealing heart by making known your very own until I can't tell us apart and if a storm or a gale ever capsized the sail that these words resound You're the finest of sailing companions a sailor has ever found. When I lose or I win, when the audience thins, you have stuck around. Oh, I may die in the fight, but with you at my side that won't get me down 'Cause you are steady as the rising sun. But like the moon, you keep on shining long after the day is done. It seems impossible to think somehow That there is a love that won't ever let me down. And honey I hope your love won't let me down. is sort of a love song. Yeah, the chorus is "I hope your love won't let me down, " so it's not the most optimistic of love songs, but... My mother was a piano player and teacher, so I was a little tiny kid when I started playing, and I really took to it probably around the fifth or sixth grade and became obsessed with guitar and, you know, wanted to shred. - Yeah, I mean, as soon as I could ah, legally do it, I dropped out of high school and decided I was just going to play music full time. Ah, I had a lot of pressure from family and friends to kind of go to college, and maybe 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 kinda did a similar thing to me, where they just... 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 twenties, start playing music. - Good Intentions is a song that I wrote when I was eighteen years old, and I decided to put it on this record, because it's just a fun pop song, and yeah, it's the only song off that record that I still kinda would listen, to, you know? And it's about infidelity. It's about having a little too much fun. I don't care how wrong it is, I've got good intentions and I just can't hide it anymore. I made my decision. You pull that collar round my neck and you bring me to your whisper You say the things I wanna hear. Don't do this to me, sister. Don't do this to me, sister. Don't do this to me, sister. I don't care how wrong it is, I've got good intentions and I just can't hide it anymore. I made my decision. You put your hand up on my chest and you rise or fill with laughter Your lips are wet, your hair's a mess, and I know just what you're after. Oh, I know just what you're after. You wanna play And you wanna play I don't care how wrong it is, I've got good intentions and I just can't hide it anymore. I've made my decision. I don't care how wrong it is, I've got good intentions and I just can't hide it anymore. I've made my decision. I've made my decision. Yes, I've made my decision. Lights from the Chemical Plant. " The name, "The Lights from the Chemical Plant" ah, kind of represents what I think most of the album does, or what I want it to do, ah, which is kind of highlight some of this gray area of ethics and morality. Um, - 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 and dirty and nasty, and ah, with the song I wanted to do, kind of exactly the opposite, show how beautiful they were and what, what a nice metaphor it is for a relationship and for a life, you know? - And I think most of the songs hopefully do that. They kind of betray expectations lyrically, um, or at least that's what I want them to do, you know? And as a kid, you know, everybody's dad that I knew worked at that chemical plant, or for some subsidiary of it, so it's kinda I think of it as kind of the driving force behind the town. - That's why everybody moved there in the first place. You know, I find it really interesting that there are places that ah, the sole reason that people are there is just because of the industry in the town, you know? Well, the team of people that worked on the record is amazing. - I'm super excited that Jacquire King was able to be a part of it, um, and I'm excited we got to do a big part of it at the casino and all the players that are on it are friends of mine from Houston, who are just incredible musicians. Um Yeah, I'm really proud of everything, and I'm excited that we can go on tour with this record and um, you know bring a full band. - That's one of the things that I'm really happy about, is the last record did what it was supposed to do, and I'm really proud of it, but it didn't really afford us some of the opportunities live that I wanted it to. There wasn't a lot of room for improvisation and to stretch out and do weird things, you know, with a full band. So I ended up doing a lot of solo touring in the last record, and I think now, this'll make it a lot less lonely on the road, at least. Nobody talks too loud in my hometown. Nobody stands too tall for fear of gettin knocked down. Just follow straight lines and teach your children how. Well, you just do your job and conceal your doubts. And the flames of hell, they seem so high when I can barely see you over the pew. I was just a boy when they told me that lie but Lord, it felt so true. With one big voice all the children sang. The grown folks led and they praised his name. Like an army camp marching off to fight, Like a mindless chant, we'll make you right. And that's a hell of a thing to do to a kid, just to teach him right from wrong. You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can choose to sing along. Sing along, sing along. Well, you can speculate about the way things end or you can sit and wait for the resurrection But a child believes in whatever they're told A pillar of flame, a street of gold. And the flames of hell, they seem so high when I can barely see you over the pew. I was just a boy when they told me that lie but Lord, it felt so true. And that's a hell of a thing to do to a kid, just to teach him right from wrong. You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can choose to sing along. Sing along, sing along Sing along, sing along
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."