Following Robert Ellis on His Journey of Discovery

After years of leaning into the chaos, the singer-songwriter has found an appreciation for how structure and routine can spur creativity.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen July 18, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Julian Bajsel

These days, a stage is the closest thing to a home for Robert Ellis. It’s early June, and though he’s ostensibly been based in Brooklyn as of late, Ellis has spent his last few weeks in and around Houston promoting a new record, rehearsing and playing gigs when he can. He’ll spend the rest of the summer on tour, but before he leaves town he’s playing one last local show on a rainy afternoon at Cactus Music.

Ellis’s fans almost completely fill the aisles at the shop. The singer-songwriter emerges on stage a little late, wearing a deep purple suit, bedazzled with astronauts and rockets, that would make late-career Elvis jealous. “Some people call me the space cowboy,” he jokes to the crowd before breaking into a set of songs from his newest album, his fourth, the self-titled Robert Ellis.

A fan requests a tune from one of Ellis’s earlier albums, and he politely declines, opting instead for the catchy, jangling pop of “How I Love You,” released this spring along with an unforgettable video of Ellis walking through the unpopulated streets of Houston; the wistful folk ballad “Amanda Jane”; and “Couples Skate,” a rockabilly story of young love.

These days, the only evidence of the artist who made his name in Houston with a pitch-perfect, vintage-country-and-western sound is his delicate croon—which still has a certain twang to it—and his leather-tooled guitar strap. After moving to Nashville in 2014 to record his third album, he cut his signature waist-length hair, trimmed his beard, and honed his sound to reflect influences ranging from traditional country to folk and pop.

Willie Nelson and George Jones are still present in his music, but on his latest album, there are also echoes of Randy Newman, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. “I think it’s a continuation,” Ellis says of his new offering. “I think everything that I’ve done has been pretty different from the thing before it, so in that sense this is just the same.”

It’s clearly a sound that’s catching on. Spin called Robert Ellis “one of 2016’s finest,” and the Associated Press buzzed that the album “is Ellis’s best batch of tunes yet, which is saying something.”

Ellis grew up in Lake Jackson, which he describes as “the kind of small-town community that would ban a book.” Yet he inhabited a kind of musical oasis: His mother taught piano lessons and often played albums plucked from her extensive vinyl collection, while his uncle was a bluegrass guitar player. Ellis himself was playing guitar and writing songs as early as elementary school. Though he was a good student, by high school he was booking shows and going on short tours with his indie band. Ten years ago, during his junior year, he dropped out and moved to Houston to play music full-time.

“I’m sure a lot of my early life was…like, ‘Oh yeah, you don’t think I can succeed in music? Well, I’m going to drop out and just do it,’” says Ellis. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to me that I would stay in high school and go to college and spend another potentially eight years before I was actually doing the job that I knew I was going to do.”

Moving to Montrose, he bagged groceries at Whole Foods “for a minute” before landing a job at Rockin’ Robin teaching guitar lessons. It was there that he met bandmates Geoffrey Muller and Will Van Horn. Along with guitarist Kelly Doyle, they started playing classic-country sets as Robert Ellis & the Boys. Their weekly gig at now-defunct Mango’s, eventually known as Whiskey Wednesdays, grew from attracting a handful of fans to packing the house every week.

“In that time we were adding about 10 new songs a week, so in the course of a few years you end up knowing thousands of songs,” says Ellis. Not on purpose, he now believes, the band—which is still intact today—proved Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at something. “I wasn’t directly thinking about it at the time, but learning all of those classic, beautiful songs in such a focused way for sure informs your writing,” he says. “And we just thought we were having fun.”

Out of these sessions came Photographs, Ellis’s second album, which attracted national acclaim and was named one of the top 50 albums of 2011 by American Songwriter Magazine. Tours followed, with Ellis opening for everyone from Alabama Shakes to Drive-By Truckers before his stint in Nashville.

“I just wanted a change in general. I get like that every couple of years, that’s why I move around so much. I just sort of feel restless. I never want to feel like things are just staying constant,” says Ellis. Even as his career evolves, he notes that it has a certain continuity. “Things are growing,” he says. “The tours are bigger. The record sounds different. It’s more fun. But essentially the same stuff is happening. It all comes in cycles: you tour and then you make a record and then you write and you tour.”

Ellis figures that after this tour he’ll spend some time in Austin. After years of leaning into the chaos, he says, he’s developed an appreciation for how structure and routine—including waking up in the same place every day—can spur creativity. “I’m generally pretty A.D.D. and restless, so what’s great is I have a new job every two or three months. But all my jobs are related to the thing that I love most in the world, which is music.”

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