Robert Ellis released his second album, Photographs, in April. The record, his first for the New West label, is by definition, a classic "Side-A / Side-B album". It's a full length that is cut down the middle, and divided into two distinctive parts.
The first half offers five songs that paint an intimate portrait of an emerging talented singer-songwriter working within a deliberately sparse setting. Armed with only a guitar and his voice in the studio, Ellis later accentuated the set with a layering of minimal arrangements to flesh the tunes out. In contrast, the second half is a full band effort, filled with a set of tunes inspired by classic country, Texas swing, and rousing honky-tonk.
For a record that delivers equal parts folk-country with bulletproof classic country, Photographs is a collection that has the power to convert fans from each camp, sometimes unknowingly, towards the other side of the spectrum. Or in this case, to flip over to the other side of the record.
I recently caught up with Mr. Ellis while he was on tour with the Old 97's. We met up for a brief chat just outside of the Bell House in Brooklyn. About an hour or so later, Mr. Ellis and his band stormed the club with an incredible performance, drawing largely from the Photographs LP. Here's our conversation:
How did you get started with music?
Robert Ellis: When I was a little kid I played piano and then in 4th grade I picked up a guitar. I played on my own for a while and then my mom got me lessons because she saw that I was serious about it. The first music I wrote was Christian music because I was raised really Christian. I went to a Baptist church, so it wasn't like heavy on the music, but there were a lot of old hymns and stuff.
I grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas. It was really boring and there's nothing to do there. So I practiced a lot, and when I got older I ran around and partied (laughing), and there really wasn't much going on there.
You live in Houston now. How has that been for you musically?
RE: I moved to Houston about 4 years ago. Houston is awesome. I really dig it. It's a cool Texas city. Austin is really hip too, for being in Texas, but it's not really a city in that sense. Houston is just a really culturally diverse, cool, motivating place to be in.
Can you discuss your experiences of working on your first self-released album, The Great Rearranger?
RE: Doing the first one was a real learning experiences for me. I did it all myself at a friend's studio in Austin. A lot of it had to do with developing a style and focusing on what I wanted to do, which influenced how I made my new record, Photographs, too. I don't want to play those songs off The Great Rearranger anymore, but we do play one of the songs from that record live.
I made that one about two years ago. When I go back and listen to it now, I like it. I felt like after that record was finished, I was like "OK. I know what I want to do now for the next record". But there were songs on there that went into a different direction than the one I wanted to go in, so I'd say it was a big learning process. I learned what was going to work and what wasn't. So when I started this new record, I felt like I knew how to write and do the recording. To be honest, there is even a remnant in my early solo stuff from my high school career in Lake Jackson when I was listening to a lot of indie rock and emo bands at that age. I feel like I finally shook it all completely when I began working on this new record.
What would you say carried over the most from The Great Rearranger to Photographs?
RE: The A-Side stuff is similar to the last record with the minimal arrangements and the way it was executed. The way I did all of the A-Side stuff was I tracked it all as if I was playing a live show. I played an acoustic guitar and sang, and would track the whole song like that. Any instrumentation was layered on top of that later.
And the B-Side material?
RE: The B-Side is a full band. That was all tracked to tape in the studio with the band. There were some overdubs, but the majority of it all was recorded live.
How did the A/ B Sides "concept" come together?
RE: Well, I wrote a lot of the tunes with that side-by-side thing in mind.
So you set that up from the beginning?
RE: When we first started playing together as a band, we were playing a lot of classic country and because I was playing all of that stuff, I started writing some of those tunes. I already had a couple of the A-Side songs written like "Westbound Train", "Bamboo" and "Cemetery". When I figured out what I wanted to do with each side, some of them seemed to write themselves and followed in one of the two directions. So I did it all with that in mind, deciding which songs would be good for the "country" side or the other one.
Can you talk about your relationship with the band and your recording process together?
RE: We are all best friends. We play together constantly. They are all insanely awesome musicians. There was a lot of direction, especially the A-Side. I was there at every tracking session, and I really wanted to be part of everything, and to be very directive in the arrangements, especially on the A-Side. On the B-Side, there were directions that we all decided on together. But for the most part, the players are all good enough, so if someone says "I've written a solo for that", I'd say "Awesome, let's go with that".
How did the band get together?
RE: It all just kind of happened magically. We all live in Houston and it's a pretty small music community, with an even smaller "serious music community". There are a lot of bands there, but we take it really seriously. We practice all of the time and are all really focused. So we gravitated towards each other.
I read that you guys played shows called "Whiskey Wednesdays" in Houston while leading up to/ working on the new record? What were those about?
RE: They were really drunk and loose. Sometimes high. Just all kinds of mania. We wanted to play classic country. It was all old obscure tunes we were all into like Ray Price, Buck Owens, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubbs, Marty Robbins, and more. We know hundreds and hundreds of tunes at this point just because we were adding about ten tunes a week. Some of them we learned the hard way, like when people would request them. But for the most part, there was never a format to it. I do remember at one point I had a list of all of the tunes that I knew, and it was like 200 tunes. Then every night another would pop up in my head that wasn't on the list. I eventually spilled beer on the list and lost it. And that was like a year ago. But then we just started calling them.
What's next for you after this tour with the Old 97's?
RE: Well, when we finish this tour, I'm going to go home and take some time to rest. Then we will go out for some shows in August. In September, we're planning on going back out on the road to do some festivals and then we have some cool opening spots booked opening for other bands. I think at this point, the main goal is for us is to get on as many support tours as possible so we can and build our fanbase. This Old 97's run has been perfect, so more things like this is what we're going to try to do.
Part of what we like to do is consciously avoid playing country joints. In Houston, we have weeded out most of them. There are a really a lot of honky-tonks that we have loved to play. But at this point, a lot of what we are doing is sometimes a little too far out from what may be expected as "country". I find that a lot more of the people who like what we are doing are more open-minded, like the younger folks, and are people I would say that would not call themselves fans of country music. Old style country fans are one thing, but they mostly hate the A Side stuff. It's a weird place to find an audience, making a record like that. I guess you could say that I shot myself in the foot a lit bit. It also makes it more interesting.