Still in his early 20s, Robert Ellis exudes an old-school charm on his full-length debut, Photographs. A thoughtful songwriter with a sense of humor, his appreciation for traditional country joins a love of songwriting on his bold concept album.
“The A-side represents a more folksy, dark side of the music while the B-side is a full-band country sound,” he explains. “[It's] meant to reference and pay homage to all of the great artists who have influenced me.”
With the shaggy look of an Outlaw and a delicate voice, the young Ellis is just beginning a trek he hopes will lead to a long career. And he aims to do so with music that means something to him, as well as fans of the days before iTunes and YouTube.
Ellis, hailing from Houston, says it was his mother and grandfather who first introduced him to his favorite artists. She was a piano teacher, and he loved Marty Robbins, so Ellis eventually dove in to the catalogs of Robbins, Hank Williams, George Jones and Ray Price.
It would come in handy when he and his band landed a weekly gig in Houston cranking out country covers from the ’70s and earlier. They called it Whiskey Wednesdays and soon had a rowdy legion of fans that spanned from older listeners to young Texan punk rockers. The music energized people, and Ellis says these gigs are what really inspired him to go after his dream.
“They were kind of just drunken and debaucherous nights,” he laughs. “The whole premise was to do classic country, and I feel like those songs are some of the most well-written songs in any genre. Being able to learn them in and out and then perform them in every mental state possible — from sober to completely obliterated — I think gave me some much-needed perspective on writing and performing.”
Ellis’ own writing keeps the tradition alive, and all the while his band breathes new life into the classic country sound.
The wisdom of trust shows up in “Friends Like Those.” In “Westbound Train” a touchy love triangle forces Ellis to confront a friend. Witty sarcasm fills “What’s in It for Me” and “No Fun” pokes holes in traditional Southern machismo — whether listeners get the joke or not.
“All of my favorite music borders that line between funny and serious,” he says. “A lot of people I have talked to do not get that. But I’m not responsible for that.”
For example, “No Fun” basically tells a woman she can forget about going dancing without her man and if he ever caught her cheating, he’d poke out her eyes and stomp on her feet, among other nastiness. It’s all a satire of the old cheating songs that Ellis got so familiar with at Whiskey Wednesdays. But sung in a shameless deadpan, it sounds pretty honest.
“I think all the songs, even if they’re joking, there’s an element of truth to them that makes them a little bit dangerous to certain people,” he says. “A little bit misogynist. But at least where I’m from, that’s kind of an important part of our culture, and I felt like was worth talking about.”
There’s nothing sarcastic about the album’s opening track, though, “Friends Like Those.”
“I grew up with my cousin, Jason,” says Ellis. “He had a lot to do with steering me in the right direction and just being a good friend. But at a certain point, he moved out of Houston to go live with this girl. I think I wrote that song a couple of weeks after he left.”
Its theme is that best friends will last forever, and an airy arrangement of acoustic and steel guitars gives the song a lullaby feel.
“It started just being about him, but it got me thinking about all my friends from childhood and high school, which the majority of them I don’t talk to anymore,” he says. “Our lives are going in different directions, but it doesn’t make the connections we have any less important.”
These two songs alone show the type of writing Ellis is interested in — giving context to complicated emotions, commenting on his surroundings, etc.
Next he tackles a situation that would make most men furious. “Westbound Train” tells the story of an ex-girlfriend who ended up with one of Ellis’ buddies. Again, he finds a way to update an old theme.
“The song is written from my perspective to one of my oldest childhood friends,” he says. “He ended up having a relationship with [my high-school sweetheart] after we broke up. He didn’t come out and tell me what had happened, but the song was written as a reassurance to him that I understand why he did it and it wasn’t something that was going to ruin our friendship.”
It’s rare to find that level of maturity coming from a 22-year-old. But like any other 22-year-old — and like many of his country heroes — Ellis still enjoys letting off some steam. That’s what the Whiskey Wednesdays shows were all about, and it’s where the bi-polar nature of Photographs comes from.
“I want to keep in mind with all the B-side songs, there’s an element of premeditation and there’s an element of humor to all of them,” Ellis warns. “I wanted to kind of play into some stereotypes.”
He’s done that, for certain. The problem is that the songs feel so real, you can’t laugh at them.
On “What’s in It for Me,” the album’s first single, Ellis takes the role of a man who figures it would be easier to stay out all night than explain himself.
Sample lyric: “You’ll just be mad ’cause I came home late/You’ll tell me just how bad my clothes stink/And ask me how much I’ve had to drink/What’s in it for me?”
“At no point did I want to divorce my wife for anything like that,” he chuckles. “But it definitely had some truth to it. I think it’s kind of obvious if you listen to it that it’s not meant to be taken literally.”