Five Questions with … Robert Ellis

June 17th, 2016

Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis is known for a terrific voice, for fiery live performances and for expertly mining country and folk on his recorded work. His fourth studio full-length, a self-titled album (stream it below), came out last week to rave reviews. And touring behind it, Ellis (above, doing “Sad Songs and Waltzes” for Live at Paste Studios) lands in New York next week for a pair of shows, on Monday at Garcia’s and on Wednesday at The Bowery Ballroom. (“When we booked this tour, and I saw the Bowery was on there, I was like, fuck yeah. It’s a step in the right direction.”) Out on the road, he rang up The House List from a van somewhere between Cleveland and Pittsburgh to answer Five Questions.

So your new album came out last Friday and is getting some rave reviews. Does that mean anything to you? Do you pay attention to reviews? No. It’s great. I’m glad people like it, but, no, I don’t read that shit. There’s some stuff that I see, stuff on my Facebook, because I post on my Facebook. The nasty stuff that people say is definitely irritating and hurtful, but sometimes I think the good stuff is just as bad.

While you’re known predominantly as a country artist, your music obviously has a wider range of influences. Which non-country musicians do you find yourself listening to these days? I don’t even listen to country music, so that’s a really long answer. We listen to everything from jazz to electronic music to—I love pop, ’70s pop music, like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and shit like that, I really love. But, really, everything. I mean, I really like music in a really big way. And I love to listen to it, and I don’t have any aesthetic requirements for what that is. It’s not like a fashion thing to me. And I think for a lot of people music is about fashion. It’s about whatever clothes they want to wear. So to answer your question: God, we listen to everything, as long as it’s interesting.

For some performers, life on the road is like working on a traveling theater piece—the set list stays primarily the same but the musicians are aware of the different nuances every night. While for others, each night has a different set list and every show is a wholly different experience. Where do you land in that spectrum? I would say every night’s completely different. A big part of what we do is improvisation. And that ranges from more collective improvisation, like a solo section, to completely free improv, just listening and making noise with one another. And the set list is kind of the same way. I think about a year ago, there was one show when I tried to write a set list out before the gig. And we got offstage and I was just like, “That felt wrong.” And since then, we never use a set list. I just call tunes as we go.

The new album, from a listener’s standpoint, seems to be based on you. So my Almost Famous question is: Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you? No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think that you have to have experienced love to write a love song. And I don’t think that if you have no empathy for your characters that you can effectively write something that moves people. But I think to the contrary actually: Good writing is about being able to step away from it, in a way. Use your experiences, but then also use your craft to create something bigger than what’s happening to you. So, no, I don’t think you have to be depressed. And I don’t want to live my life like that. Sounds awful.

When you write songs, like “Perfect Strangers” or “How I Love You,” do they ever take on any new life when you perform them live? Or is it like the recorded version is how it remains? No, we don’t play stuff like the record really. I mean, some stuff we do. We try to communicate the emotional information and the melodic information but we don’t necessarily do that with the same instruments all the time. Last night, we were in Cleveland, and I played the song “Couples Skate” on piano, and I’d never once played it on piano. I wasn’t even certain I knew how to play it all the way through. But I just counted it off and we played it. I like to keep myself on my toes and improvising. And I like for everyone to be listening to one another. I just never want to feel like we’re going up there and pressing a button. —R. Zizmor | @Hand_Dog