Q&A with Robert Ellis

Nashville-based country-folk troubadour Robert Ellis plays Normaltown Hall Thursday as part of a tour behind the songwriter’s terrific new album, Lights From the Chemical Plant, out now on New West Records. Flagpole caught up with Ellis for a quick but candid chat.

Flagpole: You grew up in an industrial town and your new record is called Lights From the Chemical Plant. Is this record autobiographical?

Robert Ellis: No. The lyrics are mostly not autobiographical. But, I think some of the overarching symbols that the content deals with are rooted in my upbringing. So, naturally, you write about what you know. The stories and character studies—apart from the song “Chemical Plant”—aren’t really rooted in my life, per se. They’re just character studies and works of fiction.

Do you find that your upbringing was good training for writing country songs? Is there something about the folk and country traditions that lend themselves to people like you?

Yeah, definitely. Although the stuff I’m doing is definitely rooted in folk, country, bluegrass and all that, I like to think that the stuff we do is a little more modern. [But] what I like about that symbol is that it represents sort of this working-class, small-town-America thing. But, it also has an industrial, modern undertone to it.

I don’t want to sound like a dick, but Jason Aldean is not making art; he’s making the same song that’s been made every year for the past five years about tractors and trucks.

When I first started telling people that that’s what I wanted to call the record, a lot of people instantly said, “Ugh. Don’t call it that! That’s a terrible name!” [laughs]. And I like to think that it conjures up those dirty, industrial feelings. I think just the words “chemical plant,” for those that didn’t grow up around it, they have a very weird perception of what that is.

There’s a cover of an old Paul Simon song on the new album, and you’re a relatively young artist. What initially turned you on to “Still Crazy After All These Years?”

That was one of my favorite records, the Still Crazy record. I just wore out the needle listening to that record. It’s been a big inspiration on my writing and on my arranging—on my everything, really. I really like Paul Simon as a career hero, too. So, one of the reasons why I decided to put it on the new record is because the last record was pretty decidedly country. I wanted to give people a little bit different of a context for this record and where the writing was coming from, where all of our heads are at. I hope putting that song on there will sort of frame the rest of the tunes where people will go, “Oh, this is what they’re into. This is what they’re going for.”

Much of what passes for country these days is very different than what you do. Do you feel that the division between pop-country and more traditional country keeps growing?

Yeah. At this point, the pop-country thing is just a fucking joke. It’s just a machine that makes a product that people buy. I don’t want to sound like a dick, but Jason Aldean is not making art; he’s making the same song that’s been made every year for the past five years about tractors and trucks. It’s mostly harmonically boring and it’s recorded all shiny and terribly.

So, I think there is a divison in general between people making art and people making commercial goods. I think that’s where the division is. When we are making records, we’re not setting out to make a hit single or sell a product. When I sit down to write, I want to communicate something, and I think there’s a huge division between those two things.

Your label, New West, has a strong presence here in Athens. Can you talk a little bit about how your relationship with New West got started?

I lived in Houston for a long time, and the president of New West lives there. I happened to just be hanging out at a record store, Cactus Records, and I met George Fontaine. He basically introduced himself and said, “Hey, I have your first record and I really like it. I’d like to talk with you about working on something.”

At the time, I didn’t really know much about the label and what that meant. But it was a pretty simple beginning to what became a couple of pretty important couple of years for me. It was totally happenstance. You know, I pressed my first record to vinyl and paid for it all myself, so I had it at Cactus on consignment and I guess George Sr. had bought it and liked it. That’s where we started. He helped me pay for the recording process of Photographs, and once that was done, he said, “We’d love to sign you,” and made me an offer.

You’re playing Normaltown Hall this Thursday, which doubles as New West’s Athens headquarters. Is it weird to play your label’s office in front of an audience?

Oh, no. This record label is [made up of] all close friends at this point. All the folks there in the Athens office are all really great people. I’d rather play there than a lot of places on tour. I played Normaltown Hall maybe a year ago. And I’ve played the Melting Point and the 40 Watt a couple of years ago during AthFest.

What is your impression of Athens?

I dig Athens. I was really taken by surprise the first time I went there. I was like, “Where did this fuckin’ little town come from?” It’s super hip. It’s small, but still centralized and you can walk everywhere—at least where my friends in Athens live. Yeah, I was impressed. There are a few cool record stores. It just seems like an oasis that comes out of nowhere.   

We’ve got a pair of tickets to Thursday’s show AND a vinyl copy of Lights From the Chemical Plant, courtesy of our friends at New West, to give away. To win, tell us in the comments below why YOU deserve either prize. We’ll choose two winners on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.