Blending country music with jazz and pop is not easy—but for Robert Ellis, it seemingly comes naturally; just check out his latest (self-titled) album.
Ellis will be making his second appearance at Stagecoach on Saturday, April 29.
During a recent phone interview, Ellis said he did not use a specific formula while recording his latest album, which was his fourth.
“As much as I’d like to take credit for every decision and say that it’s all premeditated and conscious, a lot of what happens in making music is pretty accidental,” Ellis said. “You just chase down a vibe, and you go in a direction of things that excites you. At the end of the process, you can turn around and say, ‘I intended to make it this way,’ but in reality, it’s not always like that. It’s more about what your boundaries are and what your parameters are. If you have decided that you want to make a very Americana album, and the only instruments you want on it are acoustic guitar, stock electric guitar and harmonica, you sort of (have) a narrow window as to what can happen. But we didn’t have any of those boundaries when we started recording. We ended up with this weird thing.”
As far as the Americana genre goes, Ellis isn’t really a fan, and doesn’t consider his music to be a fit.
“I find most Americana music to be pretty boring,” he said. “It doesn’t interest me. I understand the reason why what I do is grouped into that genre; I get it. I think people tend to have superficial reasons as to why they group things together. I am from the South, and I write songs that are sort of story-based. At least in the past, there were some country and folk elements to what I was doing. So I can see why I was thrown into that category, and it makes perfect sense. But I don’t listen to that music. I like a lot of music that is described as folk music, like Joni Mitchell, but I think what she does is weird and progressive. If you look at the players on her records, like Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker, these are not big names in folk music; they’re jazz players. Everyone remembers Joni Mitchell as this flower-power folk artist.”
Ellis talked about a specific artist on his current playlist.
“I just bought the Joanna Newsom record. I was listening to that this morning,” Ellis said. “I really love that she’s not on Spotify, because you just can’t fucking go listen to her music for free. I thought, ‘I really want to hear that new record.’ I had to go on iTunes and buy it for $11. It’s not like I have a ton of spendable income, but her album is worth the money. I felt really good about spending money on her album. I think there are very few artists who do that, and it felt rewarding, because I don’t know the last time I bought a record.”
Ellis explained how he approaches songwriting, and what he thinks makes a good song.
“It could be anything. I like a lot of different music for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “What I try to do in my songs is communicate a story and choose the music to go along in telling that story. We listen to a lot of jazz, and a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and we just improvise.”
Ellis spends a lot of time each year on tour.
“Three hundred days,” he said. “I have good days and bad days. Generally, the time onstage is the best thing in the world. It feels right, and I feel time passing effortlessly while I’m getting to play music. It’s all the other shit that gets old. It’s all the driving and the other bullshit you have to do to make this work—like figure out how to sell music. It feels pretty tacky and time-consuming. But the actual performing and improvising never gets old, especially after you’ve been driving for 8 or 9 hours. All I want to do is be in the moment, improvise and play music.”
Ellis said he’s consistently writing, too.
“I have a lot of records in me that I really want to do,” he said. “I guess if I get enough coffee in me, I have 10 albums I wish I could do in the next five minutes. I’d love to do a record of jazz standards. But I have no idea what the next record will be like—but it definitely won’t sound like the last one.”
Stagecoach’s lineup is usually weirdly diverse. Ellis said that he finds Stagecoach to be inexplicable—but in a good way.
“A lot of the artists at Stagecoach are these weird left-of-center artists,” Ellis said. “I know Phosphorescent played Stagecoach a few years ago. The last time, I played Stagecoach, Toby Keith was the headliner. Nora Jones’ country band was there, and so was Old Crow Medicine Show. There’s a wide variety of artists that play that thing. I definitely don’t think Toby Keith and Old Crow Medicine Show play the same genre of music. I don’t feel out of place at all, because I don’t know the identifying quality all of the bands have. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around that. Last time I played, people seemed to really dig it, and I had a good crowd. It’s California, so it’s all kinds of different people.”