Concert preview: Robert Ellis refuses to be pigeon-holed on adventurous new record
On "California," the third track off Robert Ellis' new self-titled record, a woman in Laredo, Texas, stands alone in her kitchen. She's packing plates into boxes and mourning the end of a relationship by remembering every fight she had with her onetime partner and wondering whether it would be best to move far, far away. "Maybe I'll move to California with the unbroken part of my heart I still have left / Maybe I'll fall in love again someday; I'm not gonna hold my breath," Ellis sings in a fluid tenor, embodying the woman's pain and yearning.
It wasn't long ago Ellis' own relationship ended after a failed attempt at marital bliss in Nashville. "The monotony and minutiae of day-to-day domestic life just starts to be suffocating," Ellis said by phone recently. "Going to the same coffee shop, going to the grocery store, making dinner, meeting up with friends. At a certain point, it feels claustrophobic."
His divorce influenced the writing ofRobert Ellis, released earlier this month on New West Records, but Ellis, 27, isn't your typical confessional songwriter. The Houston-bred singer, guitarist and pianist idolizes storytellers like Randy Newman and John Prine.
"I don't really ever sit down and ask myself how do I feel, and then write down how I feel about my life," said Ellis, who will bring his band to Rumba Café on Monday, June 27. "I tend to think about telling a story. Obviously the stuff I was going through was informing that. [On 'California'] I was imagining this fictitious couple that lives out in West Texas. I was imagining the landscape of West Texas and this sort of empty, weird feeling. Then after writing it, I was like, 'Oh, shit…' You write what you know."
The new record is a departure fromPhotographs, Ellis' 2011 New West debut, which drew comparisons to Texas country legends like Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. 2014'sThe Lights from the Chemical Plant was more sonically adventurous, paving the way for genre-bustingRobert Ellis tracks like "Screw," which features hissy noises and start-stop rhythms that could be snipped from a Radiohead outtake, and "It's Not OK," which starts as a minor-key piano romp and gradually becomes a free-jazz freak out.
"I get really irritated when people use words like 'troubadour,'" Ellis said. "I think the whole culture around describing music is kinda lazy and not rooted in anything that I think about when I think about music. When I think about music I like, there's a bunch of criteria I have - there's vibe, harmonic content, rhythmic content. … It seems like people are preoccupied with more of the superficial elements, like what accent the person has."
While it may seem like Ellis' most recent albums have pushed him out of his comfort zone, it's probably more accurate to say that Ellis is completely comfortable operating in any number of zones.
"I think anything I do will be me," Ellis said, "and that could mean, stylistically, a bunch of different things."
8:30 p.m. Monday,
2507 Summit St.,
ALSO PLAYING: Tom Brosseau