After a pair of solid releases that established Robert Ellis as an eccentric singer/songwriter with a traditional country foothold, his new self-titled LP is as definitive and weirdly beautiful a statement of defiance as you’d expect from a guy whose primary touchstones are Paul Simon and Randy Newman, as opposed to Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. Perhaps that’s why the two best tracks on a uniformly great record—the structurally sophisticated yet effortless opener “Perfect Strangers” and the brooding, soulful “California”—are keyboard-based. Already an acknowledged ace on guitar at 27, Ellis has been reacquainting himself with the keys over the last few years. Ellis will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our new feature on him.
Ellis: Jonny Fritz and I have been friends for what seems like an eternity now. We have travelled all over the world together, written songs, played in bands and somehow remained good friends despite all that. He is one of my favorite songwriters and people on the planet. He just got a hip replacement. My hope is that this interview shows up on google searches for other hypochondriacs who notice a little pain in their leg and immediately start searching the internet as I would.
What happened to your hip? What was wrong with the old one?
My problem is I’m too extreme. Not in like a Monster energy/Calvin pissing/Oakleys-on-top-of-a-hat/Fox-racing tattoo kind of way. But in a way that I get too excited about something, and then I overdo it until it destroys me. In the case of my recent hip replacement, it had to do with running. I marathon’d my hip into breaking about five years ago. My surgeon says I probably had a series of microscopic fractures in the fermoral head that eventually made it cave in. As you know, I spent a long while trying to better it with massage and physical therapy. Nothing did any good. In fact, it made it worse and worse until I started making appointments with hip surgeons. I got shots of cortisone into my hip, took oral steroids, acupuncture, massage, tinctures from hippies who love giving advice. Nothing did anything but make it worse. The worst part was that these crock-of-shit surgeons wouldn’t give me an MRI! They kept telling me that I was making it up! That I needed to come back when I was 50. What kind of sick fuck would accuse a 32-year-old man of faking an injury to get surgery? Well, I can show you four of them from all over the country. I’m still so angry at these fuckers, and it breaks my goddamn heart to think of how many people are walking around with bum limbs because some dickhead doesn’t want to risk it on someone with more than a handful of good years ahead of them. I’ll cut this short because I don’t want to, but actually, no I won’t. This is where I should talk about it and rant. Well, if you’re at all like me, you’re asking “WTF? Why wouldn’t they help someone who actually has a life to live? And not just an old fart who doesn’t walk at all anyway?” Here’s my theory, and I think it’s a good one. I think they don’t want to help someone like me. There’s no real incentive; only risk. I think they are worried that they’ll screw something up on a young person and then they’ll have to explain to an insurance company why they were performing surgery on a relatively young adult, instead of the thousands of geriatrics lined up out the door. At least with the old timers, they probably won’t complain much, even if it’s worse than before! But with me, I have a lot of years left, and it’d be easier to just tell me to go away. Which is exactly what happened, until I went to UCLA and talked to surgeon willing to give me an MRI. Immediately, he saw that the bone was dead and needed replacing! We booked a surgery date for a month later and then it was done. Incredible, eh?
How does the stress of a pending operation compare with other stresses in your life? Recording, touring ect.?
Nothing has ever come close to this. I realize now, five weeks after my surgery, that I’ve had a low level depression creeping around for the past couple years. I couldn’t sleep well, couldn’t walk much, sitting was horrible, standing up from sitting was even worse, but the psychological toll it all took on me was the most profound. The other month, I found these cheap flights to Argentina, with a 24-hour-layover in Mexico City. When you’re me, you constantly need to know where you can fly to for cheap. I need an out at all times. I kept the idea of the trip in my back pocket for a while until I remembered that I couldn’t walk more than a block, without calling an Uber. Then the idea of being in Mexico City for 24 hours and not being able to walk around hit me. It felt like prison. Coupling that with not knowing if I’d find a surgeon who would help me and not being able to tour/make money. That was rough. I really had a hard couple of years.
How long were you in the hospital? How much of that time where you hopped up on pain killers?
I was supposed to be there for three nights, but they let me out after two (for good behavior). The pain killers were rough. I’m sort of scared of that stuff, so I took too little. My parents were helping me, and they had to remind me to take them. I was scared of liking them. Everyone always says, “Stay ahead of the pain. Because if you let it get ahead of you, you may never catch it again.” This is a daunting prospect, and it happened a few times! Man, it hit me in such weird ways. The pain in my hip was intense and never really went anywhere (even with meds). But the fevers and chills and nightmares were from somewhere else. I would get up to pee in the middle of the night and be covered in sweat, but by about mid-stream I’d be reaching for towels on the rack to keep from freezing to death. Then I’d have to get myself back into bed and just hope I could sleep again or that I’d warm back up. Sometimes it would take hours.
Do you worry that they did anything strange to your body while you were under? Do you hope that they did?
Oh, I know they did. As I was saying my goodbyes to my sweetheart my and parents, they injected something into my IV. My dad, in response to the injection said, “You’re gonna be in another world in about 1.5 minutes.” Then they wheeled me into the operating room and a giant man helped me to the edge of the bed. We locked arms like in an eighth-grade dance while they put an epidural into my spine. As I drifted off to sleep (in that giant man’s arms), I remember him saying in a very deep voice, “You gonna do just fine.” When I woke up, they had also put a catheter in my urethra! I couldn’t feel anything below the belt. Not my leg or any of my “importants.” Couldn’t control anything down there. I didn’t even wanna look at it! But I like to think that after still-life-slow-dancing me to sleep, that giant sweet man also inserted that thing into my little man. I’m glad I was asleep for that part, but I’m sorry I never got to thank him for it.
You don’t take drugs recreationally very often compared to most musicians I know. What was it like to be “high” for that long? Did you do anything while under the influence that is out of character for you?
Ah shit, I was afraid you were going to ask me about this. The answer is yes, yes I did. But let me preface this by saying that the meds I was on gave me a lot of energy and drive but they also made my memory only last a little while. It was great because I was really inspired and I was able to stay in the moment really well! But the embarrassing part was that I felt really inspired with bad ideas and I was compelled to write lots of emails, to lots of people. I sent a few to some “higher-up” people in the music business, asking for really odd favors and then completely forgot about them! I didn’t really understand when I started seeing nervous and anxious replies in my inbox. This was days later, so I started to look in my outbox to figure it out, because the emails I had apparently sent seemed too weird to be from me. Shit, it was so embarrassing. Like this one: I had written a song in the hospital about the movie Her and I thought it was the best song and that maybe it would finally put me on the map! And maybe, just maybe, if I could get it in Rolling Stone, Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix would probably feel compelled to visit me in the hospital! I figured I’d bypass the Make A Wish Foundation and cash in whatever semi-celebrity chips I was holding
You are pretty much healed up now? What’s next in your life? Do you feel like this operation will give you a “leg up” in the music business?
Nice one. Well, I have a new record coming out this year. It’s called Sweet Creep, and I’m very proud of it. I’m planning on touring it and really pushing it, like we do, but not sure yet where the hell it’ll get released. I don’t know, man, I’m just really happy with life these days. I feel brand new, and I just want to “stay ahead of the pain,” as they say in the hospital. I want to keep making music that I want to make. I want to never read another review of mine. I want to keep treating people well. I want to keep my van running well. I want to exercise and love my sweet woman, and I want to not answer to anyone. That’s really it. I’m doing a great job, and I’m really grateful that I have a lot of people who love me and a lot of people I love. I think I’ve cracked the code. Stay ahead of the pain! Because if you let it get ahead of you, you may never catch it again.