A Conversation With Robert Ellis

For a guy who’s supposedly dropped off the radar, Robert Ellis has been awfully occupied of late. Born and raised south of Houston in Lake Jackson, Texas, Ellis is now based in Fort Worth, where he’s a husband, a father of two kids and a partner in Niles City Sound with producers Jimi Bowman and Josh Block. Over the past few years, Ellis has recorded albums for Jamestown Revival and the Lone Bellow’s Zach Williams, also composing the score for true-crime podcast Devil Town.

The latest project Ellis can cross off his to-do list: Yesterday’s News (Niles City), his sixth solo album and first since an amicable parting with the New West label. Though Ellis is a singer/songwriter known for recent larger-than-life forays into art rock and piano balladry, Yesterday’s News is about as spare and untainted by artistic pretense as it gets, owing a debt to Texas luminaries like Townes Van Zandt. Recording live to tape, Ellis was accompanied only by nylon-string guitar, upright bass and a smattering of percussion on a set of songs that took all of two days to record.

After a sit-down interview at this year’s South By Southwest music conference was thwarted when Ellis was called away for a pre-gig piano-tuning assignment, we checked in with him back in Fort Worth, where he was ironing out the details for yet another creative enterprise.

Life sounds busy these days.
There’s so much going on right now. It’s such a fucking insane time. My buddy Josh Block moved to Fort Worth seven or eight years ago and built this studio. Shortly thereafter, he produced the first Leon Bridges record. I started driving up (from San Marcos) to work with him pretty often. About three years ago, he called me and said, “Man, do you just want to move up here and work with me and produce records?” My wife and I looked at some houses, and we moved kind of on a whim.

How old are your kids?
I have two boys, four and one. To give you an idea of my day … My wife is a filmmaker—she’s in Nashville shooting a commercial. I have a band in the studio that I’m producing called the Lil Smokies, a really awesome bluegrass band—we’re four days into their record. I’ve got both kids, so I usually wake up around 5 or 6 a.m., start sending emails and take the boys to school. In the same building where the studio is, there’s this bar. Me and a partner have finally been able to secure the space, so I’m slowly trying to get it in working order. In three to six months, we’re going to be shutting it down, reopening it and rebranding it as a vinyl/hi-fi bar with occasional concerts. I’m really pumped, but I’m also the busiest I’ve ever been. I feel like I could really use so straight-up vacation with my family. I think I’d be really satisfied to just sit around and drink beer.

Where does the new album figure into all of this?
We did it at Niles. I was listening to a lot of very quiet music—a ton of Bill Evans, Jim Hall, especially solo or duo jazz records. Three years ago, I played a Chet Baker tribute show in Austin, and I went through an insane Chet phase. I fall asleep to music. There’s a certain type of music that’s interesting enough that I’m not plagued by anxiety, and the overall tone soothes me. I wanted to make a record that had that thing, never getting over a certain intensity or volume. I’d I already written a few tunes, and once the idea took shape I wrote the rest—knowing that I wasn’t going to dress them up or make them rock. I was just leaning into the idea that, instead of getting loud, I’m going to get intense.

I recently read a quote from you about spending so much of your career trying to make music that was exciting to people. Elaborate on that.
There’s this unhealthy feedback loop we get into—and not just in music. If you post a picture on social media that gets a lot of likes, whether your conscious of it or not, you’re thinking about that picture when you post the next one. I think that’s fucked up for art and music. I wanted to break the cycle and make an album that avoided all the things I already knew would work.

Yesterday’s News is pretty much the polar opposite of your last album, 2019’s Texas Piano Man.
The Texas Piano Man experiment was so fun and so pre-COVID party world. It was very much of its time. It felt like the world was charging forward at this unbelievable pace. Nobody could stop us, and we were just going to burn it all to the ground. Suddenly, the pandemic put a hard stop on all of that. This record is more about where we are now, after having some really hard conversations with ourselves.

You parted ways with New West Records after five albums. Why?
I have nothing but good things to say about the New West folks as people. But I really wanted to take ownership of my own records. I started thinking about the labels I love, like Drag City and Luaka Bop. They’re so well-curated, and they create a place where oddball artists can have a home. I want to put out interesting music—weird music that doesn’t fit anywhere.

—Hobart Rowland