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LIVE LONG AND PROSPER ROBERT ELLIS


(Photo by Erica Silverman)


THOUGH THERE ISN’T A SIGN OF SWEAT on him in the bright Fort Worth sun, Robert Ellis confesses that he is still in his gym clothes after a long run. Now, no one likes to get sizeist about this but Ellis is definitely a man who looks like he needs a feed more than he needs a workout, the kind of slim man who brings out everyone’s inner grandmother: eat, eat, you’re wasting away to nothing.


Ellis laughs, you might even say cackles, not for the first and certainly not for the last time over the next hour. This is a man who enjoys himself and others, and when he laughs it’s almost a full-body experience. Well, in his case a semi-full body.


“Yeah, I stay pretty lean. But mostly it’s mental at this point. I mean at this point it’s probably some form of addiction,” he admits. “For a long time it was just anxiety and running was something I was always into.”


We will get to some of that anxiety soon but the “health kick” as he calls it comes after finishing a book on longevity by Peter Thiel. Or at least the vagaries of the Internet connection makes it sound like he says Peter Thiel.


Oh god no, not the obscenely rich and rabid right-wing bully, Thiel? A venture capitalist and funder of the worst causes (like Donald Trump), and a man assiduously looking to increase longevity – at least for himself. Yep, he’s the Bezos-on-steroids who wants to live if not forever then for longer than anybody else can.


This makes for a strange few minutes of small talk as I begin to re-evaluate Ellis, a Texan, yes, but not one of “those” Texans, and this month a touring partner in Australia with Courtney Marie Andrews, https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/my-country-tis-of-we-courtney-marie-andrews-explores an artist with a highly developed social conscience.


Whoa man, Peter Thiel is not where I thought we’d be going.



“Oh no, not Peter Thiel,” he laughs, hard. “This is going to be a very different interview. But don’t get me started on the secret world order!”


It turns out he said Peter Attia, the Canadian doctor wildly popular on the interwebs since developing his “Medicine 3.0”, a so-called unifying theory on extending our lifespan (beyond exercise, weights, diet and monitoring everything in your body, if you know what your ApoE genome type is you’re probably already on board with Attia).


Odd, maybe scientific, but not fascistic. Thank God Ellis is not a nut job. Or at least not total nut job.


Why the qualification? Consider this: he is a man who says you know what, I’m in the music business which is precarious, fickle and almost no one makes money from it, I have made six albums whose styles have changed virtually each time (folk country, smooth pop, raucous piano bar country, and this year, an austere, sombre piece of classic Texan songwriting) so what I’m going to do simultaneously is hospitality. Because running a bar, that’s a sensible thing to do.


Yeah, sure he could have done crazier: he could have become a filmmaker, like his wife, Erica Alexandria Silverman – job security? Who needs job security? – but really, what fevered derangement convinced Ellis a few years ago to open a bar?


“I am still asking myself every day,” he grins. “But a lot of the stuff that I do, both in music and in other pursuits, it’s very long-term, very hard to see payoffs in the short term generally. You write songs, you eventually do some preproduction, you make demos, you record them, then you do three months of press, then you go and tour the record for 18 months. By the time the thing is all said and done, it’s been three years of your time.


“And then, despite what everybody told me when I was younger, and what most aspiring musicians think, there is never a moment when you are like, ‘good, I did it. I’ve succeeded!’. It doesn’t work like that. It’s never I did all this work and here’s the payoff; it’s always gradual.”



What’s the trade-off if you stick around? Is there a reward?


“At least in my career, I’ve found many things that I considered either failures or missed opportunities, over the long-term, over 15 years, I’m in a pretty good place: I have a career, I have fans,” says Ellis. “But I do remember at the time, at 24 years old, 26 years old, thinking ‘it’s not happening, I’m not getting as big as I want to, it’s not moving fast enough’ and feeling like a bit of a failure in some regards. But eventually, things do add up to something.”


As he points out, beyond the bar and the songwriting/performing he also runs a recording studio and label, where he is an in-demand producer, and has two young children with his partner. And then there’s running. Sometimes just hearing about these is tiring.


“Now these things right now might not make a lot of sense but hopefully, in 10, 20 years I will have created an ecosystem that allows me to just do the one thing I really want to do, which is be creative, without the ticking clock, without a huge burden to have to go make money all the time,” he explains. “I’d like to set myself up to where I really can write all the time, and if someone wants to make a record with me and the music is awesome, and they don’t have any money, I can still say yes.”


The Ellis conglomerate! It’s a worthwhile dream, and the corporates further away in Houston (near where he was raised) might appreciate it, but really he’s just wanting to find pals to play with, not algorithm sharers. Honestly, it would be ridiculous to do some algorithmic explanation of Robert Ellis if you attempted to glide from the clean lines of 2016’s self-titled album, through the boisterous band of entertainers on 2019’s Texas Piano Man, to now the barebones Yesterday’s News.


“Early in my career I saw myself as always somewhere to the left of centre, wherever I was. If I was in the world of country, they didn’t like it; if I was in the world of indie music, it was too country. I never felt like I had a place where I truly belonged,” Ellis says. “So, yeah, part of this thing is I just want to build my own world where I can organise other stuff that I find cool around it and have a sense of community that is based on my qualifications, not based on some fashion statement or some stylistic constraint.”


And we haven’t even considered the fact Ellis is a jazz fan from the freer end of the spectrum who while currently devouring Keith Jarrett doesn’t mind a bit of noise (“It sounds violent, and that’s kind of refreshing to hear something that’s so overtly violent,” he says with excitement. “I mean, heavy metal music doesn’t sound violent but there are times when Ornette Coleman sounds utterly irate.”) even as he strips all the noise away on Yesterday’s News.



Though by now it should be clear that this album is by no means the definitive and certainly not the final statement from Ellis; it’s just “a point in time, wherever I was when I wrote these songs” and the two days it took to record them.


Interestingly, Yesterday’s News is a quiet album, sombre at times, and lyrically it emerges from challenges, but it’s anything but a sad record.


“It very well could have been a sad record,” says Ellis. “There were a lot of decisions made in the song selection process and it was a long process of reflection – it took months to make those decisions. Then there was some thought given to either calling it Yesterday’s News or calling it Better Tomorrow [another song on the record], and where to put those songs really shaped the narrative.


“I ended putting Better Tomorrow last. It’s probably one of my favourites on the record, and the message is quite optimistic I think, and I put it last because I wanted to, after all of this shit, after all the stuff we get into, those feelings of insecurity and doubt and failure, and all of this other stuff, you leave on this note of ‘but everything is okay’. Sort of like the theme of the song itself is in spite of everything that’s wrong at this point in my life …”


Is that where the running comes in, clearing the head, finding escape on the way to extending those useful years later in life? Yes, and no.


“I feel like no amount of figuring out sometimes is going to bring me out of my bad mood. No amount of positive thinking and intellectualising. Most of the time, the best thing I can do is just go to sleep, wake up and feel better,” he says. “That’s a really important skill that I wish I had learned earlier in my life – if I just take a breath, let it out, and go to sleep, when I wake up things are going to look different.”


Ellis says this with a smile, not a laugh, offering something no offensive, self-aggrandising billionaire would consider sufficient.


“The overarching way you feel as you keep getting out of bed in the morning and writing songs and you keep doing the thing that you love to do. That’s the real message I think.”


Here’s to long life then.




READ MORE:



Robert Ellis plays (with Courtney Marie Andrews):

Great Club, Marrickville, December 6

The Espy, St Kilda, December 7

Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, December 8

Archies Creek Hotel, December 9

Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne, December 13

Eltham Hotel, December 14

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