Music City is taking over the OGD. Two of Nashville’s most enigmatic and prolific musical acts will be charming the Callaghan’s crowd with their aural artwork.
Jonny Fritz will open the show and will be backed by Steelism. Afterwards, Robert Ellis will take the stage.
Ellis’ new album has left the critics scratching their heads. In the past, Ellis has been categorized as an alternative country artist. His latest release, “The Lights from the Chemical Plant,” has proven that he is an artist worthy and capable of transcending the genre dictations of the music industry.
For the creation of this album, Ellis mingled rock, jazz, electronic and any other musical style he could find. While it might be a departure from his traditional sound, fans and critics alike have had lauded his new material. Ellis sat down with Lagniappe to discuss a plethora of topics from his new sounds to getting a tattoo in front of the Callaghan’s crowd.
SC: You know just as well as I do that the music world is full of labels. I love how you’ve stumped the critics with this album. With your earlier work, they wanted to put you in an alt-country/classic country category. It’s like you answered them back with an album I know they’re having a hard time classifying. What do you think about all the labels they try to put on your music?RE: With people, it’s all about scope and frame of reference. From publication to publication, people see it differently. Actually, I have a funny example of that. There was this kid in the small town that I’m from. After a show, this kid came up to me and said that I sounded like a cross between Incubus and Bright Eyes. I know it sounds absurd, but it makes me realize that it’s all about people’s frame of reference and scope. I think that if you know what to look for, you can hear a lot of stuff in the record from free jazz to fusion to rock. If you’ve never heard any of that stuff, then you have nothing to compare it too. Then, you have these people who when they hear a Southern voice, they instantly think country. For a while, it bothered me, but now I’m at that point of quiet acceptance.
SC: Does your music’s ambiguity come naturally, or is it your goal the whole time you’re writing songs?
RE: Well, I think it’s a little of both. I don’t think anything you do is completely natural. Like I think (Kurt) Vonnegut said, “You are who you pretend to be.” In general, anything you do musically is a choice, even if it’s to do the thing you know how to do. There’s a million things you could be doing, especially at my age of 25 with the Internet and any kind of music that I would ever want to hear at my fingertips. I think it’s a little dishonest to do just one thing.
SC: It’s been said that you have an obsession with songwriting. Songwriters find many muses from their own lives and other people’s lives. Where do you find your songs?
RE: It all depends. It comes from all over. Some of the songs on this album are fairly autobiographical, but a large majority of them are works of fiction. Even within a work of fiction, it’s hard not to put experience into it. You write what you know. So, if you start writing a story that isn’t you, then you’ve got pieces of yourself into that character, so you can love and create them.
SC: The studio photos look like you guys had a good time putting it together.
RE: We did!
SC: What was working in the studio like for you?
RE: Aw man, it was so much fun! This record was just stacked with people that I respect and admire. I think we have a similar pace and work ethic. We were all just super excited to be doing it. There wasn’t any dead weight in the studio, and that was pretty positive. Everybody was wanting to make the best thing they could and working together for that.
SC: One of the things that is different about this album is that you incorporated some electronic elements and new instruments to take away limitations. What did you learn from that experience?
RE: I don’t know if there’s anything specific, like any sort of lessons that I learned. For me, every day in the studio is a learning process. There’s only so much planning and so many decisions you can make about how it’s going to sound, until you start doing it. Then, there’s all these happy accidents that come out. Just getting five personalities in the room playing together, you get stuff that you’d never imagine in pre-production before you start recording. This record made me feel like the next record is going to go more in that direction. I started to feel like guitar and piano can be limiting from a songwriting perspective. I’ve gotten to a place on guitar where I’m not really comfortable with it. It’s like I got tricks up my sleeve that I don’t show or go for. I don’t want to repeat myself and feel like I’m doing a cover of one of my earlier songs. I think to push myself to different things, I’m going to try writing with no instrument and use electronic stuff. I bought some new gear like drum machines and synthesizers that are real exciting. Hopefully, when I dig into that, my songwriting will go in a different direction.
SC: Sounds like you’ve already started on the new album.
RE: (Laughing) I’ve got quite a few songs, and we’re playing a few of them live. I’ve got a handful of other ones that I’ve written, since we recorded.
SC: It’s obvious that everybody loves the new stuff. What are your feelings on the finished product?
RE: I’m so excited! I can’t believe it. We were all really excited and proud of it when we finished it, and we loved it. But that’s a different thing from hearing that other people love it and get it. I guess my worry was that it would be too challenging for some of the fan base that I’ve built. Like you said, we did a pretty straight country record on the last one. I was worried that some of our fans would be like, “What is this bullsh*t? I don’t wanna listen to this!” The reaction has been totally the opposite. Country fans and just about everybody can be into it. I haven’t heard anybody yet say, “This is a piece of sh*t!” I haven’t heard any bad stuff. That’s been satisfying and edifying that people like what we’ve been working on.
SC: You’ll be joined at Callaghan’s by fellow Nashvillian Jonny Fritz, with Steelism backing him. What do you think about this Nashville invasion of Mobile?
RE: He is a really good friend of mine, as well as some of the guys in Steelism. Me and Jonny were just hanging out in Nashville and getting into some trouble before we both left for tour. I love seeing that guy. His songwriting is great, and Steelism is killer. I think it’ll be a good show. I talked to him about maybe giving me a tattoo at Callaghan’s while I’m there. We’ll see what the health code restrictions are with that. He’s got a tattoo gun, and I’ve been wanting to get another little tattoo on my hand from him. So, we’ll do that in front of a live audience.
Band: Robert Ellis, Jonny Fritz & Steelism
Date: Monday, March 10, at 7 p.m.
Venue: Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, 916 Charleston St., www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com
Tickets: $25 advance/$30 day-of (if available), at Callaghan’s