Robert Ellis’s richly spun country songs

David Dayer

One of the welcome byproducts of the bubbling backlash against the so-called “bro-country” movement is a shifting of the spotlight toward artists coloring outside the lines of mainstream country music. Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark, and Sturgill Simpson are all seen as antidotes to the rote party tales — albeit major hits — that Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and their ilk peddle about trucks and girls in “painted-on” jeans.

Robert Ellis is another one of the good guys, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter raised in Texas, based in Nashville, and on the cusp of moving to New York City. On “The Lights From the Chemical Plant,” his sublime new album on New West Records, Ellis paints country in broad, evocative strokes, from closing-time piano ballads to roadhouse honky tonk. Along the way there are hints of jazz and soul, and Ellis ties it all together with a gift for plainspoken storytelling and elegant understatement.

Ellis, who comes to the Sinclair on Friday as the opening act for the Felice Brothers, recently talked to the Globe from a tour stop in North Carolina.


Q. What were some of your initial ideas for this new album, in terms of how you wanted it to sound or the mood you wanted to capture?

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

A. Well, the first thing is always the songs. I wanted the writing to be stylistically different. Some of the grooves are definitely not country, so when I was writing, I was really conscious of that. From a harmonic standpoint, I wanted this to be a little bit more complex than the last record [2011’s “Photographs”]. I think so much of putting out records is reactionary to what you’ve already done in the past. Or at least it should be if you’re learning and growing like you hope you are. That’s the only way I could be happy with myself and feel like I’m still making art, instead of a commodity meant to be consumed and sold.

Q. You write in pretty unflinching terms on this new album, about heartache, deception, loneliness. Do your friends and family ever accuse of you of writing a song about them?

A. Yeah, but I never let on. Some of them are about them, but always loosely. Unfortunately, my life I don’t think is as interesting and warrants a song about it. If any of these songs are about people who are close to me, they’re heavily embellished. A lot of what I write is somewhat fictional, so I try not to be so tied to the facts. I think when I was younger I just wrote from my perspective about my life. When you do that, you can’t really be as honest with yourself as you’d like to be. When you have characters, you can say things about them that you would never admit about yourself. You can say what a terrible, superficial person they are, and that might even be about you subconsciously.

Q. I got the feeling that “Tour Song,” about the harsh reality of life on the road as a musician, was about your own experience, though.


A. It’s definitely rooted in my own experience, but again, these songs are such a window into one moment. I don’t feel like that [song’s premise] all the time, but a totally bleak perspective is more interesting than saying, “Touring is a real bummer, but it’s also fun sometimes.” It’s easier to live in that one moment and go for that.

Q. You had a funny tweet a few weeks back in which you wrote, “Last night I went through a sobriety checkpoint, not sober. The cop and I bro’d out over @DierksBentley and he let me go. Thanks, Dierks!”

A. [Laughs.] I got a lot of [expletive] for that tweet, too. It’s not like I drink and drive all the time. I just had a couple of drinks.

Q. That tweet made me wonder if you listen to a lot of commercial country singers like Dierks and Luke Bryan and guys like that.

A. We really like pop country music late at night when we’re driving. I wouldn’t say those are my favorite artists or anything. We listen to Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and modern rap music, too. I had just played a show at Bonnaroo with Dierks the week before, and he’s a really nice guy and a talented musician.


Q. What’s your take on the backlash happening in country music?

A. The fact that every song on country radio uses the same three metaphors, it’s pretty much a canned commodity at this point. Luke Bryan is not sitting down and going, “How can I express myself?” But at the same time, there’s something to be said for its lowest-common-denominator appeal. The songs are catchy, so over the top with their themes and messages, that it’s funny and fun to listen to.

Q. That must feel like a million miles away from what you do as a songwriter.

A. I think I’m much harder on someone who’s in Americana music, and probably would listen to their album more critically. Because I’m not even thinking of Luke Bryan as somebody who’s going to communicate something to me.

Interview has been condensed and edited. James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.