At first glance, singer-songwriter Robert Ellis' decision to move last November from Houston to Nashville didn't seem surprising.
The 24-year-old Texas native, who honed his chops as a younger artist during a weekly classic country showcase called "Whiskey Wednesday," had spent the better part of the last two years on the road with bands such as the Alabama Shakes, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Old 97's. With a rich croon and charismatic onstage persona, Ellis appeared to be songwriter who could follow in George Jones' or Kris Kristofferson's footsteps.
But Ellis didn't come to Nashville to pursue a mainstream country career. As the songwriter readies his third record, he says that he wants something beyond a traditional Nashville career path. For him, that starts by breaking past the strong country influences found in his early work.
"I wanted to break it down," Ellis says. "I don't want people to think of this record as coming from classic country influence. Obviously it's a part of who I am, but I want them to hear the other stuff."
Last month, Ellis immersed himself in the Casino, recording engineer Eric Masse's East Nashville studio that's built inside his two-car garage, with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Norah Jones) to craft his latest record. The songwriter says their work together has started to shift away from his past folk and country roots.
To do that, he's first had to overcome his past apprehensions toward bringing outsiders into his creative process. For his first two records, The Great Rearranger and Photographs, he didn't work with a producer after hearing horror stories from other musicians. But despite his initial hesitations, it's been anything but that with King. In fact, the songwriter feels like he's been pushed just enough outside his comfort zone to make "a great record compared to some good songs."
King says that he has simply guided a "confident and clear" artist driven to break out of his country mold, which was something that initially surprised the producer upon first meeting Ellis.
"Robert is rare because he's at a really, really high level . . . one that measures up to some of the greater artists," he says. "He didn't want to make a country record. He wanted to do something else. He wanted to grow."
The Nashville transplant, swiveling in his chair across the Casino's checkered linoleum floors, cites his recent touring experiences – and the accompanying time away from home – as key reasons behind his sonic departure. "This record is really influenced by the fact that I've been on the road for two years," he says. "That shaped where I'm at now."
The forthcoming, as yet untitled album, which he hopes will be out before the year ends, will be much more "stylistically ambiguous" than the predominantly folk and country affairs heard throughout those first two releases, drawing from a diverse range of genres such as R&B, bossa nova, fusion and free jazz.
Ellis' expanded musical horizons (with the help of his longtime backing band, the Boys) are evident in the songs he previewed for Rolling Stone. "Sing Along," which he calls a "traditional bluegrass atheist anthem," is a rollicking floor stomper on which veteran Americana songwriter Jim Lauderdale lends his vocals. On "Pride," Ellis slowly saunters though a twangy mid-tempo burner doused in lap steel accompaniment. But it's his evocative ballad, "Chemical Plant," that stands out most with hazy guitar textures, sweeping string arrangements and his immersive storytelling.
The songwriter recruited Deer Tick's Rob Crowell and Nashville-based musician Skylar Wilson to contribute musical parts as well as Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, with whom he co-wrote the song "Steady as a Rising Sun."
While Ellis acknowledges that his early work will always remain indebted to country greats like Jones, who he opened for not long before he passed away, he thinks his new record incorporates more of his pop influences.
"I want this record to be more about the Paul Simons and the Randy Newmans and the other half of my upbringing, which is very much rooted in pop," Ellis says. "[The new record is] all pop music. Depending on what your frame of reference is, you might hear certain references, but I think these songs are pretty concise pop songs."
Although Ellis risks losing some of the fans he has developed in country and folk circles, it's a chance he felt compelled to take. Now he hopes his listeners will remain patient – and appreciative – of the creative risks he's taking. Based on how the record sounds, that shouldn't be too hard to accomplish, but it'll be a true litmus test regarding where his career heads next.
"I'm trying to put myself in a place where I don't have to be worried about my fan base feeling betrayed by the music that I make," Ellis says.