Robert Ellis has always had a skillful hand when it comes to cover songs, as evidenced by a version of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” from 2014’s The Lights From the Chemical Plant that gave the seventies classic a newfound jazz-country swing. Most recently, he chose to pay tribute to the late Leonard Cohen not with the ubiquitous “Hallelujah,” but with the dark, sardonic waltz of “Is This What You Wanted.” Watch above.
From Cohen’s 1974 LP New Skin for the Old Ceremony, “Is This What You Wanted” is full of the singer’s classic couplets, like “you were the manual orgasm, I was the dirty little boy,” meant to both amuse and unease. Here, Ellis strips it down with only some Randy Newman-inspired piano and flourishes of guitar courtesy of his bandmate Kelly Doyle as part of the Dutch “Onder Invloed (The Influences)” series, for which he also played Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man In Paris.”
Ellis has taken issue in the past with those who believe that for a song to be authentic, it has to always be self-written. “I think we have hit this weird place in Americana music where we’re like, ‘Oh, he didn’t write the song,'” Ellis told Rolling Stone Country earlier this year. “There is some sort of shitty, condescending idea of ownership and authenticity in that genre. It’s so fucking lame. All the stuff that the genre was built on was the exact opposite: Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], all the people we laud, they were all singing each other’s songs, their songs, and songs by hit songwriters. They didn’t care. One of the first times I saw Hayes [Carll], he sang ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.’ He didn’t write that, but who gives a shit? He doesn’t. Let’s just make good music.”
Ellis has been touring behind his 2016 self-titled release, and will join Nikki Lane for her Stagecoach Festival Spotlight Tour in 2017 alongside Brent Cobb and Jonathan Tyler. He also recently sat down with Chris Shifflet for his Walking the Floor podcast, to talk about punk rock, Jonny Fritz and his beginnings as a guitar teacher.