Robert Ellis

If you ever happen upon Robert Ellis in public, and he's intently staring at you in a way that probably makes you deeply uncomfortable while he's also jotting down words in a journal, don't worry. There's a good chance he's writing a song. You see, for the song "Perfect Strangers" off his new album Robert EllisEllis rode the subway in New York City for a month one August. Every day, he'd hop on the train, sit down, and pull out his journal. Then he's stare ("creepily," in his words) at the other passengers, trying to imagine where they were going, what their job was, and what their family was like. Then he'd write down his impressions, and those impressions formed the basis for "Perfect Strangers."

Ironically, though, Ellis is driven much more by melody than by lyrics. He actually hates to see his lyrics alone on a page, telling me that they too often look like the musings of a "high school creative writing student . . . A lyrical alone is not enough to kick me in the gut to make me finish. When I look at lyrics naked on the page, they always seem shitty to me. It's rare that I look at just my lyrics and feel good about them."

Read my interview with Ellis about his songwriting process after the video for "California."

What other creative outlets do you have?

It's not so much creative outlets as things I become obsessively involved with. Before this tour started, for example, I was running every day like a nut. I was never a runner before that. I've always had pet projects, like working on motorcycles or cars. I like working on old machines. A lot of it comes out of necessity; I didn't have enough money to pay someone to build a website, so I taught myself and built my own. I love to make things out of wood, so in my last house in Nashville I made the dining room benches, the front gate, and a bunch of shelves.

Is that a reflective time for you where you think about ideas, or is it more of a time to recharge from creativity?

It's more of a recharge. Sometimes when I'm fiddling around, I might have a song in my mind. Over the past couple of years I've really started distracting my conscious brain; I'll work on a song for five minutes then go do the dishes. So it's all about decidedly not working on it and letting my subconscious do the work. The process goes faster if I do that because things just occur to me rather than having to search for meaning.

Do song ideas ever come to you while you run?

They do. But the main reason I got into exercise was because I have a lot of anxiety, especially when I have downtime. When I have nothing to do, I start creating problems that don't exist. I think about absurd things.  If I get a call from a number I don't recognize, I immediately start running though negative scenarios of who it might be. Like maybe someone is calling to tell me that someone close to me died. But when I run, the rest of the day feels so easy. I don't have any irrational thoughts, so writing becomes a lot easier.

I know you tour constantly, so are you able to write on tour?

Well, right now I'm kind of being an asshole about writing. Since we recorded the new record, I haven't written one thing. I've worked through a couple of ideas, but to be honest I've been pretty lazy. This is what happens every time, but it's hard to write on tour.

Does not writing make you anxious, or do you see it as a time to fill the well?

A little bit of both. When I'm not writing, there's a certain anxiety that every songwriter feels: it's gone, and I'll never write again. On the other hand, I do need to fill the well with inspiration before I can drain it. Still, when I do that, the thoughts do creep in that I'm missing an opportunity if I choose not to write. 

When you're home, what's your ideal writing environment?

Home is a complicated thing for me. For the last two years, I haven't had a home because I've been touring so much that it made more sense to sublet here and there for a couple of weeks at a time. But I just got a place in Austin. It's a tiny room with a bed and a piano. And I am really looking forward to getting some work done. I like to be in a small, dark room with an office vibe. I like to be in a place where everything is conveniently close. And I also like to write in the morning. 
photo courtesy New West Records

photo courtesy New West Records

Do you start writing songs in the same way?

No, it changes. There's no one way. I'm strongly attracted to melody, and that makes or breaks whether something gets finished. If I get a lyrical idea but don't have a compelling melody, it's difficult to continue because it doesn't seem like a real idea. But a compelling melody makes it easier. But it has to be good. I mean, I have melodies that have been sitting around forever that I've tried a bunch of different lyrical ideas on, just trying to find the right one.
A lyrical alone is not enough to kick me in the gut to make me finish. When I look at lyrics naked on the page, they always seem shitty to me. I was listening to a song of Paul McCartney's called "That Would Be Something." It's not even three minutes long and there are only like four lines in it, but the melody is incredible. When I look at lyrics that I've written in my journal, I can pull little things from them, but it's rare that I look at something without a melody and feel good about it. I see those lyrics and I feel like a high school creative writing student. Laughs. 

How sensitive are you to your environment when it comes to mining it for lyrics?

It's huge. The new record was pretty influenced by geography since I was traveling so much. I wrote the song "Perfect Strangers" in New York when I was subletting a place for a month. It was in August, and it took the whole month to write. I would write in the morning, then get on the train with a notepad and just stare at people. I'd try to write one line at a time, thinking about the guy I'm creepily staring at and imagining what his job is, where he is going, and what his life is like. 
There's a song called "Drivin" on the new record, and it's the only one I wrote in Nashville. The places in the song are all pretty specific places there, and it's the most country sounding song on the album. But that was actually by accident. It's weird how it came out that way.

That seems like an exacting writing process for "Perfect Stranger." Did you ever want to give up on it?

Not really, because it kept on showing me interesting things. For my process, I don't normally stick to autobiography. It might start that way, but then I write about a character and think What else might this guy do?  or Now that he said this, what will he do next? I try to find the most interesting thing, even though it might not be true. With that song, the character just kept on surprising me in a way that made me want to chase him down. I knew more things would happen if I kept going. The song ended up being about my marriage and about the people on the subway, and every day it gave me another nugget that kept me hooked. I'm so glad I followed through with it; it ended up being a much more complex song than it would've been if I finished it all in one day. 

Do you worry that a song might lose that initial emotional spark if it takes too long to write?

Not really. There's my writer brain and my editor brain. Sometimes the editor needs to come in and remind me that something is good. The writer can be neurotic and anxious and self-doubting, and sometimes it takes the editor coming back a month later to tell me that what I wrote was good. I just need to clean up some lines and rearrange some parts. It's hard, when I'm thinking as a writer, to have any faith in my material. Every decision seems so monumental: one word can drive me insane. I don't know how to fix that word, and my immediate thought is that it's the worst thing that anyone has ever written. Then later I go back and realize that I just needed to step away for a while to see the good side of it. 

Do you get to read a lot for pleasure?

It's hard to read on tour, but when I was home last I was able to catch up on a lot. I read a few Camus books. I reread Lonesome Dove because I love it so much. There's something about Gus' character that I feel like him. I can relate to him. He's an old man with a great sense of humor, and he doesn't really give a shit about anything. In the face of overwhelming odds, he's still laughing and making jokes. Every time I read that book, I feel like I'm acting like Gus.

You mentioned your anxiety earlier, and I'm curious how that affects your creative process, either by inhibiting or fueling it. 

When things are going well and I'm writing a lot, I feel fantastic because there's a real sense of accomplishment to create something that didn't exist before. When I'm writing, I don't have anxiety, but sometimes I do see writing as a way to get rid of it. My anxiety is rooted in a feeling that there's not enough time, that I'm going to die and have accomplished nothing. Laughs. I find it very difficult to relax when I'm doing nothing, so when I feel my anxiety coming on, that's when I like to get to work. The paradox is that I'm actually at my most chill and relaxed when I'm doing something, when I can put my hands on something. I think I'd find the beach very stressful. Laughs. 

I find it interesting that so many songwriters have told me that they are incredibly productive when they are hungover.

I like writing when I'm hungover, and I like recording when I'm hungover. 

Why? I'm fascinated by that.

It's because you're stunted. It's the same reason why I can write so well super early in the morning. When you've been drinking all night and your body basically wakes you up because it's so sick that you can't sleep anymore, that's one of the most creative times for me. You've woken up for no reason and you feel awful.
I have this voice in my head that most of the time is telling me that what I'm writing is garbage. That voice can be helpful, but it's constantly a battle between my writer brain and my editor brain. That editor can be good, but it can also be helpful to write a bunch of shit down whether it's good or not because it's possible that you might finally say something meaningful three-fourths of the way down. But when I have that voice in my head telling me that the first three-fourths of the page is bad, I start wanted to fix everything. And because of that, I never get to that great line. When I'm hungover, that editor goes away.