Rory Ellis is a singer-songwriter from Newcastle, New South Wales, who has been performing for thirty years. His outlaw Americana style has won fans all over the world, with Ellis touring in Europe as well as Australia. His new album, Inner Outlaw, is his ninth. It showcases his impressive voice and masterful storytelling. And, as it turns out, the twelve songs on the album are just a sample of what Ellis has stashed away. He writes songs constantly, saying, ‘There’s always something that happens every day, really. Since that album I’ve sat out at my little table there and probably written another twenty-four [songs].
‘Little ideas pop to mind or thoughts or things you see or hear,’ Ellis goes on. ‘You can always write a song about something. It doesn’t need to be the biggest thing in the world. It can be the smallest thought in the world. In fact, the song “The Letter”, off the Inner Outlaw album, I was sitting here thinking about my grandfather sitting around his table out in the backyard in Porter Street, Prahran. There’s a little chess table made out of marble and concrete by my uncle Jimmy, who was my godfather. I just started to write about the backyard. It was incredible little place in Porter Street and had a loft, a horse stable, the cobblestones and the big gates out the back. Of course it’s not there now. My dad used to say, you know, there’s people there like Bob Hawke and Arthur Calwell sitting around Uncle Jimmy’s table. So I wrote a song called “Uncle Jimmy’s Table”.’
It is obviously wonderful for an artist to be open to those ideas coming, but there’s a great deal of skill involved in taking that inspiration, that fleeting thought, and turning it into a song. Ellis explains the craft of this by saying, ‘I think the thing is to take a small idea and paint a really big picture in not a lot of words. At the end of the day being a storyteller more so than a pop stylist, you tend not to do the total repetition on everything. So you’re actually telling a story, you’re painting a picture for people so that they can put themselves in the situation, you know, or relate to it somehow. And that’s the skill to it, in my opinion.’
Ellis’s interest in connecting with his listeners is fortified by the knowledge that ‘anybody who’s a songwriter would agree that everybody’s been through that somewhere along the line. It’s just how you paint the picture for them to relate to it.’
Given that Ellis has quite a cache of songs to choose from, selecting tracks for his albums is a matter of, he says, the mood he’s in at the time.
‘I wrote a song that was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek song,’ he says, ‘because back in 1989 I went to America for the first time and I had a really funny experience in Sixth street, Austin, Texas. The fellow who was working in the bar, we drank a fair bit together and he said, “Do you play golf?” I said, “I’ll have a hit, but I’m not that good at it.” He said, “Me and Willie are goin’ to have a game tomorrow.” I said, “Sounds great.”
‘Anyway, I didn’t think much of it. Got really drunk and didn’t wake up the next day, went down the bar about five o’clock that evening or something and he said, “Oh man, we missed you – Willie and I had a great game.” I said, “Who the bloody hell is Willie?” and he said, “Haven’t you ever heard of Willie Nelson?”’ Ellis says with a laugh. ‘So I wrote this song recently but this happened in 1989. That’s how things come back to you. It’s a song called “I Could Have Played a Round with Old Willie but the Drink Let Me Down”. So I guess at the end of the day, [song selection] depends on what mood you’re in and what you want to do with your album. That’s the beautiful thing about Americana music – it takes in not just country, but folk and blues and all the things that I love and you can sort of meld them. And that makes more sense to me than being a traditional country kind of guy.’
Ellis’s choice of musical direction was influenced by the music he heard growing up. His parents played a lot of music in the house – specifically, a lot of country music. His father used to listen to ‘all the Hanks,’ he says, ‘so he was a bit of a Hanker, and he used to listen to Johnny Cash and, and particularly Willie Nelson. Mum and Dad both love Willie. And Mum used to listen to a lot of big band stuff, like your Perry Comos and all that sort of thing, and Shirley Bassey.
‘So I guess in many ways I was shaped by a lot of that stuff, particularly the country stuff. I found that easier to digest than the big band stuff. I think one of the first records I ever got was probably Explosive Hits 74,’ he says, laughing.
Even without that musical education, Ellis’s deep, rich voice suggests that country music might always have been his destiny. As it turns out, though, his voice can change depending on what he’s singing.
‘Many, many moons ago,’ he says, ‘I did a fair bit of opera training, so my voice extends anywhere from the baritone through to the tenor.’
He did the opera training, he says, ‘to learn a bit more about the voice and to make it work better. And classical singing training and opera training is something that really does that. It teaches you more about the voice as an insurance policy rather than something your blast out one night.’
The result of that increased range and control in his voice is that he can ‘cover a fair bit of ground with it from doing Americana type stuff to singing rock, which I’ve done in the past. I think more than anything I like the tone and the texture of the more baritone, and that’s why I’ve tended to use it a bit more on this record. The last record was a little bit higher in the range. This record in particular is probably a little bit lower in the range, but that was just my choice.’
The range certainly suits the title of the album – but not all the songs are about being an ‘inner outlaw’. There’s a particularly heartfelt, affecting song called ‘53rd Year’.
‘It was about me turning fifty-three,’ says Ellis. ‘My father died when he was fifty-three. So as I was approaching my fifty-third year, I thought, Shit, I hope I can make it through this one. And, of course, I’m nearly fifty-five.’
It’s not always easy to lay bare one’s deepest concerns – in life, let along in song – and Ellis says, ‘I think it’s a choice to be vulnerable in your art because it means you’re not becoming a character, either as a singer or the songwriter. You’re writing about yourself in a raw way.
‘I’ve never had a fear of exposing what I think or what I am. You know, I am what I am. And what you see is what you get.’
Part of the job as a songwriter – of being a storyteller – is being willing to draw on your own experiences to communicate with others, because ‘they are the ones you’ve got. At the end of the day they’re the ones that are going to stick in your memory, whether it be just meeting somebody with their story or seeing things.’
Ellis cites the example of ‘The Letter’, a single from the album that was a story about his grandfather.
‘Two guys were jackhammering the Church Street bridge in Melbourne and all of a sudden out of the cement works pops a bottle, and they removed it from the cement. And in the bottle were three bits of paper rolled up. Two of them disintegrated. And one of them remained. That letter was written in 1940 by my grandfather Con Ellis.’
The connection to Rory was made by his old guitar player Tim, who knew someone who was connected to the two men who found the letter.
‘Tim twigged because I’d told him stories about my grandfather worked on the bridges way back when,’ says Ellis, showing how stories can make their own connections over time and between strangers.
Ellis is also receptive to hearing stories from people who approach him and ask if they can tell their story in a song.
‘Sometimes they’re really, really interesting,’ he says, ‘and other times you think, I don’t quite know how to place that.
‘There was the beautiful story that is still in the back pocket – I haven’t written it yet but I know I will one day. A fellow in New Zealand told me about two guys who went to war – I think the Second World War – and they were brothers. Before they went they left two bottles of beer up on the shelf. And one of the bottles still remains there. And ‘Bitumen Cowboys’ [from Inner Outlaw] was something a friend of ours said/ He’s a truck driver and he said, “I suppose, at the end of the day, we’re all bitumen cowboys.” And I thought, That’s not a bad line for a song. But it was really a conscious thought. The life of a truckie is a very lonely existence. They’re out on the road for so many hours and there are deadlines, and of course these days we all are well aware what they have to take to do the job. And I thought in many ways it’s not much different in essence, I guess, to being a travelling musician. You’re on the road a lot, I’ve done tours everywhere. You get around 16 000 miles of touring in Europe. So I figured I could place myself in that driver’s seat on this one.’
The musicians who played on Inner Outlaw are not people Ellis has worked with before – which he liked, he says, because ‘you don’t have any preconceived ideas’. The group formed somewhat organically, starting with Chris Haig, ‘who is a beautiful bass player, guitar player,’ says Ellis. ‘Played with Troy [Cassar-Daley] and god knows how many people over the years. Well known in the country music circles. Chris was just living up the road, so it was sort of convenient. I said to him, “I’m going to make an album. You want to do it?” He said, “Yeah, I’d love to.”
‘So we just started. Chris helped me produce the songs. And we enlisted Scotty Hills, who’s a good mate of Chris’s. And he’s played with Graeme Connors and all of that lot. And we wanted a bit of keyboard on there – Haigy was working with Peter White, so he dropped in for a day and dropped down some piano parts. I just started off with acoustic tracks and handed them to Scotty and said, “Here, Scotty, put some drums on them.” He’d just come up with something and we would discuss it, fine tune it, and he’d send back the next one and I’d say, “Right, that’ll do. Off we go.” I was trusting Chris’s judgement there because Chris had worked with Scotty for years and he said, “You won’t find a better drummer in the country”, and I believe he’s right.’
It sounds as though Ellis ended up with the perfect crew in a very interesting way, to which he says, ‘Sometimes fate has a very big hand in what you’re doing.’
When asked if, are all his experience as a songwriter and an artist, he’s tougher on himself with creative decisions, Ellis says, ‘Oh, absolutely. It’s funny, though – sometimes where you start is the best place. Sometimes you can go full circle and come back to where you started. You know what I mean? When you say, ‘Okay, here’s my idea, I’ll play it out.’ And I say, ‘No, I need to do this. I need to change that.’ I think, That bridge sounds like crap or shorten the intro. And then sometimes you just come back to the original idea and think, You know what? I had it right in the first place. Sometimes your gut instinct’s the best one.’
That instinct comes from having learnt to trust himself over time. ‘Your instinct for writing a song, having developed over thirty years, becomes a lot better than it was thirty years ago,’ he says.
And writer’s block is not something that troubles him.
‘Put it this way,’ he says with a laugh, ‘I’ll decide when I run out.’
Given how prolific his output is, it’s unlikely that time will ever come.
Inner Outlaw is out now through Checked Label Services.