Roland Ellis is an intellectual on his grind. Whether he’s writing pieces for Rolling Stone, crafting fiction, or composing on his acoustic guitar, the professional wordsmith infuses his creations with unmistakeable smarts. We caught up with him to talk about his creative process, the problems with being an Aussie artist, and the benefits of going analogue.
When did you start the band?
I started playing as Ernest Ellis in 2011. I was playing in other bands and I went away with a friend to make some songs and I didn’t really know what would come of it. Then I got an email from Triple J, they wanted to play one of the songs. That was about the last time they emailed me…
Where are you from?
Originally Port Macquarie, four hours north of Sydney, but I went to school in Sydney.
How did you make your way to New York?
I came here to do a PhD, to make music and to pursue other things﹣writing and journalism.
When did you make that decision?
I’ve always wanted to live here. It’s a cliche, but who doesn’t? I’ve always been drawn to it because it’s where a lot of my favorite people have spent a substantial amount of time. Whenever I visited, I was drawn to the place. I don’t think that’s unique in any way.
What makes New York unique?
It has an energy about it. To me it feels as though if you’re not doing something interesting that you’re driven to do and committed to doing, you’re going to fall off the train and have to go home. It’s such a competitive place with a perpetual motion about it, so if you’re not pushing all the time and hustling trying to get shit done, it’s just not going to work out. I like that feeling. I don’t want to feel complacent. This is the perfect place for me.
Do you ever feel that you’re doing too much?
Sure, I’m constantly reevaluating that idea. You don’t want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. The way I’ve set it up, the way I manage my time, it’s manageable for me to do three things that are all interwoven. Whether that’s focusing on writing fiction, or film, or writing a PhD that I intend to turn into a book, or writing music. All of those things really feed into each other. Writing, whether it’s journalism, or trying to write fiction, even non-fiction, has really helped me as a songwriter.
What was your upbringing like?
My parents aren’t musicians; my mum listens to ABBA. That’s about as deep as her music taste goes, or enthusiasm. My dad, on the other hand, is a huge music lover. When I was growing up, I never had an alarm clock in my house. I just had my dad playing music to wake me up. I’d wake up at 7am to Born to Run playing at top volume with my dad in his underpants in front of the stereo, fist pumping. I don’t think I really appreciated that at the time, when I was 7 or 8 years old. By the time I was 13, 14 and listening to David Bowie or Tom Waits, I appreciated the education that my dad gave me. It was also that I wasn’t allowed to listen to singles. He’d play a record and he’d sit there over breakfast and explain to me that this was made in this year, and this is why it’s important. I would listen from cover to cover, on vinyl. I gained a real appreciation for the album, and also for music in general, and for the history of music, from that.
Do you really write on a typewriter?
As pretentious as it sounds, there’s a real rhythm to writing on a typewriter. You feel this momentum gathering around what you’re writing. A lot of what I’ve read, and a lot of my own practice has led me to believe that writing on a computer is detrimental to the actual writing process. You’re constantly encumbered with these pop-ups and email. With a typewriter you just have a page and what you’re actually writing. So there’s not scope for being pulled away from that. I’ve found that that’s really helped with my process. If I’m constantly in this cycle of distraction, I don’t get anything done.
This city can be endlessly distracting.
I’ve never missed anything by leaving my emails to 6 pm. If I don’t check them for six hours, I don’t miss anything. I leave it for a day, purely because setting those limits on myself is productive for me. It’s probably not for everyone. My girlfriend is like this, and she gets stuff done. But I don’t. I need that focus.
How do you focus?
I have an office that is purely analog, so nothing digital. I don’t use a computer in there. I only use my typewriter, or a pen and paper, or guitar. That’s a real refuge from all that stuff. That’s all I’ve ever used.
How has it been to transition between Australia and here?
Australia’s a very comfortable country to live in. For me, anyway, it was. And I’m not saying that I have it hard here by any means, but you’re exposed to things, like a kaleidoscope of environments. It’s such a visceral place. That’s constantly in your face, just on the subway, or wherever you go. That is really inspiring for work. I constantly feel that this place is so on edge. People are clinging on to this train that’s out of control, and at any point they could fall off and disintegrate. I don’t feel that it’s any different for me. It does feel like this constant motion. I’ve never felt that in life before. Being comfortable. Everything’s fine, I know I can go stay at my parents’ house if I run out of money. But here, that threat of disaster seeming somewhat imminent is exciting to me.
How do you write songs?
I watched a film the other day, Ex Machina, and it talks about Jackson Pollack, and how he tried to basically detach his mind from conscious. The linearity of conscious thought, I’m going to paint this from A to B. He just tried to let his subconscious flow. And this is the best way I can describe songwriting, which is something I really hate talking about because I always liked Dyan’s approach to talking about songwriting, you know, you can make your own mind up about a song rather than me being prescriptive. My best way to describe my own approach to songwriting is that I try to make it as subconscious as possible. It’s a really free-flowing thing for me. I never sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song now.” It either comes out or it doesn’t. It happens very quickly.
How do your Australian roots factor into your art?
I guess the whole record that I’m making, thematically, links to how constraining Australia can be for artists. It’s a poisoned chalice of a country. It’s the most beautiful country in the world and it’s been such an easy country to grow up in and live in. I think it breeds a sense of complacency and a sense of tall poppy syndrome, but at the same time it breeds so much beauty.
Do you miss Australia?
There are attributes of Australian people that are priceless and that I miss living in America. There are also so many parts that I don’t miss as an artist. I think a lot of what I’m trying to get across with the album is that feeling of being constrained by that country, artistically, or made to feel like like it’s a beating your head against the wall kind of process.. Now that I am out of there, I feel like I made a great decision not to stick around.
So, convicts…what does that make you think of?
When I think of that word, I think of, obviously a prisoner. We were sent to Australia as convicts because we were prisoners, although maybe we hadn’t done much wrong. Now the definition for me, it’s the people that are out there taking risks, having moved away from a country that has become apathetic and affluent in so many ways. There are obviously so many social problems still, but life was hard there and now it’s easy. Artists or people who want to push beyond that have to come back out into the world. It requires more than apathy. All of the great Australian artists that I can think of-this was a big lynchpin for me in wanting to leave-I look at Nick Cave or Clive James or Barry Humphries, and I kind of think, well, they had to go overseas to get what they do done.
What are your thoughts on the Australian character?
Humor is a huge thing with Australians, just not taking yourself that seriously, which is priceless, as far as I’m concerned. A penchant to laugh things off, which has been with the history of our country as far back as I can think, in terms of stories of Australians. Everyone I look up to and love never really settles in a specific place, there’s a constant need to do the next thing and build the next thing. There’s never a just like, “Well, now I’m satisfied”. This constant desire to be unlocatable and to be moving. To be developing what you’re doing. If I sit there and don’t do something for a day or a week or whatever, I feel so shitty about that. Never having time for apathy, I think that’s important.
Do you have the ambition to write a bestseller?
I think you want as many people as possible to appreciate what you did. That’s just human nature. I’ve made records that no one’s bought, and that’s fine because they received good critical reviews and everything. But at the same time, you kinda wish it had a bigger audience. I’d be lying if I said you didn’t want heaps of people to read what you wrote, or think it was good.
Do you feel alone when you’re performing?
Usually when I’m with people I feel this need to be normal. When I play live, that’s a completely, like, “Fuck you” kind of experience. That’s how it feels to me. The best shows I’ve watched or been at have always been Iggy Pop or Nick Cave. It has this visceral quality to it. I always leave gaps where anything could happen. I want that feeling. To me that’s complete freedom. It could all go to shit. It could all completely fall apart. The place could burn down or turn into a riot.
Rebellion is another theme. What does that word mean to you?
Anyone who works in the arts properly, an artist, be it a writer or what you guys are doing-I think there’s a sense of rebellion in doing all of that. It’s so much easier to get a conventional job. I think that’s an easier path to follow. There is a real sense of rebellion in saying you’re going to do what you want to do. As hard as that is sometimes.
Do you have a favorite view of New York City?
I like the empty of parts of Brooklyn. The warehouses and stuff. There are so many different prospects here, or things that could be happening, but it’s so kept away from me. I like the vastness of different abandoned areas in the city. It’s like there are whole ghost suburbs.