Ellis’s reputation comes from creating songs that reflect a tough upbringing. He played rock and blues in Melbourne in the 1980s. His recording pals included the likes of Chris Wilson, Peter Luscombe and Dave Steel. He can recall first time he saw Bon Scott. “I remember seeing him when I was a boy,” he says. “That slight bit of attitude, it was great. I like to keep that little bit of edge, that bit of cheekiness.”
He cut his first self-funded album Ride, featuring stories observed while doing “involuntary” community service at Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda. At one point he was living in a boxing gym and working as a bouncer in pubs.
His street-wise music comes with few garnishes. Take Lambs, for instance, off his second album Road of the Braver Man, which opens with “Dog in the backyard ain’t got no water, the street kid out on the hound must be someone’s daughter ...”.
The song was delivered like a spoken word ballad. Over a decade later, it still resonates, like a theme song for a TV drama like The Wire or City Homicide.
Ellis’s career has taken him on several tours to Europe, developing a following in England and playing a boxful festival dates. But home is still Australia; not his familiar Melbourne stomping ground, but a small village outside Kempsey on the NSW coast.
The lifestyle of his younger days “starts to shape a vein” of music, he says. And it’s never run dry. His seventh album, Yellow, released late in 2014, featured songs dedicated to his mother Shirley Grace, who died in 2012, including Chainsaw Mamaas well as Grace of God and Goodbye Grace.
Just ahead of Mother’s Day this year, Ellis wrote a short tribute to his mum on his Facebook page. He said, in part, “The Heart Foundation came out to film my mum, three weeks after her heart attack, chain-sawing down a few trees in the back yard!”
Ellis figures to play several songs from Yellow on this tour.
His world view, in terms of songs, has expanded over a career spanning more than two decades, with a lot of travel and interaction with people from various walks of life.
Sure, there’s a grain of truth in most of his songs. “Everybody’s got a good story in there,” he says. “I try to find the great ones. As a songwriter, it’s your job to report.”
Ellis is not a household name, rather, more of an underground hero. Among the songs that attributed to that cult status is Jesus Lane, one of his most popular offerings. It was borne out of a true incident, Ellis discovering “Jesus Lane” in Cambridge in England. The song takes some poetic licence, pushing the question of whether Jesus is a man or a place.
He cuts deep into the underbelly of life in much of his music. For Ellis, it’s essential his audience is on the same page, open to his interpretations. “You’d like to think the vast majority are there to listen to you,” he says of his live shows, mostly at pubs, in towns big and small. “I think that’s where it’s at. Otherwise, it can be pointless.”
Ellis distinctly remembers the forks in the road that influenced his music style.
In 1992 the release of Clapton Unplugged caught his attention in a big way. He’d been playing blues rock in Melbourne bands, and that concept, coming from a proven rocker, proved pivotal for Ellis. “It was amazing,” he says. “From that point, I wanted to hold an acoustic guitar.”
He grew up with his dad playing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash records. He was already a longtime fan of the country legend, but as an adult, the final Johnny Cash albums made with producer Rick Rubin really hit home for Ellis. “There was something about Cash’s voice, broken and battered and beaten up. It’s honest and in your face. It’s a really nice way to present, at the end of day, as a songwriter and storyteller.”