Lone Star State of Mind: Songwriter Robert Ellis stakes out his corner of Texas’ music legacy
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
For his new album “Texas Piano Man,” songwriter Robert Ellis dons a white tuxedo and an uncharacteristically Texas-sized pop swagger.
Ellis, known for his intricate guitar playing and what he accurately described as “not lowest-common-denominator” songwriting, put down the six-string and instead picked up 88 keys for writing and tracking his latest effort. But he didn’t just make a piano record: Robert Ellis transformed into the Texas Piano Man, with yellow lapel rose and pristine white cowboy hat to boot.
Or boots, in this case.
“Texas Piano Man” is a poppy, wry masterpiece channeling Elton John, Harry Nilsson and whoever the first guy is to start playing piano uninvited at a house party. The bluntly funny singles “F***ing Crazy” and “Nobody Smokes Anymore”—”Guess I’ll be the only one who looks good in pictures,” Ellis deadpans — give way to the heartrending “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?” while the album closer is an unsubtle ode to everyone’s favorite Mexican mineral water, “Topo Chico.”
If that all sounds weird, that’s because it is. While such a statement album might have given Ellis pause, the Texas Piano Man dives in tails first, to entertaining effect. He’ll kick off his “Texas Piano Man” tour with a Saturday performance at VZD’s, along with Ian O’Neil of Deer Tick. Black tie optional.
Q: At what point in the songwriting for “Texas Piano Man” did you decide you weren’t going to pick up a guitar?
Ellis: The first song I wrote for the new record was probably “Passive Aggressive.” Right around the time that I started working on the nuts and bolts of figuring that song out, it was like, ‘This needs to be a piano record.’ That song gave me a lot of cues as to the disposition and humor…like the whole record needs to have some levity to it, and it can be a little more fun. If you have a song like that, and then you have nine other really serious ones, it just doesn’t, like, prime you for the punchline.
Q: It’s interesting you’d say that, because I think on your last two records, you just had a couple moments of lightness in the midst of really sad songs.
Ellis: You’re right. It’s the exact inverse of what I’ve normally done, and I think it’s more effective in some ways. It’s a little easier to get somebody to hear something serious when they’re smiling than it is to get them to laugh when they’re sad. That’s a taller order, I think.
Q: When did the character of Texas Piano Man start to take shape?
Ellis: I tend to always like grasp at an overall prompt or a concept because it helps me as a writer organize things in a way that makes sense. Whether that’s something as simple as, “I’m going to write this on piano,” or, “This character has a lot of confidence and is maybe a little sarcastic and has a really good sense of humor.” The Texas Piano Man came pretty early on, definitely well before recording.
Q: What is he allowed to do that Robert Ellis isn’t?
Ellis: It’s more fun. I’ve been thinking of it like a live-action role playing. When I put on the tuxedo and go onstage, and even when I write, I have this sense of like refinement and ease. In my mind, this character is extremely confident and doesn’t need validation to find his power, if that makes sense. He’s really sure of what he’;s doing and feels like if you don’t like this, then you’re wrong. I’ve never really had that feeling. I feel like a lot of what I’ve had to do has been to convince people to listen hard enough to get what I think is good about my music, which is interesting little stories that if you don’t really pay attention, you’d probably miss altogether. They’re not immediate. My previous songwriting is really just not lowest common denominator stuff, and I feel like there’s a lot with this Texas Piano Man thing where it is. Anybody can enjoy this. I also think there’s depth to it, but you might like it for one reason, and if you show it to your mom, she might like it for a totally different reason.
Q: I won’t call what you’ve done before “precious,” maybe heartfelt and sad, but here, even when your protagonist is kind of a s***head, the song is still pretty happy and fun for the people who are listening to it. I’m guessing that’s more like your real personality.
Ellis: Yeah totally. That’s something I’ve always kind of toyed with, these extreme versions of myself in songs, really making the characters kind of foul and worse than I really see myself, which I guess is some sort of form of therapy, creating these characters that kind of underscore parts of my personality that I really don’t like. You feel a safety in doing it to characters that you don’t feel if you’re just writing confessional, diary music.
In my past material, the protagonist in the songs is often struggling with why he does the things he does, why things have ended up the way they did. This character doesn’t have that same apprehension, and maybe I don’t right now either. I’m definitely sort of hitting a stride, where I’m just like, you know what? This is f***ing great. I just had a kid, and he’s awesome. I get to play music for a living. Things are really good. And maybe I get a little carried away and party a little too much and act a little crazy, but I’m just sick of having guilt about all of that stuff. I want to take ownership of all of it.
Q: Between your last solo record and this one, you’ve done two records with other people: “Dear John” with Courtney Hartman and “Western Movies” as Traveller, your band with Cory Chisel and Jonny Fritz. Did those collaborations influence how you made “Texas Piano Man”?
Ellis: The Courtney record was really interesting because we sat down and recorded that in two days’ time. I had never really done a record like that, and listening back to it, I was like, “Man, this is my favorite thing I’ve ever done.” There’s a level of like anxiety that usually you have when you make a record where you want to smooth out all the rough edges and just make sure everything’s perfect, and with that record, we just did it. I love the way it sounds. And at the core of all of those Traveller songs is a really solid, early, one- or two-take band performance where we all just played and improvised. That informed this most recent record. There’s a guitar, piano, bass, and drums on every song, and I would say 95 percent of that was all done live off the floor. We really just made performances kind of be at the heart of this.
Q: Texas country is kind of its own subgenre, and there are radio charts specific to Texas. Texas music in general seems like its own separate animal. What is Texan about the Texas Piano Man, and what do people expect from you, being from there?
Ellis: I think people get a little confused when they think of what it is to be Texan, because it’s a really big place, and it has personalities that are just as big. Maybe Willie Nelson is like pinnacle, sort of cliche Texan, but also Texas country is this thing that can sound like Willie Nelson, or it can sound like Dave Matthews Band. At some point I realized like the only thing that these things have in common is that somebody who is from Texas took ownership of what they were doing and started saying, “I’m from Texas, so this is Texas music.”
Anything that I do is Texas music, because I am from here. I’ve been here my whole life. I used to have some worry about fitting into that mold, and to be quite frank, a lot of those people that you’re talking about, they don’t f***ing give me the time of day. I’m not on the Texas music radio charts. They think of what I do as Americana or something outside. I guess I’m just feeling like it’s time to kick that door down because it’s not fair. They don’t get to claim ownership of the state any more than Kinky Friedman does. Any weirdo who just says, “I’m from Texas,” eventually becomes part of the ethos and part of what it is to be a Texan, and then after the fact, we take it for granted.
It’s like a naturalist’s argument. It kind of bums me out sometimes when people say that something is unnatural. How can anything be unnatural? How can machines be unnatural?
Q: That’s kind of a heavy question.
Ellis: It is, and I guess in my in my humble approximation, anything that anyone does is an extension of existence. In terms of the larger spiritual discussion, how can anything be anything other than natural? How is Home Depot somehow less natural than the rainforest? It’s all an extension of whatever this weird thing we call existence is. So I guess to draw a parallel, I don’t see how if I’m from Texas and I make music, it’s not Texas music, so leave me alone. [laughing]