The cover of “Texas Piano Man,” the new album from Austin singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, is an eye-catching image. Decked out in a white tuxedo, white hat and yellow rose carnation, Ellis sits at a baby grand piano that’s perched on a West Texas desert hillside, with nothing else around for miles except the rawhide pelt, longhorn skull, candles and picture frame that lend ambience to the vision.
The story behind how this photo happened says a lot about who Ellis has become as an artist. Five albums into a recording career that began with a self-released effort in 2009 when he was a Houston upstart barely out of his teens, Ellis has let go of guitar-playing traditionalism in favor of a flamboyant piano-based presentation that throws all caution to the wind. That’s true of everything from the sweeping new songs on “Texas Piano Man” to the striking formal wear he’s donning at every live performance to the art direction for the album cover.
That piano-on-a-hillside vista near Marfa wasn’t photoshopped. Accompanied by photographer Alexandra Valenti, Ellis and a small crew of helpers “moved that baby grand piano probably half a mile up onto the top of this rocky mountain, in the middle of a rainstorm,” he says.
Why not wait till the weather was better? “We only had two days to shoot the video for ‘(Expletive) Crazy’ and all the cover art,” Ellis explains, name-checking the album’s first song and one that serves as a sort of mission statement for his artistic transformation. “And Marfa can just out of nowhere get these torrential downpours.
“So I had all these tarps, and when a storm happened, we’d put the tarp over the piano and everyone took cover. And as soon as the sun came out, we put the props on and shot photos for maybe 30 minutes, and then the storms happened again.
“I’m sure everyone who was with me was just like, ‘This is insane. Why are we doing this?’ But I was so psyched when (Valenti) sent me back the photos.”
» LISTEN BELOW: Robert Ellis on why he starts his new record the way he does
Over beers and Topo Chico on a mid-March afternoon at Donn’s Depot just a few blocks from his house in west-central Austin, Ellis mentions the 1982 Werner Herzog film “Fitzcarraldo” and Les Blank’s documentary about the making of that film, both of which centered on the unimaginable task of dragging a riverboat over a mountaintop in the jungles of the Amazon.
“The visual parallels of moving a ship over a mountain — I started thinking about that a lot when I was making this record,” he says. Ellis concluded that “nothing we do when we make this thing should be easy. Like, if what we want is a grand piano on a mountaintop, let’s put it there.”
THOUGH IT'S EARLY in 2019, “Texas Piano Man” is one of the year's best albums not just by an Austin act, but by any artist anywhere. Ellis will focus on its songs in a 75-minute set at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, April 12, as part of this year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival near Lockhart. Following his vow to not do things the easy way, he’ll perform with a Yamaha CP-70 portable grand piano, which he and his associates carefully assembled at a half-dozen performances during South by Southwest last month.
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The “Texas Piano Man” album cover signals an outlandish conceit that Ellis fleshes out with 11 songs about deep subjects such as love and family and parenthood, as well as rich musical riffs on simple concepts: passive-aggressive behavior, the 21st-century uncoolness of smoking cigarettes, and a certain Mexican bubble water that’s omnipresent in Austin.
Ellis wrote “Topo Chico” in a few minutes one morning as a lark, but not with any sponsorship notions in mind, he swears. “My whole family now drinks Topo Chico, because of years of me being like, ‘You don’t have any Topo Chico?’” he says with a wild cackle that frequently peppers our extended conversation. Ellis considers his “Topo Chico” a cousin to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Sangria Wine,” an early-1970s classic that “was something only Texas people would understand,” he says.
The last track on “Texas Piano Man,” it’s almost a bonus afterthought, albeit one with an engaging jazzy tempo and some clever turns of phrase. It’s gotten some attention out of the gate, but the beauty of this album is just how much there is to dive into — and how musically illuminating it is. That’s due largely to Ellis adopting piano as his primary instrument.
It was actually the first thing he learned how to play. His mother was a piano teacher, and “from the time I was 2 years old, I was playing piano with her,” he says. But guitar took over his attention early on. “I’ve spent my whole life studiously playing the guitar,” he says. “When I’m at home, I’m practicing nonstop. That’s kind of been the program since I was a kid.”
He’s good enough at it that other artists have sought him out. Ellis played dobro with indie band Deer Tick at shows, and artists working at Fort Worth’s renowned Niles City Sound studio, where “Texas Piano Man” was made, have used him as a session player on their records.
But those early memories of the piano still lingered. “At some point a few years ago, it became clear to me that I hadn’t given enough attention to the instrument,” Ellis says. “So I started to systematically remedy that by doing what I’ve done on guitar forever, which is give myself a schedule. I’d practice exercises and scales and theory one day, and then the next day I’d learn a Chopin tune.
"I started to feel like piano was just a deeper well. And I was like, man, what have I been wasting all this time on guitar for? If I really want to be composing and playing this harmonically dense material, why would I not have 10 notes at a time instead of six?”
» LISTEN BELOW: Robert Ellis on the role of piano in popular music
ALL HIS EFFORT pays off on “When You’re Away,” which weaves in and out of different keys as it bounces between the discomfort of being away from the one you love to the euphoria of being reunited with them. The song’s naturally radiant pop melody recalls top-40 radio of the early 1970s, when piano-based balladeers were more common than they are today.
“I feel like ‘When You’re Away’ is a really good example of a song that, if you’re a music writer or a musician, you’re like, ‘Whoa, this has got some changes,’” Ellis says. “But if you’re a regular person, you’re just like, ‘This is a song that I can sing.’ And that’s what I’ve always been struggling to do, but it’s really hard."
His persistence has paid off. “I’m finally getting to the place where I feel like I don’t need to apologize for the chord changes," he says. "I’ve always been sort of like, ‘This is challenging, I hope you like it!’ And I feel like now it’s more just like, ‘This is good; it doesn’t matter.’”
When I suggest Elton John as a touchstone to what Ellis is doing on “Texas Piano Man,” he concurs — to a point. “Elton wasn’t somebody I was really listening to when I wrote the record, or when we came up with this whole thing,” he says. “But after the fact, a number of people have mentioned it, and I’ve recently started listening to Elton a bunch, and I’m like, ‘Whoa, this makes total sense.’
“He was never somebody that really grabbed me, until recently. I think more than Elton specifically though, he sort of falls into this ‘Piano Man’ archetype. And maybe he created it. Maybe he is part of the reason it exists. So whether I was aware of him or not, I was definitely aware of his influence over the whole thing. If I think of people like Leon Russell, I’m sure there’s some Elton influence in what Leon did.”
ANOTHER KEY TRACK on “Texas Piano Man” is titled, simply, “Father.” After the bases-clearing grand slam of the record’s first four tracks — the tone-setting “(Expletive) Crazy,” the uplifting “When You’re Away,” and the brilliantly bombastic blasts of “Nobody Smokes Anymore” and “Passive Aggressive” — it drifts in as a gentle ballad that resets the scene, reassuring us that Ellis isn’t trying to put anybody on.
“What was my mother like way back when you first met her?” he sings, imagining a letter written from a son to a father he never knew. “Were you in love, and if so, where did it all go wrong? Do you remember any Christmases together? Did you dance around the living room when she played your favorite song?” It’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and it probably couldn’t have happened without Ellis recently becoming a father himself.
“When she was pregnant is when I wrote it,” he says of the woman he describes as his common-law wife. Ellis was married in his early 20s when he lived in Houston, but the union didn’t survive a yearlong relocation to Nashville. He moved to New York for a couple of years before returning to Texas and settling in Austin, where he’s long had many friends.
“There’s definitely some autobiographical moments in that song, but it’s not specifically about me," Ellis says when asked whether “Father” draws from his own personal experience. "And I tried to be careful, because I really wanted that song to be not just about if you had a deadbeat dad. I really was hoping that if somebody listened to that song, even if they had a great relationship with their father, it would beg the question of, how much do we really know our parents, ever?
“I think having a kid does this,” he continues. “You start to see milestones where your kid is like sticking out his tongue and laughing. And then it suddenly dawns on you: Oh, my parents did this. And the way I feel about this kid, there’s probably some parallels to the way they felt about me. It just never occurred to me so explicitly that my parents felt all these things. Until I had a kid, you know?”
» LISTEN BELOW: Robert Ellis talks more about his song 'Father'
AT OLD SETTLER'S this weekend, Ellis will concentrate on material from “Texas Piano Man,” accompanied by his longtime three-piece backing crew: guitarist Kelly Doyle, bassist Geoffrey Muller and drummer Michael “Tank” Lisenbe. They might slip in a cover or two, such as the jazzed-up take on the George Strait signature hit “Amarillo by Morning” they played at a few SXSW shows.
Mostly, though, this is a coming-out party for the Texas Piano Man, and the album Ellis made the hard way at every turn, from lugging that piano onto a Marfa hillside to loading the portable Yamaha grand into the van and putting on that white tie, tux and hat.
“If you shortcut on any part of this, I don’t think any of it works,” he says. “Maybe that’s insanity, but there’s something about watching it onstage — the white tuxedo, the actual piano, the attitude, the whole thing. It all communicates a feeling, which is kind of the point. I feel like everything we do aesthetically should be a part of that.”
» LISTEN BELOW: Robert Ellis on creating a persona and Father John Misty