Spotlight: Robert Ellis

Ryan Reed on March 21, 2019
Spotlight: Robert Ellis

“Iam fortunate enough to not have had a massive fan base for quite a while now,” Robert Ellis says with an uproarious laugh. It’s an odd sentiment for a still-under-the-radar singer-songwriter—especially one who’s preparing to release his fifth LP, the gleefully charismatic Texas Piano Man. But the Houston native relishes the relative anonymity—after all, when your fanbase is still in flux, it’s that much easier to reinvent yourself.

“There are people who probably love my first or second record, but it’s really not a lot, especially in the scope of what I want to accomplish,” says Ellis, whose recent work has blossomed from conventional country/folk into a malleable mishmash of rootsy, jazzy pop-rock and atmospheric Americana. “I’m sure there will be a handful of people with this record who are like, ‘This isn’t what I expected.’ But I’m hoping I can reach a much larger audience that has no idea about any of those records. With the alternative country/folk/Americana world—and, even broader than that, the songwriter world—we get up our own asses a lot. [Laughs.] The ceiling is low in terms of what you can accomplish. And since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to be a fucking star.”

With Texas Piano Man, he’s taken a grand-slam-worthy swing at that coveted stardom. Where his first four LPs, including his 2014 breakout, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, were often heavy and meditative, his latest exudes a smirking, contagious quirkiness—a bold pivot into the showboating storyteller mold of Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and Elton John.

The title isn’t just an excuse for Ellis to show up for his album cover shoot wearing a white tuxedo, cowboy hat and bow tie. (However, he opted to anyway.) And it’s not exactly a character either, although the image of a winking, bar-dwelling Southern troubadour seems to fit the album thematically. Instead, it’s a framing device that allows him to explore a lighter, more approachable side of his personality that his brooding early work rarely showcased.

“My guitar player was explaining to this friend of ours what the new album was, and he’s like, ‘It’s this quirky ‘piano man’ thing, and it’s really loud and funny and sort of brazen,’” Ellis says. “If you don’t know me personally and just know my work, that would seem like a departure. He made the comment that ‘Robert needed to create a character to be himself onstage.’ Those things are a huge part of my day-to-day personality and the way I live my life but, for a long time, I’ve made serious music. It wasn’t reflective of me as a person in a lot of ways. This ‘Texas Piano Man’ is very much who I am, but it did take creating this persona to embrace those qualities.”

“People appreciate personalities,” he adds. “When I listen to music, I like to live vicariously through the artists I like. Billy Joel has this certain perspective that I not only identify with, but also sort of aspire to. He’s like this reckless, sometimes-drunk, psycho person who also is very tender and writes these beautiful songs that your mom likes. It’s a really weird combo. It’s like when you watch a kung-fu movie and, afterward, you feel like you can do kung-fu.”

The side of Ellis displayed on Texas Piano Man is his most charming, a people-pleaser for one and all—he loves the spectacle of ornate, shifting arrangements (the musical theater-leaning “He Made Me Do It”) but can’t resist the surefire punch of a pop hook (“Passive Aggressive,” which sounds like “Bennie and the Jets” via Abbey Road). The alluring “Let Me In” finds him at a sweet spot between complexity and accessibility, pairing a modal-style, major-to-minor piano progression with a strikingly simple lyric and melody inspired by the Wings hit “Let ‘Em In.”

“I was listening to a ton of Paul McCartney and thinking about the way he writes lyrics,” Ellis says, noting that he switched entirely from guitar to piano for the album’s recording sessions. “That song ‘Let ‘Em In’ is so simple. I was really listening to [1976’s At the Speed of Sound] and thinking about how courageous and confident he is with very simple lyrics. He just says, ‘Someone’s knocking at the door; somebody’s ringing the bell.’ He’s like, ‘I did it. Let’s move on. I wrote a song.’ [Laughs.] That’s something I’d never done before this record. I’d worked everything to death. I want to keep working at it until it’s good in my mind. With a lot of the songs on this record, I wanted to have it feel good and be like, ‘That’s it. It feels good. Let’s move on and not question it.’”

Ellis isn’t shy about his ultimate career goals: The immediacy, the people-pleasing choruses, the goddamn tuxedo—it’s all part of a creative evolution with one destination in mind. “I don’t care what anybody says—if you grew up playing music, you looked at Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and wanted to be as big as them,” he says, breathlessly. “And I still have that. I’m not gonna give up on that. So the idea of disappointing a handful of Americana fans is not something I’m super conscious of. I would love to play Madison Square Garden! You should believe in what you’re doing enough to want it to reach a ton of people.”

This article originally appears in the March 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.