Music

Robert Ellis Explores Romantic Longing in "When You're Away" (premiere + interview)

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Alexandra Valenti / Courtesy of New West Records

Texas songman Robert Ellis turns to the piano for exploration of his home state, its larger-than-life characters, and matters of the heart. He also discusses fatherhood, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the all-important sense of humor.

Texas Piano Man, the latest release from Lone Star State singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, arrives February 14 via New West Records. For this effort, Ellis decided to set aside his primary instrument, the guitar, and create the material on the piano. The result is an album that covers a broad range of topics, from the humorous ("Nobody Smokes Anymore", "Passive Aggressive") and the heartbreaking, ("Father", "Aren't We Supposed to Be in Love") to those, such as the latest single, "When You're Away", which land somewhere squarely between. The musical settings accentuate the jazz and Great American Songbook tendencies which have been evident in the songwriter's work from the start.

"It's a pretty simple love song," Ellis says, via phone, during a late winter afternoon while driving to his local post office. "It was on another record that I did with some friends with a band called Traveler. It was a completely different version. It was a slow ballad. I think the version we put on this record was me trying to draw from Rufus Wainwright, people like that. It also has a show tune-y element to it that I really like. We did a video that will come out and it's a dance production. But it's not a Texas two-step number. It's much more like a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers type thing. I wanted it to feel like Texas. But I also wanted it to feel like entertainment. A real show. Classic, American song-and-dance man shit."

"When You're Away" is a slice of classic songwriting (American and otherwise), based in the tradition of piano men such as Jackson Browne, Elton John and others, a song that is as breathtaking in its craft as its simplicity and in the emotions it evokes from the listener. The melody carries an unexpected depth, highlighting the sweetness of Ellis' voice and the brilliance of his lyrical and melodic choices.

Ellis spoke with PopMatters about Texas Piano Man, fatherhood and his love of his home state.

You wrote these songs on piano instead of guitar.

I tend to write conceptual pieces. I look for anchors, things that connect all the songs. I was playing a lot of piano and had written a few tunes. When I came up with the concept for the Texas Piano Man everything fell into place. I started to listen to other piano men and started to think, "What kind of tune is the record missing now? How do I really make this a piano man record?" Then, all these things about Texas started to appear.

Who were some of those piano men that you listened to?

Leon Russell was somebody I got into a couple years ago and really, really love. To me, he's a square peg figure. He's really Southern. He's got an almost-country quality to his stuff but he also has these intricate pop sensibilities. "Song For You"? The changes to that could be from a Hoagie Carmichael song.

I really love Jerry Lee Lewis. I've played on the honky-tonk scene and played country tunes. A friend of mine, who I gig with, gave me some Jerry Lee Lewis records that were obscure live records and leaned toward country. These records would have really common honky-tonk songs, "Together Again" or "Your Cheatin' Heart". But Jerry Lee plays them with this insanely raucous, brazen disregard for anything. He's just this wild spirit.

Hearing him do these country songs and give them this other life, made me start thinking, "That's something I want to do with my own material." I want to take things I've been doing over these last four records and give my songs this different energy." A lot of this is just for me.

When you tour 300 days a year and you make records, it's easy sometimes to feel like you're in Groundhog Day. As a writer you sometimes challenge yourself to play music you think will be fun to play when you go out and tour it.

That was a huge part of it. I wanted each of these songs to be something I would look forward to in the set. You start thinking about that. "If I were watching this live show, is this the time when I'd want to go to the bathroom or go smoke a cigarette?" If so, maybe I need to switch some of these songs around.

You mentioned the Jerry Lee live albums. Was Live at the Star Club, Hamburg one of those?

Oh yeah. That's a really cool record. He sounds insane! He'll start playing the song, yell out the title and start singing the lyrics immediately. He's so confident and his vocal style is so cool. He adds so many melodic elements to these songs that are otherwise so simple. He has this crazy way of reaching high notes and moving through passages. He's truly an artist.

I'm guessing that writing on piano opened up choices for different chords or melodic choices that you wouldn't have found on guitar.

Definitely. Compared to my skill on guitar I'm still a relative novice on piano. I haven't really given it the time or the energy that I've given to guitar. There are things that sound mundane to me on guitar that wouldn't on piano. I found myself liking simple things. Playing two chords on piano can be really satisfying. I didn't get too nerdy and overwrite the songs. An aggressive, percussive thing would just sound really good with two chords. There was no reason to go in and reharmonize all the changes. That's been my tendency on the guitar.

You mentioned some of this about keeping yourself entertained and I wondered if that's where some of the humorous elements come from, something like "Nobody Smokes Anymore."

I've always had a sense of humor, especially in my personal life. My friend Jonny Fritz, we're longtime writing partners, he writes humorous country music. It always has sort of a wink and you never know if you're being made fun of. He jokes that the way he is in his in his personal life is the way that I am in my songwriting and the way he is in his songs is the way I am in my personal life.

For years, I've written pretty serious material and we'd go out and play shows together and when I'd play my serious material people wouldn't listen and when Jonny would play material and want people to think it was serious they would just laugh because they'd think everything he was doing was a joke! [Laughs.]

I think with this record, I've tried to just be more myself in the writing. A little more fun. Like I said earlier, I have a tendency to overwrite and with this I wanted everything to be easy and fun.

I think of people like Paul McCartney: He writes these incredible songs but if you analyze them, you say, "This has four lyrics! The whole fucking song has four lyrics!" What an insane amount of confidence Paul McCartney must have to write that, leave it, and be, like, "That's finished." [Laughs.]

Then there are other things, something more serious, such as "Father." Do you put yourself in the emotional skin of the song when you're writing something like that? I mean, I'm assuming it's not entirely personal.

It is a little personal. I started writing it about a friend. She sent a letter to her father, she never met him. Didn't know who he was. Through a family member she got his address and, as an adult, 30 years old, she sent it to him. I never read it but when I sat down to write the song, I was thinking about what a letter like that might say. But I was also probably thinking about what my own letter would say. There are elements of my life in that thing, but it's ultimately an amalgamation.

It's also just about everybody. You live your whole life knowing a person but you never really know them. I started thinking about how disconnected we get from our families as adults. Your parents lived this whole other life before they had you. You don't know anything about it, really. You get bits and pieces of it. It just occurred to me that it would be difficult to ever truly know of your parents because you only experience one portion of their life with them.

I also had a kid. I wrote the song when my lady was pregnant, so I'm sure all that played into it too.

That will change one's life.

Oh my God, yeah. But completely for the better, though. I would highly advise that everyone just have a kid. Barring some extreme situations. I guess I always thought that it was going to be far more stressful than it is. I had always heard that there's anxiety and stress with pregnancy. You feel like you don't have enough money. My experience has been, "This is the best thing that has ever happened to me." He really doesn't require that much money. He drinks breast milk. He's a bundle of joy. It's difficult to have a bad day when this little dude is just smiling and laughing all the time.

There's also "Aren't We Supposed to Be in Love". We've all faced moments like that in our relationships. It really captures that feeling of, "How the hell did we get here?"

I hope people hear that song. It's late in the album. Inevitably, you give priority to singles, which are usually the first few songs of the record and then after you've toured the thing for six months or a year, other fan singles start to emerge. I really hope that that becomes one of them. I love playing that song. I'm really proud of it.

You grew up in Texas and still live there. It doesn't sound like you're in any hurry to leave. What inspires you about the place?

This record is heavily inspired by the character of a Texan, the idea that all of us here have this pride about where we come from. We fancy our ancestors to be these wild, rogue cowboys. We think of our ancestors as these people who were exploring this wild, crazy place and, through many, many years of trial and tribulation eventually claimed it for their own. Every story that we have is so larger-than-life, overblown.

We have a whole year of Texas history in school. You learn about the Alamo. We really glorify this even where we were horribly outmatched and lost the battle, a lot of people died. We glorify how long we held out. That's how we fancy ourselves. These tough-as-nails independent spirits.

Part of this record was reconciling that idea with what I see today in Texas. From a political perspective, Texas is not super reflective of how we fancy ourselves. We've pretty much voted up-and-down Republican for a while now and that's kind of crazy to me because, for years and years, Texas Democrats were a real substantive thing.

I guess I want to represent Texas the way that I see Texas. I want to bring that to the outside world and I want to say, "Texas is cowboy boots and cowboy hats. But it's also really weird outsider art from Marfa. It's these big open spaces that inspire sculpture." I want it to have a little more dimension.

TOUR DATES

Feb 14th - Austin, TX - Waterloo Records
March 11th-17th - Austin, TX SXSW Music Festival
Mar 23rd – Oklahoma City, OK – VZD's
Mar 24th – St. Louis, MO – Off Broadway
Mar 26th – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club
Mar 27th – Oshkosh, WI – The Howard
Mar 28th - Chicago, IL – Old Town School of Folk Music
Mar 29th – Ferndale, MI – Loving Touch
Mar 31st – Boston, MA – Great Scott
April 1st – Philadelphia, PA – Foundry @ The Fillmore
April 2nd – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade
April 3rd – Bethlehem, PA – ArtsQuest
April 4th – Washington, DC – Songbyrd
April 5th – Chapel Hill, NC – Local 506
Apr 8th – Atlanta, GA – The Earl
April 9th – Nashville, TN – Basement East
April 10th – Tilmon, TX – Old Settlers Festival
April 13th – Dallas, TX – Homegrown Festival

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