“I definitely want it to feel like someone is getting something special – that was really thought out. And I think that changes the way you hear the music.”

By Leah ScarpelliFebruary 14, 2019 12:38 pm

You can hear an extended version of this interview in the player at the bottom of this post.

Robert Ellis may have grown up south of Houston, but his provenance has never been especially easy to pin down. A few years back, when the buzz first started building around a hot new singer/songwriter from the Lone Star State, his long-haired look was more heavy metal than Texas troubadour. But a few months later, he was hardly recognizable: short hair, blue jeans, a beard and some wicked guitar chops.  

Fast forward to 2019 and Robert Ellis had undergone yet another transformation. This time, he shed the traditional T-shirt and jeans favored by singer/songwriters, and dons attire that’s a whole lot more slick and formal. He also rebranded himself as the Texas Piano Man. 

“This, ironically, is my casual attire,” Ellis says of the black-outfit-and-bolo-tie look he wore during his visit to the Texas Standard studios. “Normally, when I go on stage, I have the full-white tuxedo that you can see on the record cover. And I wear a white hat. But you know, that’s show business.”

Ellis says he came to the realization that the persona he presents to the public also affects how fans perceive his music.

“I definitely want it to feel like someone is getting something special – that was really thought out,” he says. “And I think that changes the way you hear the music.”

But Ellis’ sound on his fourth album, “Texas Piano Man,” doesn’t necessarily match the serious duds. It’s a sensitive, sincere sound, but Ellis says he also wants to inflect his work with humor.

“I’m starting to feel a real need for levity in the things that I do,” Ellis says. “There’s a real need for humor, and there’s a real need to just not take things so seriously. And that’s just to get through the day.”

On stage, Ellis says the persona goes deeper than the fancy clothes. He says he wants to project confidence, with no anxiety, and a great sense of humor. He aspires to embody his conception of “the piano man.”

“I feel like there’s this really interesting cross section between what people fancy themselves to be as a Texan – the idea that we’re these wild, rogue, brazen, individual people – and sort of the classic archetype of the piano man,” Ellis says.

Ellis includes fellow piano man Leon Russell among his influences. He says Russell was both a skilled stage performer and a skilled studio musician who was respected by fellow musicians. Liberace, probably the most famous piano showman, is another influence.

“When you went to a Liberace show, there [was] this air of sophistication,” Ellis says. “The candelabra, the beautiful tuxedo and the rhinestones. And he plays this music that feels very elevated. You could go and be somebody else for a night, by way of this show.”

Ellis says he doesn’t know whether he’ll always play the Texas Piano Man character, but he enjoys it for now.

“I do love the day to day of being this character,” he says. “It’s facets of my personality that I really want to embrace.”

On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, Ellis will celebrate the release of the “Texas Piano Man” album with an in-store performance at Austin’s Waterloo Records. He’ll also play during the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in March. And on March 23, Ellis will launch his “Texas Piano Man” tour with a concert in Oklahoma City. 

Written by Shelly Brisbin.