Robert Ellis with special guest Belaver

“We make a lot of assumptions about different people. Heck, I like Liberace. I got a kick out of him. He played vaudeville. And he was reverent about it. He’d come out with all the rings on his fingers. It was like, ‘You could have this, too. I’m going to bring a little elegance into your rotten tomato life.’” – Tom Waits

Indeed, we particularly make a lot of assumptions about people who make songs for a living. Because Robert Ellis and his band were fluent in honky tonk and capable of burning through dozens of George Jones standards on any given night, he could have found his boots set in concrete. He has instead over the course of now four albums done his best to set wide parameters for his musical expression, befitting a guy from a state nearly 800 miles from one end to the other.

Had we paid more attention, we might’ve seen the Texas Piano Man coming with his white tuxedo and bouquet of yellow roses to hand out to fans. Maybe we made some assumptions about him. After all, Robert Ellis traveled the world for a few years, playing songs and pouring sweat each night into the unforgiving fabric of a lapis-colored western suit with Titan rockets embellishing the sleeves and a space suit-clad Buzz Aldrin standing on the flaps. If rhinestones were truly stars, the stages wouldn’t have needed lights.

Something inside wanted out. Or as one of his bandmates put it: Ellis had to create a character in order to finally be himself on stage.

Which brings us to the Texas Piano Man, a character or persona that isn’t made up whole cloth, but rather a large projection of Ellis’ wilder inclinations. A guy who named his publishing company Southern Liberace has embraced the idea of being a Rocket Man from Space City.

“With Texas, people expect a certain thing and they want a certain thing, and I fought that for a long time,” he says. “I’ve realized though that Texas shouldn’t be made a category. I want to redefine what it means to be Texan a little bit.”

This is the Texas Piano Man who made Texas Piano Man , a record that nods at its honky tonk roots set by a guitarist as he finds more room to roam while playing a stationary instrument and pulls from a tradition set by Billy Joel, Leon Russell and Elton John. Guys who sat at that large stationary instrument, and plinked away at it in a manner that balanced honesty and mythology.

Ellis’ play on this trope focuses on his Texas, which contains multitudes, a space so broad and wide open that it can contain the caricatures and archetypes seen from the rather narrow view so often taken from the outside, as well as the artists, oddballs and freaks who populate its many crannies. He knows the roadside attractions and the favored drinks and foods. That’s how one ends up with a song called “Topo Chico.”
“There’s a sort of reclamation process with this,” Ellis says. “There are young, urban Texans who don’t want to be known by the cliché that people have allowed our state to become. It’s saying, ‘NO, this is also Texas.”

So Ellis suited up to find his own play on the late, great Mr. Showmanship.
“It’s more about a spirit,” he says, “than an aesthetic. There’s the classic play of the piano man, and with a little fashion behind it. I want you to listen to the songs. But also to see the rings and the glitz and the glamor. This guy who always seems to be succeeding. And people love him for it.”

The tone on the record can swing like moods during the course of a day. “Fucking Crazy” finds that two people’s jagged parts sometimes fit together perfectly. “When You’re Away” is bracing in its frankness: “When you’re away,” he sings, “little things overwhelm me.”

Should the feelings come across as too intimate on paper, the presentation by the Texas Piano Man sells it with feral abandon and pop majesty, “screaming like an animal and rattling your cage,” as he puts it in one song before bringing in some pretty cooing vocals that remind of Brian Wilson’s work. Putting down his guitar and sitting at the piano awakened something, and Ellis likens the musical experience to being behind the wheel of “a rock solid fucking muscle car.” It’s a heavy thing, with beautiful lines.
Ellis describes the Texas Piano Man as the guy who wears the tuxedo everywhere. If there’s a ribbon to be cut, he’s there. A groundbreaking? He’ll hold the shovel and deal with the dirty suit later. He’ll christen your ship, and he won’t judge your yacht rock.
Sand slipping through hands sits thematically at the center of “Texas Piano Man.” His tux-clad host tells some stories about wanting to pump the brakes on life as it speeds along. “Nobody Smokes Anymore” isn’t a song about smoking. Well, it’s a little bit about smoking. But it’s really a song about habits and urges, as well as time and change. And that it truly is a drag getting old. Before he pumps out a piano part that sounds like a tip to “Benny and the Jets,” he declares, “One more drag and I’m out.”

Now at age 26, New Zealand singer/songwriter Jamie McDell has achieved a prolific amount for someone so young. Being signed to EMI at age 16 sparked the beginning of a successful musical journey, making Jamie McDell a household name across the nation. With the release of her debut album ‘Six Strings and a Sailboat’, she went on to achieve Gold album sales, receive three NZ Music Award nominations, winning Best Pop Album of 2013. Her sophomore record ‘Ask Me Anything’ gained global attention, seeing album track ‘Moon Shines Red’ featured on American TV series Pretty Little Liars. A lot was going on for the young songwriter throughout her formative years.

Early 2019 marked McDell’s return with an independently-released record that celebrates her musical roots and the sounds of her upbringing. Extraordinary Girl came together between Auckland, New Zealand and Nashville, Tennessee where she recorded the tracks with Australian award-winner producer Nash Chambers. The record features a hearty cast of country music legends including Kasey Chambers, Bill Chambers and Tami Neilson. The 12-track album gained her a nomination for RMNZ Country Music Artist Of The Year 2019 with ‘Paint On A Sign’ also nominated for APRA’s Country Song Of The Year 2019.

It was the music of her childhood that would form the fundamental elements of what excited her about songwriting the most – an honest vocal, lots of acoustic guitar and deep storytelling.

It was at age 7, while living aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, when McDell wrote her first song. On that yacht lived a small collection of her parents’ favourite tapes, including albums by Jimmy Buffett, John Denver and James Taylor, which the young McDell formed a particularly strong bond with. She fondly remembers watching her parents perform Jimmy Buffett duets – and occasionally chiming in, learning how to harmonise vocally with her mother. An eager learner, Mcdell picked up the guitar after studying her fathers’ John Denver chord book collection and has never looked back.

In March 2017, McDell booked a trip to Nashville for a change of scenery and to connect with the environment that birthed the country/folk music of her youth. There she wrote the songs that would make up the fabric for her upcoming record. ‘Extraordinary Girl’ was a departure from her nation-wide accepted commercial sound, Elsewhere’s Graham Reid explaining  ‘McDell has always sung about matters which are more mature than her audience and these songs – in a lineage which includes Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and more left-field country artists like Kasey Chambers – place McDell directly in front of her peers who understand the betrayals, bad choices of men, and the sexual and emotional territory being covered, which comes wrapped in classy country-rock, pop and blues-tinged rock.

McDell continues down the path of no-tricks, elegant honesty on her latest project The Botox EP. The title track speaks to her frustration around harmful values in significant relationships as she states I have no issue with whoever doing whatever they need to do regarding their appearance, life, relationship if it’s something that is truly driven by them. I think the danger is when we silence our instincts and begin to change ourselves and compromise our values because a significant other has convinced you, you need fixing.’

Celebrated singer/songwriter Joe Purdy is more aptly described as a troubadour—the term, as archaic as it may seem, refers moreover to the idea of a communicator of folklore through song– one who travels and tells stories using the effective medium of music.

Purdy understands that his own live music tradition has as much to do with commanding captivated, pin-drop silence as it does prompting roars – which it most definitely has – because in those hushed moments, a solemn and crystal-clear voice, the resonance of acoustic guitar strings into the reverberant din of a music hall, his stories are being heard. It is a pure experience. It’s about Joe and his audience.

This direct communication with his fans has, year after year, album after album, translated from the stage to the further dissemination of his folklore. Purdy has chosen to release his albums on his own independent label, Mudtown Crier Records, and with the help of national TV placements and that constant conversation with a strong and evergrowing fan base, he has been able to sell a staggering 1 million direct track downloads in the US on iTunes without ever signing to a label.

Joe and those people, all over the country (and beyond) perpetually willing to hear his stories.

Robert Ellis has named his new album after himself and the reason is clear. The album is both his most personal statement yet and a summation of his career thus far. Robert Ellis opens with “Perfect Strangers,” a meditation on what brings people together (and how tenuous that connection can be), and ends with “It’s Not OK,” a raw look at emotional compromise. Between those two powerful bookends are nine other songs that set Ellis’s soaring vocals and knowing melodies against his sharp, dark observations, and that show him in full command of a vibrant set of songwriting skills-irony, distance, character, narrative, a thoughtful relationship between sound and sense.

Ellis was born and raised in Lake Jackson, a town about an hour from Houston whose other famous residents have included the Pauls (Ron and Rand) and Selena (the original Queen of Tejano, not the current pop sensation). From an early age, he escaped small-town boredom through music. At first, his tastes ran toward traditional hits. “I remember having a bunch of pop records when I was really young: No Doubt and Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks. That was when I was pretty passive as a listener-I liked them, but maybe I got to them because my mom or one of my sisters had them. The first I really got obsessed with was a Doc Watson collection. I was already starting to play guitar, and my uncle told my mom to get it for me. He was my first guitar hero.”

As he developed as a writer, though, he found himself drawn toward the smartest and sharpest of the class of songwriters who developed in the 1970s: artists like Paul Simon, John Prine, and Randy Newman. And he didn’t just listen to them. He learned from them. Specifically, he learned the finer points of songcraft. “I’ve been a big fan of Paul Simon for a long time,” he says. “He has this capacity to surprise you with his music and his lyrics. With John Prine’s songs, I grew from believing that they happened to him to understanding that it didn’t matter if they really happened to him. And Randy Newman? Wow. I especially love a record like Trouble in Paradise, when there are all these artificial 1980s production techniques, but they’re being used in the service of this master composer.”

That respect for tradition-but more specifically for the fact that so-called traditional artists were in fact consistent risk-takers-fuel Ellis’s new record. “With this record,” he says, “I feel like I’ve gotten to where I can use the material of my own life as a jumping-off point. But now I can do different things with that material.” In this case, of course, the material has an element of melancholy. Much of the record revolves around the dissolution of Ellis’s marriage. It’s a breakup album, but not one that dissects its subject with straightforward rage and regret-Ellis and his ex-wife remain friends, and she is even featured in the album art, which was created after the divorce. Rather, it’s an album that finds Ellis reaching back into the trick bags of masters like Simon, Prine, and Newman, and employing the full complement of skills that he’s learned from them. “‘Perfect Strangers,’ took a month,” he says. “I had a notepad and walked around New York, giving myself personal therapy through the eyes of the city.”

Other songs came faster. “I wrote ‘Elephant” quickly,” he says. “It’s about my misunderstanding of monogamy and my complete bewilderment with some of the ideas that I grew up with. I felt that in the past year, lots of constructs I took for granted were turned on their head. But I was careful to express those ideas in a way where the gray areas got to stay gray. If what you’re saying is that you’re confused, you shouldn’t say you’re confused. You should betray a contradiction.”

Ellis isn’t afraid of sophistication. The beautifully orchestrated “You’re Not the One” has more complex origins than its title might suggest. “For that one, I woke up from a nightmare that was a kind of sex dream. In the dream, the faces around me kept changing. It was very eerie, like a David Lynch movie. The song has that sense of unease but also this Ellington bridge that’s unrelated to the key of the song. I’m really proud of that one.” But he can make his point with simplicity also, as in the chorus to “Drivin,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley: “This don’t feel like living, it’s just surviving / I’m ain’t going nowhere, I’m just driving.” And then there’s “High Road,” the emotional center of the record, co-written with friend Jonny Fritz, a song about professional and personal insecurity that builds from lonesome shivers to almost operatic melodrama-all the while riding a lovely, fragile melody.

While Ellis wrote nine of the album’s songs, he is also a generous collaborator dedicated to finding songs from other writers who advance his vision. “Once I knew that much of the record would be composed of these extremely personal songs like ‘Elephant’ or ‘High Road,’ but I was aware from the start that I couldn’t have a whole record of them. Putting it together was like assembling a collection of short stories. You need different tones and colors. So that’s why I included a song like ‘How I Love You,’ which was written by my friend Matt Vasquez, from Delta Spirit. We were hanging out, and I asked him if he had any good uptempo songs, and he showed me that one. And ‘Screw’ was written by Kelly Doyle, who plays guitar in our band. Listening to him work on his solo record, I was amazed by the sound. His process and palette were really inspirational to me.”

The album ends with “It’s Not OK,” which holds its ground as a traditional busted-love song before hurtling headlong into a dark thicket of guitars. “In that case, because the song is about that kind of emotional trouble, part of me that wanted dissonance and chaos. The melodic and rhythmic ideas to me are a different kind of information from the lyrics, but they’re still information.”

As thoughtful as Ellis is about the process, his album also has plenty of pop pleasures. “California” is a jaunty, intimate travelogue that elevates into his chorus. “Amanda Jane” has an almost bossa nova shuffle and a melody that splits the difference between power pop and 70s soft rock. And “Couples Skate” reaches back even further. “I wrote that one while were on tour with Richard Thompson. It’s a green room song. I was just journaling, and I remembered holding this girl’s hand in second grade. It’s a nostalgic idea, which is why I reached for a 50s soul vibe. But it’s also nineties, in a way-something about it that reminds me of the rock and roll I was listening to around that time.”

In the end, Robert Ellis (the album) is the most accurate reflection yet of Robert Ellis (the man). It’s analytical and emotional, calculated in spots and improvisational in others, restless, peaceful, never indifferent, never dispassionate.