Robert Ellis — a singer-songwriter born in Houston, briefly situated in Nashville, now calling Austin home — is deeply fond of Fort Worth. Appreciative of the city’s relaxed pace and its cultural fixtures, like the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Ellis also cites Niles City Sound and his longstanding friendship with Josh Block and Austin Jenkins, two of the musical minds behind the Near Southside-based studio, as a key reason he keeps coming back to the 817.
“We’ve all been friends for a really long time,” Ellis says of Block and Jenkins, during a recent interview. “[Block] ended up playing drums on the [Lights from the] Chemical Plant record; we toured together quite a bit. … When he started the studio, it was such an amazing, incredible place. It’s really cool. I really like being there.”
Indeed, after an extended stay that included a series of 2018 Niles City Sound sessions resulting in his fifth studio album, last year’s superb Texas Piano Man, it’s tempting to consider the 31-year-old musician an honorary citizen of Cowtown.
Even more so when learning it’s Robert Ellis — and not the slightly higher profile Leon Bridges, the Grammy-winning artist eternally associated with Niles City Sound after recording his debut album Coming Home in the space adjacent to the studio — who can lay claim to a bit of Fort Worth musical history.
“We also recorded the Dear John record at Niles City Sound in 2016," Ellis says. “We were actually the first record once [Block] opened the new studio — like, a lot of the stuff wasn’t even done yet. We recorded this John Harper tribute record in that room.”
On Sunday, Ellis will be roughly in the neighborhood, just about 30 miles to the east, as he performs solo at Dallas’ Kessler Theater, with Jamie McDell opening.
The relationship between Ellis and Block and the relative comfort of Niles City Sound helped spawn Texas Piano Man, a record rich with contradictions, not unlike the state in its title.
Ellis, a piquant, sophisticated musician with a fondness for a finely turned phrase and wise-ass observations, unfurls the breadth of his abilities across Piano Man’s 11 tracks, a dazzling synthesis of a roughly 10-year career that has long cruised under the radar.
The closing track, “Topo Chico,” is one of those delightful ditties where the line between humor and heartfelt tribute is quite blurry (“I love playing [‘Topo Chico’] in Europe — they don’t fucking know what it is,” Ellis says), while on “Father,” Ellis sings movingly of realizing the depths of paternal estrangement: “I just want you to listen/And then I’ll leave it up to you what happens when I’m done/I want a father, but I’ll settle for a friend.”
Much of the press around Texas Piano Man has contained some variation upon the idea of the album being something of a “big swing” for Ellis, who has long mixed astringent comedy, pathos and vivid language into his music.
On this record, Ellis made a conscious decision — from the artful cover image, which has him seated at a gleaming grand piano, clad in an all-white tuxedo against an arid backdrop to the amiable goofiness of the videos — to embrace his impulses, despite some initial resistance from the powers that be.
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“It was just one of those things where I was, like, fuck it — let’s just have fun with it and not think too much about it,” Ellis said. “It was really surprising to me in trying to sell these ideas to people in my business, people that I work with — I was often met with a lot of resistance.”
So while Ellis might return to Fort Worth as soon as he’s able, he’s not looking to return to how he conducted his career before Texas Piano Man came along.
“I definitely don’t think I’m going to go back to being so precious and sentimental,” Ellis says. “This whole record was about having fun and throwing it out there and moving on. I definitely think that’s gonna be part of my vocabulary from now on, because I’ve just enjoyed it so much more.”
Robert Ellis plays Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Kessler Theater. Tickets are $22-$136.