The sight of Robert Ellis singing and dancing in white tails and a top hat in his new video for “When You’re Away” — premiering exclusively below from his just-released new album Texas Piano Man — is quite a sight for those used to him as a pensive troubadour.
And rest assured it didn’t come easy.
“I have never danced in my whole life,” Ellis tells Billboard, though he acknowledges growing up two-stepping and learning to line dance in his native Texas. But for the more sophisticated steps in “When You’re Away,” he enlisted Allison Walsh, a professional dancer currently in Anastasia on Broadway and wife of Deer Tick’s Chris Ryan, to play his romantic foil and choreograph the routine.
“She flew in the day before we were set to shoot; I was like, ‘I think a day’s enough time…,'” Ellis says. “I figured she’s good enough, and as long as I don’t look like a complete asshole this will work. So she walked me through a crash course in how to do this stuff in my driveway and made my parts easy enough. I don’t think you notice I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
Ellis acknowledges that dancing, with the stars or otherwise, “was demanding. I was fucking exhausted. I had pains in my ankles, places I never hurt before.” But that won’t keep him from soft-stepping again for the other videos he plans to make from Texas Piano Man.
“I want to get better at it, especially after doing this,” he said. “I told [Walsh] I’m going to take a tap class. I think it’s a fun way to get some exercise and not feel like I’m on a treadmill.”
The lighthearted, winking video reflects Ellis’ attitude on Texas Piano Man, released by New West Records, a stylistic left turn that finds him shifting from guitar to piano and significantly lightening the mood throughout its 11 tracks — as titles such as “Fucking Crazy,” “Nobody Smokes Anymore” and “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love” might indicate. “I like to have a little bit of a mask to wear on each record,” Ellis says. “I started writing these tunes and really thinking about this kind of crazy, brazen Texas character, drawing on kind of classic piano man bravado like Liberace and Billy Joel — and thinking about that in the context of Texas and how I thought those two things could go together. I think three or four songs in I had this idea of who this character was, and everything else fell into place.”
Ellis is dancing his way across the U.S. as the real-life Texas Piano Man in support of the album. He’s purchased and refurbished a vintage 1940s club marquee that’s part of the stage act, and he plans to blend new material with re-imagined takes on his older songs as well as a choice of crowd-pleasing covers that will fit his fresh persona.
“In my normal Robert Ellis set, if I was going to cover a Paul McCartney song, I’d cover something obscure, like off Back to the Egg or something, and I would really love it and maybe two people in the audience would love it,” Ellis says. “But the Texas Piano Man, he’d do ‘Hey Jude,’ because everybody wants to hear that song. So I’m sick of being precious, and I want to play exciting material. I want to do Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer.’ I want to do ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra. The Texas Piano Man is a guy who just wants to have fun, and I’m having fun going that way.”