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Fatherhood’s late-night lullabies inspire hushed sound of Robert Ellis’ ‘Yesterday’s News’

Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis shed his "Texas Piano Man" persona for a stripped-down, quiet approach in his new album "Yesterday's News."
Erica Silverman
Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis shed his "Texas Piano Man" persona for a stripped-down, quiet approach in his new album "Yesterday's News."

Fort Worth-based singer-songwriter Robert Ellis was the “Texas Piano Man” on his previous album, but his latest outing is stripping things down further.

Recorded live with only an acoustic guitar, an upright bass and vocals, the songs on Ellis’ “Yesterday’s News” live in a sort of “half-awake world,” as the artist put it.

“One of the sort of tentpoles of the recording process was I just wanted to keep it as quiet as humanly possible,” Ellis said. “I’ve been telling people I didn’t want anything too exciting to happen across the whole record. It’s sort of one tone and one volume, you know.”

» SEE MORE: Robert Ellis is the ‘Texas Piano Man’

The inspiration for the shift in sound came from the artist’s experiences with fatherhood – particularly those moments he says are familiar to many new parents, such as the cycle of trying to lull a 6-month-old back to sleep in the late hours.

“I also have two children and a lot of these songs were written when my first child was still quite young and just my life got a lot quieter,” Ellis said. “My priorities have shifted, obviously, quite a bit, and a lot of these songs are about my children, or at least written from the perspective of a new parent. Many of these songs are just like fully lullabies.”

While the new life experience has proved to be a well from which Ellis drew inspiration for the new album, the process of songwriting all together has grown with the artist. Ellis said lyrics and music come together as if following a thread.

“And I’m just sort of always trying to follow that thread of like, am I still interested in this? Is it still interesting?” Ellis said. “And if it is, I keep going, and as soon as I hit a wall and something isn’t making that light go off, then I change directions. Often I’ll think a song is going to be about something, but by the time I finish it, it’s about something entirely different. Often I think my subconscious brain is a lot smarter than my conscious one.”

Ellis calls “Yesterday’s News” an album “firmly rooted in folk music” but also says many songs were informed by other Texas songwriters and even drew some inspiration from jazz, with Chet Baker looming large as an influence. And while the hushed tone of the album makes it a prime record to put on, relax and doze off to, Ellis says the kinds of records he turns to for a similar impact must meet two criteria.

“They have to be relaxed enough that I can peacefully drift off, but they also have to be interesting enough that I’m not bored and my thoughts are not wandering,” Ellis said. “I often have a lot of anxiety when I’m trying to fall asleep and I can get interested enough that with every musical turn, with every new lyric, I’m still invested, I’m still listening. I’m not thinking about anything else, but it has just a very specific tone that also allows you to just wake up in the morning and you don’t even remember falling asleep.”

“Yesterday’s News” is out May 19 on Niles City Records.

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Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.