Ellis Paul has been called a troubadour. I got to thinking about that word since, to me, it makes me think of the middle ages and some guy walking around with a lute or a lyre, serenading a bunch of richy rich people in a castle courtyard. Modern day troubadours are, however, quite different. Yes, they sing their own songs but they’re more likely to play a guitar or maybe even a piano like Ellis does…and they’re usually not found in many castles. Instead, they’re on the road—visiting venues, house concert series, or festivals—spreading their songs to the common folk like you or me.
I’ve been following Ellis Paul’s music since he first started to make a name for himself in the Boston area in the 1980s. I am most thankful that I’ve seen him grow as a musician and a songwriter and to see his talent appreciated by many around the world. How cool is it that he found the time to answer some of my questions?
For more information about Ellis, visit his website.
Here’s a link to a video I took of him at last year’s Newport Folk Festival.
Ellis Paul will be playing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, October 5.
This has been a special year to commemorate the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie and you’ve been pretty active as one of the Woody torchbearers. Tell us about your song, “Woody Guthrie, Working Man” which is included in your latest kid’s CD, The Hero in You. How have kids been reacting to this song?
It seems to get everyone dancing. Strange for a folk song– it’s tear free. I don’t know if the kids completely understand the context of the song, but the understand the joy– it does weird things to theirs knees and toes– they seem too busy enjoying the groove of it all to understand the great depression, the dust bowl, the war, the workers rights. The song has the rhythm of a train– I so I wanted it to transport them out to Oklahoma and across the country to New York and California, state by state, and make it feel like Woody was the conductor. I trust the details and content will sink in eventually, maybe after menopause and grey hairs creep in. Until then I’m hoping they keep dancing and me, I’m considering disco as a second career.
When you perform the songs from this CD, do you have to supply a little history lesson for the kids? How did you make decisions about which “heroes” to include on the record?
I haven’t performed many of these in non-school concerts yet. The performances outside of schools are more for preschool and kindergarten students, so I focus mostly on age-appropriate songs for them, and just touch on these. I hope to go into schools with this CD in the fall, and play to third thru fifth graders– they are studying some of the people in the music and their teachers will make them aware of the songs before I come into their classrooms.
I chose some of my heroes– Ben Franklin, Woody Guthrie, Rosa Parks, Tee Tot— and then some of the people chose me Augustus Jackson, Nelly Bly, Martha Graham. My wife was a guide to Chief Joseph and Georgia O’Keeffe. She helped write some of these too. I was looking to balance gender, race, sex, famous and not so famous. Some of these people had stories that demanded a song, and I knew little about them before doing research. I love Nelly Bly’s story. She was way ahead of her time– a feminist reporter, world traveler, big business owner.
I have to tell you, I’m very impressed by your artwork. The commemorative artwork that you made for the WoodyFest event was quite impressive. Are you a self-taught artist? Have you ever had an exhibit?
I’d like to do more– it’s illustration more than portraiture or landscape. I took art classes in high school and in college. I’m going to do more, but I don’t want to pressure my time too much. I like my other job too. But this is captivating me.
I just spent some time looking at your timeline on the archives page. Wow, it’s hard to believe that Say Anything was produced in 1993. Do you have any fond memories of working with Bill Morrissey on that project?
It’s been strange to live in a world without Bill. He’s even more present with me in some ways. People are quick to share their stories with of him as I travel around the country– so he has been on my mind and in conversation nearly every day. It’s hard. He was a beautiful, complex, gifted, giving, tormented, bright dark man. I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without him, and have made a point to invest in up and coming artists to repay his efforts with me. So Antje Duvekot, Peyton Tochterman, Seth Glier and other bright lights who I have tried to invest time and advice with are really another link in the Morrissey chain. I hope they pass it on as well.
Your career seems to have picked up speed in 1994 when you won both Kerrville and Falcon Ridge and it’s the first time that Vance Gilbert’s name is mentioned. Do you remember where you met Vance? I’m sure there must be some kind of amusing anecdote involved with that meeting!
I remember meeting him at an underground coffeehouse in Brighton called the Naked City. It was in a lobby in a scrappy enclave for the arts, comics, and underground newspapers. He came up the stairs as big as Vance Gilbert can be– which is far bigger than the six feet he carries round on his bones. Felt like the lobby was too small a space to hold him. I remember thinking how he had it all guitar, vocals, songs, humor. His lungs were like a whale’s. His fingers were like spiders running up the fretboard. He sang like an angel and had the power to induce laughter first slowly then louder and louder till tears burst through your personal sprinkler system and the whole room was awash with them. He can start a fire and put it out. You felt exhausted listening to him because every part of your body was affected. He was like PX 90. It hurt. You’re sore after a Vance Gilbert concert. You pull things. He did everything better than all of us. Still does, I hate him.
Your latest “adult” CD The Day Everything Changed is a profound collection of songs but the title song is one that nearly everyone who listens to it can identify with. Being at that crossroads and wondering which path to take… Your song style is very conversational and undoubtedly your fans feel a closeness to you when they hear songs like this. Is it fair to say that your fans have come to rely on you as a touchstone for many of life’s big and even small events?
I just write ’em. And pray. I pray they feed my kids. Pray they pay my mortgage. Pray they’re heard. Pray they Move somebody. Make toes wiggle. Tears fall. Lips hum. Minds open. Hearts expand. Pray people come to hear them in person. Pray they turn off American Idol and the Karrdashians.
There’s so much praying going on, it eats up the songwriting time.