A “songwriter’s songwriter.” A simple phrase, but nonetheless a title that goes only to those that have earned remarkable admiration from peers within the music industry. It makes sense that the Boston Globe crowned folk musician Ellis Paul with such a designation, claiming in 1993 that “no emerging songwriter in recent memory has been more highly touted and respected by songwriters.” After more than a dozen albums, 13 Boston Music Awards and hit songs on soundtracks like “Shallow Hal” and “Me, Myself, & Irene,” Paul has proven his critics correct.
At the start of his career, Paul helped lead a wave of singer/songwriters that emerged from the Boston folk scene, “creating a movement that revitalized the national acoustic circuit with an urban, literate, folk pop style.” He is also credited with bridging the gap between “the modern folk sound and the populist traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger more successfully than perhaps any of his songwriting peers.”
Ellis Paul’s 14th record release, “The Dragonfly Races” is actually also his debut into the family/children’s genre. Why the new direction? It wasn’t long ago that Paul noticed his oldest daughter, Ella, was singing along to songs made famous by Barney and Elmo, not tunes from dear old dad. Working with his wife and friends, Ellis pulled together a group of songs in hopes of creating music that people could escape to; sound that allowed others to enjoy the fantasies created behind the words. After hearing his daughters Ella and Sofi once again sing along to his music, he knew he had found the melodies he was searching for.
When you do pick up “The Dragonfly Races,” you’ll certainly notice the radiant illustrations that come with the record – paintings and art that demonstrate more of the talents of Ellis Paul. Paul decided to lend his artwork to this album because he’s “always believed that art was a part of the songwriting in a way… It’s painting with words and music and is an extension of illustrating.” You can see more work like this in Paul’s upcoming children’s book, as well as in “Notes from the Road,” a book of poems and stories from the artist himself. Read on for the answers to his XXQ’s.
XXQs: Ellis Paul
Pen’s Eye View: How and when did you first get started in music?
Ellis Paul: I started playing music in college when I was 21, had some free time and a friend lent me her guitar…
PEV: Growing up in northern Maine, who were you listening to? Do you remember the first concert you attended?
EP: Ted Nugent. The Nuge came swinging in on a vine wearing his glorious tarzan outfit. I was fourteen.
PEV: Emerging from the Boston folk scene, what were the earlier days of your career like; when you were first getting started in Boston? Why folk music?
EP: Mostly my early days were spinning around the open mikes with the likes of Dar Williams, Martin Sexton, Gatty Griffin, The Story, Vance Gilbert, everyone was getting their feet wet at a place called The Old Vienna Coffeehouse, which was about 40 minutes outside of Boston. They had a Thursday open mike, many of us got our first professional gigs there as well.
PEV: Tell us about the first time you stepped on stage, live, to perform.
EP: Boston College, where I attended school. There was a benefit concert for mentally retarded kids. Half way through the set one of them climbed up on stage and played drums for us. I think he was the best musician on stage at the time.
PEV: Years after that, being able to play much larger stages, in front of thousands of people all over the world, how has your on stage presence changed since that first day?
EP: I am less self conscious, and more present. I’m more able to be spontaneous, and not say awkward things out of nervousness, or insecurity. Usually, I feel confident that can handle whatever trouble may come my way– a broken string, power outages, etc.
PEV: With all your touring and traveling, which city, International or US, do you think offers the best appreciation for music? As well which has been your favorite to perform?
EP: I don’t have a singular favorite. Boston is incredibly supportive of singer songwriters and folk musicians, and the crowds there are generally the most informed about all of us as a group, because there is so much exposure there for us. I like playing Chicago. Atlanta. Houston. But everywhere is great, because I have had the chance to develop an audience everywhere. I like it when it’s a little rowdier than your standard church folk gig.
PEV: With touring; how has life on the road been for you? What are the best and worse parts about road life?
EP: I’ve enjoyed the life I have built on the road. I have great friends in every city in the country, and I know the towns and clubs and cities and feel comfortable getting around, and nostalgic for the the place when i arrive. The tough part is having a family and having to be away to make a living.
PEV: When you get a chance to stop touring and performing, what can we find you doing in your down time?
Being with my kids and reading, drawing, writing, and catching up with the day to day life maintenance that i missed by being away from home.
PEV: 1993, the Boston Globe called you the “songwriter’s songwriter”, adding that “no emerging songwriter in recent memory has been more highly touted and respected by songwriters.” When an article like that comes out, how does that affect your career so early on?
EP: It didn’t change my life dramatically, but became something I could use on the resume to help with shows outside of Boston. It’s always good to have someone champion you, but each little comment, or compliment needs to be seen and heard by tons of people before you build any reputation at all. I got lucky with some of the early supporters I had, Scott Alarik at the globe and Bill Morrissey were helpful, as were the radio stations in town WERS and WUMB.
PEV: Your 2006 release, Ellis Paul Essentials, came out to rave reviews. How is this work different from your earlier albums? How has your music evolved over time?
EP: This is a “best of recording” so it shows stuff from 15 years ago as well as my newest. I’m more melodic these days, less wordy, more direct, generally more accessible.
PEV: Your latest venture has brought you to the working with Children’s music, with your release of “The Dragonfly Races”. How did this project come about and how was this something you have always been interested in?
EP: I wanted to write songs for my kids, and i feel like this in keeping with the tradition of being a folk musician. Woody Guthrie and Pete seeger and Johnny cash all did children’s music, and i feel like my success as a children’s writer is no more important to me than the rest of my stuff.
PEV: You also do all the art work on The Dragonfly Races. Has painting and art always been a part of your life?
EP: I’ve always wanted art to be a bigger part of my life and the children’s music is finally forcing the issue. I am going to illustrate books of the songs as well, and I am really enjoying developing my skills as an artist. But I’ve always believed that art was a part of the songwriting in away, because i am trying to create visual images in the mind of the listener. It’s painting with words and music and is an extension of illustrating.
PEV: What do you want people to take away from The Dragonfly Races? Do you plan to write any more books as well?
EP: I want to have people escape into the songs and the fantasy of the worlds created there. Yep, more books will be coming to, first children’s books. Hopefully a book of short stories as well….
PEV: Along with children’s book, you mentioned that you have read Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” six times. What is it about that book that attracted you so much to it?
EP: I felt like it described my life as a 18 year old in many ways. Disconnected, observant. angst ridden, searching. Could be any 18 year old.
PEV: When you sit down to write music, work on art or write stories, what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?
EP: I have to write on the fly, so I have taught myself not abandon the preciousness of the environment. I don’t need a cabin and wine and candles. I write while I’m changing diapers, while I’m flying, while I drive, in my head I am constantly working on pieces. So if i seem distracted, I apologize. I’m writing a jingle write now, as i type this.
PEV: What is one thing fans would be surprised to hear about Ellis Paul?
They know me pretty well by now, so i don’t know what would surprise them. I like the Bee Gees.
PEV: What is the best part about performing live on stage?
EP: The occasional out of body experience of being transported with the audience to a very holy place. It’s rare, but occasioanlly the night is unbelieveable. it’s always good, and you can only control the element that you are bring to the night. But occasionally the venue, the sound, the crowd and the music all combine to make the evening a surreal experience.
PEV: Is there an up and coming artist right now that you think everyone should be listening to?
EP: Antje Duvekot. she is the best young songwriter I have ever come across in my travels, and is one of my favorites of all time. Sam Baker, too.. A texas storyteller.
PEV: Who is currently in your CD player right now?
EP: I have been listening to the Dragonfly races non stop, we just finished it.
PEV: Whats’s next for Ellis paul?
EP: I am writing and illustrating the children’s book, and I am working on new songs for my studio album coming next year sometime. Enjoying watching my girls grow up too. They are the best part of it all.
For more information on Ellis Paul, check out www.EllisPaul.com