Review-Philadelphia Daily News

Ellis Paul wants your kids in the afternoon & you at night

By JONATHAN TAKIFF
Philadelphia Daily News

takiffj@phillynews.com 215-854-5960
Ellis Paul has been a linchpin of the Boston school of sensitive singer-songwriters for about 15 years, with almost as many critically acclaimed albums to his credit.

Yet Paul allowed in a recent chat that he's never worked harder at crafting songs than he did for his brand new and pretty darn terrific release, "The Dragonfly Races" (Black Wolf Records), the artist's first CD steered to the children's/family music market.

"Usually, I'm writing for myself," said Paul, who'll perform this vital crop of originals tomorrow morning for the "Dodge Caravan Peanut Butter and Jams" series at World Cafe Live. "But this time I've had to think about how to write for 5-year-olds - how to say something as succinctly and vividly as I can, how to paint a visual that's engaging for the imagination, that's dreamy and whimsical."

Oh, and he's also taken into account that parental units will be subjected to the material. "The goal was to write an album that wouldn't drive me out of my mind, hearing it repeatedly on the long drive to grandma's house."

Fans who don't even have kids tell him they like "Dragonfly Races" a lot. And his friend/musical cohort Vance Gilbert "keeps quoting lyrics from the set."

The tunes are catchy as could be and hardly sing-song fluff. "In fact, there's more social commentary here than on any other album I've ever done," shared Paul. "My role models were songs like Pete Seeger's 'If I Had a Hammer' and Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' in the Wind.'

"Songs can be great motivators. They get ingrained in your head, become like a mantra. It took a lot of years, but I do believe 'Blowin' in the Wind' swayed a generation, helped to end a war."

A ripe example of Paul's creative spark is his new parable of "Abiola," written with up-and-coming talent Antje Duvekot. The song tells of a monarch who's trying to frighten and thus rally his people against an innocent, Shrek-like ghoul. It takes a young girl to clear the air, set everyone straight.

"The kids might not understand the current political allusions, without a little help from mon and dad," said Paul, "but they do understand, instinctively, how people will lie to manipulate a situation."

Unveiling yet another new creative side, Ellis Paul also decorated the album cover and insert booklet with cute cartoon sketches themed on the material. "Now we're thinking of doing a whole illustrated book version of the songs, with the CD stuffed in the back, that we could get into bookstores," he ruminated.

This artist doesn't deny that children's music is a big growth area these days - in fact, one of the few shining spots in the recording industry. "It's getting harder and harder to sell your CDs," he said. "A number of artists have moved into the family-music category."

But Paul's motivation in creating "Dragonfly Races" was strictly personal, he said. "After the birth of my daughter Sofi [a year ago] and a six-week stay at home helping with her arrival, I realized our first-born daughter Ella [now three] was spending hours listening to the music of a strange cast of characters, right beneath my nose.

"The likes of Barney, Elmo, Dan Zanes, Robbie Schaefer and Billy Jonas had snuck into our house and stole her ears with the clang of their joyful music. My music was lost somehow as an afterthought."

Paul is just getting started with the children's concert scene, too. But he's no stranger to working with kids. One of his first gigs after graduating from Boston College in 1987 was as a social worker in a day-care center.

Love this musical talent but not interested in hanging out with small fry? Paul will do a grown-up gig tomorrow night at Puck in Doylestown.

"That's my goal - to do two shows a day, preferably in the same venue, though we couldn't work that out this time," he said. "Then adults who like me can bring their kids in the afternoon, take them home, get a babysitter and come back and see me again at night doing my other material. If all this works out, I'm hoping I can afford to take off one weekend a month and spend it at home with my own wife and kids." *

World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., 11:30 a.m. tomorrow, $10 adults, $7 ages 1-12, under 1 free. Lunch buffet available. 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive. Also, Puck, 1 Printers Alley, Doylestown, 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, $12, 215-348-9000, www.pucklive.com.

updated: 9 years ago