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Troubador Ellis Paul performs at Ol' Factory on behalf of the Henry Miller Library.

November 01, 2007

^ Henry Miller honed his craft in Paris, while Ellis Paul learned to tell tales in Boston. What the seminal modernist novelist and literary critic shares with the celebrated singer/songwriter is an abiding attachment to Big Sur.

Which is just one reason why Paul is an ideal choice for Friday's Henry Miller Library benefit concert at the Ol' Factory Café in Sand City.

I can't say whether Miller would have enjoyed Paul's music, which is literate, heartfelt and bracingly honest. But I suspect he would have appreciated Paul as a self-invented artist. And then there's the fact the filmmaking Farrelly Brothers, whose movies are rife with the kind of frank references to corporeal existence that shocked Miller's readers half a century ago, have adopted Paul as their troubadour, featuring his songs on the soundtracks movies such as Me, Myself, & Irene and Shallow Hal.

And of course, Paul and Miller could have shared a drink from the cliffs of Big Sur, where the writer spent most of his later life. It's a locale that has consistently served as muse for Paul. "I love that whole stretch of Highway 1 from Big Sur to Monterey," says Paul, 42, from his home in Charlottesville, Va. "I often stay with some really great friends. I've written a lot of songs there, at least an album's worth of material. It's a special place, completely unaffordable, but people sacrifice to stay. My dream of dreams is to have a house in the area."

Amen, brother. But Paul is the first to admit that he's carved out a pretty wonderful life as a musician. With 13 CDs of original material under his belt, he's won a considerable cult following through his constant touring. He explores the life of a working musician on his 2004 documentary/concert DVD 3,000 Miles, and 2002's Notes from the Road, a critically acclaimed book of poems and stories.

Not surprisingly, he's drawn deep inspiration from the original ramblin' folkie, Woody Guthrie. Featured as part of the all-star Guthrie tribute tour "Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway," he was asked by Norah Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the keeper of his vast archives, to set his Guthrie's unpublished lyric "God's Promise" to music, a gorgeous song he recorded on his 2002 Philo CD The Speed of Trees.

Paul often draws on his own life for inspiration, but like Guthrie, he's not a confessional singer/songwriter. More than anything, he's a storyteller, and if his own experience happens to provide the best material, so be it.

"Initially, so many singer/songwriters enter the genre to spill the beans, to write the therapeutic songs," Paul says. "I'm guilty of that too, I have a family and friends and very rich community. I gather stories from every source. I don't have to be the focus of the songs all the time. In that sense I'm a folk singer more than a singer/songwriter."

His latest album does flow directly from his life, in that he was inspired to compose the songs on The Dragonfly Race by his two young daughters. Dissatisfied with much of the music produced for kids, he decided to create his own. "It's a family record, for parents and kids," Paul says. "I wrote what I wanted my daughters to hear, which wasn't covered by what they were bringing home from the kids shows. It's for them, but also for me as a parent."  

It was his childhood in a small town in northern Maine that sparked his driving impulse to explore the world. The community was cut off for much of the year due to the long, harsh winter, and while he looks back affectionately on the security of rural life, he knew he wasn't destined to settle close to home. Music provided his first path out.

Playing trumpet in the high school band, Paul won a summer scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, and he started putting down roots in Boston. He earned a track scholarship to Boston College, but a debilitating knee injury put him in bed for months, and he passed his time by working on his guitar playing. By the early 1990s, he was part of a Boston folk scene exploding with young talent.  

"In hindsight, it's become almost mythic to me," Paul says. "Boston's always been a great scene, but at that time it was flush with great talent. At an open-mic session you'd hear Dar Williams, Vince Gilbert, Marty Sexton, Jonatha Brooke, Patty Griffin and Catie Curtis. We were all competing for attention, and sharing songs and contacts. This music is a non-commercial form. It's not like Seattle with grunge. But it was this flourishing underground, and we're all making a living at it 20 years later." ^  


by Andrew Gilbert, Monterey County Weekly

updated: 7 years ago