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Check out a Brand New Interview with Urban Country News!

March 12, 2012

After 8 months of waiting for schedules to line up, Folk Alliance 2012 brought me the opportunity to add Ellis Paul to this series. As one of my songwriting heroes, he was one of the first names on my list when I started this.

Everyone has songs they turn to at important moments. At quite arguably the biggest day for me so far, the day I left Europe and moved to Tennessee, I listened to a short playlist on my iPod, consisting of  songs I held onto like friends, while waiting to board the plane and contemplating what I was about to do. One of those songs was Ellis Paul’s ‘The Day After Everything Changed.’ It is the title track of his incredible 2010 album, a collection of songs that gains in importance for me each time I hear it, as I become increasingly aware of how extraordinary the songwriting on this record is. Folk Alliance also gave me the opportunity to hear some of these songs live for the first time. (And I thought I was a fan of these songs before I heard them live… Now, I can see several road trips to Ellis Paul shows happening this year.)

Thanks to Justine Ferland, of Ralph Jaccodine Management, we met up after Ellis’ first showcase performance. We left the (barely) controlled chaos of Folk Alliance behind and settled into a quiet hotel room for a conversation about heroes, hurricanes and honesty.



UCN: Let’s start from now and work our way back. Your new album, The Hero in You, I love the idea of writing about American heroes. How did you decide on that idea?
Ellis Paul: I knew that eventually I wanted to do something that was in line with the schoolhouse rock idea – educational music. I’m 47 years old and I can recite the Preamble to The Constitution because a songwriter once set it to music. My kids are now 7 and 5, and they are at a point where I can write educational songs for them that are inspiring, that get them into these people, and now we’re having conversations about them. I’m always thinking about writing for my kids first, and I imagine when they get to be 13, I might not be so interested in writing kids music anymore. I’m doing it for them first because I want them to be part of the process. They sing on the record, they were sounding boards for the songs, and they’ll be in the videos when those are done. It’s cool.

UCN: It’s a great idea. But how does one start writing a song about, say, Thomas Edison? How do you build a song without it being ‘let’s just list their achievements?’, because that’s not what these songs are…
EP: No, I kind of put their inspiration in more than facts and dates and what they actually did. I put the inspiration for what they did first. So, with someone like Thomas Edison I thought ‘what’s the through-line in his story?’ and, to me, I mean, he had over 1000 patents, he only slept 4 hours a day – in my mind I’m convinced he had ADD. I decided to write a poem where you’re on his train of thought in his head and it’s going from one idea to another idea. So the poem kind of travels through his train of thought and some of his inventions. Every single song had to have that kind of through-line where something was rooted in the person’s inspiration. Like Woody Guthrie‘s song had to sound like a train, and I wanted to get more about all the things he was doing – he was a philosopher, a writer, a traveler, and an adventurer. I wanted to make sure that was all part of the train. Those are the only two train songs on the record, but they’re related to trains. And you know, Rosa Parks was sitting on the bus, so I did a riff off ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’. What I thought was cool about her is that she was sitting down to stand up for her rights. There was this non-violent protest going on where she completely shut down the system by sitting down and not moving. I wanted that to be the core of that song. I had to find that little core for every one of the heroes which somehow summed up what they did.

UCN: Going back a bit, I remember you once made a video with Sugarland‘s Kristian Bush about writing a simple song, and how hard that is. Can you expand on that a little, on the trick of distilling things down to just a few words?
EP: The trick is to write a profound song with as little language as possible, with a simple train of thought. So a song like ‘Imagine’ – it’s like a list: ‘imagine this, imagine this, then imagine that.’ And then he pops the turnaround on it, and suddenly it’s not just this simple song about these things, but it’s this profound song about this thing that’s bigger than all of us. Those are the hardest songs to write, but all the greats can do it. It’s like ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ or ‘Louisiana’ by Randy Newman. It’s like ‘how do you really create a bigger story around simplicity?’

UCN: Perhaps paradoxically, do you make an effort to look for simplicity? Do you really sit there and craft it as simple as possible, strip away from the song until you get there?
EP: Yes, with every line. Every ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘but’, every pronoun, everything is weighed. It’s like crowd control. *smiles* The arrow flies clean when the sentiment is clean so you really have to make sure your idea is clear. Everything gets weighed. It’s like ‘how does every line get weighed against the mission statement of the whole song?’ The mission statement is what you really want to say. Then you have to weigh not only what you are saying, but how you are saying it. All the stuff that doesn’t help the arrow fly straight, you’ve got to get rid of.

UCN: There’s a sculptor who once was asked how he could see a particular piece of marble was supposed to be a horse, and he said he took the rock and got rid of everything which wasn’t the horse. Can’t remember who it was though…
EP: I think it was Michelangelo.

UCN: Really?
EP: Him, or Dr Seuss. *smiles*

UCN: *laughs* But what you are saying is essentially the same approach. You have your vision of what the song is and anything which doesn’t contribute to that needs to go.
EP: Yes, it’s dead weight. It’s about cleaning it and refining what you are saying so your arrow is going straight. You want to hit people in the heart. And if you’re hitting their ears but not really their heart, it’s weird. You’ve got to make it so everything flies right. When I’m editing – and I can edit other people’s music much easier than my own…

UCN: That was going to be my next question: how hard is it to edit? If you come up with a turn of phrase, or even a word you love – one of the songwriters I know even has a book of pretty words she likes – when you find that but then objectively have to admit that it doesn’t really fit, how hard is it to edit your own material?
EP: It’s hard because you’re not objective. I’m pretty good at it, I think I’m better than most people at this, and I’m very good at editing other people’s stuff. First of all I will ask them ‘what are you trying to say?’ and then, ‘why doesn’t this line work with what you’re trying to say? Why are you way over here when you’re supposed to be here?’ Most songwriters don’t deal with the editing process. They just deal with the song, then it’s done, and they don’t think that they need editing. But if I was dealing with Stephen King, I’d send them to an editor and it would come back with red marks, and then send it again and it would come back with even more red marks. We’d go back and forth three or four times and then the book would be done. Most songwriters are just like ‘ding, ding ding, four hours, done! Next song please!’ *smiles*

UCN: It sounds like you might have as hard a time as me listening to current country radio… *smiles*
EP: Yes, I try not to listen too much. It’s not that it’s disheartening… It’s commercial music, it’s fundamental purpose is to go make money, so I forgive it. There’s a place for that and that’s fine with me. But when you get a commercial song that’s also profound or insightful, or shows the humanity of people’s lives…

UCN: Yes, The Band Perry‘s ‘If I Die Young’ is probably forever going to be my example of this. In the middle of a period of time where country radio is über-commercial, suddenly this song comes along and everyone just stops.
EP: Yes, and it’s like we’re doing with Adele. Lady Gaga is on the radio and it’s all about noise and ear candy and synthesized production values. And then it doesn’t say anything, on top of that. And then Adele comes along and it’s just a voice and a piano!

UCN: And amazing lyrics.
EP: Yes, and the songs are completely captivating and it’s like the Norah Jones thing all over again. It’s like Adele stops the radio. She starts and you pull over. You’ve been listening to this treadmill of artificial noise and artificial sentiment, and then suddenly there’s this song, and there’s space, and there’s thoughtfulness, and this vocal quality that’s just absurdly beautiful. So I hope she sells 30 million records! I hope she’ll be the richest artist ever, I hope she’ll be richer than Paul McCartney. *smiles* She’s important because commercial music is so bad right now. It’s so great to see someone like her pop up and break through. That’s what I love Sugarland for, too. Those guys are singer-songwriters at heart. So, you’re listening to commercial country radio and then suddenly a Sugarland song comes on and it’s like *whispers* ‘Thank you’. But I do know that they’re guilty of doing some commercial music too, and of chasing that.

UCN: Well, they’re signed to a major label so they have to do the give-and-take of Nashville. But I do think they are severely underrated as writers by the industry, and probably by some fans too who don’t know how good they really are because all they get to hear is what’s on the radio.
EP: Yes, and it’s hard to write a really good pop song, and do it well. But they’ve obviously had a lot of success at it.

UCN: Going way back now, when did you start writing songs? Was there a catalyst?
EP: I was 21, I had just started learning guitar when I was 21. I was learning how to play and singing Bob Dylan songs and Neil Young songs, and suddenly I thought ‘I think I can do this.’ So I started writing some really bad songs, just awful. *smiles* But then I just got hooked. I think that my DNA is programmed to do what I am doing. I think no matter what I was doing in life, this is what I was going to end up doing, because it’s pretty much the only thing I can do. *smiles* I couldn’t be a lawyer or a doctor. You wouldn’t want me to put a heart in your kid, or fly an airplane. You wouldn’t want me to do any of that! *laughs* I do this and I love it, and I will never get bored of it. I’ll be 95 and I’ll still be in love with it, and I am completely in love with it now!

UCN: You said you started out writing bad songs. When they started getting good, what was it that made you think they were getting good? Does the confirmation come from yourself, or from other people telling you they like it?
EP: It comes from within. I think the first thing was the process I was using – I would play for hours and it would just be that and the sound of my voice. It’s like chanting. If you’re doing it alone, but you’re doing it for three or four hours, by the third hour, it becomes a hallucinatory experience. *smiles* And you don’t care, you don’t want to do anything else! You look at the time, it’s two o’clock in the morning and you go ‘what the fuck are you doing this late?!’ Then there’s a spiritual component to it, because you are creating these little worlds. They’re three-dimensional worlds, there are people in it, there’s an environment, and plot, and people’s lives. It’s this crazy, crazy thing to do… That’s the kind of thing that hooked me into it. The songs kept on getting refined and refined and refined. Now, I’m a connoisseur of good songs. I seek them from other people, and I try to write them myself. But, you know, I like sincerity, even in a bad song! *smiles* If I went down there [to Folk Alliance] and I saw some 15-year-old play and be completely sincere, it would be refreshing to me. Even for accomplished songwriters who are making a lot of money doing this, it’s a job and you lose a little bit of the wow-factor after a while. So, to see some 15-year-old completely baring their soul, even if the song is so-so, that’s just incredible for me.

UCN: The more you do something, the better you get at it. When you go back to those early songs, do you still hear yourself in them? Is it still the same style, or do you feel you’ve developed so much as a writer that it almost sounds like somebody else wrote it?
EP: My voice certainly sounds like another version of me. That’s kind of weird. And the songs are kind of like looking at prom pictures. *smiles*

UCN: Oh, I like that comparison… *smiles*
EP: It’s kind of awkward, you look a little awkward, maybe there’s some blemishes there you wish weren’t there, and you’ve got a purple cummerbund on for some reason… *laughs* There are little things I wish I could go erase, or edit, or maybe update, but, it’s me. I see myself in them. I certainly wasn’t Bob Dylan when I was 20 years old; I wasn’t a prodigy. And I really think I am going to be better when I am 60 than I am now, based on what I will have learned about myself and how I am changing and evolving. I’m just hoping that the art continues.

UCN: Do you always write from real life? Maybe not just necessarily your own, like your Johnny Cash song about which more later, but maybe about a friend’s life but always from a real event?
EP: Yes, I try. There’s always a connection. I have a song called ‘Hurricane Angel’ which is a good example. It’s a character song about someone who’s in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and who had to be moved to Baton Rouge. Of course that wasn’t me. I didn’t have any first-hand experience of the hurricane; I was up in New England when it happened. But I was having credit card issues. The company I was with had kicked my credit card up to 30% and I was on the phone in my car trying to get the company to drop it back down because it was ridiculous. I was thinking about how my life sucked and then a radio story came up about these people living in FEMA trailers. They’d lost their homes, and then these FEMA trailers had formaldehyde in the walls and it was making them sick. So there’s 30,000 people in these trailers who got sick, they had to be re-located again to who-knows-where and I’m like ‘what if these people have credit cards at 30%?’ and I realized they absolutely do. So all these problems I’m bitching about, they have the same problems, plus no home, a hurricane, no job,…

UCN: It sure does put the credit card in perspective…
EP: Yeah… *smiles* But then I thought, well, that’s my access point. That’s what gets me emotionally in that character. Then I can go and be real. If I don’t have that kind of personal connection, I can’t invent it. It’d be like a B-movie then.

UCN: But you can create a character that lives in the song?
EP: I can create a character, but the character is always going to be partly me; it’s always partly my pain. It’s like Van Gogh who painted his pain. He’s painting a corn field and crows, but his pain is in the corn, and the crows are really black, and the blues are ridiculously blue, and the yellow is really bright. Songwriters are like that too. There’s always a piece of me. I can’t separate myself so much to the point where I am not in the song personally. It just doesn’t happen that way.

UCN: Here at Folk Alliance you’ve been singing a new song about Johnny Cash, ‘Kick Out the Lights.’ [as the title suggests, it references that infamous night at the Opry. ] I love it!
EP: Thank you.

UCN: Why did you decide to write that idea, and to phrase it the way you did?
EP: I like the ‘kick out the lights’-thing. I think it came from that phrase. I don’t know from where the phrase hit me but I applied it to him. It was a time where he was really fucked up. I mean, he was on all sorts of everything at the time; probably whiskey, pills and coffee that day. But it sort of represents his willingness to… – there’s this great video of him where he’s imitating Elvis, in not a very positive way. It’s not flattering and he’s completely hammered while he’s doing it, so all the walls are down and he’s revealing a dark side of himself. He was a bad ass. So, it’s sort of like an adult The Hero in You song. It’s my homage to this character’s willingness to go right to the edge. And then the crowd participation thing is a happy distraction for people in the crowd. It gets them involved.

UCN: Now I’m thinking it’s interesting that it’s this light sing-along in a song that’s dark and serious. Was that a conscious juxtaposition?
EP: Well, the song is an argument to write about stuff that’s real. He was writing about cocaine, God, depression, lust, infidelity… He recorded over 1000 songs, he probably wrote again that many, if not more. He wasn’t putting the commercial side first, he was putting the song first, as a writer and as a person who chose songs. And I don’t think country artists now do that as much as Johnny did.

UCN: Definitely. You have no idea how much I agree with you on that… *smiles*
EP: *laughs* Well, he was a folk singer wearing the mantle of country music, kind of the country music godfather. But those are all just folk songs. His willingness to go to those dark places, those honest places, those risky places where he might actually offend people with his opinion – but he’d go ‘Fuck it, I’m doing it.’

UCN: Is that hard to do? When you write something that’s personal, do you consider that? You might write about a very personal relationship, or a specific moment in a relationship, and then you put that on a record. Is that something you consider when you write?
EP: If I have to write it, then yeah, it’s open territory. I’m willing to be like Adele and just write a break-up record if I have to, if that’s where I am at. But if my life is fairly stable relationship-wise, then those songs generally don’t come up. Then suddenly I’m writing about Johnny Cash, and Hurricane Katrina and other people’s problems. *smiles* But yes, I’m willing to go there, and you need to go there, it’s part of it.

UCN: If you were to censor yourself you lose integrity?
EP: Well…I don’t want to start talking about my women’s underwear collection or any of those things, you know, I don’t want to over-reveal. *laughs*

UCN: Yes, let’s not over-share! *laughs*
Justine: Thanks for drawing a line! *laughs*
EP:*laughs* You see, the thing is, I’m always looking for the song, you know. I’ve already thought of a song while we’ve been talking. My radar is always up. I’m thinking about titles and subject matter, and how my life can then be attached to those phrases.

UCN: Well, I’ve got a pen and paper here. Do you want to write the idea down? *smiles*
EP: *smiles* You said: “a book of pretty words”… That’s a perfect title, perfect subject matter for a song. It’d be a great song for a female to write about a guy that manages to always say the right thing, but in sort of a gross way, like maybe he’s a little bit slimy? *smiles* ‘You’ve got a book of pretty words, page 108, come up with the word.’ That’d be great. And see, that’s my job. My job is to keep an antenna up that receives those things when they come in. Then I have to weigh them, do I write them or not?

UCN: How do you filter between the ideas? If there’s constantly information coming in, how do you filter between ‘Well, that sounds great’ but maybe tomorrow you’re going ‘Book of pretty words?! That’s a silly idea.’ Out of all the fleeting thoughts, how do you know that something is a lasting idea?
EP: I guess, the idea tells me. It sits there in my journal, and it goes ‘beep, beep, beep…’

UCN: Saying ‘pay attention to me.’
EP: Yes, it’s just a weird thing. I’m trying to write a couple of songs right now and I’m struggling. I came out of the guitar with this song rather than out of the idea, so I am trying to attach an idea to something else. It’s a little harder.

UCN: The normal process is that the idea is a lyrical idea which you then take to the guitar?
EP: Sometimes. Sometimes the guitar starts the process, sometimes the title, like ‘The Book of Pretty Words.’ That’s an obvious title so I would start from there and the conceptualize it. I have a writing session on Sunday, so maybe I’ll bring that idea into the session.

UCN: At the start you said you wrote the new album for your kids. Do you think about that when you write the adult songs, for want of a better word? Do you think your kids will one day hear these songs and form an opinion of you?
EP: No, I don’t worry about that. The adult stuff is about writing for me and my interests…and my issues! *laughs* The kids stuff is really for them. It’s like assignment writing which makes it a lot of fun. It’s a great break for me. It’s like writing advertising or writing country songs I have no intention of ever playing at my shows. I don’t take those songs to heart in the same way; they’re more like play time. The adult songs for me have to be more cathartic and personal to me. The kids songs are serving a purpose to my children and the other kids that hear them, so I need to make sure I’m serving them. With the adult songs, I’ll serve the song and myself, and hopefully people will accept them for what they are.

UCN: Johnny Cash has already come up as a writing hero, also John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Who else are the people who inspired you, and what is it about their material? I think the video we talked about before also mentioned Tom Petty.
EP: Yes, Kristian is a huge Petty fan, and I love him too for his simplicity. He just knows how to write a great rock song. It seems to just be so easy for him. He makes everything look easy. I’m sure it’s not; I ‘m sure he struggles with it too. I’m also a huge Joni Mitchell fan, and there’s Woody Guthrie, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, John Prine. I’m kind of a child of the ’60s and early ’70s. Then, there’s the folk singers like Bill Morrissey, Greg Brown, Dar Williams, John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, folks like that…

UCN: So, that’s all people with… – yeah, I’m seeing a theme develop here.
EP: Yeah, they’re all writers.

UCN: They’re poets. Actually, I just remembered, you said earlier about the ‘Hero’ record, “I decided to write a poem,” you didn’t call it a song. Now that you mention these people, I can see where that came from.
EP: Yes, they’re writers. To me, and this is just me, I’m writing the idea first and the music second. The music is a way of conveying the idea. I’m less of a musician than I am a writer, for better or worse. I mean, not everyone is going to get it. You know, people don’t really want to think and listen to music at the same time.

UCN: *smiles* I do…
EP: *laughs* Hey, that’s how I am too! I want that, that’s what I want my music to be. But some people just want background noise, they want a good melody. I’m getting into the guitar a bit more now, and into melody. I’m trying to become a better musician. I’m happy with where my writing is right now, so I want to be a better singer and a better guitar player.

UCN: Do you ever think about legacy?
EP: I’m just hoping to make enough money for my kids. My legacy is really my kids. I’m hoping the songs pay for their education, and put food on the table. The legacy thing, other people can figure that out. They can look at my catalogue and I hope they see quality and interesting ideas and some cleverness. I’m happy with being where I am; I don’t need to worry about being in the Country Music Hall of Fame, or win a Grammy.

UCN: Songwriters Hall of Fame?
EP: Oh, that would be cool. But, you know, I am functioning in the folk circuit. It’s a non-commercial place and I’m writing songs mainly for myself. I’ll probably just continue to do this for the rest of my life. The people who hear it and fall in love with it will go with me and, as long as I am feeding my family, I don’t really need a lot more than that.

UCN: As long as you keep writing, I will keep listening! Thank you so much, this was so worth waiting 8 months for!
EP: Thank you!



To hear some of the songs mentioned, check out ‘Hurricane Angel’, and ‘The Day After Everything Changed.’ (Or, you know, just go buy the entire record.)

And to check out the next performance close enough to you to go fall in love with these songs too, please visit ellispaul.com

Urban Country News Interview

updated: 5 years ago