The Essential Ellis Paul
November 09, 2006
Ellis Paul is not a native of Virginia. He really doesn't have any musical roots here. But for now, he's calling Charlottesville home. And as long as he does that, this area can expect to be treated to some of the finest Contemporary Folk music on the circuit today. His credentials speak for themselves. Ellis has released 11 CDs (with number 12 on the way), a DVD, a book of poems and short stories, earned Thirteen Boston Music Awards, and collect a mailing list of 20,000 loyal fans during his relatively short 15 years as a full time entertainer.
That's not the kind of career you just step into though. It takes talent and creativity for sure, but it also requires a deep passion for doing it. In speaking with Ellis recently, that was the one thing that struck me; Ellis Paul thrives on his career as a musician, it's who he is, not what he does.
Ellis grew up in Maine but got his start during college in Boston while studying to be a social worker. He started playing open mic nights in the Boston music scene during a time when Contemporary Folk was beginning to come into the main stream markets. "Around that time there were a lot of great musicians in that area who've gone on to have career length longevity," Ellis told me. "Vance Gilbert, Martin Sexton, Eddie Griffin and Dar Williams; all those folks were doing it at the same time as I was."
He spent a couple years working with inner city youth after graduation where he drew inspiration for many of his earlier songs. His music career began to require more time, and he was being asked to open for a lot of national acts. "When I was about 26 I quit my fulltime position and hit the road touring," he said.
Writing With Intension
The key to being a successful songwriter is understanding your audience and being able to articulate your ideas in a way that pulls the listener in, and then them something to take with them. You can't do that with shallow lyrics. And lyrically, Ellis is considered among the top in his field.
I asked Ellis about his songwriting. "To me, they're supposed to be three-dimensional wells that you can go to; more than just for entertainment," he said. "I try to create pictures that tell stories, and maybe have some lessons involved, some truth involved, and something beyond just the energy and vibe. I write about where my life is at; whatever point I'm in when I'm starting the collection of songs."
Ellis says he writes from a combination of truth and fiction. "And sometimes the fiction is used to enforce or support the truth. Because of that, I write songs that are inspired by other people who I know. I don't generally write from the headlines or about stuff on the forefront of the news. It would be hard for me because I'm not affected by it directly. But if my life does become affected by it, or I know someone affected by it, and I can witness that, then I can write about it a lot easier."
Ellis is a fan of all genres of music. Not limiting himself to just his own personal style, he can draw from all forms to enrich his songwriting. "When I listen to other musicians, I listen for someone who can motivate my imagination into creating pictures in my head. I like story tellers. I gravitate to the kind of people doing that kind of writing. They can be straight, gay, black, white, old or young, it doesn't matter really. Even the motive of a rap artist can captivate my mind as well. I just like great lyricists."
Why A Songwriter
"I like the art form," he said frankly. "I'm too lazy to be a novelist," he said with a chuckle. "But I do like writing a lot. And I do love traveling though it is a little bit harder now that I have kids and being married. But I do like the life style. It works for me. It's not easy at times, but it manages to be fun even after 20 years of doing it."
"I think the best part is when you get done writing a song and you know that you really captured what you were trying to capture. When you set the trap and you catch what ever creature it was you were looking to knock down. That's when it's most fulfilling. And you listen to the song for about a week or two and you play it out, and hopefully people like it as much as you do. And then you're on to the next one. Those little moments are what keep me going. I've had a lot of great shows and put out a lot of albums, and been in the studio and worked hard in there, but I think the best moments are really just writing a song and looking at it when it's finished and saying, 'wow, I really caught what I wanted to catch there."
Ellis admitted that sharing it with other people makes you know if it was worth the time and effort, and whether or not your perspective is something you can trust. "But if I was just writing songs and sticking them under the bed, and never playing them for anybody, I would probably do it anyway, whether people heard them or not. If I was stuck up in Alaska working for the forestry service and had a guitar up there, I'd probably be writing every day. So, I don't need any people to hear them, but it's always good to have friends and family to play them for."
We all know children change things, including a songwriter's perspective. "You know, I'm writing songs for my daughter now," he said. "I don't know if they're going to show up on records or not, but I'm having a lot of fun watching a person so young react to music like that. It's a real thrill to watch. I'll probably be writing from the perspective of a songwriter who's a parent, even if I'm not writing about being a parent, it will probably affect the perspective."
A Planned Career
When someone starts something, he should have a vision of where he'd like to end up. And Ellis certainly didn't enter his career blindly. "Well, the goal was to be Bruce Springsteen; and it didn't end up that way, funny thing that," he laughed. "Then I learned how to be really happy to be Ellis Paul and get what I have been able to get out of it. I like the songs I'm writing, and I like the shows that I put on. From my side of the stage it's been really fulfilling. Of course, I would like to make more money, I would like to meet more people, I'd like to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, but it's fine that I'm not."
Ellis has a new CD coming out on Rounder Records in late September, 2006 called Ellis Paul Essentials. If you've never heard his music, this will be a great introduction. This a great collection of songs; 32 of them on two CDs. "Under different circumstances it would be considerd a greatest hits record," Ellis said, then laughed. "But since there are no hits, it's going to be called The Essential Ellis Paul. I re-recorded five songs and added two new songs and added in some live stuff.
by Greg Tutwiler, Americana Rhythm Magazine - Sept/Oct 2006