Highway's Song

A Conversation with Ellis Paul

Ellis Paul

Ellis Paul holds a unique place in the world of folk music. He brings the relevance, immediacy, and importance of a current topical singer with a universal heart, the vocal passion of an arena rock singer, the soul of the best R&B of the last 50 years, and the poetic insights of American literature. While we talked during our phone interview he was on the road, traveling, like most of the today’s singer-songwriters who are on their own never-ending musical pilgrimage into the heartland; his travels were not for a show, however. He was returning from his father’s memorial service. It even seemed that the conversation we were having was a song in the making. He talked about his father’s good life, his 77 years, and how proud he was of his son’s accomplishment in American music. It was clear how a sense of continuity was provided in the music that was rooted in his childhood and the nurturing given to him by his father. It occurred to me how this kind of music endures because it comes from the core of something very real for all of us. If this is revealed anywhere, you can hear it in the music of Ellis Paul. His musical approach is layered with pop textures that serve to support the emotion in his expressive voice and his visually beautiful lyrics that describe moments of clarity, transitions, restless longings, and intimate revelations. He has already produced a legacy of 14 albums including his latest one of 2009’s best Americana releases, The Day After Everything Changed, which was funded largely by the commitment of his strong and growing fan base. More recently he has released a concert DVD titled 3,000 Miles and a book of stories and poems called Notes from the Road.

Most recently, Ellis has continued his ongoing association with the popular country-rock duo Sugarland. He has been a collaborator with Kristian Bush who co-wrote five of the songs on The Day After Everything Changed. In 2010 he opened concerts for them on their Incredible Machine tour.

His pop sensibility may have come from growing up on a remote northern Main potato farm where the only music he could access was through the top 40 radio stations of the day. He earned a track scholarship to Boston College but his career came to a pre-mature end due to a knee injury. That was when he discovered the guitar and songwriting. He became an important part of the Boston folk scene in the ’90s through open mic nights, which also yielded artists like Dar Williams, Martin Sexton, Patty Griffin, and Catie Curtis. His songwriting themes were shaped by his day job as a social worker where he helped at-risk youths caught in the criminal justice and welfare system. But, his music career soon catapulted him to the national spotlight with the help of his connection to singer-songwriter great Bill Morrissey, who said, “He [Morrissey] was always unique. He didn’t write like anybody, didn’t sing like anybody, didn’t perform like anybody. So many of the songwriters then were trying to imitate whoever they thought was successful. Ellis was always himself; he didn’t try to separate himself from his audiences. Perhaps it’s because he’s a Mainer; there’s no pretense, and I think audiences sense that.”

Since that time, in addition to a prolific recording career, Ellis has been among the most vocal advocates for the preservation of the legacy of American folk singer Woody Guthrie. Through his editing skills and melodic and vocal ability he has recorded one of the best songs from the Guthrie Archives opened to songwriters by Woody’s daughter Nora. “God’s Promise” was written while Woody was suffering from Huntington’s Chorea in the Brooklyn State Hospital. It is more than just a song; it is an experience of faith and hope. It captures the heart of the American experience that transcends religion and politics and is infused with the light of the human spirit. This is something both artists, Woody Guthrie and Ellis Paul, share in their music and through their lives.

SDT: What’s going on for you right now?
Ellis Paul: I’m finishing up a new record. It’s a family record, my second one. It’s a little different than the first one. It’s educational about history and takes different historical figures; there’s a song about each one like Thomas Edison.

SDT: Tell me about The Day After Everything Changed.
EP: That was my first indie project. I raised the funds for it and we managed to raise 100,000 through my fan base. We recorded with members of Sugarland.

SDT: Was there an overall theme that came out of the album?
EP: It was all over the place. There was some folk, some arena rock. It was five years worth of songwriting stored up. I’m not a traditional folkie; there’s a lot of rock and pop kind of stuff in my music.

SDT: Tell me about the Woody Guthrie song “God’s Promise.”
EP: Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, has a collection of about 1,000 of Woody’s songs that don’t have music. This was just a beautiful piece of writing that came toward the end when Woody was in Brooklyn State Hospital. It’s about keeping faith when you feel like you may be loosing everything. Woody was so prolific. He wrote so many words in his songs. You know, like even “This Land Is Your Land” has all of those extra verses. “God’s Promise” says ‘you didn’t say there wouldn’t be hardship, there wouldn’t be tornadoes or dust storms,’ but, I had take out some of the lyrics, like God never said there wouldn’t be syphilis or gonorrhea. Woody just threw everything in to that song.

SDT: How do you go about writing songs?
EP: Songs come in many different ways. Usually, for me, it starts with a guitar riff. It’s emotional; the energy comes from the guitar. I’ll improvise and then sometimes the words will come up almost unconsciously like a juke box in my head. The serious part happens when I put the guitar down and take one phrase and start to expound on that until I get at the subject matter. But, for me, songwriting is very visual. I consider it to about the same as painting. I want to be a witness to something.

SDT: It’s something that’s shown rather than told?
EP: Yes. I think the best songwriters and my favorite songs by them are usually that way. My favorite songs by Springsteen, Dylan, and Joni Mitchell are all visual, like movies. You’re seeing something from a narrator or a character and you want to show where this person is and how does this person feel?

SDT: Is there a spiritual element to the songwriting?
EP: In the sense that there’s the spirit of creating something, yes. I want to honor that. But, it’s not religious. It’s a soul experience. The songwriter wants to elevate the listener emotionally. If I don’t feel it, then how is this audience going to? If it doesn’t happen when I write it, it won’t happen when you hear it

But, as far as the spiritual part of it goes, you’ve got to care for it. You know, it’s sensitive to time and place. It comes out of experience. It can’t be like they used to do in Nashville where you sit in a room where nobody knows anyone. Then, you’re trying to write songs for commerce, not for spirit or from experience. That’s why it’s folk music. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the other. I mean, I still feel the Beatles when I write. But, I write to try to capture the essence of an experience. I’m a witness to it.

SDT: You’re the camera’s lens?
EP: Yes. In that sense, then, the writing really has to be authentic to what you experience. I try to hook onto something. Like when I was writing about people like Edison and Franklin. As I studied about Edison I started thinking, this guy probably had ADD. You know, he needed constant motion. His mind was always going. That was something I could associate with now and that gave me a road into his life.

SDT: Do you think most singer-songwriters have ADD?
EP: [Laughs] I think singer-songwriters all have problems! But, the common theme may be obsessiveness. And we need affirmation. We are a needy bunch of motherfuckers.

SDT: Has it been hard to make a career of music?
EP: My dad just passed away. We had one of those conversation when I was 26 and he said, “This is going to be hard… are you sure you want to do this?”

SDT: Was he proud of your accomplishments?
EP: Totally! He was very proud. I think it didn’t hit him until he saw that was making more money than him. He was a potato specialist in agriculture… like a potato scientist. He did alright. He lived a good and full life. He even came to some of my shows over the last few years and he came up and sang “Good Night, Irene,”with me.

SDT: It seems like songwriters really need an audience.
EP: Yeah, that’s what makes it worth it. It’s in that moment when you know the audience is with you on the song and you’re doing something well. It’s like the best cocaine; It’s totally life affirming; It gives confidence. You know, I can’t do a lot of things. I can’t do my taxes, I can’t fix my car. But, I can write songs and when an audience gets that, there’s nothing better.

See Ellis Paul in Concert, Saturday, December 17, at AMSD Concerts, 4650 Mansfield St. in Normal Heights, 7:30pm.

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