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50,000 Fans Can't Be Wrong

November 22, 2002

Jeff, a house builder, crouches on the floor of his kitchen in Burlington, Vt., and tries to make sense of long-distance relationships. Gina and Susan from New Orleans sit around the dinner table laughing at indecipherable jokes. A 20-something man in Winston-Salem, N.C., reveals that his father officiated at a gay wedding as part of a funeral service for a performance artist.

Jeff has never met Gina and Susan, and the guy from North Carolina runs with a different crowd altogether. But these four people have something in common. Something big and important. Something that binds them more closely than geography and has been captured on film.

Ellis Paul slept on their sofas.

"In the early days I went out on the road and played to 15 people and didn't make any money," says Paul, one of folk music's most beloved singer-songwriters and a road warrior extraordinaire. "So I would ask the audience if anyone had space on a futon. Out of neccessity. Now I can get a home-cooked meal and a warm bed anywhere."

Over the course of 10 years crisscrossing the country with his guitar, Paul has acquired the kind of loyal devotees one normally associates with cult leaders - and he's done it without the deep-pocketed support of a major label (Paul records for Cambridge-based Rounder) or the broad reach of a high-powered promotional team. You will not see Ellis Paul strutting his stuff in a music video, nor are his songs in heavy (or medium or light) rotation on commercial radio.

The secret to the 35-year-old musician's success is at once so intuitive and so counter to the idea of being an entertainer that one marvels at the simple, brash logic. Paul enters people's lives. It begins, of course, with songs. Paul's are literate and revealing. He tells stories, real stories, many collected from conversations he's had with the people he will later turn around and sing them to.

And therein lies the key. Paul - who plays at the Somerville Theatre tomorrow to celebrate the release of his new CD, "The Speed of Trees" - does more than offer his wares; he welcomes a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the world. He encourages a breaking down of the proverbial fourth wall that separates performer and audience. That sort of connection isn't uncommon in folk, where a sense of community infuses the music and the business with more intimacy than most popular genres allow. But Paul, by all accounts, has mastered the form.

"People seem to be changed after they see him," says Doe Phillips, an environmental lobbyist in Princeton, N.J. "It's a combination of the songwriting and singing, and a very personal rapport. He'll recite his own poetry while changing a broken string. He's just completely raw."

"The thing about Ellis is when you talk to him, he gives you his undivided attention," says Karen Zundel, a hospital librarian in Belle Vernon, Pa., who recently attended her 101st Paul concert. "It's like you're the only other person there. He's one of the only musicians I've seen who goes and talks to people, even before the shows. There's just something about him. It's hard to explain."

Paul says it's not just a matter of giving fans what they want but establishing a dialogue that's mutually gratifying.

"I've developed friendships with people I normally wouldn't cross paths with: stockbrokers and students and electricians. Everybody's got something to offer. And I can talk to anybody."

The clips of characters Paul has crashed with - as well as concert and interview footage and, yes, a guitar lesson - can be seen on "3,000 Miles," a film shot on the road in 1995 that will be available on DVD at Paul's Web site (www.ellispaul.com) and at concerts later this year. It's a window on an artist's world that, in the last several years, has expanded beyond the borders of a typical folk singer's trajectory.

Thanks to the Farrelly brothers, who hand-picked Paul songs for the soundtracks to their films "Me, Myself, and Irene" and "Shallow Hal," 18-year-old gross-out-movie fans show up at his concerts now alongside the familiar faces of baby boomers. In May, Paul published "Notes From the Road," a collection of stories, vignettes, sketches, and poems - financed entirely by preorders on his Web site. Earlier this year he hosted a cruise to Bermuda with 50 fans and a writing workshop in Alaska and spent a long weekend at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa. - playing casual concerts in the evenings and touring battle sights by day.

Paul's Web site - where he has been known to initiate interactive short-story projects and post recommended reading - is a virtual encyclopedia of his tastes, interests, and life story.

"The main thing is to somehow convey who I am, visually," says Paul, who grew up in a potato-farming family in Maine and recently moved back to his home state after 15 years in Boston. "We're trying to put my personality onto the site. This music isn't in the mainstream, on TV and in magazines, so people visit the Web site because it's one of the only places to communicate with me and be part of that group."

That group Paul refers to has spawned certain tightknit subsets, elite minicommunities of people who choose to spend chunks of their lives in pursuit of the Ellis Paul experience. Karen Zundel schedules her vacation time around Paul's tours. She went on the cruise and the B&B weekend and has made several trips from Pennsylvania to Texas - home to a couple of other hard-core fans - where a bunch of them caravan around the state to one show after another.

"It's a sickness," says Zundel. "But we really have become this little family. I can only shake my head at the friends I've made and the people who've come into my life as a result of this. I know Ellis is inundated with people wanting a piece of him, and I respect the boundaries of privacy. But I say he's a friend, and he refers to me that way."

Despite a decade of steady career growth - thanks in large part to a relentless touring schedule - Paul is shifting gears. In April he moved with his companion, Sharon Teeler, to a rambling house on 9 acres in Edgecomb, Maine. He's spent less than a month there.

After wrapping up the promotional tour for "The Speed of Trees," Paul hopes to settle into a lifestyle geared more toward a home life than a life on the road. He's built a home studio. Writing, rather than touring, Paul hopes, will be his primary focus in the coming years.

Which isn't exactly good news for his legions of fans. Zundel, however, has made her peace.

"At my 100th show Ellis invited me up onstage to introduce him. I can die happy now."


by Joan Anderman, The Boston Globe

updated: 7 years ago