A Conversation with Ellis Paul
June 01, 2000
Back when music was more a form of expression and less a tool in the Car Stereo Wars, the word troubadour was used to describe the wandering and thoughtful musing of acoustic musicians.
The Webster definition of troubadour is "one of a class of lyric poets or poet musicians". Ellis Paul is one the current stars of the contemporary folk scene, and is making the term seem relevant again.
I became so frustrated with the lack of evocative, emotional and thoughtful music on the market today, that I began to long for the sappy ballads of the 1970s. In my quest for more Gordon Lightfoot CDs, I happened upon a genre of music that includes artists such as John Gorka, Dar Williams, James Keelaghan and many others. Call them Folk, New Folk, Folk Rock, or Intelli-Pop, they are bringing poetry, sensitivity, humor and truth to music in new and innovative ways.
Ellis Paul seems to gladly fall into the ranks of these independent voices of the music world. USA Today has declared him a "Best Bet for Stardom", and the Boston Globe has called him "a national folk star and to many the quintessential Boston songwriter: literate, provocative, urbanely romantic."
Born to a potato farming family in Maine, he attended college in Boston on a track and field scholarship. While there he honed his craft at various open mikes, eventually packing venues on his own. Now he performs to full houses all over the country and has graced the stages of Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival. He has 10 Boston Music Awards (in some ways considered the New Hampshire primary of contemporary acoustic music) to his credit and Dirty Linen Magazine has dubbed him "one of contemporary folk music's most influential voices."
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His latest album, LIVE, is a 2-CD set recorded live with stellar solo performances as well as collaborations with friends Patty Griffin, Vance Gilbert, and Chris Trapper of The Push Stars. This release captures the magic of Ellis' live shows--performances that have been perfected by 9 years of 200 shows annually touring across the country. The recording distills Ellis' best songs to date and suggests what is to come.
Ellis' expanding audience should grow even further when his song "The World Ain't Slowin' Down" from Translucent Soul is featured in the Farrelly Brothers' (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary) new film Me, Myself, and Irene (starring Jim Carrey and Rene Zellweger), which will be released in June of 2000. Peter Farrelly handpicked the song for the film and called Ellis Paul a "national treasure" in a recent interview.
I spoke with Ellis Paul recently over the phone while he was driving to yet another show.
How do you believe that the Internet will affect songwriters in general and the music market in particular?
That's a pretty profound question; I don't know if I could do that in half an hour! It's completely changing the music industry for a number of reasons, and a lot if it is just that it's moving ahead so quickly that legislation and sort of policing how it's going to be controlled are way behind the technology, and artists tend to be the people that get lost in the shuffle of things. We're the one's with the least amount of power. So I don't know how exactly things are going to end up.
The exciting thing is that if Congress passes Legislation that controls how people download information like music, in the artist's favor, then it could be really, really good for us because we won't be needing record labels in the same way. A lot of us can function without record labels because of the Internet -- by just having people order and hear our CDs at our website, instead of having to go to record stores to buy them. They can sample the recording and listen to what they're buying, which is a pretty powerful tool for an artist, especially a folk musician who might not be selling enough records to warrant a big record label deal. That's the beautiful thing about the big picture, if legislation supports the artist stance and not the record label or consumer stance.
The other thing is that it's going to be a great tool. I can record a song in a day and put it up the moment that it's created. It can go from my computer, where I recorded it, right to the Internet as a downloadable kind of thing. It makes things pretty immediate. It's going to shorten the time frame involved in recording a song and getting it out to the public.
So you're even using the technology in the production stage?
That's fantastic! That is definitely a use that I don't think a lot of people would consider.
Well, the amazing thing is that if you're recording on the computer, you have the stuff as a file that you can send to Colorado where a guitar player is waiting to lay down a track. He'll record it on his computer and send it back. So, all that stuff can happen which is pretty amazing. It makes your recording world completely small.
Does it take away from the recording process for you at all? Do you miss the contact with the other musicians?
Well. You're dealing with people who are pretty brilliant. If you email something to Eric Clapton in London, who can't come over and do a session with you, but he can go to a computer and record something, that's the advantage. The disadvantage of course is that you can't be in the same room with him and coach him through it. But, for people like Eric Clapton you're willing to separate that part of it.
Might be kind of daunting to coach Eric Clapton anyway.
Yeah! I'm not saying that I actually know Eric Clapton, but that's an example of the beauty of it!
Your website showcases some of your poetry. How is the poetry writing experience different from the song-writing experience?
It's a little bit more conversational. You have to work a bit differently because with song writing you have music as a support system for the intent of the song and in creating the mood, whereas with poetry you have to rely on the words themselves. So you can get a lot more dense in poetry (I think than you can) at times with lyrics, and maybe a little bit "heady". But most of my poetry is meant to be heard. It's not the kind of poetry that you need to re-read in order to understand it. It's very conversational, I think that lyrics can be like that as well.
Your most recent release, Ellis Paul Live, contains several "For me, the personal struggles that I've been through in my life at times made me question whether or not there is a God. I think for a lot of people that thought comes up. But then you remind yourself of the little miracles that you see all around you and that kind of keeps the counter-argument going."
spoken word pieces (I love "Tornado Girl". It's a fabulous poem!). It is sometimes recommended in writing workshops that a writer who is in the process of creating a piece, be it a play, a poem or a story, hear it spoken as a tool for gauging its development. Is this something that you do when working on a new song or poem?
I do it with poetry, and I also bring them out to shows. I present the songs and poems at shows and I tweak them depending on the response of people in the audience, and what I sense is the impact of the song or the poem. So in the course of writing something I'll play it out for six or seven months before it finally settle into its final resting-place. And even after that if I find ways to improve it I will, even it's already been recorded in another way.
Are you planning to publish a book of your poetry?
I hope to; I hope to do a lot of things! But time is limited and the lifestyle is so geared toward being on the road that it's hard to find the time to do all the stuff I want to do. Hopefully, I'll get to that book. I want to release some drawing and poems, some journal entries; just a rambling batch of material to sell at shows.
You spoke of your traveling schedule. Do you find that constantly being on the road enhances or detracts from your writing?
It's a thing of balance. The traveling doesn't allow for a lot of focused, free time to be spent writing, which is too bad. But then again I'm also collecting stories; interacting with people and getting inspired. I'm getting to chew on the ideas without diving into them too quickly, and as I'm driving around in the car I get to think about how I want to develop a piece. So that side of traveling is great.
Do you have an ideal time of the day to write? A time that you set aside specifically because you feel more creative or productive?
Yeah, I to like write between 10 p.m. and 3 in the morning. Sort of in that starting to get tired daze.
Your thoughts are flowing at that time?
Yeah, it seems that you can access the subconscious at the end of the day. For me anyway it'sI know a lot of people get up and write but I can't even communicate to myself that early, let alone to other people!
Well taken! You once wrote. "As a songwriter, if you haven't been affected by Dylan, then you're not really doing your job." Would you elaborate on that?
Dylan is the Shakespeare of songwriters. I think if you call yourself a writer and you're not schooled in Shakespeare, I don't know if you understand the impact of what writing can do to people. I feel Dylan is the same way for songwriters. Dylan tried everything; he's the great experimenter. He did narrative songs, personal songs, and political songs. He did rock songs, he did folk songs. He was out there experimenting, and doing it artfully, capturing the world that we live in artfully and changing history in the course of doing it. People that say they're songwriters who haven't gotten into a single Dylan record are missing out on something pretty huge. I'd say the same thing about Joni Mitchell, as well.
You have written about homosexuality, guns, drugs, alcoholism, politics religion; you've really run the gamut. With respect to issues like this, what kind of moral duty does a writer owe to the people, or do you owe a duty to them at all?
I don't think we owe, per se, anything to anybody except the Creativity God. If you feel like you owe something to somebody you're going to try to pander to something and you probably shouldn't. I think you have to be true to yourself, to what you see, to what you feel, and true to what you know. Hopefully, by doing that you're going to pull people into it because people have shared feelings, shared thoughts. And if you do that, you're also going to piss some people off who don't agree with your emotional take on some issue. That's the risk you run.
Your songs "Weightless" and "Angel in Manhattan," among others, speak to the struggle with faith. Were you exposed to a particular faith growing up, and how has that affected your approach?
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I grew up Methodist, but my parents were in and out of church so we had some years that we went frequently, and some that we didn't go at all except when we'd celebrate Christmas, Easter, all the holidays. Those tended to be the times that we were definitely going to find ourselves in a church somewhere.
As far as struggling with faitha lot of people don't have the same struggle with faith that I do; it's been sort of ingrained in their DNA since they were kids. For me, the personal struggles that I've been through in my life at times made me question whether or not there is a God. I think for a lot of people that thought comes up. But then you remind yourself of the little miracles that you see all around you and that kind of keeps the counter-argument going. You want to say there's a God, then you see thing like the Columbine shooting and stuff like that and you say, "What kind of God would allow this to happen?" And then you get in the argument of, "Who are you to guess what the plan is anyway?" I think you just have to live in the moment and try to live right, and feel right and be right. And hopefully God fits into that picture. It's a battle, but I think the songs have been where I've duked it out in my head. I feel better and better about my take on the whole thing the more songs I write about it.
That's inspiring, and good to hear.
I think occasionally it's good to think out loud in songs, and in books; I see people doing it in books all the time as well.
It gives so much "meat" to the listener to take in and even utilize in their own struggle, if there is one.
I'm hoping that I lock into other people's struggle, and if I don't, that I'm still entertaining enough for them to get something out of it. Even if they're a born again Christian, or if they don't believe in gun control.
So if you're being honest about it, people will tune in?
That's the underlying factor; trying to be connected to what truth is and trying to represent it fairly, so that even people who disagree with you are going to see you're argument and at least respect it.
As I've listened to your CD collection over the past weeks, I've come to really enjoy the innovative and interesting turns-of-phrase in your lyrics. Specifically, in the final, "hidden" track on the Translucent Soul recording you write, "My feet were warm, the floor was cold. The vote said no when the men were polled." I'm not a musician, and I hear that I think to myself, "How in the world do you work it into a song?" I'm wondering how much the music influenced the lyric, if it changed it at all when put to music. Or is that how it was written?
It came out the way I wrote it. The thing that you have "Sometimes I get too sucked into my personal life in order to be objective about the writing. But I've never had a problem keeping the flow of music out there. The only problem I have is getting so caught up in the writing that I don't see how the writing affects my life in the big picture. Sometimes writing is therapy; sometimes it's a job. Sometimes it's entertainment value, and sometimes it's just nothing, and I'll write a song that I don't even use."
to realize, especially when you're writing songs (I don't know if fiction or essays are like this), you have to get out of the way at times and just allow the rhymes to write the songs themselves. It's almost subconscious. Almost an accident. And then you make sense of it after in the editing process. You connect the dots and take out the things that might not be too clear, or add things to help make it clear. But always in the first sit down session of writing songs and poetry I just try to get out of the way and let the songs write themselves and let the rhyme pick the path.
Do you tend to write lyrics before melodies? Or is that the chicken and the egg argument?
It tends to come just about in the same moment. Usually I come up with a single phrase and a single melody attached to it. Those things come simultaneously and then I build a single song around that on the page and the guitar. But that first phrase is the stepping stone for the entire song, and I try to figure out why that phrase popped out of my subconscious and then write the song around whatever that subject is. It's not a very scientific process. It's organic in a way.
When you're stuck in a restaurant or your car, are you a napkin note taker? How do you capture those thoughts that hit you at inopportune times?
I travel with a couple of journals. In the car -- whatever's available within reach. I actually brought a little notebook on this trip, and I just write in that if I come up with anything. Mainly in the car I'm working on assembling albums and trying to come up with song lists for sets at shows.
When you hit a roadblock in your work creatively, writer's block so to speak, what do you do revitalize your Muse?
Well, I've never had a really serious writer's block. I've had trouble writing about things that might further my career. Sometimes I get too sucked into my personal life in order to be objective about the writing. But I've never had a problem keeping the flow of music out there. The only problem I have is getting so caught up in the writing that I don't see how the writing affects my life in the big picture. Sometimes writing is therapy; sometimes it's a job. Sometimes it's entertainment value, and sometimes it's just nothing, and I'll write a song that I don't even use.
So, I've never had a problem with writer's block, except for the objectivity part, and in order to get objective I try to get out of the house. I go out to a movie, I hang out, have coffee with a friend, go read a book. I just try to get inspired by something outside of myself that reminds me that I'm not the only creature on the planet that's creative.
I'd like to expand on the thread of objectivity. You've written a lot about personal loss, yet the songs are not overly angry or overly sad. They tend to be hopeful and looking forward. How hard is it to distance yourself from the hurt, and how critical is that distance to an effective song?
I don't know if I've even mastered that. I think I'm pretty good about writing what I'm feeling. How people are taking it is really up to them. I hear something like Fire and Rain, which is obviously something James Taylor wrote when he was going through something serious, and it works for me as a listener because I attach it to my own loss in my own life. If there's some universal connecting point where I can tap into someone's song and say, "Man, I know exactly how that feels, I've been there," then I'm completely open to hearing that person's pain gush out. The problem is that when it's so self-absorbed that the person doesn't allow us in as a witness to it. Then it becomes the worst thing in the world to listen to. It's unbearable listening to someone just rambling on about themselves when you really don't see why or care why. I think writing books or poetry works the same way.
I think that only works in Tennessee William's plays.
Right! Really, that's one thing to be noted, that sometimes the writer becomes bigger than the song, bigger than the book and you don't care what they're giving you. You just want to find out more about them as people, so even if they're self-absorbed you tend to forgive them for it.
A song from your 1998 release Translucent Soul, "The World Ain't Slowin' Down" is to be featured in the upcoming film Me, Myself and Irene starring Jim Carrey. Can you tell us how that came about? Did the producers of the film contact you?
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Yes. The director got a hold of the album through my manager, fell in love with the song, and decided that he wanted to make it the principal theme of the movie as far as music was concerned.
My idea is to get the songs out to as many people as possible without sacrificing myself commercially to the record labels and to the radio, so that I'm still saying everything I want to say without holding anything back and still getting out there as much as possible. There was no doubt I was going to say yes, because this one song is going to be heard by millions of people now. I'm very blessed that it happened at all.
I'm here in Detroit, in "Ford Country". Your song Look at the Wind Blow mentions Ford cars. Would you consider allowing Ford to use the song in an ad campaign?
Whole different animal?
Well, I'm not a big Ford fan. I've been driving in a Honda for the last six years. And, I'm making enough money now that I wouldn't base my decision solely on the fact that I need to make money. If I was a starving musician and someone offered me a gig selling some Ford car with the song, I'd probably say yes. Now the question is: do I align with the product in some personal way that makes me feel good about endorsing it? Nick Drake just had one of his songs in a Volkswagen ad, and Nick's been dead since the early seventies. Yet there was a huge pop-up in the number of his records being sold after that ad. It's really about getting the music out there whatever way you can that makes sense to you morally, ethically, spiritually. Whatever those parameters are is really up to you.
Getting back to the movie: Did the director ask you to write anything else for the film, or did they strictly want to use "The World Ain't Slowin' Down"?
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The only thing that he asked beyond that, which I thought was great, was that he wanted to use the song in the score as well. So the orchestra, during the course of the movie, will be playing the melody of the song. That's something I'm very excited about; to hear a symphony playing my stuff.
Were you involved in the production of that score at all, I mean, besides writing it?
No. Aside from giving them the melody (something that I'm also getting paid for, which is really nice!), I wouldn't have said yes without getting the sense that he had the ear to hear it.
Which of your songs are your favorites?
The newer songs tend to be the ones I'm most enthusiastic about playing and breaking in, because they're making things fresh for me. "Maria's Beautiful Mess" (from the Live CD), a song called "Seventeen Septembers", and a song called "Sweet Mistakes" are my three favorite songs to play right now.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I like fiction, and non-fiction history books about people that I admire. I just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver last night. Just starting a book called The Joy of Man's Desiring by French author Jean Giono. I like reading good fiction; I'm a big John Irving fan. I like Ethan Canin and Barbara Kingsolver a lot.
Was there ever a point in your career that you considered dropping the "singer" part of your professional moniker and just selling songs you'd written to others to perform?
I've thought of that in the background, as a side thing. I think the strength of what I do is the fact that I'm writing songs that no one else can write. If another artist covers me, it's a lucky accident. I'm hoping that it's going to happen; it has happened a few times already, but not by anyone famous. I would like other people to cover me, but I'd never quit the "singer" part of my career. It's too fun!
What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters?
The big thing is Write What You Know. Make sure that you witness the songs and what you're writing about, and feel what you're writing about. Don't fictionalize. Don't just make up a love song. Make sure you're writing about something you've experienced and use reality as the springboard to whatever you're writing about. I think you'll find that even if the craft of the song needs development, at least the reason for the song is true and honest and believable. People will forgive you for the rest if you come from the right place.
by Troy Hughes, Writer's Write