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Ellis Paul


Tomorrows & Days After: Conversations with Ellis Paul and eels' Mark Oliver Everett

A Conversation with Ellis Paul by Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna: With more and more artists taking responsibility for the marketing and distribution of their projects, fan funding has become a more obvious route. For The Day After Everything Changed, you raised over $100,000, right?

Ellis Paul: Yes.

MR: How did you do it?

EP: Well, we set up a tier system on the website where people can go get goods and services that they bought into. The top end is for $10,000 and in exchange, you get a guitar and a house concert, and I write a song for you with handwritten lyrics to whatever song you like. On the lower end, a $15 dollar scale would get you a pre-ordered CD that is signed and numbered and on like that.

MR: Didn't your first albums came out on Newbury Comics?

EP: Yes. Newbury Comics hooked up with my manager and myself and we started a label called Black Wolf. We put the first two records out with them, and that went well. It gave me confidence to really do this.

MR: Was the first one also fan funded?

EP: Nope, I funded it myself. The management company basically put it out themselves. I have a good team right now put together for this kind of project.

MR: So, you've had songs in movies such as Jim Carrey's Me, Myself & Irene as well as music in the final scene of Ed.

EP: More and more of that kind of stuff is happening, and I'm starting to get calls from Nashville about covering my material. I had two cuts on a Sugarland record, and other commercial stuff coming my way which has been good. But I'm trying to write songs that I'm proud of having written, I don't want to write strictly for commercial means. I am just trying to write good songs.

MR: You mentioned Nashville which is perfect since your material is so cover worthy. "Annalee" sounds like it should be somebody's hit if not your own.

EP: That would be great, I like that song a lot. Well, that's part of the writing. Writing it for accessibility makes it universal, so a lot of people can be covering songs that are on this record as opposed to my other records which are based more on my personal experiences and personal take on things. My personal voice is maybe a little bit stronger on other records than the universal voice that is on this one.

MR: This album reminds me a lot of Stories.

EP: You know, it has more of that story kind of theme in a lot of ways. It's like a sister record.

MR: There is an intimacy to it that circles back to your earlier career and even the way you are phrasing things seems like Say Anything and Stories, that era.

EP: Glad you picked up on that as the writing is more like that era than the stuff that I have done in between.

MR: On the other hand, this batch of songs seems very emotional, the opposite of your earlier, concept-driven material.

EP: These songs seem to be more from the neck down rather than the neck up. The lyrics are more accessible right from the first listen. I think it was more country-style writing where you just say what you mean, what you feel rather than trying to politicize everything. So, it just immediately connects emotionally and the production doesn't get in the way or distract, it supports whatever the mood of the song is in a great way. I am with you. It's my best record to date.

MR: Yeah, I also think The Day After Everything Changed is your best as well as your most "commercial" album to date.

EP: Yeah and I think that has to do with the immediate impact of the songs. It only takes a listen or two to get pulled into what the songs are about. It's partially the writing and partially making the right choices production-wise to hook people. "Commercial" production can be very hokey.

MR: Yes. Also, the packaging is beautiful with some real attention to detail.

EP: I don't want people to think that this was done on a shoestring or that I was begging people for money on the Internet. It's really more money than anyone has ever spent on me, we didn't cut any corners. I spent more on the recording, spent more on the artwork, and spent more on the marketing than I have ever spent on any other project. So, it's not a shoestring thing at all. It's a move up in a lot of ways.

MR: And due to your taking your career into your own hands -- not becoming behoovin' to a label but going the fan funding route -- you have the mandate to express yourself any way you need to artistically.

EP: Yeah. They are always trying to think of the bottom line and not actually what the actual product looks like. They give you deadlines that you have to be done by, you have to spend this much money, you can't go over budget.

All of those things are bypassed. We spent as much as we needed to make a record right, and we hired the right people for the design who could express who I am and what I want rather than what the record label wants. It feels more real, more me, more artful, more creative.

MR: It's always nice when the album concept is supported by its artwork. As we head towards CDs retirement, I guess it's logical that artwork will be the biggest casualty.

EP: I think people are dogging CD artwork because it's so small and it's fading out as more and more records are getting smaller and smaller and going to digital. So, we decided to maximize what the artwork would say. We really took our time with the artwork and the designer did a great job. There was sort of a theme of baptism and renewal in all of the photo shots of the water.

MR: Though my favorite shot is the one of you in the room with the guitar in the corner with the sunset through the bay window.

EP: That was in a little bed and breakfast mansion in Orange, Virginia, that we found on the Internet. We thought about each location and figuring out how to make the drama of the artwork work with the drama that was going on in the songs.

MR: How are you making this the best online experience for your fans?

EP: Well, I am trying to learn more about YouTube and Facebook interactions with people.

MR: And the website?

EP: I want it to be like a little garden. I want it to be filled with cool looking things rather than weeds. I think a lot of people just throw out weeds on their websites. They just let their gardens go entirely, let it go stagnant for years and throw garbage up on it that doesn't have any value. These are things that can stay up for years and years to come after we are all long gone, so it will be a website that will support high quality. I think that is why the artwork is so important. I just want to stick it out.

MR: Earlier, I brought up "Annalee," but "Rose Tattoo" also is a pretty catchy song complete with a sing-a-long vibe at the end.

EP: With "Rose Tattoo," I took a lot of that Jim Croce stuff with two guitars panned left and right. I'm happy with that one. But you know, I'm happy with all of them.

MR: You ended the album with the intense "Nothing Left To Take" which is a very unusual song. Can you discuss it a bit?

EP: I had heard a story about a couple that broke up and there was alcohol involved. One of the parties was an alcoholic and got into a car accident. So, I tried to dress up that story, and a lot of the specific details kind of came down to the bottle while he was driving. There was a time frame as to how the break up happened. Fifteen seconds, a minute, an hour -- like a clock ticking as the song is going on.

MR: Which song are you closest to?

EP: "Hurricane Angel" seems to be one that I gravitate to the most, even though it's not a song about me. It's about a Katrina victim and the crossroads after the storm that happened, and trying to figure out how to get help. He's reaching out to the insurance companies, the President, and God looking for some help and relief.

MR: It's years later and the aftermath of Katrina and there's damage still remaining.

EP: I wrote that after all of the Katrina victims were in the FEMA trailers and were kicked out of them because of formaldehyde poisoning, nearly 40,000 people got their trailers taken away from them. I guess they were getting poisoned from the formaldehyde that was in the walls, and it just spurred me to write it. There is just no way that those people can win down there. It's just speed bump after speed bump after speed bump.

MR: You were a social worker at some point, right?

EP: Yeah, in my early twenties after college for about four or five years.

MR: Do you find yourself wanting to jump into specific social causes?

EP: Yeah. I want to write about those things, but often times, you can't force the subject matter. You start doing that and then a song comes out (that's) a piece of s**t. I try and wrap my head around these problems, but I'm just waiting for the right story to come to me. It's a challenge for me being self-employed to afford health insurance I need in order to cover my family. So, its going to be a social issue that addresses my life in some way, and then I need to find a story that I can address the emotions of, so it took me five years to write the Katrina song.

MR: A balance of sentiment and constructive engagement. Interestingly, it takes a while to know what to be talking about when you're talking about it.

EP: When (Katrina) happened, there were a thousand songs written in the weeks after that. It was too big of an event for me to ever get objective about for me to write about. There were some beautiful songs written, but I have to say, though a lot of songs were written out of that moment, I couldn't do it. It was just too big of a thing.

MR: This project's overall statement seems to be, "Okay, everything has changed and now it's time to start life." Was that intentional?

EP: I have kids now and I'm looking back at the last 20 years of my life and what am I going to do with the next 20 years of my life, so it seems like, "What am I going to do now?" I'm at the halftime of the Super Bowl of my life and I'm reflective. I'm looking back, and a lot of these songs are about people who are about, you know, a guy who just got laid off and is at home, and in the first song, there is a guy who is going back to college and wondering what the future holds for him. So, every one of the characters are approaching some kind of major crossroads and are trying to make decisions about what their future is going to look like and which road to take. I guess I am sort of in that place in my own life being at a halfway point too.

MR: At this halfway point, are there things you haven't done musically that might be explored over the next few projects?

EP: I think so. If I can do the next four or five records with the same batch of people and approach the songwriting in the same way, I really feel like we could get locked into something that is like a sweet spot. I feel more centered with my production and writing style. It feels kind of like I found my thing. If I can write out of this place and write the next four or five records this well, even without any commercial success, I would be thrilled just to put out records that are this good every time.

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