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Ellis Paul

New England musician shares 'Essentials'

East Bay Daily News

Friday, May 11, 2007

by Paul Freeman

Ellis Paul has carved out a place among the finest singer-songwriters of his generation. The evidence can be clearly heard on his latest release, "Essentials," a double-CD containing 32 of his most memorable songs. Each displays strong melody and highly literate lyrics.

Before ambling down to Big Sur for a set on May 18, Paul plays Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Thursday night. The New Englander considers the Freight a home away from home.

"I've been coming there for years and (I) always have a great crowd of people," Paul says. "Great place to play."

He draws a mix of traditional aficionados and younger fans. "I get a lot of people who were fans of the '60s and '70s singer-songwriters, the folk musicians. I get a lot of people who may have heard my songs on the Internet, through movies or television. Then I get a lot of people who are Boston transplants, who saw me in the days when I was living and working there. They come out with Red Sox caps."

Like the Bay Area, Boston nurtures sterling singer-songwriters. "The fact that we develop our craft in listening rooms, instead of bars, helps to shape the artists who come out of Boston," he said. "You can hear a pin drop in the room, no matter who's on stage, because the rules are - you don't talk, you're there to listen."

Raised in Maine, Paul now resides in Charlottesville, Va., close to his in-laws. With two kids, it makes life easier for his wife when he's on the road.

"I tend to do all my writing while I'm on the road - in hotels, the car, on planes, sound check. Usually even if I do have free time at home, I'm so exhausted, I don't have (my) brain functioning enough to pick up a pencil and a guitar."

He's grown as a writer over the years. "I've got a better eye and ear for what a good subject would be. That helps a lot."

While he was attending Boston College on a track scholarship, an injury left Paul immobilized for months. He picked up a guitar and began writing songs. He was attracted to folk music, past and contemporary, and its sense of community.

"I love Woody Guthrie's honesty. I love the clarity of James Taylor's guitar-playing and his vocal skills. I love Joni Mitchell. I really see them all as part of the same chain, just doing slightly different things.

"It's a great genre to be able to write about anything you want, as long as you're honest. If you want to write about something that's broken, that needs fixing, you can. If you want to write a love song, you can. Or a political song. Or a parody song. It's wide open."

Paul believes in the adage, "Write what you know." "I find that when I'm inventing things, it tends to be like a B-movie, because the details that I'm culling out of the situation don't seem as real to me. I go right to the well and write about things I witness, things I know firsthand."

Audiences relate to the accurate imagery he paints musically. "Each song is supposed to be like a little three-dimensional world. I'm hoping to invite them in, have them make out the details and the reasons for being there, and apply them to their own lives. But I'm also hoping to entertain them."

Mesmerizing an audience gratifies Paul. "I know when people are really liking the song, from their reaction and how quiet they are. You get this ether-like stillness, when people are really into the moment. That's what you're looking for, every time you get on stage. And some songs do that better than others.

"I don't want it to sound like it's a 'Kumbaya' kind of thing," Paul chuckled, "but it's great. It's like a little three-minute play. You put it onstage. There's a soundtrack to it. And there's drama in the song. There are characters and a setting. You're hoping you can take the audience into that world and then take them out for the next song."

For Paul, songwriting combines craft, discipline and inspiration. "The inspiration tends to be a little unbridled. I try to throw a saddle on it and make sense of it, get it so it's not a bronco people are trying to climb on, it's something that they can ride on their own."

The quality of a song doesn't ensure commercial success. "There are great songs that never see the light of day and awful songs that manage to get to the No. 1 spot.

"It's about being honest and doing it artfully and gracefully, in a way that people can connect to. I don't think Bob Dylan thought 'Blowin' in the Wind' was going to be a hit. I don't think R.E.M. thought 'Shiny Happy People' should be a hit song. You've just got to make great art and let the art work for you, commercially or not."

Because of the financial struggle, the attrition rate is great among songwriters. "I'm still managing to make enough and have a family and keep at it. So I'm thrilled. I'm lucky. I've been doing this for 15 years.

"I'm hoping and praying I can keep doing what I'm doing, that it gets slightly bigger and more and more people get turned on to it," he said. "I'm just going to keep hammering away."

Though he would welcome commercial success, that's not Paul's goal. "I just want to have a good catalogue of songs that people can look back at ... like people do with Woody Guthrie's catalog, where there's song after song that's great.

"I do think you can get better and better, the older you are, do it into your 70s and still be vital and still get a lot out of it."

East Bay Daily News