Ellis Paul

Ellis Paul's knack for getting up close and personal

The Boston Globe

Friday, May 19, 2000

by Scott Alarik

When most of us hear the word stagecraft, we think of big performers, of belt-it-out bravado, grand gestures, and show-stopping sustains. But stagecraft is every bit as crucial on the small stages of the coffeehouse and folk club, perhaps even more so, since performers must engage audiences for entire evenings armed with nothing but their guitars, voices, and songs.

Few modern songwriters understand the importance of stagecraft better than 33-year-old Ellis Paul, and it has earned him a huge and remarkably loyal following on the folk circuit. While even major folk stars carefully ration their drawing power, this Boston songwriter can play a long string of local coffeehouses, then cap the tour with a sold-out concert at the Somerville Theatre, as he did in March 1999 to record his delightful and bracingly intimate two-CD set, "Ellis Paul Live" (Philo).

Paul said he sees this and an upcoming best-of CD as the coda to his career's opening chapters. This summer, big things will surely be popping for him, as his song "The World Ain't Slowin' Down" is used as the love theme for Jim Carrey's new film "Me, Myself & Irene," playing for over five minutes at the film's climax and through the closing credits. That is the sweet spot for music in movies, the place where big song hits are made. The film is directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly; the latter has called Paul "a national treasure." The secret to Paul's rivetingly honest performing style is that he culls his stage presence and better-song banter from the same authentic place he draws his songs. He describes the stagecraft of the folksinger as "the art of being yourself."

"Our deal isn't to be larger than life, our deal is to be life," Paul said of the modern folk performer. "It's a lot more naked, less contrived, less focused on what you want people's perceptions to be than on trying to get yourself across honestly. We want to be real, to remind people who they are and what they're going through in their lives, rather than to escape into this kind of Elvis persona they can admire from afar."

Spencer Tracy's famous advice on acting was to "never get caught at it." Paul performs like that throughout his live CD. He tells chatty anecdotes about his daily life that seem unscripted but are as finely crafted as his smartly romantic ballads. In one yarn, he tells of flying a tiny airplane on a rainy day when he discovers through conversation that his pilot is a huge Grateful Dead fan.

"I don't know if you know the cultural implications of discovering your pilot is a Deadhead," he gulps, "but I broke out in a cold sweat." Settling into a subtle litmus test, he points to the entirely gray horizon out the window and asks the pilot, "You're not seeing color now, are you?"

Paul said he thinks about his stage patter as more than filler between songs.

"It glues people's perception's of what you're really trying to pull off; it's a foundation for what you want to be as an artist. If I'm telling a poem between songs, for example, I'm reminding them that I am a writer, that that's where my focus is. And if I'm being funny, I want to be something of a humorist, but not a comedian. I don't want to use shtick, to rely on slapstick or self-depreciation to get my point across, but to be more in the vein of Will Rogers and Bill Morrissey, and tell stories that reflect things in the bigger picture. "It's storytelling, just like the songs are," he said. The stories come from things that happen in my real life, which reminds the audience of the pool that I work from, which is a nonfiction pool--with the truth stretched in appropriate places to convey a point."

Paul's stage savvy is not only displayed between songs. There is an alluring theatre to his song delivery. His airy voice sounds as if it were whispering in the audience's ears, but that whisper is a wonderfully controlled tenor, tamed to conceal its artistry. His soft song-ending sustains are feats of vocal daring, but done with such apparent effortlessness they seem no more artful than a sigh.

Paul said the road has been a grand teacher. The folk world offers performers a bumpy trail of vastly different venues. Playing the back room of a deli one night, the sanctuary of a church the next, and a 1,000-seat concert hall the night after that, a self-reliant stagecraft is almost forced to emerge.

"You have to come in and kind of make your presence the presence of the room," he said. "You do that by using the songs to make people escape from the room, and your stage presence to help support that escape. I don't prepare set lists too much, because the venues are so dramatically different you have to be able to play each night differently. In a concert setting like the Somerville Theatre, the Orpheum or the Wang Center, the setting provides a frame that is very dramatic, but that doesn't have the nice intimacy and laid-back-ness you have in a folk club. In a coffeehouse, you are the stage."