Ellis Paul

Ellis Paul puts spin on Fables

Boston Herald

Friday, April 8, 2005

by Daniel Gewartz

On his new album, "American Jukebox Fables," Ellis Paul has written a tribute to the late patriotic hero Pat Tillman that also manages to be an anti-war song.

"Kiss the Sun (A Song For Pat Tillman)" is inspired by the professional football star who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan, but it is also influenced by some letters Paul received from a fan of his who was working as a guard at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

"He got to the prison after the scandal. I wrote it from his perspective, but the attitudes come from my own mind. I feel for the reservists, the weekend soldiers who believed in protecting their country after 9/11, but who didn't sign up for a war like Iraq," Paul said.

Some might call "Kiss the Sun" a canny attempt at having it both ways: right and left, patriotic and anti-war. Yet for Paul, that dichotomy is where the song's legitimate drama lies.

"Like any songwriter, good or bad, I stretch the truth to be dramatic. But you don't have to search too hard to find the patriotic/anti-war perspective. I was at a florist shop near Quantico (the Virginia Marine Corps base) and I heard a funeral director say that half the dead coming back from Iraq are suicides," Paul said.

Paul, remarried and a father, now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. But this leading light of Boston's contemporary folk movement says he'll eventually move back to New England. Paul plays an album release concert at the Somerville Theatre tomorrow night, with Amelia White opening. (Call 617-628-3390.)

The new CD (on Philo/Rounder) is Paul's first solo studio effort in three years, and his 11th CD in 12 years. "I just turned 40. I'm no longer the up-and-coming guy. But my audiences are still growing. My ability to make money is still increasing. I do 150 to 200 gigs a year.

"I'm at a good spot. I recognize I could keep this career going until my 60s. For a musician who's not gonna have a Top 40 hit, that's the trophy: Do it till you drop," said Paul.

The CD title, "American Jukebox Fables," sounds grandiose, but Paul didn't arrive at the phrase glibly. Such iconic American images as highways, trains, juke joints, and small towns inhabit the songs, and such names as Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Martin Luther King Jr. dot the album's lyrical landscape.

Though there is no overriding message here, the album is aware of the role fables play in Americanmedia and art. "America knows how to tell a story, stretch the truth and make it entertaining. You see it in the news and in movies," he said.

Paul is also aware of the myth-making tendency in his own writing. One of the album's lesser songs, "Bad Bad Blood," is about a rural crime spree, and though it questions media infatuation with such violence, the song is also part of the same romanticization.

Though the overall sound will not shock Paul's longtime folk fans, the album does flirt with modern pop, electronica and even hip-hop. It's a new sonic vein for Paul. "The album was produced by Flynn, and we worked with his computer-chemistry set of sounds, including all the loops and funky backwards stuff. It's his European pop, disco, techno world meeting my American folk-rock world. I came in with the accordions, banjos and mandolins. The experience got me more excited than I've been for a long time in the studio," he said.

Paul no longer dreams of jumping from Rounder to a major label, a move he explored a couple of times since the early '90s. "I remember playing one show in New York where there were just eight guys in the audience, but they were from eight different major labels. I was completely nervous and I fell on my face. I decided after that that it was all up to me. I need to get this music out, and bust my ass on the road and see where it takes me.

"It's taken me to a good career. And I still feel like a kid. I've gotten better, and I still have a long way to go. It's great to be 15 years into this and every song I write still has something to teach me."

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