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Ellis Paul

Prepare to purr: Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul returns to Birmingham for concert at The Red Cat

Birmingham News

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

by Mary Colurso

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- There’s one crucial question that has to be answered, before anything else, during a phone interview with Ellis Paul.

The singer-songwriter, a native of Maine, has been closely linked with the folk-music scene in Boston for most of his career. Now he lives with his wife and children in Charlottesville, Va.

Does this longtime Yankee fit in? More to the point: Does Paul, 46, feel Southern?

"Well, I feel more Southern than I did a couple of years ago," he says, laughing. "I don’t think I’ll ever be fully accepted. But I do like the pace better, and the temperature. And the people. I think they’re just friendlier."

Although his past lies north of the Mason-Dixon line, one of Ellis’ interests always has been focused on Dixie. He’s a veteran collector of Civil War books, and has an affinity for tales of the Confederacy.

On his most recent album, 2010’s "The Day After Everything Changed," Paul included a ballad called "The Cotton’s Burning," told from the viewpoint of a colonel in the 14th Tennessee regiment. The protagonist is on his way back home, after the fall of Richmond in 1865.

"Liquor was literally running in the streets, a fire started and the whole city burned," Paul says. "These are stories of epic proportions, and sometimes families were broken up by it. There are stories around all these tragedies of the Civil War, and they’re interesting."

Concertgoers can request the Richmond tune on Saturday, if they wish, when Paul performs at The Red Cat coffeehouse in Birmingham. As any fan will tell you, storytelling is one of his strengths. Paul has built a reputation for his poetic and precise use of language.

"I tend to write about the things around me," he says, when asked if the move to Virginia has influenced his songbook.

Case in point: "Sometime, Someplace," also part of Paul’s latest record, is about a bar in Charlottesville that served as the launching pad for Dave Matthews Band. Another track, "Waking Up to Me," was inspired by a memorable drive, filled with love and longing, that brought him from Maine to Virginia.

Although Paul has composed songs for a couple of decades — and won more than a dozen Boston Music Awards — he still regards the process with a certain amount of awe.

"I don’t think the source of it gets easier," he says. "I’m about as prolific as I was in the early days. There’s less fat; I don’t waste words as much as I used to. But it’s still an amazing thing."

Developing the craft never ceases, he says, although the mechanics of songwriting can become second nature over time.

"You become more trained into it," Paul says. "The entrance to a song happens quicker, and the map of where the song should go. I think anyone can write a song, but editing is what makes them great."
Songwriting often requires a leap of faith, and Ellis Paul is ready to make it.

When he mentors young musicians, the primary job is to be "almost like a little buzz saw," Paul says. Instead of emptying the dictionary, he encourages students to make every word count.

Paul learned that lesson the old-fashioned way, working on more than a dozen studio albums and encountering crowds in coffeehouses, theaters and nightclubs. In time-honored Boston fashion, he also performed on the streets.

Alabama audiences have witnessed some of his progress over the years; Paul has played in Birmingham at events ranging from house concerts to the former City Stages festival. (His last appearance here came in 2008, at Baptist Church of the Covenant’s Cafe C.)

Chances are, this weekend’s appearance at The Red Cat will include a Woody Guthrie cover. Paul’s admiration for the hardscrabble balladeer is well-documented, well-known and ongoing.

An informal yet enthusiastic Guthrie scholar, Paul has an image of the legendary performer tattooed on his shoulder. He’s performed at several Guthrie tribute shows, including one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was named an honorary citizen in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Okla.

Perhaps most important, Paul was one of the artists chosen by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to provide music for her father’s unpublished lyrics. The result, a song called "God’s Promise," has become an important touchstone in Paul’s career.

"The idea wasn’t to write a Woody Guthrie melody, but to put Ellis Paul into it," he says. "It has a really strong lyric, and when I do it, there’s sort of an aura, like I’m conjuring his ghost in the room. It’s like a seance; I’m Madame Ellis. Generally, it’s a sweet spot in the set list. I’m paying respect to him and honoring a hero."

Paul’s catalog also includes a 2008 album, "The Dragonfly Races," that was written with children in mind. The project tested his creativity and added another facet to his tour schedule: family-friendly concerts in bookstores, museums and libraries.

"For ‘Dragonfly Races,’ I had to write more in primary colors," Paul says. "The songs had to be more bright and shiny, get to the point quicker and be more hooky. As an exercise, it forced brevity and playfulness."

Playful, too, was the video Paul filmed as a promotional piece for "The Day After Everything Changed." Yes, it’s an adult album based on serious themes, but that didn’t stop the singer-songwriter from leaping into a lake, posing in mid-air with an electric guitar.

"I almost chickened out of doing it, but there was only 4 feet of water," Paul says. "I picked the best-looking guitar I had and jumped in. We did it twice, but used the first take. And it still plays. The guitar survived."

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