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Ellis Paul

Boston singer/songwriter Ellis Paul to perform at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

by Don Wilcock

Boston singersongwriter Ellis Paul to perform at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> I’m not sure what you can expect from Ellis Paul who does a kids show and an adult show Saturday at Caffe Lena.

The Dean of Boston folk journalists Scott Alarik has called him “The quintessential Boston singer/songwriter.” Chasing Beauty, his 19th CD, was completely funded by 600 donors to the tune of $100,000. At Caffe Lena he will perform solo on guitar and piano, but many of the songs on Chasing Beauty feature five or more musicians, background vocals by the female folk trio Red Molly, and three members of the band Sugarland.

“Rather than serving the genre of folk music,” he says. “I’ve always felt like I need to serve the song and I definitely, occasionally, write a true folk song and sometimes I write a true pop song, and sometimes they lie side by side on a record.”

He calls his instrumentation “orchestration,” and he views the somewhat heavily produced songs in the same way a cinematographer translates a written script into a film.

He writes his lyrics for himself. Some of his songs have a verse, chorus, verse structure, but most tend to unravel like yarn on a linoleum floor and unwind with stream of consciousness twists that would make your average Robert Hunter/Grateful Dead lyric sound almost linear by comparison. “I just go, and I try and clean it up in editing. I try and make sense of it as I edit it down. That seems to be the best way for me to write ’cause it’s partially crafted, and it’s partially inspired writing. When the two of them dance well together, it’s a good song.

Ellis’ background is even more interesting than his unusual song-writing style. His real name is Paul Plissey, and he grew up in Maine near the Canadian border to a family of potato farmers, but both his parents have masters degrees, and his claim to fame in high school was as a star track runner which made his father very happy – Ellis, not so much.

“Being an athlete just wasn’t that fun. The work is so hard and exhausting, and it doesn’t really involve the brain much. It involved passion and heart, but training to be a world class act, you have to run two or three times a day and 140 miles a week. I just didn’t want to do that lifestyle when music was feeding me both literally, emotionally and spiritually. The impact of having a guitar in my hand was just a lot more who I was and what I wanted with my life.”

He puts the same kind of energy into performing as he did running. The speedometer on his 2004Honda CRV read 499,644 as he talked to me and said his favorite little game is to pull into a Jiffy Lube and watch their eyes turn to saucers when they see how much mileage he’s put on his car.

He drew a picture of folk music progenitor Woody Guthrie from an old poster in the Canal Street Tavern in Dayton, Ohio and had the drawing tattooed on his shoulder. That got him an introduction to Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie who approached him at the American Folk Alliance asking to see the tattoo.

“I took her into the bar, and as I was showing it to her, she ended up meeting a guy who was sitting at the bar with us, and they ended up getting married. So, in a way I’m her Cupid.” Ellis ended up writing music to some old Guthrie lyrics Nora had.

“I did two or three, and I took ’em home, and I was back stage one night, and “What Hath God Promised” seemed to be the most musical as it was being read, and then I just started improvising, and I wrote it back stage in about 20 minutes before I went on and I just brought the piece of paper out on stage and sang it there.”

Ellis’ appreciation of Guthrie may offer additional clues as to what to expect from his own solo show. “(Woody) was a great lyricist. He was working over a pretty simple set of chords. Usually, his music wasn’t complicated, but lyrically he knew how to paint a picture. He knew how to play with words. He knew how to make picture without driving it through your skull. He made you come to it yourself rather than preach or lecture to you. He had this altruistic I’m-gonna-write-about-people-that-need-to-be-written-about way of writing. Then his life story is so tragic. He’s sort of the Van Gogh of the music world.”

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