In another life and time, acclaimed singer songwriter Ellis Paul was an accomplished distance runner. And although he hasn’t run competitively in years, he’s still running circles around his songwriting peers.
The gifted lyricist’s music career began almost as an afterthought. A successful high school track career resulted in an athletic scholarship to Boston College. But it was only after hurting his knee during his junior year that Paul picked up a six-string to ease the boredom of his suddenly underutilized life.
There’s nothing like a little unplanned physical adversity and its attendant introspection to nudge you towards musical medication.
And it wasn’t the last time Paul had to deal with an unanticipated lane change. After a false career start as a social worker, the self-taught musician quit his day job to pursue his music career. Since then, Paul has definitely made up for a slow “first lap” by releasing 16 critically celebrated albums and winning 14 Boston Music Awards, in addition to publishing a book of original lyrics, poems, and drawings.
The exceptional artist recently chatted with Examiner about life on life’s road and his storied career.
The decision to become a full-time professional musician isn’t an easy one – especially when you’re giving up a real, albeit creatively barren job. Even for an artist as special as Paul, it can be downright terrifying.
“Yeah, I think it was,” admitted Paul. “I was worried about it financially. But, you know, I really felt like it was a calling in a way. And because of that, I put a lot of faith and trust into it and knew if I worked really hard, I could make things happen.”
Paul’s passion for his music is ever-present, as is his ability to blend remarkable story-telling with perfect melodies. But there’s no question where his soul lies.
“I consider myself almost a writer first and a musician second. I’m writing my ideas in a musical journal. I don’t have any kind of virtuosity on guitar anyway that would make me declare myself a musician ahead of a songwriter. And uh, I think of it as short story writing – that kind of thing really.”
Paul’s songwriting genius is legendary. And perhaps the best testament to it is a remarkable endorsement from Nora Guthrie, daughter to another music legend, Woody Guthrie.
“A singer songwriter is only as good as the times he reflects,” offered Guthrie. “In times like these, when so many nuts are running the show, it’s comforting to know that Ellis Paul is actually holding our sanity on his own stage! Wise, tender, brilliant and biting, Ellis is one of our best human compasses, marking in melodies and poems where we’ve been and where we might go if we so choose to.”
While crafting a meaningful tune can be a chore for some artists, the process is intuitive for Paul.
“I just consistently write about what I want to write. And I don’t force it. If I go for a couple of months without writing, it’s fine. And then I might write six songs in a matter of a week or two. So I kind of follow the ebb and flow and I don’t overthink it.”
Paul has openly shared his talents, teaching his “six-step program to effective songwriting” to aspiring songwriters, based on the premise that songwriters “should show and not tell.” And while he can gamely teach his effective songwriting approaches and mentor young musicians, he readily acknowledges that there are things that he can’t teach.
“I think they’re in a different world now. It’s not the same music industry that it was ten years ago. Their challenges are different than mine. I’m established now and I can trust that an audience is gonna be there.”
“It’s sort of easier because the pathways to success were so limited back then. And now, the internet makes things fairly complicated ‘cause you’re up against thousands of people that are puttin’ their music out online.”
Not surprisingly, Paul understands the importance of spreading his profound musical message to a live audience.
“When it’s a live thing, I feel it’s more about what the song’s doing, rather than what the music is doing. It’s more about the information that’s being conveyed rather than the music that’s being conveyed.”
“That’s how you connect the dots. You have to be right there in front of people. They have to see personality behind the songs – and connect with you as a person, not just with the music. You know you can create a little following and it becomes a little town – and you’re like the mayor of the little town – and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.”
And after spending just a few minutes with the memorable mayor of masterful music, there’s no doubt that many more music lovers will be moving to “St. Paul.”
Here is Ellis Paul’s concert schedule through the end of 2011.
Fri 07/29 New York, NY Rubin Museum Of Art
Sat 07/30 Newport, RI Fort Adams State Park
Fri 08/05 Collinsville, CT Bridge Street Live
Sat 08/06 Collinsville, CT Bridge Street Live
Sun 08/07 Wyncote, PA Curtis Arboretum
Fri 08/12 Boothbay Harbor, ME The Opera House
Sat 08/13 Brownfield, ME Stone Mt. Arts Center
Fri 08/19 Ogunquit, ME Jonathan’s Ogunquit
Mon 08/22 Arlington, VT West Mountain Inn
Tue 08/23 Arlington, VT West Mountain Inn
Wed 08/24 Arlington, VT West Mountain Inn
Thu 08/25 Arlington, VT West Mountain Inn
Fri 09/09 Bryn Athyn, PA The Lord’s New Church
Sat 09/10 Norwich, NY Colorscape Chengo
Sun 09/11 White River Junction, VT Tupelo Music Hall
Fri 09/16 Northampton, MA Iron Horse Music Hall
Sat 09/17 Franklin, MA Circle Of Friends
Sun 09/18 Londonderry, NH Tupelo Music Hall
Fri 09/30 Lawrence, KS Unity Church
Sat 10/01 St. Louis, MO The College School
Sat 10/01 St. Louis, MO Off Broadway Nightclub
Sun 10/16 Louisville, KY The Rudyard Kipling
Fri 10/21 Ann Arbor, MI The Ark
Sat 10/22 Indianapolis, IN Wheeler Arts Community
Sun 10/23 Chicago, IL Old Town School Of Folk Music
Fri 10/28 Montclair, NJ Outpost In The Burbs
Sat 10/29 Kennett Square, PA Kennett Flash
Fri 11/04 Old Saybrook, CT Kath. Hepburn Cultural Arts
Sat 11/05 Peace Dale, RI Music at Lily Pads
Thu 11/17 New London, NH Four Corners Grille
Fri 11/18 Scituate, MA The River Club
Sat 11/19 Hastings-On-Hudson, NY Common Ground
Sun 11/20 Piermont, NY Turning Point
Fri 11/25 Birmingham, AL The Red Cat
Sat 11/26 Decatur, GA Eddie’s Attic
Sat 12/03 Philadelphia, PA Tin Angel
Sun 12/04 Stony Brook, NY University Cafe
Fri 12/09 Austin, TX Cactus Cafe
Sat 12/10 Fort Worth, TX Jefferson Freedom Cafe
Sun 12/11 Houston, TX McGonigel’s Mucky Duck