Ellis Paul is an American singer-songwriter and folk musician. Born in Aroostook County, Maine, Paul is a key figure in what has become known as the Boston school of songwriting, a literate, provocative and urbanely romantic folk-pop style that helped ignite the folk revival of the 1990s. His pop music songs have appeared in movies and on television, bridging the gap between the modern folk sound and the populist traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Paul came to perform at Evanston S.P.A.C.E. on February 28 and WNUR was there to cover it.
As a self-diagnosed folk music addict, I was pretty stoked that a staple in the industry for more than 20 years, Ellis Paul, was coming to Chicagoland. Over his lengthy career, if Paul has perfected one thing, it’s the art of engaging his audience. He did everything from mock Donald Trump while tuning his guitar for a new song to give us a detailed account of his obsession with “The Walking Dead.”
“I’m going to play two sets tonight, but I need to get home before ‘The Walking Dead’ starts at nine,” he said to kick off his show, as he started strumming the opening chords for “Ain’t No Jesus.” It wasn’t just his banter that kept the audience engaged during the rainy Sunday evening show, upbeat jams like “3,000 Miles” also did the trick to get everyone tapping their toes and clapping along. Paul even broke out a harmonica for his catchy love song, “Rose Tattoo.” (But is it even a folk concert without a harmonica?? I think not.)
Paul is a four-piece band wrapped into one: He expertly mimics the sound of a drum set with his guitar while simultaneously creating enticing chord progressions, he sings and blows his harmonica at the same time. “I’d like to introduce the band. They’re really impossible to work with,” he joked before breaking into one of his most popular songs, “The World Ain’t Slowing Down.”
My favorite song was one he claimed to have written on the drive to Evanston from his previous night’s show in Columbus, evidenced by the book he showed us that he had scrawled the lyrics onto and tentatively titled “You Ain’t From These Parts.” Indeed, I can confirm that he had been furiously writing in aforementioned book when I went backstage to interview him before the show.
“It sounds like a folk song right? Well it’s still green. It’s gonna be a rap song by the end,” Paul teased from the piano bench as he played generic-sounding intro chords. But it ended up being anything but ordinary. It was hilarious, poking fun at all the crazy town names found around America and the unusual connotations that come with them.
Midway through Paul’s first set, WNUR photographer Steve Seong leaned over to me and said, “He really seems like he enjoys what he does.” That is what summed up his show for me more than anything: enjoyment. Not only did Paul enjoy himself on stage, but the audience obviously enjoyed it too. And what more can you ask for from a musician, really?
WNUR: How did you get into the music industry in the first place? You grew up on a potato farm and you wanted to be a social worker, right?
Ellis Paul: Yeah, I mean I didn’t really want to be- I was an English major and it just kind of happened by default. I was playing open mic nights and that’s where I got my start I guess.
Where did you get your inspiration for your song writing?
Paul: Well you know I listened to people’s stories. I feel like everybody’s got some nugget story that kind of defines who they are in the big picture. It might be a chance meeting with somebody or an accident or maybe they won the lottery. This one little nugget story can encapsulate someone and that’s what has me interested in songwriting, because all of my songs are about people.
Do you use your own personal stories too or do you prefer to focus on other people?
Paul: Yeah. If I’m writing about other people, it’s going to be tainted by my own experiences. It’s like if Van Gogh is painting a field of sunflowers, it’s still a field of sunflowers but we see his personality in the painting even though there’s no person in the painting. There’s no way to escape our fingerprint even when you’re writing outside of yourself and your experiences.
Do you have any musical inspirations?
Paul: Like heroes? Well, you know there was an era of music between the mid- to late-sixties up until the mid-seventies where there were a lot of sing-songwriters. Jim Croche, early Billy Joel, Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. There was sort of a heyday of folk rock when it was the hippest music. It’s not that way anymore. It’s not like hip-hop or R&B. Not that it’s nonexistent… There was a time when folk music was predominantly in the pop world and heard everyday. That era is what I liked most.
How has that change in popular music culture influenced your work, if at all?
Paul: Well, you know, I keep an eye out for what’s happening, and I listen to people’s music. I bought the Adele record; I bought the Taylor Swift record. And anytime I hear something I like, I try to follow up and see what’s happening. I try to keep up with what stuff I like and try to get inspired. That includes people who aren’t in the popular vein of music, struggling songwriters who are living out of the back of their cars and travelling around the country. Those people are sometimes just as talented as the people on the pop charts. I try to keep an eye out for anybody.
You’ve been in the industry for a while. Do you have something that you consider to be the highlight of your career? What has been your favorite moment so far?
Paul: Tonight is going to be my favorite moment. [laughs] At least that’s what you hope! I don’t really have one; I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I got to go into and write music to a Woody Guthrie lyric, like my music was put to his words. That was a really big highlight. But any night when all cylinders are firing and the audience is completely captivated, it’s a highlight. And I’ve got lots and lots of those.
You’ve written a couple of books, too…
Paul: I’ve written two children’s books and I’ve got one that’s for adults. It’s kind of a sci-fi.
What was that writing process like? Was it similar to your writing process?
Paul: Well the language is kind of the same. It’s really just me spilling my guts on something. It’s not that the medium is that different, but it is drier. When you put music to words, it’s like techicolor, not just black and white. Music is a little more emotional than books, but books are great. I love writing in any medium really.
What’s next for you?
Paul: I just started writing songs for my next project. It might be a year away. It’s going to take a while to get 20 songs, and then we pick the best of the 20. So it’s definitely going to happen, but likely not until the end of the year.