What Would Ellis Do? Now-local songwriter finds pockets
Ellis Paul is a beloved member of Boston's folk music scene, but you'd never know it. Problem #1: he lives in Charlottesville now.
Problem #2, however, is that he's been relatively quiet since moving here. His award-winning 2008 album, The Dragonfly Races, was his first foray into children's music, and beyond that, it's been live albums and a two-disc greatest hits collection, making his forthcoming album The Day After Everything Changed his first piece of solidly C'ville-based art.
"In Charlottesville, there's only a very small pocket who know who I am, but that's changing," he says. "I'm trying to grow my audience and let people know I'm here."
Small pocket or not, Paul and his Boston-based backing band were able to fill the house at his January 2 album release party at The Southern. Fans of his older work, parents who followed their kids to the dragonflies, and a whole separate contingent supporting opening act Mariana Bell cheered Paul on and even sang along.
"Thanks for outnumbering us," Paul laughed with youthful exuberance. So that's something.
Emerging in New England coffeehouses in the 90's alongside the likes of Dar Williams, Patty Griffin, and Martin Sexton, the Boston University graduate has been associated primarily with neo-folk, but he has a serious pop side too. Several of his songs have appeared in mainstream television shows and films: Shallow Hal and Me, Myself, and Irene, among others.
Paul says that while he was growing up in small-town Maine, the pop music of the '80s supplemented the musical training he received from school bands and choruses.
"Hearing those pop songwriters–- Billy Joel, U2–- that got me into songwriting," he says. Later, Paul started to identify with the socially-conscious, politically-charged storytelling of the folk music that Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell had produced years before him. He now refers to the three as the "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" and even went as far as tattooing Guthrie's face on his shoulder.
Paul approached his latest release with a renewed passion and unprecedented control over all aspects of the project. Producing the 15-track album without a label, he turned to his fans for help financing the project–- and despite the sudden turn in the economy the $100k influx inspired Paul to make "the best record I could."
"This is the first record where I really got all the ingredients right," he says. "If I could put out five more records of this quality, I would hit that point where I would say I've done what I wanted to do. I've touched on something that could get me there."
Recorded in Nashville with several tracks co-written by Kristian Bush of the country duo Sugarland, The Day After Everything Changed represents a new stage in Paul's approach to songwriting.
"Ellis is just the most extraordinary story teller and the new album is breathtaking–- in almost every song you can picture a scene in a movie with all the textures, colors, and landscapes he puts in his music," Bell, a longtime fan says. "It was quite an honor to be invited to open for him."
He's developed an appreciation for the modern mainstream pop-rock of guys like John Mayer, Howie Day, and Jason Mraz, for one thing. But most interestingly, inspired by his work with children's music, Paul has turned to addressing heavy personal and social issues more directly than on previous releases.
"I used some of that direct language on this record–- it taught me how to grab attention quicker," he says. "When I sit and write, I think 'Who am I trying to move with this song?' 'What would Jesus do?' 'What would Woody Guthrie do?'"
Paul's recent move to Charlottesville similarly allowed for more control over his life outside the tour bus; in particular, he chose the family-friendly Charlottesville for the sake of his daughters. It seems to be working out; fans clamored to buy an early copy of his release after the show, and local stations have already been giving it air time.
Maybe it's time for some more pockets.
Ellis Paul releases The Day After Everything Changed on Tuesday, January 12.