No American art form has perfected the marriage of idealism and pragmatism better than folk music. From doe-eyed odes to utopian harmony to sober, often savage protest songs, everyone from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger forward relied on a creative balance between the romantic and the realistic. So it makes sense that Ellis Paul, a Maine native, longtime stalwart on the Boston folk scene, and current Charlottesville, Virginia, resident, has managed to straddle both worlds so effortlessly.
Paul was reared on ’70s AM radio, eventually enjoying personal mentorship from traditionalist folk icons like Seeger and John Gorka. He came up the old-fashioned way, playing 200 shows a year in tiny coffeehouses and living rooms, yet he’s had no problem harnessing modern technology to further his career (his two most recent albums were independently recorded and released after Paul raised more than $225,000 in crowdfunded donations). His post-college career as an inner-city social worker still looms large over his literate, conscientious music — yet he’s injected plenty of pop-rock elements into it, thanks to frequent collaborations with Kristian Bush, the male half of country duo Sugarland.
Most impressive, Ellis Paul might be the only successful folkie who started life as a star athlete — though he played trumpet in his high school band, he didn’t even pick up a guitar until a knee injury sidelined his championship collegiate track career in about 1985. In fact, Paul says it was his English studies at Boston College that first attracted him to the erudite nature of folk music. “I always felt like I was writing as much as being a musician,” the 49-year-old tells Folio Weekly of his earliest singer/songwriter days. “I also liked visual art, and I felt like a lot of folk music was kind of painting with words.”
Born Paul Plissey and raised in a fiercely blue-collar potato-farming town near the Canadian border, Ellis Paul says his music career has become far more than just a job. He’s won 14 prestigious Boston Music Awards and seen Mayor Thomas Menino officially declare July 9 Ellis Paul Day in Beantown. Paul’s released eight of his nearly 20 albums on esteemed Americana label Rounder and headlined the inaugural Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in 1998 alongside British rabble-rouser Billy Bragg.
In recent years, Paul has branched out into children’s music, books of poetry, songwriting workshops — even college commencement addresses. Yet he says each diverse aspect of his career stemsa from a single motivation: telling strong stories. “All the storytelling comes from the same place,” he says. “What’s different is how they’re delivered. Culturally, that’s so important for us — stories provide a backdrop to who we are and where we’re headed.”
Considering how much success he’s had blending the popular and the populist, it’s no surprise that Paul’s skill as a songwriting instructor is in such high demand. He subscribes to a six-step program that seems deceptively simple: 1) Choose a character name; 2) list five items in that character’s bedroom; 3) list five things the character would see if he or she looked in a mirror; 4) choose two colors that bring the character to mind; 5) choose one non-human metaphor that describes the character; and 6) write one line of dialogue that conveys the way the character speaks. “It’s more or less me looking at what I love about songs,” Paul says of his instructional approach. “I just teach people how to get there.”
Paradoxically, Paul says writing is often the least important part of songwriting, something he hammers home to the younger musicians he chooses to mentor. “It’s more editing than anything else — just not editing in the beginning, when you have to sit down and get the first version done,” he says. “Then you tweak it until the arrow of the song flies straight. Most people don’t understand that editing process, especially when they’re starting out at 18 or 19 years old without a single path to success. So my job is to encourage people, help them see what makes a good song, and then maybe relate business strategies to break through and be heard.”
His secret? “Start organically,” Paul says. “Put out a record with vocal and guitar. On the next one, add bass and drum. Ease your way up, hit the road, build a fan base.” Laughing, he continues, “Crowdfunding works for me because I have one — and those fans are older and have money.” Assuming the stoicism of his New England upbringing, Paul adds, “The main thing that people connect with, though, is being honest. Underground folk, pop folk — it’s a form of music that dances pretty close to the truth. That’s something I like about it.”