Ellis Paul - Biography
Ellis Paul is
already one of the most significant stars in the modern history of
folk music. He was a chief architect of what has become known as the
Boston school of songwriting, an urbane, literate folk-pop style
that helped ignite the folk revival of the 1990s. His charismatic,
personally authentic performance style has influenced a generation
of folk-popsters away from the posturing artifice of pop, and closer
towards the unpretentious realness of folk. Though he remains among
the most pop-friendly of today's singer-songwriters - his songs
regularly appear in hit movie and TV soundtracks - he has bridged
the gulf between the modern folk sound and the populist traditions
of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger more successfully than perhaps any
of his songwriting peers.
Yet to hear him at this crossroads moment in his career, you would
think he was just getting started. For years, he has been among the
folk circuit's most popular and dependable headliners, with a
mailing list of over 15,000 fiercely loyal fans. He has released 10
CDs, and recently explored new media avenues with a
documentary/concert DVD called "3,000 Miles," and "Notes from the
Road," a critically acclaimed book of poems and stories.
In recent years, he has also departed from his solo career to tour
and record with longtime compadre Vance Gilbert, and to indulge his
deep respect for American folk icon Woody Guthrie. He appeared with
the all-star Guthrie tribute tour, "Ribbon of Highway, Endless
Skyway." For his Philo CD, "The Speed of Trees," he wrote a modern
musical setting of Guthrie's unpublished lyric "God's Promise."
When Woody was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1996,
his daughter Nora Guthrie asked Paul to sing at the celebration; and
the quintessential Boston songwriter was made an honorary citizen of
Guthrie's birthplace, Okemah, Oklahoma, in recognition of all he has
done to revive interest in the Dust Bowl troubadour.
This may surprise casual fans of Paul's urbane, literate and
thoroughly modern folk-pop sound - but not those who knew him well.
Among the first to single him out from the vast pack clamoring to
rise from Boston's open mics in the early '90s was Bill Morrissey,
even then considered the definitive New England ballad writer. He
was so impressed, he produced Paul's first record, "Say Something,"
What did he see, so early in Paul's career? "He was always unique,"
Morrissey recalls. "He didn't write like anybody, didn't sing like
anybody, didn't perform like anybody. So many of the songwriters
then were trying to imitate whoever they thought was successful.
Ellis was always himself; he didn't try to separate himself from his
audiences. Perhaps it's because he's a Mainer; there's no pretense,
and I think audiences sense that."
Paul is today regarded as such a classic urban songwriter that it's
hard to fathom what a small-town boy he was. He grew up in northern
Maine, in a potato farming community so remote that his exposure to
music came almost entirely from the one top-40 station he could get
on his radio, and his school band, where he played trumpet well
enough to earn a summer scholarship to the Berklee College of Music.
He toured the country competing in track, catching a hard case of
wanderlust, and earning a track scholarship to Boston College.
It was there that he discovered songwriting, completely out of
boredom. A track-career-ending knee injury left him bedridden for
months, and he began making up songs on a guitar a friend had given
him. By 1989, he was haunting the open mic scene that would soon
produce the most important generation of Boston folk stars since the
early '60s, including Paul, Dar Williams, Vance Gilbert, Jonatha
Brooke and Jennifer Kimball (then performing as The Story), Martin
Sexton, Patty Griffin, and Catie Curtis.
Almost immediately, Paul's infectious melodicism, literate lyrics,
and honest performing style drew attention. As early as 1993, the
Boston Globe was calling him a songwriter's songwriter, adding that
"no emerging songwriter in recent memory has been more highly touted
and respected by songwriters."
While his style was highly introspective at that time, it was also
informed by a probing humanism shaped in part by the five years he
spent as a social worker. Every day, he struggled to help poor urban
kids hovering dangerously on the edges of the criminal justice and
Recalling those days, Paul says, "It definitely gave me a whole new
vision of what the world could be like. Even BC was about as safe an
environment as you could find. Picking up kids at the projects,
breaking up fights, talking to parole officers and psychologists,
getting to know this side of life I'd never been exposed to, really
opened my mind up. From that, maybe I took sort of a wide-eyed view
of the world around me, which seeped into my music."
His skyrocketing career is still the stuff of legend in Boston folk
circles; how quickly he climbed from opening act for the likes of
Morrissey, Shawn Colvin, and John Gorka, to national headliner and
Morrissey recalls something else that set him apart back then: his
artistic curiosity. Paul would pepper him with questions about who
influenced him, which songwriters he should be listening to. He was
discovering what a rich, ancient community this music was - and he
wanted to dive right into the deep end.
"You know, that's a very smart thing to do," says Morrissey. "It
helped set him apart. A lot of young singers I meet are not curious
about what went on before; they just say, 'I want to sing another
song about my life.' Paul has a sense of roots, of connectedness to
the whole history of folk music; he sees the thread that runs
through all the generations of this music."
In particular, Paul fell under the spell of Woody Guthrie, who wrote
"This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," and a thousand other
American anthems. By 1998, Paul was telling the Boston Globe that
Woody, to him, was "ground zero, the prototype in a long line of
people I'm a huge fan of." He put a Woody Guthrie tattoo on his arm,
solemnly telling people it was "a commitment."
An increasingly topical humanism informed his work. Like Guthrie a
half-century before, Paul displayed a humble genius for putting the
most divisive issues of his day into starkly personal and emotional
terms. "She loves a girl," he sang. "What are you going to do if you
love her, too?"
"I feel like I'm more a part of a community now than just a
songwriter singing about my own struggles and the struggles of the
friends I see around me," Paul says of his career today. "Maybe
that's the difference between being a singer-songwriter and being a
folk musician, that transition into more of a community sense of
At the same time, Paul remains the most mainstream-friendly folk
songwriter to emerge from Boston since Tom Rush. Between 1993 and
2003, he won an unprecedented 12 Boston Music Awards, and his songs
were heard on hit TV shows Ed and MTV's Real World; and in the
soundtracks of several Farrelly Brothers films, including "Me,
Myself, & Irene," starring Jim Carrey, and "Shallow Hal," with Jack
Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. Peter Farrelly has called Paul "a
It would be easy - perhaps even advisable - to become complacent
after succeeding so remarkably at all the things he set out to do.
But there is a restlessness in Paul these days, a vibrant, glowing
spirit of artistic adventure. Success to him is not a prize to
clutch and protect, but an open door to a wider journey.
"There are differences between the me now and the me I was in the
early '90s," he says quietly. "I have a reliable fan base that keeps
a roof over my head, for which I'm so thankful. And I think they're
also willing and forgiving enough for me to go through any evolution
I choose, as long as the core of what I do is honest, and that I
continue to write songs and stories about the things I see around
"I need to keep feeling refreshed, and I think I'm looking out more
than in these days. I've been down the Ellis Paul rabbit-hole, you
know, and now I'm looking around and trying to learn new things,
experience other people's music and stories. I have no idea where
I'm headed, but I think it'll make me a broader artist. "
That sounds like a very safe bet.
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