Viv: All at once? Ok, we can talk all at once..
Ellis:Over each other like couples do…
Viv: Exactly, finish each other’s sentences then get really annoyed. ‘Get out of my head’ I remember the other time, the third time, we did a live show at Woodyfest, thanks to Karen Zundel, hooked us up there. Like not good interviewers do? Stepping on the question. Ok, alright. Welcome to Art of the Song and Ellis Paul, thank you so much for joining us for Art of the Song….on a boat!
Ellis:On a boat. In Alaska! This is so cool.
Viv: We are riding on the Celebrity Millennium.
Ellis:Yeah, and the view is spectacular. Especially right now.
Viv: Yeah, it’s really good. I think we should give a huge round of applause to everyone who is in this room at this moment. Let’s hear it for yourselves.
Viv: Sorry! John’s like “Ah!” This is really, truly exciting. Thrilled to get started. With Art of the Song, we like to talk in four major food groups of thoughts which is where you’re from musically, physically, spiritually, and when music came into your life. So, let’s start off with the first one and you might even have a song that’s about that.
Ellis:I do. I’m from Maine. I’m from Northern Maine, a country little town called Presque Isle, Maine. I was born in Kent, Maine, son of a potato farmer kind of guy, grandson of a potato farmer kind of a guy, great-great-great grandson of a potato farmer.
Viv: That’s awesome. Creativity and creative expression in art is a way of life for you, unlike potato farming.
Ellis:Thank God. I’m so glad and it’s better for the world, even the potatoes would be off if I was doing it.
Viv: They would either be red or green. Honestly, though, art is your life. You’re a visual artist. You’re a musical artist. You’re also a father. You’re raising kids. So, what’s that like? Big question.
Ellis:It’s a lot. The great thing with songwriting is you carry songs in your head so whether you’re driving around or at a grocery store or changing a diaper. Oftentimes you’re working on material because it’s perfect who someone who has a slight case of ADD. So, I multitask in my head and get through it that way. I don’t know that I’m doing any one thing very well, but I manage to do all things ok. I’m getting through everything. I managed to be a dad and managed to travel and do all these shows I’m doing for these folks and managed to write songs, record songs, and do all the other things. I love my life. I’m like the luckiest human being alive.
Viv: With your creative process, you’ve also developed a way of songwriting that you’re sharing with others. Can you talk a little bit about the work that you do in song camps and mentorships? I’ve had the pleasure of talking with a lot of people on the boat, on the ship I should say, that are working with you as a mentor.
Ellis:Yeah, I do a lot of that. I got mentored by Bill Morrissey, who was a pretty well-known folk musician who is from New Hampshire and kind of legend in folk music circles. He produced my first album and when it came time to cut the check for the project, he said ‘just pay it forward, you don’t have to pay me a penny.’ This was after putting in hundreds of hours on the project and spending time with me and tutoring me and all that. So, my way of repaying that is by mentoring people, adopting people, taking them around the country as opening acts. Spending time one-on-one with them. Trying to get their creative voice to a sharper, elevated place and then running retreats. I run the New England Songwriter’s Retreat in Chester, Connecticut and it’s a spectacular retreat center and if any of you folks out there are songwriters you can go to my website ellispaul.com or go to the newenglandsongwritersretreat.com to hear more about it.
Viv: Inspiration, where does yours come from? I’d love to hear about it as well. I know that you’re Woody Guthrie fan and I have many T-shirts from the Woody Guthrie festival of Woody in different locations and different activities (drawn by Ellis). But could you talk about where your inspiration for visual art comes from? Then we’ll move onto songwriting.
Ellis:Well, the visual art comes from the same place as music. I started being creative visually when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and that’s when music started coming into my life. I started playing trumpet. Then, they kind of wove together. It’s nothing but storytelling. I’m not so much a visual artist as I am an illustrator and I feel like my visual art wants to tell a story and my songwriting tells stories. My favorite storyteller is Norman Rockwell. He’s somebody that can put a piece of art on the wall and you glance at it and you recognize this moment in the character’s crossroads capture in that place and you know everywhere that they been before they got to the picture that was taken and everywhere they’re going afterwards. He does it visually and that’s what I try to do in the songs, is spell out the story elements so your brain as a listener fills in the gaps and becomes co-creative with the moment. That’s what I do with songs. And with my visual art too. It’s all about telling a story.
Viv: In the songs, what I’ve noticed over time, because it’s a 25, 26-year career, over time there’s been this development. All of your songs have this universal feel to them. There was a question that I received from one of the audience members who wanted to know about the line “Galileo Prays”. Were you really wondering, or did it just scan well?
Ellis:I think it did scan well, actually. But like any other song, you’re trying to find out what’s the center stone. If you’re building a little building, you want that corner stone to build a whole song around. For example, I have a song about Rosa Parks that’s kids’ song, but it’s an effective one and the cornerstone of that is the idea that she sat down to stand up for her rights. Galileo has a very similar theme. Does someone that’s getting charged with heresy and a crime against the church pray for good luck? Does he pray to God like “God, help me get through this” when it’s really God vs. Galileo in court according to the people that are judging him. That was the little mental hook that was the cornerstone to every song. Almost every song that I have has that same kind of cornerstone.
Viv: Do you hunt for those cornerstones?
Ellis:Yeah, sometimes it’s something that I’m interested in. We’re on this boat we’re heading towards Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska and what’s great about Homer, Alaska is that it’s an escape point for people. When you get to Homer, we may lose some people on this boat when we’re in Homer because sometimes people don’t get back to civilization when they get to Homer. They say, “This is it. I’m going to drop out.” And a lot of them drop out right there at Alice’s. That’s what attracted me to that place and that song. I think that’s why a lot of these people are here to see if they have that same kind of moment when they’re standing there like, “Wow, this could be it. Maybe I don’t need to be an accountant anymore. Maybe I could be a fisherman and hunt King Crab.”
Viv: I’m seriously thinking about becoming a tour guide.
Ellis:This is special. I’ve been on six cruises and this is absolutely the best one I’ve ever been on. I don’t know how you folks feel but I’m loving it.”
Viv: I could say I’ve never been on a cruise and this is a simply mind-blowing experience. I think it also has to do with the collective of the people who are here who’ve chosen to come on this. There’s 120 people on the boat.
Ellis:I think we lost a couple in Juno.
Viv: It was tempting. Over time, your song cycles, because I usually view a CD as a cycle of songs, where somebody is in their life at that time. You have a new CD coming up. What can we expect from this next cycle in your life as reflected in your songs?
Ellis:It’s definitely a transitional point in my life because I’ve gotten rid of my management company and I’m reinventing my business life. For the last fourteen or fifteen years I’ve been witting with always in the back of my mind, “What is the commercial potential for this song?” Because I have two kids to feed and you’re not writing for the market, but you’re writing with the market in mind. You’re trying to express yourself, but you’re keeping “Could this be in a movie?” or “Could this be covered by Garth Brooks” in the back of your head. Is there some avenue for the songs that will reach out? I feel like I’ve got a bunch of songs that do that I can continue to work with and continue to get in the marketplace. But now I’m thinking I just want to express and tell the stories of my life and write about the things that are more private and more personal. I’m not going to worry if they’re five-minute songs or two-minute songs. I don’t care if they’re very stripped down and just vocal and guitar or whether they have tubas in them. I’ll just do whatever I feel is right without consequence. It’s the first time I’ve been that way since the very beginning.
Viv: I’m glad you said that because that’s the feeling from the songs that we’ve heard. On this cruise, we’ve had the benefit. That’s one of the things of coming on these cruises is you get to hear the new material, which is really exciting. But we’ve had the pleasure of previewing some of these new songs and they seem much closer to the bone. Much more, I think self-revelatory is not really the clue, but I think you’re expressing things that are actually going on in your life. I love your character-driven songs. I love the ones that are just esoteric questions that you’re pondering, but these are really compelling.
(Ellis Plays Song)
Viv: So, a couple of things were happening for me in that song besides the fact that I think I have a very dark sense of humor because it makes me laugh really hard.
Ellis:That’s the intention.
Viv: Oh, good.
Ellis:It’s truthful and it’s supposed to be universal because I think everyone comes from…. well, it’s the story of your family in some way as well. Unless you’re an only child and an orphan.
Viv: And have no friends. So, a couple of things are going on for me in that song and maybe we could talk about this now. There’s a soft finger picking style that you’re using on the instrumentation, on the guitar, and there’s a progression in how high the flames go and the buccaneers in pickup trucks they get more and more extreme. It goes just from volunteer fireman and they end up pirates. That is one of the things that I find so wonderful about this song is that it gets more and more extreme but still there’s this really gentle, soft hazy memory thing going on in the guitar styling. Can you talk about how you put those things together and how you make those choices?
Ellis:Well, first thing is that it really happened. The whole day. In order to find the song, I just wrote down 100 days of my life and I have the list back home. One of the days was a summer reunion of my family at the family farm. It was in 1979 and I have pictures of the fire. If you see me on the boat and you want to see what the fire looked like, it’s not an exaggeration. It was an extraordinarily big fire. The party is sort of a conglomeration of many different reunions that we had over the years. I wanted it, because it was in 1979, to sound like a John Prine song. I wanted his flavor of storytelling to be in the song because it was right around the era of that’s how my favorite folk music sounded. So, I wanted to honor John Prine by having that guitar part be John Prine-y and the whole storytelling thing be John Prine-y. If that’s an adjective. John Prine-y.
Viv: It is now. Webster’s English Dictionary, here we go.
Ellis:Probably works for everybody but him. But, yes, it’s very much a John Prine-style song. Then I knew that it was going to take a long time to tell the entire story. So, in order to keep people’s interest, I started raising the height of the flames and the kind of men that were arriving with each truck to put out the fire, just bigger and burlier and scarier. That sort of keeps people’s attention once they figure out what’s happening, and the tension is really building.
Viv: That’s great. It’s really enjoyable. There’s an element of vulnerability and intimacy that’s coming in these songs. There’re these songs that you’re writing that are so dear about conversations that you’ve had with your children. To bring those out for us…for me, I’ll just speak personally, it really helps me access those bigger questions like how do you talk with your kids about these things? Like the passage of a loved one or even a pet fish? It gives us a window into how we can use our creative expression to do the explanation. It also gives us a song play to say, “Listen to this.” Then ,we don’t have to talk about it. It’s alright. We’re going to cut all that out. How is it for you bringing that side of yourself to the stage? And to the songwriting process? Because, over time, this has been building more and more toward that direction. More self-revelatory. More intimate. More vulnerable songs.
Ellis:A lot of my experiences over the last 10 years have been difficult because I was in a difficult marriage and I didn’t feel like I could sing about my kids without getting the hackles up of my partner at the time. Now that we’re in a good place and my kids are older, it feels comfortable and I can serve everybody in a way that’s beautiful to tell these stories. The song that we’re referring to is a conversation I had with my daughter about my father dying and where did he go? When she was five, I had come home from his death and she had come up with this big question and I thought I wasn’t going to get into these heavy-duty conversations until she was 14 or 15 and we had to have these conversations about bodies and sex and the opposite sex and all these things. So, it was the first profound moment and it caught me completely off-guard. She was crying and I was crying. Just the first profound moment I had with her as an intellectual being rather than my kid. Then I’m on the boat here and I’ve talked with two or three people about that very same moment in their lives when they were having that conversation about their parents passing and how they handled it. Again, it’s a song about my life. Very personal. It’s a universal theme that we all live through and its part of the human condition.
Viv: You probably have another song for us.
Ellis:Sure, let’s play that one.
Viv: Do you need to tune? Can you multi-task? Can you tune and talk?
Viv: Tuning and the effect on your creative process.
Ellis:You mean the forced talking in between songs when I’m doing this?
Viv: No, I mean the actual tuning.
Ellis:Oh, you mean like why the tuning?
Viv: Yeah, why different tunings?
Ellis:Well, I did it in the beginning because I was really not a very good guitar player and it was a way to mask the guitar playing by creating a broader sound band for the guitar. It was a bigger sounding instrument in open tunings. It had a lower resonance because you were bringing the strings down. And you can play guitar with one finger like this. (Plays guitar). “That’s La Bamaba” and “This Land is Your Land”. It’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. It’s all of those songs. You’re not even using multiple fingers and you’re managing to get all this sound out of the instrument. That’s where it started and then just recently, I feel like suddenly you come to this point where you’ve put in so many hours playing. You’ve done beyond your 10,000 hours. You’re starting to approach the 20,000-hour point and I can’t believe some of the things that are coming out of my fingers that I don’t know where they come from, but they’re there and they’re doing things. Whenever I think that I need to fill this hole with something and then I ask my fingers to just do something different and it’s almost like I’m not even there. It’s just my hand and an act of God in some way. I’m really lucky to just channel it. Doing anything for a great deal of time gives you the benefit. That’s why great photographers can take a photograph and then you’re looking at the same scene with a camera and then you get the picture and it’s like “Why am I impaired, and this guy is so good at what he does?”
Viv: I’ve been reading a really, really cool book that talks about that. About how the painter Corot would just go back and paint the same scene over and over and over again whereas other painters would just move on and paint something else. It sounds like you’ve stripped away every obstacle and every resistance because of the muscle memory, but also emotional memory and have a spiritual awareness that you can just be a conduit. I think that’s fantastic.
Ellis:I’m lucky. Obviously, I’m not the greatest guitar player in the world and there’s plenty of obstacles in front of me, but you know how Michael Jordan would occasionally have a 60-point game? He’d start apologizing to the scores table for it. Like he didn’t mean to do this, but it’s happening and occasionally I’m having those guitar moments for the very first time, where I feel like “Holy cow! Where’d that come from?” I could never do that five years ago and certainly not 10 years ago. So, it’s a nice place to be in and I don’t feel like I need to have all these layers of instruments on my music anymore. If I can just get Rad to play on it, that’s almost enough. Really. It’s come down to just me and another. I know Rad from playing, Radoslav Lorkovic is who we’re talking about who’s here in the room and playing with me on the cruise with me. I know how hard he works at his music and he has that where he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Trust me. He doesn’t know what I’m playing. He doesn’t know where I’m going and suddenly instead of riding on the dogsled, he’s one of the dogs and he’s the front one. We’re just gliding together and it’s fantastic.
Viv: Nice. Ready for the song? And the name of the song, remind me?
Ellis:Well, I think it’s going to be called “The Innocence and the Afterlife” or it could be called “The Afterlife and the Innocence”. No, everyone’s shaking their heads. Alright. It’s called “The Innocence and the Afterlife”. Ok.
(Ellis Plays Song)
Ellis:There’s no boobies or doobies in that song. I managed to write that one very seriously. I’m wondering how those songs will lay next to one another on an album. I won’t put them side by side for sure.
Viv: We can talk about that a little bit. When you’re constructing a project, walk us through the steps, would you? Like what it takes to make a record.
Ellis:It’s like a chocolate box and you want people to eat everyone and get them through the songs that you know are going to be the more difficult chocolates. Like the white ones that might have that flavor. Just get them to eat it. They might recognize that there’s a broad amount of things happening and flavors being experienced. Like I’m working on a song about gun violence and how do I drop that one in the middle of an album? And how do I do love songs, which is sort of at the heart of what I do is romantic storytelling? And how do those songs lay against each other? Then there’s tempos and keys and production values so they’re not going on some sort of jarred, shaky kind of train ride as you’re going through the record. All of the themes and tempos they have to blend in some sort of smooth ride. So, it’s difficult. Then, what is the album about? Is it about where you are in your life? So, I have 17 songs right now and I’m deciding whether I go full onto 20 or do I cut back to 12. And, if I make it a double album, how will that effect selling it? Is that too much for radio and other people to process? Will that water down the success of the record by having too many songs? Just trying to get a DJ to play it twice sometimes can be an issue. I feel like people need to hear a song like 8 times to get truly hooked into its purpose. So, the more songs you have, the less each one of the songs gets attention. So, there’s that to think about as well.
Viv: That’s a huge responsibility to the art. That’s like managing it so it gets heard by as many people as possible because you used the word “purpose” so it can serve its “purpose”. I’ve been hearing a lot of language that you’re using that it’s very intentional. That you’re writing really intentionally with specific things in mind. Not just to the marketplace, like you were saying before.
Ellis:Yeah. There was this discussion that Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones had once, and it reminds me of where I’m at in my life. They were sitting around (and it may be urban legend) and obviously all of them are great songwriters, but it was clear that only Dylan could write most of Dylan’s songs. But Dylan could have written a lot of the Rolling Stones songs because their personality was so Rock ‘n Roll that they were incorporating in their fingerprint a large group of influence that were fairly obvious. Chuck Berry could have written a few Rolling Stones songs. But Dylan could only write “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone”. I feel like with these songs, because the last few batches and last few albums were songs that were meant to be covered by anybody or fit in these movie scenes. There was a sort of maybe anyone could have written these songs. That doesn’t downplay their value. I still think they’re well-written and especially from a market viewpoint they are well-written. But now, I just want to write songs that nobody but me could have written on the guitar and lyrically and so. They’re drawn from my life. That automatically gives them some individuality and some fingerprint value. Then, the use of language and the guitar parts that only I could have come up with. Those are really important things to me right now.
Viv: You just answered my question. I was going to ask what makes it an Ellis Paul song.
Ellis:It’s the use of my language in the song and the sense of poetry and rhythm and phrasing and the words I choose and the metaphors. Then doing things on guitar. I have a tone. I use the pads on my fingers. That creates a distinct tone. Then you hear it and then you say, “Oh that’s an Ellis Paul song”. I love it when I hear other people even on the boat playing one of my songs because I can hear me in their fingers. I love that. I feel like they’ve stolen a piece of my DNA and put it into what they do. That’s what I want to do with this next batch of songs.
Viv: Ready for another song and then we’re out?
Ellis:I came up with the concept for the record. It’s called “The Storyteller’s Suitcase”, then I wrote a song called “The Storyteller’s Suitcase”. I’m going to dedicate it to this group of people who are traveling to Alaska with me as a thank you for allowing me to feed my kids and do my art. I know you are the craziest of the crazy Ellis Paul fans and I mean that in a positive way. That you would stop your life for a couple weeks and do this crazy adventure and spend a lot of money and I’m incredibly grateful. You’re in this song. This song is just as much about me as it is about you guys as it is about me and my life and the lifestyle of being a musician. It is called “The Storyteller’s Suitcase”.
(Ellis Plays Song)
Viv: Thank you for being with us.
Ellis:Always a pleasure guys. Thank you so much.
Viv: Ellis Paul thank you so much for joining us for Art of the Song and thanks to this incredible audience here on the Celebrity Millennium for being with us here in the conference room down on third deck.