Longtime Massachusetts folk scene stalwart and singer-songwriter Ellis Paul has lived down south for a handful of years now, in Charlottesville, VA., to be exact. A lot has changed since he was a breakout performer in Boston back in the 1990s, with a high-profile name locally and a national record contract. The Maine native runs his own career now, which includes raising $100,000 from fans online to record last year's "The Day Everything Changed" CD and a collaboration with superstar country duo Sugarland, as well as a new sideline in family music. He's got gigs at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Friday night and the Circle of Friends Coffeehouse in Franklin on Saturday. (A Derry, N.H. gig was postponed.) We spoke by phone last week.
HubArts: Did moving to the South have anything to do with music?
Paul: My wife's parents live close, and I do a lot of traveling, and the kids were a too little much for my wife alone, so we wanted to have some backup.
HubArts: You recorded your last album in Nashville and you have this songwriting partnership with your old friend Kristian Bush of Sugarland. has living down there swung your songwriting or performing more in a country direction?
Paul: I think I'm a little more cover-able than I have been in the past, the songs are a little less wordy these days, but other than that, I don't know. I don't think so I think I'm whittling the fat out of the songs a little better, and that makes them able to be recorded by country people. But I don't have a twang in my voice or try to wear a cowboy hat. they're still folk songs, and I'm still writing about the things I would write about if I were living up there, I think.
HubArts: Is that change related to the move or ...?
Paul: I think it's just part of my natural development. There are a lot of songwriters that writes sparsely, like John Prine and Neil Young, that I am big fans of. It's a little less Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and a little more John Prine, I guess.
HubArts: You really focus on songwriting as a conscious process, and you teach it, correct?
Paul: I do. I don't necessarily writer every day with paper and pen, but I'm always working on songs, in my head or in the car. I'm an active musician and artist pretty much every hour of the day. There is some method to my madness. I think if you frame some good habits early on and you learn how to edit and you understand the importance of editing, those things are practical matters that I can teach people. ... I set up songwriting classes as I'm touring around the country. I did a couple at Club Passim the last time I was in boston. I don't have any set up right now, this fall, but I do five or six a year.
HubArts: You and Bush have written or co-written songs for each other's recent albums, and you've opened for them a few times. How has that affected your work, your day, your bank account?
Paul: Well, opening for them has been more of an eye-opening experience, because I'm traveling around in a car by myself, and they have eight tour buses and 15 trucks behind them, and they have a caterer, and occasionally yoga instructors and sometimes a masseuse on the road and the food's really great. So it's just fun to watch to see people I can about get a chance to live in that world. The last time I opened for them (earlier this summer), it was just me by myself and a guitar and it was really a challenge trying to make 15,000 people really focus. But it worked out really great, but I don't expect anything to change my life working with them. But Kristian's a really great songwriter and so is Jennifer (Nettles), and being able to write with them, they come in from a different perspective and it opens me up quite a lot.
HubArts: What is the actual experience of performing before them link, as compared to Passim or the Iron Horse?
Paul: They play to from 3,000 to 20,000 people a night, so it's like playing to a festival audiences, except it's not a folk festival, it's a country festival, so no one knows who I am. So you're going in there pretty cold. I have a few songs people sing along on and I figured if you can get people to sing you get get them focused on the moment and sucked into the song. I have songs that are a little bit more able to get people's attention, whereas at a folk festival or a club I just have to play because people are already focused.
HubArts: I would think at even the largest folk festival, though, you're not going to have the voltage at your disposal...
Paul: (Chuckling) Yeahhhh. It's like putting your voice in a catapult and throwing it to the back of 20,000 people. It brings out the Steve Perry in me, I guess. I end up sustaining notes a little bit longer and playing the guitar more like it's an electric. It's fun, it's just fun. The best thing that it does is, I'm just proud of them, and it's good to see them have that kind of success.
HubArts: How did you meet Kristian? He was booking some club...
Paul: Twenty years ago, he was booking a place called Eddie's Attic which is sort of the Passim's of the Atlanta area, and the owner asked him to help go through a box of cassette albums of people that wanted to get booked at the club, and he picked out mine.
HubArts: You did really well fan-sourcing your recording budget last year in this new world if independent artists...
Paul: Yeah, they've been great.
HubArts: You went through the old way, the whole showcase-record deal-sign on the dotted line-never earn back your advance deal, right?
Paul: (Laughing) Yes. two contract's worth. And then it became like, I have this audience I can sell a set amount of records that's truthworthy, and I have a fanbase that's trustworthy and no matter what I put out those people I can rely on to support me. So if the record label isn't selling outside of that group of fans, why I am giving them all the money? Using the Internet, I could do it. I had no idea they'd be as dependable as they were. That was a shock, the money just kept pouring in even though the economy was tanking. People were really eager to help out. That was thrilling and I'm probably going to be doing another one next year.
HubArts: Tell me about the next record. It's a followup to your family album, "The Dragonfly Races," correct?
Paul: I'm writing the new record. I was just listening to some of the early tracks when you called, actually. It's been really great. My kids are going to be more involved and my wife is going to be more involved in this one. It's kind of Von Trapp-ish (laughs). My wife is helping me write and the kids are going to sing on a lot of the tracks. It's really cool to suck them into the process because they're old enough now. (Paul is 46, his daughters are 7 and 4.) It's little 'Schoolhouse Rock'-style biographies of famous Americans...from Thomas Edison to Rosa Parks.
HubArts: Last I heard, this is coming out in November, and you're still writing for it?
Paul: I'm hoping to finish this month. This is another great things about doing it independently. Once a record label has it, the turnaround takes months and months...I can have it done in two weeks and have it out three weeks after that. It's great to be more in control of the whole process.
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