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This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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On the Road with Ellis Paul
Folk music is a thriving form right now," says
Ellis Paul. "It may not seem that way in the public eye, but in
the nooks and crannies of bars and churches all across the country
it’s as big as it ever was in the ’60s." In an interview from
somewhere in the Midwest, the contemporary folk star’s ’90s enthusiasm
resonates with a ’60s reporter.
After a series of cross-country dates, Paul will return for the second
year to headline the Princeton Friends of Tibet benefit concert. He
performs on a double bill with Susan Werner at Nassau Presbyterian
Church on Saturday, May 22, at 8 p.m. Werner made her Princeton debut
last fall opening for Martin Sexton at McCarter Theater. Philadelphia
Magazine called Werner a "songwriting chanteuse with a voice like
an angel and enough charisma to make Radio City Music Hall feel like
an intimate nightclub."
Paul is seven-time winner of the Boston Music Awards and in 1999 won
outstanding contemporary folk album award for his fourth and latest
CD, "Translucent Soul," from Philo. The concert will feature
songs from "Translucent Soul," old songs, and new material
he wants to "break in" on a willing audience.
"Translucent Soul" is a 12-song CD that traces an emotional
journey that many will identify with. Since his previous, more celebratory
album, "Carnival of Voices," of 1996, Paul and his wife of
three years broke up. The new album was three years in the making.
All the songs are about love, one way or another, he says. "I
wrote `Take Me Down’ about that lonely feeling of being in a place
where nobody knows you — and you are wondering if you even know
yourself. `She Loves a Girl’ is about a family that cuts off their
daughter when she reveals that she is involved with another woman.
And `The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down’ is about the joy of freedom and
the pain of loss that accompanies suddenly being out of a relationship.
I’m letting go ’cause holding on is killing me
My timing can be criminally slow…
Seven times I asked forgiveness
Seven times I’ll wait you out
Seasons will change before words come round
I will wash away the doubt That came wrapped inside a wedding gown.
just discover hope, willpower, faith," says Paul. "So the
songs carry those things within the lines — in the invisible spaces
between the words."
"The breakup was a good career move," he continues. "Most
of my career, I had been writing about other people. This album really
woke me up to how therapeutic songs can be, not only for the people
who hear them but for the people who write them. It’s a good mellow
record. People can use it as background music. And if they want to
get blue they can listen to the words."
Now 34, Paul was raised in the small town of Presque
Isle in northern Maine. For generations, his family earned its living
from potato farming. "My grandfather was a potato farmer, and
my father was sort of a potato bureaucrat. He headed the agriculture
bureau for the state of Maine, specializing in potatoes, and now he’s
a potato consultant," says Paul. His mother is a retired nutritionist.
But although the potato business endured for seven generations, it
ends here. Paul is one of five brothers and sisters, none of whom
have gone into the family business. "I guess I broke the mold,"
Paul attended Boston College, an English major, on a track scholarship
as a distance runner, and during a year in which he was injured began
playing and writing music. After performing at open mikes, he found
he could sell out clubs on his own. Graduated in 1987, he identifies
today with an impressive group of folk artists who emerged from the
Boston folk scene at the same time: Dar Williams, Martin Sexton, Jonatha
Brooke, and Vance Gilbert.
Record contracts followed Paul’s early club dates. His first was "Say
Something" on Black Wolf in 1993; then came "Stories"
in 1994, so successful that it was reissued by Rounder/Philo the following
year. Now he is known as one of the hardest working songwriters in
the business, living near Boston, but performing more than 200 road
shows a year.
Paul’s touring partner is a Honda Civic that he dubs, "God’s gift
to the American folk musician." Says Paul: "I destroyed a
black one in Utah — rolled it over and walked away with ne’er
a scratch. So I thought I better get another one." He has logged
over 150,000 miles in his second Civic, going for red this time. "It
ain’t about trains any more, it ain’t about the radio, and it certainly
ain’t about MTV — It’s all about Japanese engineering. I’ve done
over 400 shows with that car in the last two years, and it started
after every one of them."
Paul’s musical heroes include U2, Paul Simon, the Beatles, and Bob
Dylan. But his greatest hero is Woody Guthrie, whose memory he honors
with a tattoo on his arm.
Paul was featured with British folksinger Billy Bragg in a BBC radio
and PBS event, "The Woody Guthrie Legacy." He was also invited
to play all three nights of the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival held
in July, 1998, in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma.
"I love Woody. I guess I was about 29 when I got the tattoo,"
he explains. "They fade a little, but they don’t go away. I drew
a sketch from this famous poster of Woody I saw in a bar in Dayton,
Ohio, that’s almost like a woodcut. "I’m proud of this tattoo.
It reminds me of what I’m trying to do with my life. I’ve thought
about getting a life-size Peter Paul and Mary tattooed on my back,
but it would take too much ink," he adds, tongue in cheek.
"Woody made the world a better place in a small way, and then
it grew and grew without his having his hand in there guiding it.
He created songs and the songs spoke for themselves. I guess he became
more famous after his death than while he was alive."
— Nicole Plett
Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, 609-924-0455. Benefit
for Tibetan refugees living in exile in India. $24. Saturday, May
22, 8 p.m.
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