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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.

"Change can be a tough thing, but in doing so, one might

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,"

he says.

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

Ellis Paul and Susan Werner, Princeton Friends of Tibet,

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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