The Hippo


Jun 4, 2020








Ellis Paul. Courtesy photo.

Ellis Paul with Shun Ng 

When: Sunday, April 12, 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry
Tickets: $25 at

Doctor folk
Ellis Paul plays Tupelo

By Michael Witthaus

Long called the dean of the Boston folk music scene, Ellis Paul reached an even higher level last May when the University of Maine named him an honorary doctor of humane letters. Speaking at commencement, Paul recalled his chagrined father urging postgraduate education instead of a musical career. 

“What I should’ve told him was: ‘If I work hard enough at music, someday, somebody’s gonna give me one of those degrees for free!’”
In a recent phone interview, Paul allowed that much has changed from his halcyon days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, playing open mikes with fellow up and comers Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and Vance Gilbert. Should his own child have aspirations similar to his, the conversation might be different.
“When I was younger there was more of a defined path to establishing a career. Now … it’s a different kind of job in a way. I would still tell him that the songs are the most important,” Paul said, and then laughed. “I guess I’d tell him to get a backup plan.”
Embracing the new economics of music, Paul fan-funded his last two albums. The most recent, 2014’s Chasing Beauty, was produced by old friend Kristian Bush, and co-produced by his brother Brandon Bush of Train. The Sugarland band backed him in the studio. The project raised over $100,000 through novel offerings for contributors like a private dinner or a framed set of lyrics illustrated by Paul.
The majority of donors, however, gave $25 for an advance copy of the record. 
“I’m lucky because I’ve been doing it for long enough to have a bunch of supporters who are willing to drop money on my projects and not get much in return except music,” Paul said. “I have to make them feel like their investment in me is worth it. Hopefully, that was the case.”
He also branched out into new areas with success. His history-themed children’s album Hero In You won a Parents’ Choice Foundation gold medal, and a book based on one of the songs is due this fall. 
“It’s cool knowing that parents, kids and grandparents are connecting over it,” Paul said.
Kids’ records and books also add variety to his merchandise table.  
“I have a little bit of a Wal-Mart going at my shows. That’s the new business, [having] as much storefront as you can,” he said.
Fans at Paul’s April 12 show at Tupelo Music Hall can purchase a poster for the 18th annual Woody Guthrie Festival this summer in Okemah, Oklahoma. Paul’s played at all but one of the gatherings — “the year my daughter was born” — and has done the artwork for the last three. 
“Woody … he pretty much defined what my job is,” Paul said. “He wasn’t a brilliant singer or guitar player, but he was a great writer and writing about the right things.” 
“Write what you know” continues as Paul’s maxim. Chasing Beauty’s “Waiting on a Break” empathizes with talented musicians who are still working day jobs.
“I’m trying to attach myself to songs that I have a personal connection with,” Paul said. “It would be difficult for me to write about Iran, Israel or even something like Ferguson because I don’t really have any personal blood that’s been spilled in the process of those things yet. … I write about things I know and care about, like health insurance issues, because I constantly go to battle with my insurance company — things that are right on my front doorstep.”
That doesn’t mean shying away from hard topics. “Toy Soldiers” harrowingly describes the determination of a 19-year-old wounded in an Iraq RPG explosion. 
“I will not be a prisoner of war,” Paul sings. “My legs are made of steel and silicone.”  
Paul’s touring schedule remains intense, and he has no immediate plans of slowing down.  
“The best part of the job is creating the music and writing it … the only downside is being stuck on the highway most of your day,” he said. “But writing, creating a little three-dimensional world in three minutes, that’s the best part of the job. That’s what still drives me.” 
As seen in the April 9, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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