A FEW MINUTES WITH… Ellis Paul
By Don Wilcock
Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul has released 19 CDs and two children’s books. He’s won 14 Boston Music Awards, has a Woody Guthrie tattoo on his arm and did the Ribbon of Highway tour with Arlo Guthrie, Marty Stuart, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark and Janis Ian.
He plays the 200-seat Skidmore College Dance Theater on Sunday evening (June 19), one of a few temporary locations for the famed Caffe Lena, which currently undergoing renovations. I caught up with him on his cell phone in his 2004 Honda CRV with 600,000 miles on the odometer. Like all of us who love the Caffe Lena, Ellis Paul knows the old vehicle has to go down, but it’s hard to let go…
Q: You’re going to be playing the Skidmore College Dance Theater on Sunday because Caffe Lena is being renovated. They’re going to install an elevator and a restructured kitchen and additional seating. And there’s been considerable angst amongst the old timers here, who are concerned about destroying the vibe and the mystique. I wonder if you, as a regular at the Caffe, have any feelings about this change. What are the positives? And what are the negatives?
A: Well, I think the positive side is they’re going to have more people, and more people will bring more money into not only Caffé Lena’s pockets, but into the folksingers’ pockets. So I think that kind of evolution is OK. But I am going to miss the tight corners, the poles in the room, the dangerous staircase which we obviously know hurt Lena the day that she passed away, but I think it’s going to be better overall.
It’s easy to get stuck in the nostalgia of that place because it has so much history, but having seen the evolution of so many clubs over the years doing the same kind of work, it always seems to benefit the place to have construction and new energy put in. So I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re doing. Obviously, they raised a ton of money and the community has been so supportive of it, and it’s a national landmark in my mind, so putting some more love into it is a good thing.
Q: The year you were born (1965) there were coffeehouses all over New York City, Boston, and major cities across the country. 50 years later, is Caffe Lena more unique in terms of having that mystique and that vibe that was so common to the coffeehouse vibe back in the ’60s?
A: This is the fifth decade, so it’s pretty amazing that a tiny little place like that that has almost everything going against it can survive and grow and maintain its reputation and go through a series of managements and still survive. That only adds to its mystique, I think, and it’s even more important in many ways than it was in the early days.
Q: Do you write on guitar? Or how do you write the songs? I noticed the arrangements on your latest album “Chasing Beauty” are very sophisticated. How do you get from writing a song thinking about playing a venue as iconic as Caffe Lena and then coming out with an album that would have turned Bob Dylan’s original acoustic fans into an angry mob?
A: (Laugh) There’s that. The way I look at it is the studio versions of these songs are like prom night. It’s the photographs taken on prom night, and all the bells and whistles are there. The cummberbund is there. The flower on the lapel is there… And then the version of the songs where they’re in their t-shirts and jeans is the version I bring on stage.
So, there’s two versions of the songs. One is the dressed-up version, and one is the live version. And I think they have equal importance. I have a commercial wing of my business where I try to place the songs in movies and television, and sometimes having that extra production helps to feed my kids. So it’s not like I would always love to do every single song that way, but some call for it. And then there’s a commercial avenue that’s open for them that might not exist with just me and the guitar.
Q: Do you love both equally?
A: I do. I’m a big fan of rock, and I have been for years, and I even winced when Bob Dylan started playing the B-3 and electric guitar and the songs –
Q: Wait a minute. You were just born (in 1965 when Dylan when electric). What are you talking about that you’d be wincing?
A: I mean I still love the solo stuff. I think he’s brilliant when he’s doing his folk stuff, but I’m a big Beatles fan, and that helps.
Q: You’ve won 14 Boston Music Awards. And in Wikipedia – and everyone knows Wikipedia is always right – you’re credited with being a key figure in the 1990s Boston Folk Revival. How would you define that movement and the role that you played in it?
A: Well, you know, we were in the wake of singer-songwriters starting to be celebrated again like Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, and Boston had a bunch of folk stations playing singer-songwriters all at the same time. Even commercial stations in Boston were starting to spin our songs.
The popularity of the folk movement in Boston really grew in that period of time back in the mid-’90s, and I was just one of many people doing it, but a lot of the artists who came out of the Boston scene of that era are still going forward and performing: Catie Curtis, Patty Griffin, Jonatha Brooke, Martin Sexton. There are still a lot of folks. I’m just one of many, but I worked hard, and I’ve developed quite a following in Boston, and it’s been crucial in getting me off the ground. So I’m very grateful for that.
Q: In our last interview we talked about how you’d given up running and taken up music early on. In retrospect do you think you made the right decision and is there anything you don’t get out of music that you did get out of running and vice versa?
A: The lifestyle being a professional athlete, especially being a runner, means that basically all you do is you run two or three times a day and literally put in 15 to 20 miles a day. All you do is eat, sleep and run. So, the lifestyle – well, this is far better. It’s a more normal. There’s breathing room in it – the commitment and the waking up early to catch flights – there’s a lot of similarities to the commitment you have to have. But there’s a lot more breathing room in music than there is being a professional athlete. And there’s not a lot of money in distance running. Not that there is in folk music, but it’s even worse over there, I think. So, I’m happy with where I am.
Q: Speaking of not having a lot of money, I was trying to do the math on your Kickstarter campaign, and the press release that went out said that you took in $100,000 from 600 fans. Is that true?
Q: That’s $166 per fan. That says a lot about the connection between the artists and the fan.
A: Yeah, I’m really lucky, and lot of it is because my fans are older, so they have a little bit more money in their pockets than somebody who’s 20 years old and just starting out and is asking for contributions from his peers. So I have a few donors who gave 10 grand, and that kinda skewed the numbers quite a lot. So, I’ve been lucky, and I’m trying to serve those people all the time.