August 26, 2010


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Familiar faces
Great Waters Music Festival brings together the cream of folk crop
By Michael Witthaus

Ellis Paul has a reputation for well-crafted story songs, but over a 20-year career he’s become equally well known for spotting and nurturing talented musicians. So he’ll find many familiar faces at this weekend’s Great Waters Folk Festival, which features Paul, Mindy Smith, Aztec Two-Step, Anais Mitchell and the Red Stick Ramblers.

“They’re all friends in some way or another,” the Maine native said from his home in Charlottesville, Va., where he recently moved after spending 20 years in Boston. “I’m a big fan of Anais, and I haven’t seen her for about a year. The guys in Aztec Two Step are long-time friends as well. We have some Maine history there, so I always enjoy seeming them.”

Paul has helped a lot of new talent over the years, most recently emerging folk music star Antje Duvekot.

“I’m looking for members of my tribe, mainly, just finding those songwriters that really hit me over the head,” he explains. “I have a good audience, they have a very keen ear [and] they know that part of my mission is to share new people with them. An emerging artist will come to my show and sell 50 or 60 albums — create a little audience.”

Recently, he’s been working with Boston-based Adam Ezra as well as Sam Baker, whom he describes as “John Prine-esque Texas songwriter who writes three-chord story songs that are really brilliant.”

Last month, Paul celebrated his two decades in music by performing all nine of his studio releases during a two-day run at Cambridge’s Club Passim. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared July 9 as Ellis Paul Day, but there was no key to the city, says the songwriter. “I got a little certificate,” Paul said. “It was fun and kind of cute, but no parade and not a lot of hoopla.”

Paul’s latest album, The Day After Everything Changed, was released in January. He wrote the title song with Kristian Bush of Sugarland, who also produced Paul’s 2001 release, Sweet Mistakes. The two became friends in an unconventional way, when Bush was asked by the owner of Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta to find some acts for the club. “He handed a box of albums that he had to Kristian and he said pick someone out of here that you like and let me know,” Paul recalls. “I think it was like ’92 and ’93, and I went down to Atlanta. I crashed at his place and we’ve been friends ever since.”

On Sept. 5, Paul will open the sold-out Sugarland show at Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford. “I’m very proud of those guys for what they’ve done in the last six to seven years,” he said. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch.”

The new album is one of Paul’s strongest. The Katrina-inspired “Hurricane Angel” has earned comparisons to Randy Newman, which pleases him (“He’s probably in my top 10, so yeah, it’s cool to be compared to him.”). On “Rose Tattoo,” Paul is at his best in a song about an out-of-work husband finding hope in hearth and home — only he could discover a rhyme like “worst-case scenario” and “Van Morrison on the stereo.”

Did he chuckle as he came up with it? “I’m laughing at myself all the time as I’m doing this,” Paul said. “You know the idea — I don’t want people to recognize what line is going to be coming. It’s about word choice that offers a surprise. Rhyme schemes tend to make people jump ahead in their minds to what the next word is before they’ve even heard it. So if you can surprise ’em, then you’ve done your job.”

Paul still teaches an occasional songwriting class. “Write about what you know about, what you care about, what you’re passionate about and the people in your life,” he tells his students. “Don’t just work from straight fiction, don’t invent songs, capture what you’re seeing and stretch the truth here and there in order to make your point. The most important thing is editing. Most songwriters don’t edit; they get their first page down and then they’re looking and it’s five minutes long so they don’t go back and rewrite and make changes and improve it. That’s really what makes a good song great.”

Of course, some things can’t be taught, like Paul’s clever employment of the word “bling” in “Rose Tattoo.”

“There’s a certain amount of humor attached to the word bling,” Paul said with a laugh. “It’s a poor man’s reference to baubles, diamonds and pearls and things. There’s a little tongue-in-cheek thing going on there when the narrator talks.” This knack for listening with someone else’s ears separates him from other songwriters.

“It’s just that if I’m hearing it enough through my own interaction with the world, I’ll throw it in,” said Paul of finding the least expected word in his songs. “Just so long as I can make it make contextual sense and I think it was the right word choice. I got a little guff from a few people in my life about it — I guess they just don’t have their ear to the ground like I do.”

Great Waters Folk Festival
Who: Red Stick Ramblers, Aztec Two Step, Mindy Smith, Ellis Paul, Anais Mitchell, High Range and the Two Fiddles.
Where: Brewster Academy, 80 Academy Drive in Wolfeboro
When: Saturday, Aug. 28, 2–11 p.m.
Tickets: $5 – $68 at 569-7710