Singer/Songwriter Extraordinaire Ellis Paul
Returns to the Center for the Arts in Homer
October 26, 2007
Center for the Arts
On Friday, October 26th at 8 PM, Ellis Paul returns to the stage at Center for the Arts in Homer. One of the leading voices in American songwriting, Paul is a principle leader in the wave of singer/songwriters that has emerged from the Boston folk scene, creating a movement that revitalized the national acoustic circuit with an urban, literate, folk pop style that helped renew interest in the genre in the 1990's. His charismatic, personally authentic performance style has influenced a generation of artists away from the artifice of pop, and closer towards the genuine art of folk. Though he remains among the most pop-friendly of today's singer-songwriters - his songs regularly appear in hit movie and TV soundtracks - he has bridged the gulf between the modern folk sound and the populist traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger more successfully than perhaps any of his peers.
For years among the folk circuit's most popular and dependable headliners, with a mailing list of over 20,000 fiercely loyal fans, Ellis Paul has released 11 CDs, and recently explored new media avenues with a documentary/concert DVD called "3,000 Miles," and "Notes from the Road," a critically acclaimed book of poems and stories. In recent years, he has departed from his solo career to tour and record with longtime compadre Vance Gilbert, and to indulge his deep respect for American folk icon Woody Guthrie. He appeared with the all-star Guthrie tribute tour, "Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway,” and, for his Philo CD, "The Speed of Trees," he wrote a modern musical setting of Guthrie's unpublished lyric "God's Promise." Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, invited Paul to perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute show held in September 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Part of a 10-day celebration to honor Woody, it also included performances by Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, among others. In 1998, the quintessential Boston songwriter was also made an honorary citizen of Guthrie's birthplace, Okemah, Oklahoma, in recognition of all he has done to revive interest in the Dust Bowl troubadour.
This may surprise casual fans of Paul's urbane, literate and thoroughly modern folk-pop sound - but not those who knew him well. Among the first to single him out from the vast pack clamoring to rise from Boston's open mics in the early '90s was Bill Morrissey, even then considered the definitive New England ballad writer. He was so impressed that he produced Paul's first record, "Say Something," in 1993. What did he see, so early in Paul's career? "He was always unique," Morrissey recalls. "He didn't write like anybody, didn't sing like anybody, didn't perform like anybody. So many of the songwriters then were trying to imitate whomever they thought was successful. Ellis was always himself; he didn't try to separate himself from his audiences. Perhaps it's because he's a Mainer; there's no pretense, and I think audiences sense that."
His skyrocketing career is still the stuff of legend in Boston folk circles; how quickly he climbed from opening act for the likes of Morrissey, Shawn Colvin, and John Gorka, to national headliner and recording star. Morrissey recalls something else that set him apart back then: his artistic curiosity. Paul would pepper him with questions about who influenced him, which songwriters he should be listening to. He was discovering what a rich, ancient community this music was, and he wanted to dive right into the deep end. "You know, that's a very smart thing to do," says Morrissey. "It helped set him apart. A lot of young singers I meet are not curious about what went on before; they just say, 'I want to sing another song about my life.' Paul has a sense of roots, of connectedness to the whole history of folk music; he sees the thread that runs through all the generations of this music."
In particular, Paul fell under the spell of Woody Guthrie, who wrote "This Land Is Your Land," "Pastures of Plenty," and a thousand other American anthems. By 1998, Paul was telling the Boston Globe that Woody, to him, was "ground zero, the prototype in a long line of people I'm a huge fan of." He put a Woody Guthrie tattoo on his arm, solemnly telling people it was "a commitment."
An increasingly topical humanism informed his work. Like Guthrie a half-century before, Paul displayed a humble genius for putting the most divisive issues of his day into starkly personal and emotional terms. "She loves a girl," he sang. "What are you going to do if you love her, too?" - "I feel like I'm more a part of a community now than just a songwriter singing about my own struggles and the struggles of the friends I see around me," Paul says of his career today. "Maybe that's the difference between being a singer-songwriter and being a folk musician, that transition into more of a community sense of writing."
At the same time, Paul remains the most mainstream-friendly folk songwriter to emerge from Boston since Tom Rush. Between 1993 and 2004, he won an unprecedented 13 Boston Music Awards, and his songs were heard on hit TV shows Ed and MTV's Real World; and in the soundtracks of several Farrelly Brothers films, including "Me, Myself, & Irene," starring Jim Carrey, and "Shallow Hal," with Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. Director Peter Farrelly has called Paul "a national treasure."
It would be easy - perhaps even advisable - to become complacent after succeeding so remarkably at all the things he set out to do. But there is a restlessness in Paul these days, a vibrant, glowing spirit of artistic adventure. Success is not a prize to clutch and protect, but an open door to a wider journey. "There are differences between the me now and the me I was in the early '90s," he says quietly. "I have a reliable fan base that keeps a roof over my head, for which I'm so thankful. And I think they're also willing and forgiving enough for me to go through any evolution I choose, as long as the core of what I do is honest, and that I continue to write songs and stories about the things I see around me. I need to keep feeling refreshed. I've been down the Ellis Paul rabbit-hole, you know, and now I'm looking around and trying to learn new things, experience other people's music and stories. I have no idea where I'm headed, but I think it'll make me a broader artist." That sounds like a very safe bet. General Admission tickets are $20 and Senior tickets are $16 (membership discounts apply). Admission for children under 14 and anyone with a valid student ID is free. Tickets may be purchased in advance at Jodi's Hallmark and Sheridan's Fine Jewelry in Cortland, Linani's in Homer, Ithaca Guitarworks in Ithaca, through the Center's website at www.center4art.org or by calling 800-749-ARTS (2787) or at the door the evening of the performance. The Center Social Hour begins at 7:00 PM offering desserts, coffee, tea, wine and beer for purchase as a fundraiser for the Center.
Season sponsors for the Center for the Arts are The Glass Smith and Reihlman, Shafer & Shafer Councilors at Law. This performance is supported by The New York State Music Fund, established by the New York State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. This performance is also supported in part by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. Accommodations are provided by The Hampton Inns of Cortland.
The Center for the Arts in Homer, located at 72 South Main Street in the village, at the corner of Routes 11 and 90, just off exit 12 of I-81, provides the region and community with a broad spectrum of cultural and artistic activities that provide education, enlightenment, and entertainment. While performance is premium at the Center for the Arts, the Center is an accessible facility for year-round classes, workshops, exhibits, summer camps, and conferences devoted to the visual and performing arts.