Artist: Ellis Paul
Hometown: Charlottesville, Virginia
Latest album: 55 (available June 9, 2023)
Which artist has influenced you the most … and how?
I can’t say which artist has inspired me “the most,” there’s too many great ones in the generations that came before me and too many new ones popping up as I go. And some of them are unconscious influences. I don’t go to James Taylor or Paul Simon consciously, but they are such a part of my youth and DNA that I know they are there. The Beatles are my go to teachers, as is Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. Their entire catalogues. When I listen to them with a magnifying glass, I’m constantly awe struck. They make my humility rise as a dominant emotional state. I’m good at what I do. But the gap between them and me is clear to me – but it is also where my great frontier lies. The best version of me is somewhere out there ahead — in that direction — and I need them as inspiration to explore it. To guide my improvements. So I dissect their music. And thank them. While their songs lie like frogs in the biology class of my mind.
What other art forms — literature, film, dance, painting, etc. — inform your music?
All of it! Everywhere I’m engaged in life can create a song — so I’m constantly on the lookout. I see what I do as a form of literature. There is a reason why Bob Dylan is walking around with a Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s storytelling, poetry, lyricism wrapped in imagery, dressed within melody and colored orchestration. It’s a visual medium in people’s brains as they watch the details unfold in a song while they are listening. So it’s like a movie or a painting. The music is a dance. It’s flowing. It’s a kind of geography.
Everything from a great meal to a great movie can inspire. Anytime I’m stuck, I try to get out and see a film or go to a museum or take a walk. Read a book. Watch how film makers tell their stories. It’s all a deep well to drink from, aren’t we incredibly lucky? I love my job.
What rituals do you have, either in the studio or before a show?
One of the best rituals I have in the studio is working with a grid sheet and stickers to watch the progress I’m making as the album evolves. I put it on the wall so everyone involved can see it. It’s a big piece of paper usually 18” by 24”. The songs are on the left side going down and all the tracks run across the top. After a musician plays their part, I give them a sticker to fill in their square for the song. It helps me project out, to see what’s left to do, and to see how much has been done. It helps to focus my thoughts on the parts left to finish and I can be creatively thinking about how I want the remaining tracks to lie against the ones that are completed. It also makes the musician feel good for some reason. They always love it. The stickers are usually cool, like Wizard of Oz characters. It brings out the first grader in people. They choose which sticker and then find their empty box and fill it with Toto.
If you had to write a mission statement for your career, what would it be?
Mainly— create beauty in every part of your work.
Now, since I’m in my fifties, this would be by making the most of your talent and my skill set. Focus on the writing because that is the part that will be left behind when you part from the earthly side of things. The recordings will tell the story of you in the years to come when your gone. So I’m editing the songs until they shimmer, working more in the studio to get things right and less as a road dog doing shows. I was always writing and recording on the fly. Coming into the studio with a voice torn up by the road. And songs written on airplanes. I’ve got more space now, because I’m established, and can live off of fewer shows. I can’t sing as high or sustain notes the same way, but I have more patience and wisdom now. I’m a better writer for those things. And the best is yet to come.
How often do you hide behind a character in a song or use “you” when it’s actually “me”?
I like character driven songs and usually have a couple on every album. The latest album, 55, has a song from the perspective of a tattooed lady in a circus. I did it as a writing exercise where I was assigning circus characters to my songwriting students. So I had to assume a lot of different things with this song: a woman’s perspective, a time/era perspective – because I felt like it was occurring in the late ’40s – and then someone who is essentially a circus act in a freak show. It was fun to write. Unlike, say a “bearded lady” or conjoined twins, the tattooed performer chose to look as she does. I don’t feel like she is a victim of circumstance in the same way, so the character invites the listener to gaze upon her physique. Circus life can be tough as well, doing show after show, so you sense her boredom. Despite the fact that she is lighting the wick on the big gun of the human cannonball. She’s a bit over it.
Photo Credit: Jack Looney