It’s a restored old theater, double balcony, embossed walls, high stage, and I’m alone in it, listening to Ellis Paul’s band go through sound check. I feel very blessed to even be in here listening to them joke with one another. Michael Clem, the bassist, is teasing Paul about his song intros – “This song is called ‘River Road.’ It’s where I used to take my high school prom dates. It’s a road by a river,” he says in a breathy voice much like Paul’s. They’re running riffs and banging drums; I’m having a little trouble believing I’m sitting here.
Then, Paul says, “Should we run something?” and I hear the opening notes of “Maria’s Beautiful Mess,” my favorite song. It’s a private concert, and I am just where I am supposed to be, in my private concert, a little gift from God, I think. I close my eyes and sing quietly along, “She steps close, her eyes glow, her lips pop open like a bottle of wine . . . .”
I’m waiting for Paul to be done with sound check so we can do our interview, and there’s no place I’d rather be.
When he is finished, we drop down into a couple of old theater seats in the lobby and chat. He’s about to do a show for The Haven, a center for the homeless and very poor in Charlottesville, VA. The Haven works to connect people with social services, gives them a place to do laundry or look for jobs, and even just opens up the space so people can relax and have a safe place for a few hours. Paul says he decided to do this show because he wanted to “connect with the community in Charlottesvile” in a meaningful way. I can’t help but think this impulse carries through from his days when he used to work with kids who had been kicked out of public schools.
As we talk, I am almost comforted to know he is the person he presents himself in his songs: a lover of beauty, music, and art. When I ask him the most beautiful thing he has ever experienced he says, half jokingly, “I’ve been in the presence of a lot of beautiful women; that’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Then, he goes on to say that he was in Big Sur, on Paddington Ridge, and there was a blanket of fog over the Pacific. “A full moon hung over that. It felt like something from a Dali painting.” Surreal and beautiful. He says that music is in his DNA; he’s just made to be creative and sees himself as a writer, painter, and artist. I believe it. His lyrics take me places I’ve never been – “Alice’s Champagne Palace” in Homer, AK, a house after Katrina strikes, a quiet road in Maine – and he paints the places so well I can see them and feel the emotion layered over the places.
As we continue to talk, he tells me that his writing process is a “dialogue and dance” between guitar and lyrics. He usually starts with the guitar, and then it’s a “Rorshach test spewing ideas” to get the songs laid out. I can see this in his songs where the melody of his voice seems undergirded by idea and music. Nothing is separate here, and nothing works by itself. Paul’s music is nothing is not complex, a component of parts intertwined into a beautiful whole – a whole that seems so simple like a full moon over a blanket of fog on the Pacific.
This sound comes from a variety of influences – Dylan, Joni Mitchelle, Woody Guthrie, The Beatles, Neil Young – and you can hear that American grounding in the songs, too. At the show, he was backed by a bass (played by Michael Clem of Eddie from Ohio), electric guitar (played by Rusty Speidel of SGGL), drums (played by Stuart Gunter), and accordion, banjo, keys and harmonic (played by Matty Metcalfe). It was the best of American music – rockin’, melodic, complex, and yet singable (we even sang along on a couple of songs). I felt like I was in a living room listening to friends play together for the sheer joy of it. My dad, who came with me, tapped his foot the whole time – the ultimate “Dad Seal of Approval.”
When I asked Paul about the spice he would be, he said, “Cinnamon. It makes everything taste better.” And his animal? A hawk. “They are patient, and don’t flap. A hawk in New York City. That would be perfect.” Both of these incidental comparisons support his ideas about the balance between writing his music and finding success – “I don’t even worry about it.” He loves pop songs, and he loves folks songs. Pop songs are popular, and it’s great when people love them he says, but what “I really want is for a song to take up a little space in someone’s head.” He puts four fingers to his forehead and presses the tiniest of marks into his skin. A tiny impression is good enough for him.
For me, Paul’s music is indispensable. It is the soundtrack of so much of my life – painful moments, beautiful days . . . it takes up much more than a tiny mark. It’s like a tattoo on the skin of my spirit.
- Ellis Paul’s Book Suggestions
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
- Paul’s Mixtape for a Late Night Ride Home After a Show
“Maggie May” by Rod Stewart
“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles
“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Imagine” by John Lennon
“Anna” by Aneje Duvekot
“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor
“Clouds” by Joni Mitchell
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens
You can listen to Ellis Paul’s music on this website. His new album is entitled The Day After Everything Changed, and if you check it out, you may find, that in some way, tomorrow will live out that title.
(Photo by Jack Looney Photography)