“I am a working class musician.” With these simple words Ellis Paul described himself at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference in November 2015.
“I want to talk about basically where I’ve come from and why it worked for me. I’ve done 5,000 shows in my lifetime,” he continued as he delivered the keynote address. “That’s a lot of shows.”
From there Ellis told the story of his first guitar and how he mastered a few chords. This eventually led him to songwriting, and making a name for himself in a 1980s Boston open mic scene that also nurtured Vance Gilbert, Dar Williams, and Patty Griffin.
Over 30 years later, the troubadour from Maine who found his voice in Boston celebrates 25 years of touring. His latest tour brings him to Daniels Hall at Swallow Hill Music on Denver on Saturday, December 2.
Ellis recently shared some insights about life on the road, new material, and what he hopes audiences get from his songs via email while on tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
You have a close affiliation with Club Passim in Cambridge, which plays a similar role in the Boston area as Swallow Hill does in Denver. What role can places like Club Passim and Swallow Hill play in developing up and coming artists? How has that role changed from when you started out to today?
I have through 25 years of endless road miles seen the comings and goings of many clubs and folk venues that can’t survive the passage of time.
Owners retire, get divorced, sell their places, move on for whatever reason. Places like Swallow Hill and Club Passim have evolved into omnipresent cornerstones to the American songwriter. They can survive a nuclear holocaust! Their non-profit status helps them survive the ever-evolving interest in live music. On top of that, the educational component of the places create a breeding ground for musicians with dreams beyond their kitchens. They allow performers and players to evolve and enter the pipeline of the national circuit. It’s essential, and over my lifetime they have been increasingly protected and supported in ways that will make them survive for years to come.
You’re celebrating a successful career this year with your 25 Years On The Road tour. How long would you like to keep touring?
I want to be on stage as long as what I’m presenting is deserving. Certainly until December 2nd.
On related (tangential) note, I read that you are a father of two, how did touring prepare you for being a parent? Or did it?
Touring certainly doesn’t increase your parenting skills. But in my case, it puts food on the table and a roof above their heads. The one constant heartache in my life is my absence from my kids’ daily lives when I’m in the road. The weekend I’m at Swallow Hill I am missing my kids’ recitals, and will have to tune In via Skype. I love my job, truly, but it Comes with sacrifices to the people I care most About in my personal life. I’ve learned to appreciate every moment to remind myself To take advantage of the positive, so it counters the sacrifices.
When did you first come through Colorado as a touring musician? What do you remember of those early experiences?
It took me many years to include Colorado in my touring life. My brother lives here, so I feel like it’s a second home. I value it as I would any place that brings beauty and enthusiasm to this degree.
What are some upcoming projects you are working on? Will the audience at Swallow Hill get to hear any new material from you on December 2?
I’m working on new material and will be giving it a test run at Swallow Hill. I can’t wait! It’s an educated audience, that understands What a good song is.
I just watched a Facebook Live post of you walking through the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You were giddy as a schoolboy talking about everyone from Woody to Phil Ochs to John Denver. You have a great appreciation for American folk music traditions, not only as a musician yourself, but as a historian and ambassador. How does your legacy as a songwriter fit in with those traditions?
I’m not really the one to judge me own legacy. I’ve written in the shadow of the greats, Guthrie, Dylan, Joni Mitchell. I write what I love and what I feel in times that are often precarious. I hope my songs bring people a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human. It ain’t easy. Badgers have it easy. But maybe that’s why there are no badger songwriters.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’m evolving every year, learning, stretching on stage. I see Swallow Hill as a chance to express the changes to my art in front of an audience that is invested in the arc of that evolution. They don’t laugh unless it’s funny. They don’t cry unless they’re moved.
See Ellis Paul with opener James Lee Baker in Daniels Hall on Saturday, December 2 at 8 p.m.
This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Content Marketing & Publicity Manager Barry Osborne.