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Ellis Paul – Live in Charlottesville

Please welcome critically-acclaimed folk musician Ellis Paul to Traveling with Baby.  You may have heard him on the soundtrack of Me, Myself, and Irene with Jim Carrey or perhaps, Shallow Hal with Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow.  This American songwriting icon has recently released his first (of many) children’s album titled The Dragonfly Races.  It’s story-telling folksy tunes targeted for young audiences, but definitely enjoyed by the whole family.

I am so excited about this interview exclusive.  I pondered Ellis’ answers for several days afterward, and they’ve given me a fresh perspective in choosing great children’s music for my son.

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The Dragonfly Races national tour kicked off in Roanoke, Virginia in early April.  On May 13th, Charlottesville’s Explorations Play Studio will showcase Ellis in two family shows at 10 AM and 3:30 PM.  Tickets are $5 per person, and they’re in limited supply.  Please, call in advance to reserve yours! Call434-227-0258.

Venue: Explorations Play Studio, 1919 Commonwealth Dr, Charlottsville, VA 22901

Interested in learning the inspiration behind the album?

Do you want to know the difference in writing music for children versus adults?

How do you get a famous songwriter to pen a heroic tale named after your child?

Better yet, what’s one of the best ways to create a love of music among children?

We tackle those questions and more in an interview exclusive with Charlottesville’s own Ellis Paul.

So, grab a steaming cup of your favorite beverage, and get ready to enjoy learning more about the artist behind the album.  If you pay particular attention, you might even win a copy of the album or win tickets to the Charlottesville family shows.

Inspiration

TWB: Is there a writer or artist that gets you excited about writing?

Ellis: Woodie Guthrie who I hold at the top of my totem pole of great artists as a writer and as a songwriter. I put him and Hemingway and others in the same category as great writers, and he’s one of my favorites.

TWB: Do you remember any stand out writers who make you smile or get a strong reaction from you?

Ellis: Dylan, John Kline, Joni Mitchell.

Balancing Act

TWB: As a dad, balancing time on the road and time at home—how do you pull that off?

Ellis: Ah. I don’t. Basically, my wife has the responsibility to the kids most of the time. So, it forces her to do a lot more work than she should be doing. But, I’m the only one making money, too, and I have to go. So, I try and keep the touring down to just weekends. I go for 3-4 days tops. Generally, it’s less than that. That’s how I have to do it.

TWB: When you are home, how do you really maximize your time with your family?

Ellis: By not playing music. Spending time with them. Giving my wife a break. She goes out and gets “air”when I’m home and I can spend more time with the kids. It’s fun.

TWB: How old are your daughters?

Ellis: [Sofi’s] two and [Ella’s] four.

Music from the Past

TWB: What songs come to mind when you think of your own childhood?

Ellis: That’s a good question. I remember singing a lot in the car, but they were pop songs—Carpenters’ songs. Everyone in the family would sing in the car. But, I don’t ever remember going to a family concert or hearing children’s music. It was the sixties.

TWB: You were raised on “adult” music?

Ellis: Yeah. I don’t know that there were a lot of children’s records. Woodie Guthrie put out an album called Songs to Grow on. But, my parents weren’t involved in that kind of music. They were more of the Sinatra, Dean Martin era. So, I missed it all, you know, and it was just too bad. But, music was in my life a lot as a kid. So, I didn’t suffer from a lack of music. I just suffered from a lack of kids’ music which is sometimes so bad, anyway [chuckling]

TWB: That’s true. So, how did you get into music as a career?

Ellis: Well, I went to school to be a writer, but I also loved music and painting. I kind of feel like my attention span doesn’t really accommodate a novel-kind of writing, you know? But, I can sit down and write a three-to-four minute song. To me, it’s a very visual medium even though it’s music, of course, you’re supposed to hear it through your ears. I always think of it as visual painting words. All of the aspects of my personality are covered by being a songwriter.

TWB: So, this is an ideal career for you?

Ellis: Yeah, I think I was born to it.

TWB: Every music artist has a different story as far as how they got into music as a career and got people to buy their album. So, what worked for you?

Ellis: Well, I started going to open mics in Boston just to play cover songs or my original stuff.

TWB: Cover songs for who? Woodie Guthrie? Dylan songs?

Ellis: Yeah, I’d do Dylan songs, Beatles’ songs, Neil Young songs in the beginning, and then I started playing my own stuff. Then eventually, the club owner would hear it, and invite me to open for somebody national who was coming through. And then, I developed a little following in Boston, and I just kept going. So eventually, I got my own shows. I think a lot of people have a pipe dream of doing it, but they don’t really have the drive to make it happen. It takes a lot of work.

TWB: How many years did it take for you to really make it?

Ellis: Ten years before I could trust that this was what I was going to do.

TWB: Wow! That’s a long time.

Ellis: Yeah. I was in my mid-thirties before I felt that I could trust that I could do it.

TWB: So, just having the patience and determination

Ellis: Mmm-hmm. Determination. Willingness. And then, a lot of it’s just having talent, having good songs, and being able to perform. But, you have to go out there and hammer and get in front of people because the only air play that you really get under the radar of commercial radio is in the P.A. system at the clubs where you’re playing. That’s how you get your air play. You go out there and hammer away. You play those fifty people the first night, and hopefully more the next night and the next night.

TWB: It’s a lot like starting a business. That’s what it sounds like.

Ellis: It is. Yep. It’s a little cottage business.

Venturing into Children’s Music

TWB: On your website [www.ellispaul.com] and inside the album booklet, you talk a little about why you ventured into children’s music because your daughter was mostly listening to other artists.

Ellis: Right.

TWB: And you wanted her to grow up appreciating your music. So was there anything she said or did that caused you to think, “I need to make my own album just for her”

Ellis: It was mostly having her listen to Barney and Elmo and how clanky it was. That music was just so painful to listen to.

TWB: [laughter and nodding in agreement]

Ellis: It was sort of entertaining for her, but there wasn’t anything that could engage us together. You know what I mean? My daughter has a personality, and I thought I wanted to write songs inspired by what her needs are—who she is, and what I want to teach her. I aspired to think about what I wanted to say to her through music, so I started writing songs. I wanted them to be sort of socially relevant. I wanted them to speak larger than just entertaining her like normal kids’ music does. I wanted there to be a broader message.

TWB: So this is your opus to your daughter?

Ellis: Yeah. I think I’ll probably do four or five of these [children’s albums]. So, it’s part I of the opus, I guess. Sofi, my second daughter was born. You know, kids listen with their bodies. You know, their bodies react strongly to music. They can’t sit still when there’s music playing—they don’t really want to. They want to get up and dance, so music has to do that for them. But, that repetition of the choruses and singing along. They’re little mantras. Good songs are like little mantras that can be life lessons for them to learn. So, I wanted that to be part of it. I don’t feel like children’s music can’t be like good literature just like good songwriting is kind of like good literature. So, that’s really what I wanted to do.

TWB: So, there was a need in the market for some good quality songwriting in children’s music?

Ellis: Well, there’s good people out there. But, no one’s doing what I want to do. So, I felt like I could get away with it. This is maybe something I get to do once a weekend on a good month. So, it’s not like I’m planning on being a children’s performer every single weekend. I’m mainly an adult performer. I want to stay that way. When my kids are so old that they’re not going to appreciate it, that’s probably when it will get old.

TWB: Well, then there’s the grand kids.

Ellis: You know, that’s true. Yeah. That’s true. Not too soon, I hope. Twenty years from now.

TWB: But, you want to create something that will last for many generations.

Ellis: Yeah. But, I do love writing, and I enjoy playing for kids. But, I don’t want it to feel like I’m selling my artistic mission short, even though I’m writing for kids. I want to have the same mission in writing for adults in the kids’ music.

TWB: Are there any particular songs that come to mind when you think of your childhood?

Ellis: I’m embarrassed to say the Carpenters, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind, and I don’t know why. I guess it’s because it was the Seventies and her voice was just everywhere. But, there wasn’t Peter, Paul, and Mary in the house or anything like that. My parents were definitely not of that ilk. I remember Dean Martin. I remember “Green Green Grass of Home” and sort of the Rat Pack. I remember in the Seventies, Schoolhouse Rock which definitely impacted my childhood.

TWB: That was good writing.

Ellis: That was amazing writing. The guys are still alive. That’s the kind of writing I think my music would fit into—sort of educational, with humor and storytelling.

TWB: What’s your favorite Schoolhouse Rock song?

Ellis: I like the Constitution song a lot. I still know the preamble to the Constitution because of that song. I couldn’t remember other things like wedding vows if you asked me what did I say at my wedding, I’d be like “ahhh.” But, if I’d done it to a tune, then I might be able to sort of remember it, you know?

Medieval Times

TWB: Why do you think there’s such a strong correlation to memorization when put to music? Especially for kids?

Ellis: Melody is almost like a rhyme. You learn a little piece of a melody and you sort of understand what the next part of the melody is going to be. It’s like a rhyming thing. If you think “da-dunt-da-dunt-da-dunt” You kinda know the next part’s going to be “da-de-de-de-dunt-da-dunt” [at this point, Ellis is adding syllables to the tune of a well known mariachi song which I cannot for the life of me figure out the title, but I’m very familiar to the melody]. So, it’s repetition and a flow to it that makes it easy to memorize. And then, when you attach words to it. And then, you have internal rhymes in that structure. So, it’s like a little template that’s gonna stick into your brain and not go away.

In medieval times, there would be troubadours who would go from town to town singing the news. They’d memorize the news by putting it to music, and then they’d go out and sing at some corner. The information age has kind of killed that [type of singing/songwriting]. Woodie Guthrie was doing that kind of writing. He was sort of an explorer for the disenfranchised that might not be represented in the [press] media. He wrote songs about his people and went on the radio and sang them.

TWB: That’s an interesting bit of trivia. I didn’t know that about the Troubadours. Sort of a medieval ensemble.

Ellis: So, the king was toppled, but 200 miles away, they’re still under the rule of the king. They don’t even know the king got toppled. They’d send out these [troubadours] and the songs would go from person-to-person-to-person. That’s how the word got out with specifics ‘this person was killed by this person’s hand. This is what happened to the king at the hand of that person.’ If you just read it, it would look like some news article about olden times. The songs were kinda boring. Like the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Do you remember that song?

TWB: [Shaking my head “No”]

Ellis: No. You don’t! [with awe and surprise in his voice] And, you’re twenty-something?

TWB: Thirty-one.

Ellis: It’s a famous pop song from the Seventies by Gordon Lightfoot who’s sort of a folk-popper. He talks about this very famous ship in the Great Lakes that went down. He names a lot of the people on the boat, and he talks about how it happened. It’s that kind of song, but we certainly don’t hear those on the radio

TWB: It’s not catchy enough?

Ellis: Yeah, there’s too much information. Pop music now is about all the little bells and whistles and the person’s voice and how many somersaults the voice can do, and what the person looks like rather than what they sound like.

Somersaults and Posers

TWB: So, the closest thing to storytelling in music would be the folk genre?

Ellis: Yeah, and country music. There’s some of that in country music, but that tends to be family-[focused] and relationship-oriented. There’s still not a lot of . . .occasionally you get a long narrative like that in country music, and I love those songs. But, for the most part, they’re just story-pop songs.

All the song writers that were writing them in the Seventies moved to Nashville and are writing those songs for country music today. I think that’s really the essential reason why country music is the most popular music form. More than rap, R&B, and rock right now.

TWB: Because people can resonate to the story?

Ellis: Yeah. It’s storytelling, and they’re doing it with acoustic instruments—there’s sort of a loneliness to it. All the bells and whistles are there. It’s not a perfect genre; there’s a lot of posing going on. Those guys are like theater-people, really, in a lot of ways. For me, right now, that’s where all the great songwriters are in folk music and then country music.

Pregnancy Philosphy

TWB: I think that many parents can relate to your song Nine Months to Fix the World. When you’re pregnant, you’ve got nine months, and you think, everything’s not quite right yet. I wanted to ask you about a few particular lines in that song.

I’m gonna whittle down The Scriptures,

the Bible, the Koran, gonna whittle ’em down

to one phrase any fool can understand

‘Love Your Fellow Man’

My question for you is, do you think that is the answer to fixing the world?

Ellis: [chuckle] Uhm, yeah. That, actually, isn’t a bad idea starting with that. I think it was around the time . . . my daughter is four, so, 9-11 was in 2001. We were still involved in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time I wrote that song.

TWB: So, this is when your wife was pregnant with Ella?

Ellis: Yeah. So five years ago in 2004. I remember working on it. She was scared about having the baby, and I was scared. And, I think you know; you have a kid. You’re like, the world’s so screwed up. Why would I want to bring a kid into this? I just want all the fighting to stop, and I didn’t think a lot of the war . . . You know, it’s greed in the name of many things, but it ends up being one person wanting something from somebody else, and then a fight breaking out. Sometimes the reason for the fight is determined to be religion—the difference in religion in how we view it versus how they view it. But really it’s greed with religion as sort of an excuse. But, it’s not really the Bible or Christianity’s fault.

TWB: So [in your song] you’re alluding to those things as more of a superficial reason behind the violence? Finger-pointing religion is behind the war when really it’s about . . .

Ellis: It’s really about oil. Us being over there and controlling their lives too much, and they’re wanting independence. Things like that. Religion is just a rallying point, really. But, I like that line [in the song] a lot. The Holy Land—everywhere is holy land. People are fighting over a mile-long strip of desert. I don’t want to belittle people with these beliefs either. There’s no one holier place on the planet than another. We could determine that this little corner of the coffee shop is Mecca, and it would be just as significant as the place where Jesus was crucified. And, having people fight over it is ridiculous. That stuff happened thousands of years ago, but people are fighting over it. I don’t know why.

TWB: That’s deep stuff for a kids’ album.

Ellis:Yeah. I’m not getting all of that in the kids’ record, I hope. But there’s some thing on the record.

TWB: Like The Million Chameleon March

Mentoring

Ellis: Yeah. That’s fun, and it has something to say. The Abiola song is about overthrowing

TWB: [interrupting] That’s my favorite song on the album. The tune, chorus, and storyline . . .

Ellis: Oh really? Oh, good.

TWB: That’s sung with Antje?

Ellis: Antje Duvekot. Brilliant writer.

TWB: You two co-wrote Abiola?

Ellis: We co-wrote it. She opened for me in Philadelphia, and I took her on the road for a year and helped her out career-wise. My manager is now her manager, my booking agency is booking her. I took her under my wing, and we decided we wanted to write together. We did a tour in Florida, and we wrote it in driving around in the car. Abiola is about a female heroine which doesn’t happen very much.

How to Get a Songwriter to Name a Song after Your Child

TWB: You had a fan write on your site that she wanted Dusty [of the Dragonfly Races song] to be a girl.

Ellis: Right, she wanted it to be a girl, and she argued for it on the site. She knew I was writing another song, that it was coming. I was writing a song with a girl heroine, and I named the girl after her daughter.

TWB: Was she totally . . .

Ellis: She was totally blown away, and her daughter was blown away. It’s a really good song to have, to sort of be inspired by. Abiola is a beautiful name, first of all. Yeah, that was a fun thing to do.

Literary Nod

TWB: We’ve already touched on the role music plays with children, that they’re every physical with it.

Ellis: There’s a physical aspect to listening. There’s a lot of movement, which I think is important. There used to be, in Schoolhouse Rock, and even in children’s literature something like Gulliver’s Travels which was really cute, all these little people running around, it was a significant children’s book at the turn of the century in 1900. It was an allegory about the British political system. So, all of it was sort of saying something in a very big. Abiola says something really big. Abiola is really about a government lying to its subjects, and then the subjects overthrowing the government. So, I don’t see why that can’t be really entertaining, and cute, and fun, and sort of give a message at the same time. But, the kids aren’t going to get it all the time, but it’s still there. They might be fifteen or sixteen until the bulb goes off, “I can’t believe that happened in that song all that time! To me, it was just about a girl who falls in love with a monster.” But, that’s how I want my music to be. I want it to be informative and entertaining for them like the best of my adult songs.

Get Kids to Love Music

TWB: How can parents cultivate a love for music with their children?

Ellis: Well, they need to listen to music with their kids, just like they need to watch T.V. or movies with their kids, and then discuss the path in the song. There should be a lot of questions. I know I’m doing my job when Ella listens to my music, she constantly . . . she says, “Daddy, what’s a ticket?” In the song The Dragonfly Races they buy a ticket to go see this race. She had no idea what a ticket was. There’s gaps in her understanding of how the universe works. So, I had to explain to her what that was. And then, “why was the monster crying?” in Abiola, and that led to a discussion about the king and saying bad things about him

Children vs. Adults in Songwriting

TWB: Is there a difference in writing for children compared to writing for adults?

Ellis: The major difference is, it’s like painting with primary colors instead of the colors that fall in between those. You’re not going to win over an adult by hammering them over the head with the same things you’d use with kids. There’s not a lot of subtlety. You have to cut to the chase quicker, but there’s just as much art in it. It’s just taking a broader paintbrush and taking the broader colors.

TWB: Do you try out your songs on your kids before you record them?

Ellis: Mmm. Hmm.

TWB: They like your songs?

Ellis: I think so. Yeah, they dance and sing. Right now my daughters want me to make up songs about princesses, stuffed animals, sharks, dragons, monsters. They’d rather hear something invented, instead of something off of some record. But, I also play stuff from the record for them. It’s great. They just dance, and they run in circles. They [spur of the moment songs] are not good [chuckle], they’re good for them.

TWB: Is there a particular song you sing to them at bedtime? A lullabye?

Ellis: Oh, we used to sing You Are My Sunshine

The Tour

TWB: So, you’ve got a heavy touring schedule starting in April through October in the United States including two shows in Charlottesville for families on Wednesday, May 13th at 10 AM and 3:30 PM at Explorations Play Studio. Where can folks get tickets/reservations to your family shows?

EP: [Call Explorations Play Studio to order or reserve tickets.]

TWB: Is there something I haven’t asked you that you’d like to add?

Ellis: No, I think it’s been pretty extensive. I did the illustrations for The Dragonfly Races insert, I’d like for people to know that. It was really fun doing that. I want to do more of that on all the kids records; it will be illustrated. I think the next [album] I’m talking about doing [for kids] is going to be just little character sketches of famous people in history, and some not-so-famous, but sort of more along the Schoolhouse Rock with the biographies.

TWB: Such as?

Ellis: Ben Franklin. I’m working on one. [sighs] Who else am I thinking?

TWB: You’re in Charlottesville, so Thomas Jefferson?

Ellis: I could, yeah. I think informative. Ben Franklin is such a big part of our history. Most of the things he did for us, we don’t even know. A black guy who taught Hank Williams to play guitar—called TeaTot. I’m writing a song about him. He was kind of a drinker. His friends were making fun of him. The Prohibition was going on, and he was supposed to be a Tea Totaller, but he ended up being called TeaTot. So, sketches like that, and what their role was. I can’t wait to get it started. I’m recording an adult record right now. So, I haven’t put much energy into writing kids’ stuff. As soon as I’m done I’ll start writing.

TWB: So, while you’re on tour for the kids’ album, you’re writing for the adult album. And, while you’re on tour for the adult album, you’ll write…

Ellis: Right. They swap out. And, they’ll probably go every other year. So next year, I’ll release a new kids’ record. This year, I’ll release an adult record, and swap ’em out.

TWB: Well, thank you!

Ellis: Thank you, Dolly.

comments-dustycover

*WIN IT*

5 winners (with U.S. shipping addresses) will be randomly selected to win a copy of  The Dragonfly Races (retail value $15).  2 winners from central Virginia will be randomly selected to win two tickets/reservations (a pair of tickets for the morning show and a pair of tickets for the afternoon show) to see Ellis Paul’s family show LIVE.

1. To enter, first leave a comment  on the TWB Blogaversary Bash post about your ideal way to spend Mother’s Day.  Then, leave a comment on this post with something interesting you learned from the above interview with Ellis Paul.  Next, tell me whether you’re entering for the CD or the tickets.  If you’re entering for the tickets, also provide your city of residence.

2. Earn a second entry by blogging about the giveaway and linking to Traveling with Baby using “Dragonfly Races” as the title in your blog’s post.  Then, leave a comment with a link to your post.  Non-bloggers can participate by e-mailing a link to this contest to 5 friends, and carbon copy me (drgarnecki at gmail dot com).

3. Follow me on twitter (drdolly) and tweet about this contest.  Leave a comment saying you tweeted.

Leave a valid e-mail address, so I can contact you to claim your prize, or it’ll go to another amazing person.  The CD contest is open to U.S. shipping addresses only.  The Charlottesville concert tickets are available to anyone in the Charlottesville or central Virginia area who can claim their tickets in person.

This contest runs until 11:59PM (EST) on Mother’s Day, May 10th, 2009.

Five winners for the CDs and two winners for the local shows will be randomly selected (via random.org) and announced on this post and e-mailed sometime shortly after May 10th. If a winner doesn’t respond within 72 hours, a new winner will be selected.

*UPDATE*

Winner’s have been contacted via e-mail.

5 Responses

  1. […] Ellis Paul’s Dragonfly Races audio CDs (U.S. only) AND 2 pairs of concert tickets to family sh… […]

  2. […] Traveling With Baby Dragonfly Races CDs and Concert tickets (5/10 US Only) […]

  3. ooh..nice! this sounds right up my alley. 🙂 what i learned..i’ve never heard of ” The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. (bag over head). & i’m 30. 😉 also: bout to go tweet this (should that be a separate comment?). CD of course, i’m much too far for a show. 😉

  4. The artist has 2 small children 2 and 4. I’m sure this is true inspiration to do children’s music. I’m interested in the CD. Thanks for the wonderful giveaway

  5. […] His next adult album is scheduled to release later this summer.  You can also catch my exclusive interview with Ellis Paul that took place in […]

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