Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul is seated at a sidewalk table at Caffé Feliciano just blocks from his South Medford apartment, squinting under the bright Indian summer sun and talking candidly about the small but devoted fan following he has attracted with his folk guitar chords and nostalgic, observational lyrics.
That following, generally folkies in their late 20’s and 30’s said someone at one of Paul’s recent shows, treat him as a topic of gossip, and they dote more than they worship, which is fine for him.
“I have a very small pocket of people who treat me like I am a rock star,” Paul says. “They talk about my hair and what my personal life is like. It is a little bit crazy, but it hasn’t gotten in the way. I can still sit on the sidewalk and not worry about these strangers walking by stopping for an autograph or something. I don’t have people running through my garbage. What I have is pretty minor to people who have real fame.”
Even with the small coterie of fans, things are looking up fame-wise in the very near future. Paul remains the same, but more people are being drawn to him. On Nov. 6 the soundtrack for the new Farrelly brother’s movie, “Shallow Hal,” featuring one of his songs, “Sweet Mistakes,” debuts with other artists like Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynne and one of Paul’s idols, Neil Young.
Three days later, the movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black premiers. On Nov. 15, Paul’s seventh and newest album, “The Speed of Trees,” hits regional record stores and is available at ellispaul.com. Paul will also appear for his record release and concert at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square as part of his EllisPaulooza 2001 tour tomorrow (Nov. 2) at 8 p.m. with fellow folkie and friend Susan Werner. Some tickets are still available.
But today is his day off and Paul, who is a loose, tall and trim man wearing simple clothes and bearing a slight resemblance to actor Kevin Costner when he looks dead-on, is answering all the tedious questions journalists generally ask, responding politely. He says he is pretty much overseeing himself in media outlets and does not necessarily need to have the recognition anymore, though he still appreciates it.
“He is going to bust it wide open one of these days,” Farrelly adds. “He is huge. He is the real thing.”
“I think I would in the beginning,” he says of when he was so noticed. “I was in an airport and I got my picture in ‘USA Today’ and a little blurb about me (calling him a “best bet for stardom”). There were about 30 people with ‘USA Todays’ on the plane and I wanted to shout out, ‘Hey, that’s me in the paper, yeah!’ I didn’t shout it out, I just let it go, but I guess I got past those little pieces of pride.”
Paul was born to a small potato farming family in northern Maine but migrated south to Boston College on a track scholarship in the early 1980s, graduating with a degree in English. He left behind one of the best 10,000 meter times in school history and was implanted with his love of folk music and guitar when he graduated in 1987. He lists Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and “all of the great storytellers” as influences.
Paul began playing coffee houses and was soon noticed by his friend and manager, Ralph Jaccodine, playing, of all places, the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square. Paul “clearly blew me away,” Jaccodine says. “I wanted to help him out so that is how it started,” Jaccodine adds. “So I started in a church basement at BC and started promoting some of his concerts, and the next thing, I started a record label with the people that owned Newbury Comics, called Black Wolf Records.” Paul’s was the first record released on the label. He is now with Rounder/Philo Records, but still relies on manager Jaccodine.
Since then, he has garnered a lot of praise, regular radio play on local stations, 10 Boston Music Awards and appears at approximately 200 concert dates worldwide a year. Those things are good to know, he says, but he would rather talk about the writing process. Take the title track on his new album, “The Speed of Trees,” composed on a day that rivals this one on a Big Sur, Calif. cliff. The song, he explains, arrived like a butterfly. “There is a song called ‘Speed of Trees.’ I was sitting on a bluff in Big Sur, Calif. and a friend of mine was sitting next to me and she said, ‘I feel like moving at the speed of trees.’ I said I thought that would make a great song. You know, a song like that, the speed of trees, you know it is going to write itself. “It made me think of speed of sound and speed of light, and suddenly I had three verses, and then I had to think how I glue them together,” he continues. “It is about a restless guy who thinks of leaving his town all the time and he just wants motion in his life and adventure. It is based upon a concept.
Then he has this woman he is in love with that wants him to stay still and that is what the whole song is about. It took me only a half hour to write it, and it was almost as if I wasn’t involved and it always existed.” Even with very traditional folk roots, Paul says he is always looking to do new things. “There is evolution happening in my stuff all the time but I will never stray from being a word writer,” he says. “People like Radiohead and R.E.M. or U2, their lyrics aren’t used in the same way that someone who is playing a song with a guitar is. When you are playing acoustic music with an acoustic guitar and your voice, you have to convey all of that with what you are saying.”
Peter Farrelly, who produced “Shallow Hal” with his brother, Bobby, have their own Medford connection (sister attended Tufts). Peter describes how he discovered Paul. “I heard about him for years on the radio in the Boston area,” Farrelly says, “but my impression of him was that he was this coffee house folk guy. Then his manager, Ralph Jaccodine, started hounding me with letters and tapes saying ‘You gotta hear this guy.’ One night I was writing and flipped one of his compilations into player and I was hooked.” His song “The World Ain’t Slowin’ Down” off his 1998 album “Translucent Soul,” was the first song selected for the Farrelly brother’s movie “Me, Myself and Irene” starring Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger.
Picking him for their most recent soundtrack was an obvious choice. Farrelly says he simply does not understand why Paul is not that famous yet. “He is going to bust it wide open one of these days,” Farrelly adds. “He is huge. He is the real thing.” Until then, even if that day never comes, Paul says he will just enjoy the little things. Things like today, where at 2:30 p.m. he might “just pick up a paper and wait for his girlfriend to come home.” “He is a very talented and a special man,” Jaccodine says. “I look forward to the day when his music spreads to bigger circles than it reaches now because he really has something to say. His music affects people’s lives in a very personal and profound way.” Paul, too, would like his music to be a little more heard, but does not want to overdo the fame thing. “The money situation is good enough for me,” he says. “I don’t have the desire to live in a mansion or drive around in a limo. There is as much need for singer songwriters, but it has been done before by people far better than I am at it. But I still love what I do and I am making a great living and I get to see the world. “It’s a good thing being a (grass) roots musician,” he continues. “You are in control of it, it is not in control of you.”