This interview also appeared in the Local Music Collective Newsletter
Guitar-totin’ folk singer Ellis Paul is a busy man. He tours anywhere between 150 and 200 days a year. He writes every day. And he is preparing to record his 18th album, the latest in a series of albums he is recording independently since leaving his former label in 2005. After a recent performance at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Paul sat down with me for a few minutes to talk about songwriting and the pros and cons of recording without a label.
Paul broke with his former label and started the process of independently-funded music when he decided he wanted full creative control over his work. He says, “You have to please people who aren’t you, and the reason you’re trying to do that is because they’re the ones who are paying for everything–the studio time, the mixing, the marketing. You keep clamoring for the attention of the label executives who, understandably, want a positive return on their investment. The big problem with that thinking is, the labels want to pigeonhole artists and have them create songs that are more formulaic and will end up on the radio.”
He continues, “When I work without a label, I’m only responsible to my fans, and myself. With fan-funded music, you get to make all the choices, create your own deadlines, own all your own masters. The downside is that you then have to pretend you’re a record label, and do your own marketing and promotion, which is not my favorite part of the industry.”
Paul says his music has benefited by becoming more broad since he’s struck out on his own. A former track athlete who didn’t start playing guitar until an injury sidelined him in college, he says, “I’ve been able to explore music I haven’t had a chance to yet. I started playing in college and writing my own stuff as soon as I learned to play, so I didn’t have that high school cover band experience. I don’t know a lot of covers. Reinterpreting other people’s music alters the way you understand chords and song structure and so the vocabulary you’ve developed with your own music changes. I’ve written a list of 200 songs by other artists I admire, and my goal is to learn them all. And we’ll see how that impacts my writing.”
Songwriting, says Paul, is a combination of crafting and inspiration, and good songs find a successful balance between the two. “When I’m working on a new album, I probably break in six or seven new songs on the road. I like to watch how my audience responds to a song because it helps keep me in balance. If inspiration takes over, it’s easy to start trying to be increasingly clever in your phrasing, or keep making cloaked references, and in doing so you can lose sight of what the song is about. Conversely, if you give craft too much control, then your song can become contrived and joyless and your audience can start to follow how you think. Playing new songs live can be a great way to stay self-aware and determine if you’re over-crafting or if you’re being too clever for your own good.”
Here’s a song already written for his upcoming album.
This article will also appear in an upcoming issue of the Local Music Collective newsletter.