Letting loose, with a little help from his fans
After all the years (20), all the albums (15), and all the audiences (your guess is as good as ours), Ellis Paul can laugh when he remembers the all-but-empty room that barely acknowledged him when he arrived to play the legendary club CBGB in New York. As fate would have it, that happened to be the very night seven or eight major record label reps showed up to gauge the commercial potential of Paul’s music.
“I didn’t have a following in New York, and all these label people came out and there was no one else in the crowd,’’ says Paul, who grew up in northern Maine. “It was this horrifying experience, because the club was completely empty otherwise and I was sweating bullets. And of course, no one threw a record contract at us.’’
Demoralizing as that moment was, it offered Paul a revelation and a strategy: “I said, you know, I’m just going to go around these people and hit the road. And I’m gonna build [an audience] tree by tree by tree until I have a forest in front of me, of people who get what I’m doing.’’
Empty rooms no longer greet Ellis Paul. For quite a few years now, he’s played to packed houses and halls across the country, and next week, he’ll release his 15th album, “The Day After Everything Changed,’’ a fan-financed effort (more on that in a minute) that marks a new business paradigm for Paul. He’s on a tour that brings him to the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River tomorrow night.
These days, when he’s not on the road, Paul lives with his wife and two children in Charlottesville, Va., but for many he remains a quintessential New England singer-songwriter. The Boston Music Award he won last month as best folk artist (his 14th trophy overall, a total second only to Aerosmith) attests to his place in Boston’s music-steeped history. So do the four sold-out shows he played at the legendary folk haven Club Passim in Cambridge last month.
“Gosh, he’s probably played here more than anybody in the past 20 years,’’ says Club Passim manager Matt Smith, who books the room and calls Paul Boston’s “prototypical’’ folk artist. “I think when people think singer-songwriter, the immediate reaction is Ellis Paul,’’ Smith says. “He’s the example that so many people have built their hopes and dreams and aspirations on, as far as being a performer goes. He’s a great writer, and he’s someone who always connects with an audience. This is a guy who gets on stage and is never just phoning it in. That is what draws many people to him.’’
So many, in fact, that Paul decided to forego working with a traditional record label for the first time in his career - his albums had previously been released on Philo/Rounder Records - and instead asked for financial help from fans who might be willing to fund the making of his new record. Initially, Paul had hoped to raise between $75,000 and $80,000, but when the economy collapsed, he scaled back his ambitions. If he could raise enough for a bare-bones recording budget - say, $20,000 to $30,000 - he’d count himself lucky, he thought.
“We really didn’t want to push it down people’s throats,’’ Paul says, “because we thought it was in bad taste at that point to be asking for money when people were losing their jobs.’’ To his disbelief, however, the funds kept pouring in from all over the country. By the time he was ready to record, fans had donated more than $100,000.
“I had no idea that it would be as successful as it was, especially when the economy crashed,’’ Paul recalls. “The money just kept coming in, and people really wanted to get involved and see their name on the record [as a donor]. I’m kind of amazed. It ended up being far more than any label has ever spent on me.’’
The result is “The Day After Everything Changed,’’ a sharply detailed, lushly appointed collection of 15 new tracks that Paul believes add up to the best thing he’s ever done. The album, Paul’s first new studio effort in five years, was recorded in Nashville last year.
“There was a lot more freedom,’’ Paul says. “When you’re putting something out on a label, you’re really trying to please the label, because you want them to get invested in selling it. And sometimes you sell the songs short by trying to fit them into some specific genre.
“I definitely didn’t want to just put out a folk record,’’ he adds. “The songs felt bigger than that. If they called for really big drum sounds and really big electric guitar sounds, we let ’em go.’’ Case in point: the swinging roots-rock rhythm and wide open-road sentiment of “River Road’’ is one of the most carefree electric rockers Paul’s ever recorded.
Fifteen albums in, Paul claims he’s just getting started. “I look at some people like Johnny Cash who [were] doing it into their 70s, and that’s the plan - I just want to keep writing,’’ says Paul, who turns 45 next week. “I want to do this forever, so hopefully there’ll be a lot more coming. Fifteen will seem like the early days at some point.’’