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Ellis Paul on Songwriting and Musical Journalism

A conversation with Ellis Paul:  Second of a two part series

His pleasing melodies and thoughtful lyrics have been recognized with no fewer than fourteen Boston Music Awards.  His songs have been widely featured on television and in film.  We asked Ellis Paul to share insights into his highly successful songwriting.

What is your process for songwriting?

I write constantly – on a daily basis.  I write and I rewrite; songs often undergo three or four edits before they’re ready to be published or performed.  Sometimes I’ll send songs to other musicians for review.  I have a string of songwriters whose opinions I value. 

When Stephen King writes a novel, he sends the chapters to an editor.  The finished book is the result of both the writing and the editing process.  Songwriters today somehow don’t believe that their work needs editing, but it’s an important part of producing a good song.

Your lyrics are socially aware, but not confrontational.  Is that a choice?

The idea is to make the listener a voyeur, as if they are looking through a window.  If the songwriter preaches, then the listener looks at the writer and not the song.  I prefer to allow the scene to unfurl without manipulating the listener.  Then I can just be the journalist who tells a story, and the listener becomes my cowriter.  They take their own meaning from the story.

Is the goal of your songwriting to educate, to inform, or to provide an escape?

I tend to gravitate toward songs that are information based, that can help the listener understand the subject in a better way.  I think that the emotional content is lost if the topic is approached in a moral way.

Something has to trigger the impulse to write.  I wrote “Hurricane Angel” a few years after the Katrina disaster when I read the account of refugees sleeping on the floor of an abandoned New Orleans warehouse. 

Just before Christmas I had been writing a song that ties Mary to modern mothers.  It’s a kind of time lapse photograph of life, and of mothers’ sacrifices over the years as their children grow.

How has your songwriting style changed through the years?

In the early years, I took a more academic approach to songwriting.  The songs were wordier.  Now my songs are more conversational; they have an easier flow. 

I collaborated with Kristian Bush (of the country duo Sugarland) for several songs on my most recent album, “The Day After Everything Changed”.  Working with a pop writer brought a less heady feel and a lighter touch to the music.

The collaboration seems to have worked; up to eight of my songs from that album will be heard in the new Farrelly brothers movie “Hall Pass”, due to be released later this month.

Which of your songs are your personal favorites?

Umm.  I’d have to say that some of my favorites are “Maria’s Beautiful Mess”, “Take All the Sky You Need”, and from the new album, “Rose Tattoo” and “Dragonfly”.

But some of the songs are just cathartic to play, and some are like cotton candy.

If so, we’ve developed a newfound appreciation for that carnival confection.  More, please.



Many thanks to Ellis Paul and his management for allowing us the opportunity to chat.

For more on Ellis Paul, Including his tour schedule:

To purchase “The Day After Everything Changed”:

Featured photograph of Ellis Paul by Louise/4tay

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Louise/4Tay #

    That was such a nice interview. What a great man and musician Ellis is. Thanks for bringing his insight to us, THN.

    February 2, 2011
    • Thank you, Louise. It was very generous of Ellis to share his thoughts on songwriting, and it was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with him. I’ll be looking forward to the next live show!

      February 2, 2011
  2. Great questions! I liked the one about how his lyrics are never confrontational. I never thought of that, but it’s true.

    I wonder all the time about the song writing process. Since I only deal with words, I can’t imagine how the melody comes about. Seriously, the whole thing is a mystery to me. I love to hear what musicians have to say about it. Very interesting.

    February 2, 2011
    • Thanks, caryl. I’m looking forward to reading your next piece. Hopefully, I’ll be reading it right here. Hint, hint.

      February 2, 2011

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