The Dragonfly Races: An Interview with Ellis Paul
by Sienna Wildfield
There’s a lot of great music and there are many musicians that my daughter and I have become very fond of since we started our musical exploration together. Living out in the rural hilltowns of Western Mass, we do a lot of driving around – giving music we’ve received for review our undivided attention as we travel from Chesterfield to Northampton, Hadley, Amherst and back. When we come across a song my daughter especially likes, she (being my focus group of one) clues me in with a simple request from the backseat of the car, “Mommy, can you put that on repeat?” That’s the indication from the peanut gallery that we’ve got a winner, adding it to our song list of “must play” for an upcoming episode of the Hilltown Family Variety Show.
But the real litmus test of quality family music comes when we’re traveling as a family. The day we drove to Springfield and back we played The Dragonfly Races by Ellis Paul, and not once did my husband turn it down. He even made faces of agreement and pleasure while listening. But the moment of truth came when HE put on the repeat button. Ladies and gentlemen … we have a WINNER!
Ellis Paul’s newest CD, and first family album, The Dragonfly Races is an album of discoveries and adventures that lead the listener through fantasy and fun, masked in allegories with threads of social commentary. So while we listen as a family, our 5 year old is enjoying the fable of a fair maiden and a misunderstood monster in “Abioloa” while we’re reflecting on the underlying social commentary the story is revealing. As my daughter listens to the songs more and more, questions slowly arise as she searches for more of an understanding.
With The Dragonfly Races, Ellis Paul, the father of two girls, wanted to craft an album that was representative of the morals he wanted to impart to his children. Songs that might inspire getting involved and taking action while bringing about peace. To follow is an interview with Ellis that takes a look at the challengs of being a father of two young girls, including how his music becomes that vehicle that imparts the morals he looks to share with his children.
SW: Your newest album, The Dragonfly Races has become a favorite with my family. Everyone enjoys listening, and appreciates your songs on different levels. What inspired you to put together a family album and how does this differ from albums you’ve previously produced?
Ellis: I wanted a recording for my kids to grow up with that represented the kinds of things I wanted them to hear in songs. I also want them to know the difference between a trite, silly song and a thoughtful one.
SW: As they’ve been described, your songs offer a “unique sensibility about life and the possibilities of childhood.” What do you think it was about your childhood and life experience that makes your sensibility unique?
Ellis: Well, I come from a small town in Maine, and I think small towns give birth to big dreamers, and big optimism. I was around a lot of farmland and nature, and I think that’s why so much of it seeps into the songs.
SW: I understand that you have a pretty extensive performance schedule with nearly 150 shows a year in North America and Europe. How do you manage your family life while on the road?
Ellis: It’s difficult, and I am always looking for ways to do it more gracefully. Adding kids shows should help a lot, because the matinees are added without adding days away from home. Then maybe I can take some weekends completely off! The challenge is keeping everyone happy. My wife does the vast majority of the care taking. I am in lifelong debt to her for that.
SW: Throughout The Dragonfly Races you joyfully take the listener on several journeys and adventures, sometimes with a destination, other times not. In “Because Its There” you sing of historic adventures: of traveling to the moon, the bottom of the sea, and mountain tops, just because they’re there. In “Pinwheel” a young boy is lifted off the ground to drift magically through the sky as he explores the world below. And in “Road Trip” you and your buddy Flynn sing about all the wonderful destinations in America that make a road trip through the U.S. so unique. What is it about the “journey” we experience in life that inspires you to celebrate it through your songs in this album?
Ellis: Exploration is how we learn. From the moment we are crawling on the floor in a bedroom looking at all the nooks and crannies a room has to offer. Exploration leads to the discovery of cool things and interesting places, but mostly, by exploring, we discover something about ourselves and our relationship to our world.
SW: Hands down, my 5-year old daughter’s favorite song on The Dragonfly Races is “Abiola.” She often asks me to explain the story following the song, which opens a dialogue between us about how she can be brave and kind to others, while exploring her own personal truth and following it through. I think you’ve down a lovely service to young girls by crafting a song of fantasy underscored with social commentary. Can you share how you developed this story and how you hope your own daughters may be influenced by its underlying message?
Ellis I wrote the song with Antje Duvekot, who brought the genesis of the idea to me. We were looking for a female heroine for the album, and the story unfolded and gave me a beautiful one. I want each of my girls to be an Abiola, to question authority, to come to their own conclusions, and then to act and participate in positive change.
SW: My favorite song is the title track, “Dragonfly Races.” I often say to my daughter, “Fall down once, get up once. Fall down twice, get up twice. Fall down three times, get up thrice.” In this song, I feel you celebrate a similar message; that you can’t lose by participating, but if you don’t try, it’ll pass you by. How do you feel you are setting an example for your daughters with choices you make when faced with either professional or personal challenges?
Ellis: Again, the message in Dragonfly Races was to be involved, to participate. I want my girls to feel like they have a voice, and a choice to use it for themselves and for others. But I didn’t want to write a sing songy anthem. I like allegories– they give morals through story telling.
SW: This CD packet comes with a self-illustrated 24 page picture book of whimsical illustrations that adds to the expression of each song. I love your cover illustration with Dusty the Dragonfly wearing an old-fashioned pilots hat and goggles, something I wouldn’t have ever imagined by just listening to the song. And the illustration for “Abiola” shows a monster that was much different from what I had imagined. How do you see your illustrations bring you a new depth of expression when coupled with your music and do you have plans for any future illustration projects?
Ellis: I hope to. I am not a professional illustrator, but I would like to try a book sometime. I feel like the kind of writing I do is very visual, so the artwork was an extension of what I was putting down on paper.
SW: We don’t have to look too hard to discover that our world is in dire need of change – both great and small. Your songs “Million Chameleon March” and “9 Months to Fix the World” evoke the activist in me and, as a parent, leave me pondering how to unveil to our children the truth of the state of our world, and what we can do to bring about positive change. Teaching them to love one another and to play like we’re on the same team are lovely sentiments. As a parent, what challenges do you face in teaching these concepts to your girls, and what do you hope they’ll take from them and carry into adulthood?
Ellis: My girls are 3 and 1, so I’m not getting too caught up in explaining the songs to them yet. I want the inquiries to come from them. My daughter Ella just asked me what a “ticket” was from “Dragonfly Races,” so she is just unfolding the songs word by word now. I’ll tackle those subjects when they come up, and I designed the songs so they would at some point.
SW: What has your family’s reaction been to this new CD and do you plan on producing another family album in the future?
Ellis: The best thing was watching Ella say words like “nopadedope” (from “I Like to Swing”) and run and dance and sing while the music is playing. I feel like the mission was accomplished at home, and everything else that comes from it is icing on the cake! I am so glad to hear that people are enjoying it the way they are.
ABOUT ELLIS PAUL
Ellis Paul (www.ellispaul.com) is a critically acclaimed singer, songwriter, poet, troubadour and father of two daughters. He is the recipient of 13 Boston Music Awards, second only to multi-platinum act Aerosmith. The Boston Globe heralds him as a “songwriter’s songwriter;” Performing Songwriter says, “He combines the sensibilities of Bob Dylan and Bill Morrisey and delivers it with passion that sets him apart in the company of a new breed of songwriters.” Dirty Linen magazine says Paul is “one of contemporary folk music’s most influential voices” and the St. Paul Pioneer Press calls him “one of the best songwriters of the past decade.” His songs have appeared in films such as Me Myself and Irene and Shallow Hal as well as numerous television productions. Ellis was invited by Nora Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s daughter) to put music to lyrics of Woody’s unfinished song “God’s Promise.” Ellis performs nearly 150 shows a year and travels across North America and Europe. Paul plans several family concerts in 2008 to celebrate the release of The Dragonfly Races.