Same song, different tune
Singer-songwriters are the poets of our time. I know the words to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Inspite of Ourselves,” but I can’t name a single American poet after Wallace Stevens. Ever since The Beatles hit American airwaves in 1964, boys and girls have been locking themselves in their bedrooms playing along to their favorite songs until their fingers hurt, hoping somebody else’s chords would morph into a new melody and then the words would bubble up from inside them like oil from under a Dust Bowl farm.
The folk revival of the ’60s gave way to the songwriter craze of the ’70s, which bled into the age of the pop icons. The ’80s saw the apex of the stadium rock band and by the ’90s, it seemed like everybody had a friend or a brother or a boyfriend who could talk shop about their label, their tour schedule, their buddies with three-record deals.
It’s hard to know where we are in that story line. The end of an empire? Cue the gladiatorial spectacle of “American Idol.” Or the cusp of something new? A time when singer-songwriters who have never had a record deal or a large following can compete online without being tapped by a kingmaker?
Ellis Paul, probably the most successful local songwriter besides Dave Matthews and Mary Chapin Carpenter, began playing regular coffee shop gigs around Boston alongside like-minded folk singers Shawn Colvin, Dar Williams, and Vance Gilbert in the late ’80s. When he ran into real estate developer Ralph Jaccodine at the No Name Cafe in Harvard Square, neither of them knew anything about the music business, but Jaccodine offered to manage Paul at no charge. They raised $20,000 together and formed a record label to put out an album and tour it. Their first year, Paul made $17,000 and Jaccodine didn’t get a red cent, but they established a successful partnership based on trust and hard work that eventually landed Paul a record contract with Rounder, a high profile folk music label.
These days Paul makes his money in a variety of ways, through licensing, publishing, and touring. You’ve very likely heard “The World Ain’t Slowing Down,” the theme song of the Farrelly brothers flick Me, Myself, and Irene or “Sweet Mistakes,” which was featured in Shallow Hal. Or you’ve heard his songs on one of the more than 50 compilation CDs they inhabit.
Paul moved to Charlottesville a few years ago to be closer to his wife’s family, but he still plays close to 200 gigs a year on the road, mostly in targeted, tightly packed weekend forays that include performances of his children’s music during the day and headlining adult venues at night. His last two albums have been fan-funded. He raised $100,000 to make his last one, more money than he’s ever gotten from a record label.
“I was lucky to have established myself nationally before the Internet created the tsunami of change that it has,” Paul said.
If there’s a lesson Paul wants to pass along to younger singer-songwriters, it’s that no matter what the industry is doing, the only way to build a reputation as a singer-songwriter is to write good songs, play them for audiences as much as possible, and, most importantly, find people who believe in you.
“Listen, anything successful that’s happened in my music career has come out of a really personal connection, whether it’s a country artist doing one of my songs or a movie director picking one up for the movies,” Paul said. “If you don’t have one with your manager then I wouldn’t expect a lot to happen outside of you just working your ass off and them just making money.”
Born Paul Plissey in a rural town in northern Maine, Paul taught himself guitar after an injury in college derailed his competitive track career. He tours alone and expects to command the room with his voice and his guitar, taking the conversation between songs, the ability to feel what an audience needs, as important as playing guitar or singing.
“You have to engage them both from the heart and the intellect. It’s not a craft you can learn until you’ve experienced a bunch of listening rooms where it’s really quiet and you have to rely on the lyric in a different way,” he said.
It’s a lesson he learned from one of his first industry mentors, the New England songwriter Bill Morrissey, who helped Paul find his way onto a Windham Records compilation with a song called “Ashes to Dust” that first put him in the conversation with artists like Patty Griffin and Greg Brown and gave him a wider audience. Morrissey also introduced him to the music of Woody Guthrie and Randy Newman.
“Bill was the closest thing to van Gogh in the neighborhood. He was somebody who was doing it and was a great artist and had history,” Paul said. “He understood the history of the music and could tell me about people who were doing it in the ’60s who I hadn’t even heard of yet.”
Paul considers himself a link in the songwriting chain. These days, he wears a tattoo of Woody Guthrie, having been tapped by Nora Guthrie to put one of her father’s archived songs to a tune for a tribute compilation. In the spirit of Woody, he calls 10 years on the road “the going rate” for building a fan base. He wants to pass his skills and experience down to a new generation of artists, and to that end he’s taken Peyton Tochterman, another local singer-songwriter, on the road with him as an apprentice for two years. The connection formed after Paul heard Tochterman play a free show at Positively 4th Street, a Coran Capshaw-owned restaurant. Not quite an industry connection, but certainly a Charlottesville one.
As someone who’s been all over the music game, Paul sees the expectations that come with having a major music management company in town as a potential distraction for young artists.
“The Dave Matthews thing is kind of good and bad. You know the fact that Red Light is here and there’s this huge industry connection, I think some people think that all they need to do is be heard by the right person at Red Light and their career will spark and things will happen overnight,” Paul said. “The reality is you have to get out of Charlottesville because there’s not enough happening here to make a living.”
Getting out of Charlottesville is something Sarah White has never managed to do for any length of time. If you’ve been around the local music scene for very long, you’ve heard White in one or another of her manifestations. She grew up in a back-to-the-land community in West Virginia but moved to Charlottesville for high school, attended UVA, and has been here most of her adult life.
White got her start as a musical performer at the old Fellini’s playing Michelle Shocked and Nancy Griffith covers between sets from the Hogwaller Ramblers, “back when Dave was still playing around town.” Later on, she hung around the Corner parking lot scene, discovered indie rock, and found her identity as a songwriter.
It’s not like White hasn’t tasted success. She opened for Hall & Oates at The Fillmore in San Francisco, she’s had slots in the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, and she’s filled plenty of local rooms. But she’s never made real money or undertaken a national tour.
People around her, friends and fans, have been frustrated by White’s failure to launch her career, a tension she responds to if you ask her about it. It’s a lot of things. For one, she manages Type 1 diabetes, so she’s never been able to drop everything and hit the road without health insurance. She’s always needed a home base and a day job, which she currently holds down at local web development, design, and marketing company Convoy.
But you get the sense it’s more than that. That she has never really thought of her songs as a business. That she either doesn’t have the ego for it or she doesn’t want to ruin the purity of the thing that’s most precious to her. Maybe even that she’s too private.
“I never really thought about how you make it as a singer-songwriter. It’s just something I did,” she said. “At a younger age if I’d been a little more career oriented…you know… it never occurred to me that it was a career that people did. It was just art and here’s my art.”