I figured the best way to end this grim 2020 music season would be with a conversation with one of Maine’s most prominent performers Ellis Paul, who’ll be welcoming in the new year with a Jan. 1 livestream concert with One Longfellow Square. He was born in Fort Kent “in the dead of winter” (quote from his bio sheet) and became a premier folksinger-songwriter with a string of critically acclaimed albums and fans from across the country and around the world. And though he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, he still considers Presque Isle his hometown. When I learned from the OLS website that he would be making a livestream appearance there to kick off the new year, I reached out to see if he’d be willing to chat with me over the phone one more time. The response I got is available below and it features Paul’s positivity and hopefulness along with a healthy dose of reality.
Q: I understand that you’ll be doing a livestream from One Longfellow Square on New Year’s Day, correct?
Paul: I won’t be there in person, I’ll be down here in Virginia for it, but it’s going to be broadcasted on their Facebook page.
Q: Have you been doing livestreams fairly regularly since COVID hit?
Paul: Yeah, in the beginning it was every night I would go on, and now I’m generally doing three or four shows a week.
Q: Oh, my word!
Paul: Yeah, and most of them are just ones I play and are not sponsored by any venue. But I’m doing the New Year’s Eve show for the Passim crew in Boston, and then I do One Longfellow on the following night, Jan. 1.
Q: Now, if I remember correctly, the OLS show has become like a yearly occurrence.
Paul: Yeah, the Portland show I’ve done, I think, for 15 years, maybe? It’s been quite a while. Then for Passim, doing the New Year’s Eve show, it’s been since the mid-1990s, so it’s been between 25 and 30 years. We haven’t been able to track down the records to find out exactly how many, but it’s a lot.
Q: Having done so many of these pandemic-impacted interviews since mid-March, it is fascinating to hear about the silver linings artists have found and how sobering the losses suffered have been, at the same time.
Paul: Yeah, I’ve been lucky. I haven’t lost anyone within my inner circle; that’s the big silver lining. Nobody in my family has gotten sick yet so that’s the big one. But, you know, I travel more than most folk musicians, so having this time at home has been — strange (chuckle) — not so much difficult but strange. But keeping myself busy and having all the work that I do in transitioning online has gone smoothly, and my audiences have been just extremely gracious. I don’t know what other word I can say, but they’ve been able to basically keep my financial life about the same as it was when I was touring, which is just amazing.
Q: Wow, that is, very much so! But then again, I think that goes back to the fact that you’ve been doing it for so long and have cultivated a very large, very diverse and very loyal fan base.
Paul: And they know how hard it is, so it’s been great. The outpouring of support has been super. I started a Patreon page in January. Before the COVID thing started and I had about 250 people on it by March, when things shut down. Then, within just a very short time, I had over 800. I’ve got 850 now, and I suspect that, hopefully, it’ll be over a 1,000 by early next year sometime. So with doing the nightly shows and getting tips from folks doing that, and teaching songwriting online, it’s been pretty amazing.
Q: What happens if things get back to normal next year, will you go back to the old ways of touring and the like?
Paul: I’m not sure yet if I’ll go back as hard as I did before. I just don’t know what the reality of our online life is going to be like a year from now.
Q: Now, I’m not familiar with that Patreon program you mentioned earlier, could you fill me in on that?
Paul: It’s like a subscription service, just like Netflix or something, where I upload three or four things every week, like I did an album specifically for Patreon people of cover songs that I’ve been performing. One of the things I have done is every week I learn three or four cover songs for my Friday night show, generally there’s a theme around those Friday night shows.
Q: Just out of curiosity, what are some of the songs you cover?
Paul: I’ve learned “Over the Rainbow,” “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley. When John Prine died I recorded “Angel From Montgomery” and I gave that to the Patreon people only. I’m going to release it publicly next year but they’ve had it for four or five months now.
Q: How much does the subscription cost?
Paul: It starts as just a dollar per month and people can pay up to whatever they want. Actually some people have been paying over $500 to be on it, but the people at the upper levels get a lot more stuff.
Q: One of the downsides of livestreaming is the lack of instant gratification artists get from their audiences, what Jorma Kaukonen called “the beast”. Do you miss that aspect of touring?
Paul: Yeah, the applause obviously isn’t there, because you’re not seeing people clapping (chuckle). They’re not exactly going to be clapping in their homes as they’re watching you, they’re just sitting there in their pajamas or whatever absorbing the show. I know what he means by “the beast”, but to me the livestreaming is like playing to a ghost, you know? It’s still there: you sense them, you don’t hear them, you don’t feel them, but you sense them. So it just has to do, there’s no other way around it if you want to make a living, you’ve got to still do it. And I like it, actually, it’s sort of teaching me how to fill in space.
Q: Having been to more than my share of concerts over the decades of doing this, there is something special about being there in person, a shared energy, if you will.
Paul: The magic of that can’t be achieved any other way except being there live, so I can’t wait to get back to it. I’m hopeful that by next fall things will return to some kind of normal, but at the same time I’m dreaming that I can retain some of this new business that the internet has brought to me and grow it, because I’m enjoying it and I like being home. It’s nice to see my kids more.
Q: I understand completely, I really do. Is there anything, Ellis, that you’d like me to pass on the the folks reading this article, especially about this One Longfellow gig?
Paul: Oh, yeah, sure. I’m pretty sure that it’s basically a nonprofit and the struggles that these places have had over the decades just to stay open. I’ve heard that 60% of the venues around the country are having to close because of COVID and they just can’t keep their doors open. So these livestream shows are really important to the places, especially nonprofits like One Longfellow. I hope people will tune in.
Q: Oh, before we close out this interview, I’d like to ask about those other livestream shows you were talking about doing every week on your Facebook page.
Paul: Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’m on there doing my livestream shows and then if there’s a venue show it’s usually on a Saturday night.
Q: Are there links to all of that available on your website? And if folks want to catch the OLS show, they go to that website?
Paul: Yeah, and I’m coming off of that New Year’s Eve show from Passim the night before, but I’m going to try to do some different things so the shows will be significantly different from one night to the next. I hope people will tune in.
Q: Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you think we should before our chat ends?
Paul: Just that how much I miss Maine. You know I’m from Maine, I’ve got some family up there still, so I can’t want to be able to play in person in the state. Hopefully by summer I’ll be back up around there again.