Interview with Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert

The Mansion House in Middletown October 17 '99


At the beginning of the conversation I was recounting an interview with
Cliff Eberhardt. Vance began imitating his singing. Someone made a
comment that Vance was singing Richie Haven's part.

Vance: (Imitating Cliff) "I'm the one that you call friend" Richie is the only guy that can make Cliff sound white.

Vance: You're telling me.

Ellis: Cliff is one of the funniest people I know.

Vance: Cliff lightening, he is greased lightening. And he has got...he is a master! He is one of those people that, particularly when you hear that album The Long Road, you go like "Why isn't he famous? What happened? I mean what the hell? What, doesn't he bathe?" There has got to be something you know. And he is a perfectly nice guy. It is almost a wonderful thing to know that someone like Cliff isn't famous and that we are not famous and its ok, you know?

1.   Cliff Eberhardt  (with Richie Havens) - The Long Road
      The Long Road - Windham Hill Records
      "There are the ones you call friends
                There are the ones you call late at night"

Angela: Well, Bette Midler is doing a tune of his.

Vance: Thank goodness.

Angela: He said, I don't need to be famous, I just need famous people doing my tunes.

Vance: That's it!

Ellis: It does help, and well when one of us does do really well like Marty Sexton, or somebody that does break in a big way it is like, oh they're one of us.

Vance: Justified! Finally!

2.   Martin Sexton - Way I am
      The American  - Atlantic
     "I don't like the way I am"

Vance is a master of humor. Here he is off a track from Laugh Tracks recording from the Bottom Line in N.Y.C. including his funny introduction.

3.  Vance Gilbert - Intro...then Country western rap
      Laugh Tracks  Vol 1.  -

At this point Vance addresses an earlier question about introductions and how he sets up a song.  I referred to his Gilligan song which had the potential to be very funny depending on the way he set it up.

Vance:  So, to answer your question with the Gilligan thing...

Angela:  Yeah

Vance:  The intro for that song is recently very new. It does play it down a bit and sets it up for not being quite as funny to start.

Angela:  Did you mean for it to be funny?

Vance:  I meant for that song to do whatever it wanted to do even in the midst of the song. A lot of times I play that song and when they hear it come around the first verse they hear "I'm waiting for Gilligan" and uh, they laugh, they chortle and think that is really funny.

Angela:  I think you can control that with your intro, totally.

Vance:  Yeah, there are times, you know they can laugh at the top, I don't care because there is a lot more song to go at that point. There is a line "If faith and hope were made of gold I would wear that crown because I"m waiting for Gilligan" Suddenly that's not funny anymore. Like, this is a real definition of somebody waiting and pondering love and its just not going to be funny then. Then it is funny at the end. You tell Ginger, Mrs. Howe and Mary Anne I'll always burn the candle for my man. You know people will laugh, not particularly because it is a funny line but they identify with the three women on the island. There is no getting around it you have to laugh at that point, but the song has gone by. The song sort of paints what Vance Gilbert does in the midst of a show, you will laugh, you will cry, hopefully you will feel a whole bunch of stuff. That song is kind of a...

Angela:  A miniset

Vance:  It is! It is a miniset in itself. It was a real landmark for me because it runs the whole wrangle of emotions. I'm pretty proud of that.

Angela:  I was thinking ..waiting for Godot...waiting for Gilligan. I became serious in a way.

Vance:  Hmmm

Angela:   (Turning to Ellis) And you have a lot of healing lines, I don't know if you know it. Lots of lines about (tonight).... a kiss was healing and that is a song I haven't heard before, but on Translucent Soul there are so many... starting to heal.. I know we talked about it last time we talked when Translucent Soul was a brand new CD.

Ellis:  Yeah

Angela:  You have a lot of healing power going on.

4.   Ellis Paul - Take Me Down
      Translucent Soul - Philo -
     "did you really know me deeply as a soul can go?"

Angela:   I don't know whether you are the healer or you want to be healed...but that word is in there usually...

Ellis:   Probably a combination.

Vance:   A combination of those I'm sure.

Ellis:   I don't write with that intention, just whatever the song calls for. But, when I wrote songs for that record most of them were calling for that kind of writing so...

Angela:   So...that makes me think of the last interview I did with John Gorka and he said he can never sit down and say "I am now going to write a song about...(as Vance announced during his set) sitting with a bunch of black writers from the 40's with a deadline" He says that he just starts with a phrase. I asked for his current phrase.  He said that it wasn't really a song yet, but I asked "What is your phrase" Picking up pennies. That is all he has. Picking up pennies. He has no idea what he is going to do with that. Do you do that?

Ellis:   Yeah. Like "Tell me the story of all your past glories" that new song that I did tonight, I had that line and I didn't know it was gong to be a girlfriend and boyfriend kind of first date song but that is what I finally figured out that that sentence meant. He might find out that picking up pennies means remembering his childhood or something and  attatch a whole song to that phrase after the fact. You get one little nugget and they sprout outwards and you never really know what you have til the rhymes do their work- and luck comes in..

Vance:   You shouldn't know what they have. You shouldn't know what they have. I mean, I'm often in the position where I am probably a little less true to the song than John Gorka or Ellis, I'm always kind of chasing them when it comes to songwriting guts I think. I will sort of force something down the songs throat, but I'm getting better at getting away from "Oh this is what this song is going to be about" and just letting the song write itself.

5.   Vance Gilbert  - Hey Lah Dee Dah Song
      Shaking off Gravity - Philo

Angela:   Is that what you did with the "dust on the table" and "the finger" - did you say "I'm going to write an Ellis Paul song"

Vance:   He actually dragged me through that. Ellis dragged me through that. I called him up. I had the first line. I had the first idea, I had this image of this guy sitting at a table musing about his girlfriend. And Ellis said...."yeah". And I said "that's pretty good isn't it?" And he said... "Yeah"

Angela: and Ellis: laughing

Vance:   He was being very kind. He said "you need more of a setting" and I said "like what?" He says "Whats he doing on the table?" and I said "I dont know... writing her name on the table" "With what?" I said "his finger"..."Is there dust on that table?" CLICK.

Ellis:   (laughing)

Vance:   And he left it at that you know. And that is what started that song. That is something that I always picked up from Ellis when I'm doing that kind of work is to go with a micro image to say what you're gonna say. Go with the most detailed oriented image that you can come up with.

Angela:   Cuz that sticks. The dust, the finger.

Vance:   Absolutely. It does stick. It is right in your head. Then I go back to a Vance Gilbert typical kind of thing, where I go "fly fly fly " and that is more delivered with an emotional verve than with any intrinsic image, but the song still works you know .

Angela:   Another line tonight that stuck out for me (turning to Ellis) "one night in a car, changed who you are"

Vance:   Oh! Oh yeah! Me too. Oh My God!

Ellis:   Oh Really?

Angela:   Ok cut. (laughing)  Oh I'm sorry, you meant the line! It stuck for you, you didn't mean that one night in a car
changed your life.

Vance:   NO! (laughing hard)  No.  It is just such a great line. I gotta say, you know what (pointing to Ellis) the way you write that I am trying to get closer to is that you will write a line and the whole line will tell the story.

Angela:  Yeah

Vance:  You know, the story is told in the line!

Angela:   You don't have to write anything else.

Vance:  Almost, I mean. It is like the definition of less is more. I mean I know songwriters that would take their whole song about people losing it in a car. Whole songs! Whole shows based on it probably and he did it in like you know...

Ellis:   Well that was the last line in that song to be written.

Angela:  Oh so it wasn't the "picking up pennies" line.

Ellis:  No. It didn't work in that way at all. I needed that line to make sure ...I work like Vance said I work unconciously and then I approach it like amorphous ideas on the page and I go back and you know get the focus on it sharper so that people know what the intent of the song is.  That song needed...I think I had "he played kick the can with a glass full of sand" I was repeating that line. It kind of said what I wanted  to say but I needed something about the car being important. He has sex in the car and then he is teaching his kid how to drive in the second verse. So I had to link them together.

Angela:   Yeah, that's why the 17 years. I realize how key 17 years was.

Ellis:   Then the key is the car as well. The dashboard links the girl and the kid.

Vance:   It works.

Angela:   Lots of visuals. It was great.

Ellis:   I don't know if it is going to survive though against all the other songs that I'm doing. I don't know if that one - right now Im working on about 20 songs. You never know if any of those 20 will make it onto an album.

Vance:   I'm not that prolific.

Angela:   My dad always talks about the teenage life; he relates it to the astronauts where somewhere in their re-entry they lose contact with ground control but everybody down below is saying "Well they are probably fine, they are coming out, here they come, they are probably going to be ok...they are ok!

Ellis:    Oh really.

Angela:    That teenage life, I had a thought.

Vance:   Great image of that -yeah.

Ellis:   That would be a great image for a song.

Angela:    So I was wondering about you guys. As 12 years olds or 14 year olds I see how difficult it is being those ages, and teaching in a school with those ages, were you loners? You did't know each other then right? You were too young.

Vance:    No.   No. We were gay back then. Young gay men.

Ellis:    Speak for yourself.

Vance:   Ok he was gay back then.

Although they are joking here about gayness, on Ellis' latest release his tune "She loves a girl" is anything but joking
Again here is references to healing:

6.  Ellis Paul  - She loves a girl
     Translucent Soul - Philo
     "use your love like a suture"

Angela:    Did you find yourself your creativity?  I guess that's what I mean.

Ellis:    Thats really good. Yeah.

Vance:   Yes!

Ellis:    Definately. I found myself to be social but I definately felt like...

Vance:   Yeah.

Ellis:   I had an internal world going on that I still do at times, but its inverting it out to people now. But definately yeah. But I was still a pretty social kid.

Angela:   So what did you do with it?

Ellis:    I drew and I wrote and all the things that I'm doing now, played music but didn't ever think that I could actually ride it so that my personality come through it and bouey my personality and my life and my financial state.

Angela:   Were there clicks and things in your school.

Ellis:   Absolutely.

Angela:   Were you in a certain one, or did you float around them?

Ellis:   Well I was an athlete, but I was a cross country track runner. I wasn't quite with the cool basketball kids. I was sort of a band geek because I was in music and stuff. I worked really hard at everything that I did and I got a lot of  recognition from being an athlete in the end, that no one on the basketball team ended up getting so. Sort of that Capricornian survival over time, working at it and working hard and not necessarily bursting on the scene. That is probably how my folk career is gonna go, probably both of us will continually do the work and work hard and just try to love what we do and everything we want will come.

Angela:   And Vance at 12?

Vance:   Not as successful athletically. I stopped building model airplanes and became a tennis player and started winning some city and state tournaments and such and my artistic outlet was, unfortunately I think my artistic outlet ended up being in the tennis. I wasn't good competitively but I loved hitting a beautiful backhand. There was something mallifuous in the stroke...

Angela:   mellifuous?

Vance:   and everything else you are doing...

Angela:   mellifuous?

Vance:   Well that is usually related to a sound. I really enjoyed the art of tennis as it were.

Angela:   Could you spell mallifuous so I won't have to look it up when I am doing the transcribing?

Vance:   M E L L I F U O U S    I think. That's a great word.  Sorry.  So yeah!  Then the art thing hit when I got into college. I said "You know pick up a guitar and see what happens."

Angela:   So it wasn't til then.

Vance:   It wasn't  'til sophmore year in college.

Angela:    One thing you guys both do really well...

Vance:    Uh oh..

Angela:   ... and I know you have to drive somewhere, but I have to comment, you really do quiet very well.

Ellis:    Do quiet?

Angela:    You do quiet, you have this volume control. Especially you (Ellis) it is about the fourth time I have seen you live and pins could drop. You can definatley sing loudly, both of you...

Vance:    That's new for me.

Angela:   ...but you don't have to everytime. (Whispering) You can get really quiet and you have everybody. Everybody. When you "do quiet" and you do it so well, both of you. A lot of people just sing loudly all the time.

Ellis:    Yeah, well when you are playing alone you have to suggest the tonal things that a band would be presenting. Aside from playing all you have is that volume thing- and it really does- you take people on a ride with your volume level. If you are playing them, they don't know it...

Angela:   You know you are ...

Ellis:   You know you are doing it. You are also just reacting in the moment to the music, creating a lot of swells and quiet space. You know when to hammer them and you know when to caress them.

Vance:   And physically, I have to learn it the hard way. I am just coming out of the stage of  "If you've got it then use it" I have these vocal chops that I think I have to shove down everybody's throat all the time.

Angela:   You can use it, but you don't all the time.

Vance:   That's the key. When I find that one of the ways to teach me not to use it all the time is losing your voice after singing hard for three or four nights in a row.  Dah!  I have finally gotten to the point where it is sort of serendipity, dynamics to make the song work and also pulling up in places where you don't have to sing so loud 'cuz you won't have anything left for the next night, sort of come together.

Angela:   So that is something...did you learn from watching him? You said that you just started doing it.

Vance:   Yeah I learned a lot of dynamics from watching him. I also...

Ellis:   I am surprised because I learned a lot about dynamics from watching you!

Angela:   I was seguing into asking you what you learned from Vance cuz he has mentioned 3 things now...

Vance:   Well there is a lot of people that you learn stuff from. One of my favorite people as a musician you know as I - if you were to go through my record collection if it were not in storage- the people that I think of are Wes Montgomery, George Benson and these great players and singers, but somebody who always leaves me driving home thinking about
less is more is Tom Rush.

7.  Tom Rush (with Carly Simon) - No Regrets
      Ladies Love Outlaws - CBS 80282

Vance:   Tom Rush does a whole lot with very little. Im not saying - I'm not taking anything away from what Tom does but the first thing he will say is that he is not much of a singer or a player, but he does a lot with that! Jimi Hendrix is also another singer that has got about an octive reange and that is about it! But he gets every bit of it to work. And last but not least, even before I ran into Ellis and really listened to him, who showed me that it could work, was Shawn Colvin.

8.  Shawn Colvin - Cry Like an Angel
     Live '88 - Plump Records
     "You don't have to talk so loud"

9.  Shawn Colvin - Sunny came Home
     A Few Small Repairs - Columbia

10. Shawn Colvin - (by request) I Don't Know Why
       Live '88 - Plump Records
      "If there were no music, then I would not get through"

Vance:   She is dynamically, an absolute master you know. I get over involved. I feel like I have to shout at people when I can. Some of my best nights come when I am sick. I have a cold and I have to go to a different well with a different bucket is basically what it comes down to.

Ellis:   He has to go to the curve, cuz the fast ball aint working.

Vance:   That's it, I'm telling ya. They were saying that about Pedro Martinez the other night. They said he had been pitching at about 70 - 75%. But it is good enough cuz he knows what to do with it. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. Well YEAH! If you got the tools, if you got the stuff going on it've got it, it doesn't matter where it is.

Angela:  Your 75% is better than anyone's 100.

Vance:   And your 75 in art is just great anyway.

Angela:   So what did you learn from Vance?

Ellis:   Well, a lot. You know, everything he does I have seen and incorporated, you know. I have studied him like I have studied all my favorite songwriters, and now my favorite performers. So I know I walk like him, I talk like him, I write like him, I sing like him. I do a little bit of everything he does. With the amount that we hang out, and we have grown up in this circuit together I can't help but incorporate the stuff that he has done. On every level, playing-wise I've stolen
stylistically from him, the comedy,

Angela:   You guys are not really 10 years apart are you?

Vance:   Six, five or six, yeah

Vance:   We went through a stage which was very funny. We would touch base and play guitar stuff for each other. He would be doing all this thumping finger style stuff which is what I had been noted for and suddenly I had become hot with a pick. So it was like "What a minute here, how is this working?" So there has been a real switch a roonie,

Angela:   Thanks you guys you prabably have to drive somewhere.

Ellis:   That was great. Thank you for having us.

Vance:   You know what, we will leave you with this note

Ellis:   (Singing a note)

Vance:  We always have to drive somewhere, all of us... in life, isn't it something.

Angela:   What is that Sandburg poem?

Vance:   I don't know, I don't know why I said that.

Angela:  "Where are you going? and the man in the clubcar says Omaha"

Vance:   You go girl, I have no idea what that means.

Angela:   Carl Sandburg. A train.... a  man is looking out the window talking about life and where he is going and he turns to the other guy there and says "Where are you going?" and the man says "Omaha". I guess it wasn't very well known.

Ellis:   That's like a Raymond Carver line.

Vance:   Isn't he your landlord? (lots of laughing) Yo Ray, Ray Carver. Yeah Ray!

Angela:   Oh Well...

Vance:   Thank you so much