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. Linden Lane
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For a song

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Ellis Paul's six-step program

Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul '87. Photo by Justin Knight

Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul '87. Photo by Justin Knight

On a windy Saturday afternoon in early May, some 40 students and campus visitors migrated indoors to Lyons 423. They were there for a master class with Paul Plissey '87—known to the wider world as the singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. He was at Boston College to receive this year's Arts Council Alumni Award, and had delivered a crowd-pleasing homecoming concert on the plaza the day before. Now the lanky 39-year-old was gingerly stepping to the front of a classroom to impart his self-taught method for writing songs.

Paul's urbane, pop-inflected acoustic style has been featured on 10 albums and has earned him 12 Boston Music Awards. He's been the opening act for the pop-folk star Shawn Colvin, and his extensive club and coffeehouse touring, together with radio airplay, has brought him a solid national following. The story goes that he first picked up a guitar while at BC, after a knee injury grounded him and ended his college track career.

The master class began with Paul interviewing his students, asking them about their backgrounds in a friendly but focused manner. There were a number of musicians on hand, not surprisingly, as well as some poets, and a woman who said she worked in market research and wanted to see how songcraft might overlap her own "story-driven" field.

The key to effective songwriting, Paul said, is to show, don't tell. "To show loneliness, you have to make it physical. Are the shades down? Are there pizza boxes around?"

He said he focuses on "people at a crossroads, surrounded by opportunity and change and loss," leaving open the challenge of communicating what brought them to that point and what may follow.

As students scribbled notes, he stepped to the blackboard and began to lay out a six-step method for pinning down character.

First, he said, write down the name of the person—real or fictional or famous—you want to frame. Next, think of five items that could be found in that person's bedroom. Third, write down five things that the person would see when he or she looks into the mirror. Then, identify two colors that the character calls to mind. Fifth, find a nonhuman metaphor that could describe your character. Finally, write a line of dialogue that conveys the way the character speaks.

Paul illustrated with one of his own songs. Years ago, a high school student from his Maine hometown—the boy who "always had the loudest voice at the party"—fell to his death while climbing a light pole as part of a stunt. Paul, chalk in hand, began ticking off salient details of his character's life. In his bedroom, for example, Paul imagined a cap and gown on the floor, beer cans stashed in a closet, and videos of Saturday Night Live. In the mirror, his character peered through bloodshot eyes at his uncombed hair and untucked shirt. The line of dialogue: "Pick me up a six-pack at the package store?"

For a long time, Paul said, he wanted to write about this character but the shape of the song eluded him. During an exhausting cross-country tour, however, a story started to germinate, prompted by a recurring sight—the solitary, pale water towers that loom over America's small towns. The song that emerged was "Eighteen."

Jimmy Aberdeen is the name that Paul conjured for the song's tragic character (he cautioned students to find ways to fictionalize the people they write about, unless the story is unequivocally flattering). He liked the name because it carries an echo of James Dean, reinforcing the restlessness and doom he was aiming to convey.

"Eighteen" is told through the eyes of a man returning to his hometown to attend a high school reunion, whose memories lead him back to a night years before when a friend fell to his death while painting graffiti on a water tower. "Jimmy fell down through the darkness / An ambulance brought silence to the scene / And carried off the life and broken dreams / of Jimmy Aberdeen." At the end of the song, the man climbs the water tower ladder, spray-paint can in hand, to complete Jimmy's mischief.

Sitting down with his guitar, Paul launched into the song, tapping a heavy black boot as he sang, his face tight with emotion. Some students continued taking notes, others smiled or nodded in time with the music.

When he sits down to work on his songs, Paul told the class afterward, he generally blocks out a significant stretch of time—10 P.M. to three A.M. is ideal—and lights a candle for atmosphere. He prefers writing in his living room to the studio. He begins with isolated snatches of music that he works out on the guitar, playing a certain melody over and over until it becomes "almost like a mantra."

Once the musical foundation has become nearly automatic, he starts singing nonsense syllables in falsetto, testing the boundaries and cadences of the melody to see what they will bear. Sooner or later—and sometimes, he stresses, much later—the vocalizing will yield an intelligible phrase. Paul compares the process to taking a Rorschach inkblot test; what comes out could as easily be the image of a bird in flight as the fragment of a memory from childhood. Once other associations begin attaching themselves to this phrase, Paul shelves the guitar and focuses on the lyrics, eventually going back and forth between words and music to make adjustments. For example, the phrase "you turn a blue eye to me" recently presented itself in a practice session, Paul said, and 15 hours of work had to this point yielded a half-finished song about a couple reckoning with the deepening seriousness of their relationship. He played for the class what he had of the song so far.

The hour-and-a-half lesson concluded with questions from the students. Who are Paul's influences? Woody Guthrie and U2, among others, he said. Some questions were technical. A student asked about tuning the mandolin in a minor key. Paul conceded the dilemma. "A mandolin just comes happy," he said.

And inevitably among aspiring musicians, the conversation turned in coolheaded fashion to royalties and financial pathways. Someone asked how best to go about placing songs in movies or on TV. (Paul's music has burnished episodes of MTV's The Real World, the Jim Carrey vehicle Me, Myself & Irene, and the movie Shallow Hal.) Soap operas, Paul responded, are a reliable market, constantly in need of soundtrack material. The answer seemed to break a spell, and a shadow of anxiety washed over the students' faces.

Benjamin Healy


Benjamin Healy is a writer based in Boston.

 

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