A longtime favorite in the adult folk world, Ellis Paul recently joined CMN and will take part in a workshop panel about the music business at this fall’s CMN conference. He first got inspired to write kids’ songs when his own children were young. They’re now 10 and 7 – not teens yet, he said, “But I can see it in their eyes.” Ellis’s second children’s album, the Hero in You, was released in 2012, winning a Parents’ Choice Gold award and other accolades. The album features biographical songs about such historical figures as Rosa Parks, Ben Franklin and Rachel Carson, and lesser-known figures such as Mr. Tee Tot, an early 20th century blues musician, and Augustus Jackson, an African American White House chef who improved the way ice cream was manufactured. You can see a video of the title song here. The album will soon be released in a book/CD version and may even have a future as a musical play. This is part 1 of an interview conducted by Liz Buchanan.
Now that your own kids are getting older, what keeps you writing songs for children and family audiences?
I kind of feel like it’s part of my job description … it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, writing songs for everybody, kind of like Woody Guthrie did. In a lot of ways, it’s showing the folk side of what I do. The [children’s] songs tend to be more educational, more socially relevant, where in my adult songs I’m more a singer-songwriter, more rock-influenced. The kids’ songs are folk songs. A lot of them are about famous people or moments.
Do you think about a song differently when you’re writing a song for kids and families?
The paintbrush is broader, and the colors are more primary colors. You’re writing to keep the attention of both adults and kids, so the stuff you’re saying between the lines, the kids might not get, but the parents get. The song lines and melodies tend to be brighter. With my adult stuff, it’s a softer palate and more subtle shades of color and more detail.
Other than being around your own kids, how do you keep in touch with what kids are thinking about – to come up with song topics?
I think about what I want for the kids, as far as subject matter is concerned … I start thinking “Kids really need to know about this.” The subjects tend to be more unique, and I think about, how can I make that interesting to somebody who’s eight? Then I have to put myself in their shoes.
I understand there’s been a lot of teacher interest in your album, the Hero in You.
Yes, more and more teachers seem to be interested, and I think the book will help get it into teachers’ hands. And the last couple of days, I’ve been working on doing a musical version of it that people can present as a school play. There will be every single academic arm that I can find to get it into schools, which is great.
How will you get the word out about that?
The book will be marketed to librarians all over the country. And of course, I’ll be traveling doing shows, so as I go across the country I’ll be working at being a traveling salesman, so to speak. … With the coming of the book, I think I’ll be doing more school presentations for third through fifth graders. I’d love to be doing two or three school shows every month, and have the musical presented. It’ll be fun to start seeing things on YouTube where choruses are doing the songs, with kids dressed up in costumes.