A Q&A with Singer-Songwriter, Paul Phillips
Posted On 16 May 2014
Singer-songwriter and Kentucky native, Paul J. Phillips, formerly known as “Sheffer Stephens” and a member of the critically acclaimed indie-folk band Spinoza, is going out on his own and releasing a new solo EP entitled Magic. His unapologetic blend of rock, country, folk and soul has gathered a following that have allowed him to begin touring along the east coast and release this album. It certainly showcases his refined talent and “knack for memorable melodies and soulful, bluesy delivery.” Magic is more focused, with a raw, driving rock and roll style.
“To experience the music of Paul Phillips is to immediately be connected to something old, something new and something wonderful all at once,” says Jim Trick of Ring Street Records.
Mr. Phillips took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for me about his music and his roots. The musician was incredibly candid and honest so without further ado, here they are:
How is being in a group different then going solo? Is there anything that you miss?
As far as being a solo artist, if I’m not doing the work nobody else is either and you have to be relentless in a way. I do miss being in a band with other invested members, both creatively and as a business. It just helps lighten the load. As a performer, I still play with a band most of the time, it’s just centered around my tunes now. I prefer playing with a band versus solo, there’s something magical about connecting and engaging with other musicians live or in the studio. I guess one of the main differences is the way the music it derived is less democratic, but I try to let whoever I’m playing or recording with have their own voice. I’ve been lucky to get to play music with some dear friends and very talented people along the way. That’s the best part.
How is your solo EP, Magic, different then the music you made with Spinoza?
My first two records “Shooting Cars, Building Stars” and “Every Time I Leave” stylistically fit in the same world as the Indie-Folk/Americana we made in Spinoza. My new EP, Magic, is a departure from that. It’s more focused and straight ahead rock and roll – raw, driving, and back to basics. Hopefully it’s a little more playful too, less cerebral and more heart.
I have read that you developed your sound playing in the Boston city subways. What was that like? Did you find that people would stop and pay attention to you?
Playing in the Boston subways was such an incredible experience for me. It’s the perfect environment to try new material and play it over and over for hundreds of different people every few minutes. I would work on different arrangements, lyrics, or melodies to find what really worked. I learned when things were working well when I could get people to stop and listen or turn their ear. There was a very short window of time between trains to engage and win over each new audience, which was challenging and exhilarating and I loved every minute of it. I usually played for the morning rush hour crowd. I would try to put myself in the audience’s shoes and build a set based on that, thinking “what would I want to hear first thing in the morning, and what would I definitely NOT want to hear?”. Frequently people would come over and give a kind word or buy a CD. I usually did a set of four or five tunes at a session, but once I had someone come and sit and listen for almost two hours. I think I played everything I knew at that time. One of the great things about Boston subway performing is that the city really accepts and encourages it, too. People are used to it and are often very encouraging and appreciative.
You have been quoted as having a “knack for memorable melodies and soulful bluesy delivery”. Where do you think that comes from?
Being exposed to gospel when I was young and diving head first into old time blues when I started making my own music likely have something to do with that. I was born into a musical family and music was always a part of life. My father was a choir director and I grew up singing old hymns in gospel choirs and musicals. I probably draw a lot of my sense of melody and harmony, and “soulfulness” from that. By performing at an early age I think I was able to experience how music can affect people, myself included, and how to communicate that through lyrics and melody. I probably learned what moved me early on, which is music that’s soulful, raw, bluesy, with great melodies. Maybe that gets sifted into some of my songs here and there, and hopefully I’m writing things that are memorable. When I first started learning guitar and writing songs I was listening to a lot of old school blues, too. I had this record, “The Roots of Robert Johnson” which was a compilation of artists who were influences on the blues legend. I played it over and over and learned how to play in open tunings which I still do a lot of today.
If you could choose any band to join today, living or dead, who would it be?
That’s a hard question, there would be so many. Led Zepplin, Wilco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, U2, Dr. Dog. The Flaming Lips or the Pixies would be awesome. If I had to choose just one, I might say U2, their live shows are incredibly inspiring and they’ve reached so many people through their music.
What was the first piece of music that you fell in love with growing up?
It’s hard to say what was first. I started playing piano at the age of 4 or 5 so I heard a lot of classical music. It’s possible the first music I fell in love with was hearing my father play “Maleguena” on the piano. The first time I heard “Reverie” by Debussy my world changed, too. When I started playing in garage bands later on, I loved Led Zepplin and taught myself to play bass by listening to “Ramble On” over and over. I also remember spending a lot of time with and being especially attached to U2’s Achtung Baby. I was kind of a late bloomer as a singer/songwriter, and remember the first time I heard Martin Sexton it blew my mind.
Who would you like to collaborate with?
I’ve had a film/musical project on the back burner for a while now and have been trying to put things in place to complete it in the near future. I’ve seen a few people do something not too far off from what I’m thinking, including Sufjan Stevens, Radical Face, and (don’t laugh) U2. I think collaborating with any of them would be incredible and each would produce something totally different around this idea. Right now I’m hoping to collaborate with a time lapse photographer Jeff Frost to license some video content to go along with some new recordings. He does amazing things with abandoned buildings and use of light.
What musicians are you enjoying right now? Who are some newcomers that you think are going to be HUGE?
Dr. Dog is my new favorite band and they’re already well on their way to being huge. I love their big harmonies, dueling lead singers, and their live show is so fun. I love Spoon, also already pretty huge. I stumbled upon Mason Jennings a couple of years back and he’s one of my favorite songwriters, his lyrics have such depth and the way he sings is accessible and simple but sophisticated at the same time.
How do you balance your music with other obligations like family?
Music has always been a part of how I relate to my family and friends, just another deep layer we can connect on. That’s one way I try to keep balance is to make music a part of life, and make life part of my journey with music. I’ve been in a band with my wife, and hope to someday enjoy playing music with my newborn son. Most of my band experiences are and have been with dear friends. I don’t think it always has to be one thing or the other, music or family for example. But balance is one of the trickiest things to achieve with music, life, relationships, really anything worth fighting for. You have to pay attention and constantly remember what is important. Otherwise it’s like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”. Boy that struck a chord the first time I heard it. I just try to remember not to fall into patterns that would make me that guy.
Describe the music business today. Would you agree that the need for major labels is dwindling?
Since we were talking about Spinoza, it’s been interesting to see how the music business has evolved since I was playing with them in the late 90’s. Those were the final days of bands pitting themselves against the evil corporate labels. We were kind of stuck in the middle of times – we were trying to find our own way without a label like so many others, but the tools to succeed on your own weren’t as readily as available as they are today. With the dawn of DIY and all the tools you can find online today, I feel like the new music climate is kind of like the Wild West. It’s a new frontier and bands every day are finding new ways to succeed without the gatekeepers that used to be required. I was just reading about the band Vulfpeck that raised over 18K+ on Spotify with their album of silence they encouraged fans to play when they slept. It helped raise enough money for a new tour. Brilliant! The barriers are now lower to enter into the music business, and there is so much opportunity around every corner. I think the music business will continue to evolve around the DIY artists or boutique labels that are smaller and can cater to specific artist needs. As for dwindling major labels, I think they’ll be around as long as they’re filling a need, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is just less need than there was 10 years ago, and so fewer labels. I just moved to Nashville where the corporate country music scene seems to still thrive and I don’t see that changing because they are filling a need. Otherwise the major labels will have to adapt to new markets or continue coming up with new products to survive. There will always be people who consume music, as well as those who market it.
What is one message that you hope your fans take away from your music?
A lot of my music has a sense of longing to it. With that is also is a sense that there’s something on the other side of this or that experience or belief that can give us hope, something to fight for. Most of anything worth fighting for can be reduced to love. Love is the most important thing we can feel, do or be. I hope anyone who spends time with my music can get a sense of that somewhere sprinkled in the lyrics or melody – that love is the most important thing.
Also I love this quote. These are not my words, but they likely inform how I approach my art and can hopefully be taken away from my music:
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”