An Interview With Chicago-Based Singer-Songwriter PHILLIP-MICHAEL SCALES All About His Brand New Music, His Legendary Uncle B.B King and More!
Posted On 06 Jun 2018
Get to know the Chicago based singer-songwriter Phillip-Michael Scales!
Previously known from his indie-rock band Briar Rabbit (which achieved some notoriety and attention from American Songwriter, The Huffington Post, etc.), Phillip-Michael went through a personal and musical transformation over the last two years to end up creating music with an entirely different sound. This transformation was largely in part to the passing of his uncle, the legendary B.B. King.
Prior to this, Phillip-Michael was living in LA and enjoying the life of a starving artist – waiting tables to make ends meet while he pursued his music. Continuously frustrated with the LA lifestyle, he decided to move back to Chicago and reconfigure his entire work ethic to put his music at the forefront – and was quite successful in doing this! His new EP Sinner-Songwriter (out on June 8th) showcases this evolved sound blending together southern roots rock, soul and blues into a sound Philip-Michael calls “Dive Bar Soul.”
Learn more about Phillip-Michael Scales in the following All Access interview:
Where does this interview find you now? What’s on tap for the rest of your day? Right now, I’m in my apt drinking coffee.
The rest of the day looks like some writing, a bit of admin work, and then I’ve got a gig a little later on.
Overall, how do you think 2018 has been treating you and your music career? What has been one goal that you have had this year and how close are you to reaching it?
I wrote, recorded and finished Sinner-Songwriter in 2017 so I’ve been pretty much just sitting on it since the first of the year! It’s been a lot of prep and promo. I’ve had a lot of fun working out my new set up from being solo acoustic to solo electric and playing with a band. I’m a performer first and foremost so it’ll be exciting to get out in front of people and see how they respond. I think one goal I had was to just get the record out and I’m almost there!
Growing up, was music always a big part of your life? Can you recall your first ever musical experience? How much of an influence on your music did your legendary uncle B.B. King have on your sound?
I’d say music has always been a big part of my life in one way or the other. My family grew up in Detroit at the height of Motown so music has always been super present and appreciated. The earliest memory really performing was being in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donnie Osmond when I was nine. That’s when I got my first taste of performance and it left an impression. I think more than my sound, I think he influenced my showmanship and performance. Though I will say that Blues is kind of my musical foundation.
What has the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? Has there been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
This career is FULL of surprises. You do your best to plan but most things come out of nowhere; things fall through, you get asked to open tours with two weeks notice, someone wants to fly you across the world to play your own songs. All you can do is take things as they come and adjust your course. I entered a contest on a whim and won a year of rent in exchange for playing a certain number of hours a month so that has definitely changed my course a bit and been a welcome challenge!
How do you think you and your music have been influenced by your hometown and where you live today in Chicago? How did leaving LA affect you? If you don’t think that it has affected you at all, why is that?
I’ve picked up different elements from everywhere I’ve lived. At home, aside from my blues and musical theatre roots, I had an incredible English teacher who got me hooked on words and literature. At Berklee College of Music in Boston, I was exposed to so much music from both my professors and my peers. Playing with a lot of different musicians broadened my horizons and made me more well rounded. I feel like LA sharpened my ability to sell myself and think about branding.
I find it interesting that sometimes musicians choose to go by something other than their own name so why did you decide to go by your name?
I started going by my name when I released an acoustic EP after moving to LA. The rational being that personal songs should come from a person. For better or worse, I’ve never been great at hiding my feelings or being mysterious so I think this is just part of that natural progression.
So what has it been like transitioning from being in your former band Briar Rabbit to going solo?
Briar Rabbit was actually mostly a solo project. Pretty much after 2012, it was just me solo. Being solo was key in transitioning into full time. You’re dealing with one schedule, one hotel room, one smaller car and one vision. On the flip side, the full workload falls on your shoulders: the cost of recording, hiring a band, decision making, promoting, and various other duties. Some days it feels like too much but it makes the victories sweeter!
Let’s talk about your forthcoming EP, “Sinner-Songwriter.” What was it like putting this collection together? I have read that you call it “Dive Bar Soul.” Can you elaborate on what that exactly means to you? What was it like producing it all and performing most of the instruments on it?
Writing this record was the most fun I’ve had in awhile. One thing that I took from my experience in LA was creating a world around the music you’re making. It was super liberating to be in my apartment or at a coffee shop with my laptop creating things in this world. As an emerging artist, you’re forced to wear so many hats and constantly feel the pressure of not doing enough. “Are you behind on booking? Is your social media up to date?” To just have the luxury to create (which is the only reason I do all the other stuff) was such a gift. When you create a world, you have a palette which makes it easier to see what fits in the world and what doesn’t. I think if you aim towards the middle, you get a middle reaction. Dive Bar Soul is this blend of Rock, Blues, and Soul. It’s a bit dark, unpolished, no frills, it’s passionate and sincere. The overarching story is about being tangled in someone else’s terrible relationship and a dive bar is such an interesting place to set that story.
This was really one of my first times producing on my own and I’m glad I got the chance to do it. I had a vision and I really dug into it. It had me thinking about the tones of the instruments and why I was picking each one. Despite being a trained guitar player I never thought of myself as a guitarist so this was a chance to show myself “Wow, I’m capable of a lot more than I thought I was!”
What was the inspiration for the collection’s first single “Lover, Let Me Be”? How creatively involved were you with the making of the music video for it?
“Lover” was the first song I wrote for Sinner Songwriter and the melody just came to me. It’s about confronting someone to give in to their feelings about you or leave you alone and the pain of being stuck in the holding pattern.
I sent the song and a mood board over to Vincent Martell (VAM) and they sort of put together their visual representation of the song. There was a lot of trust involved on my part. What I took away from the video was that the characters were interacting in spaces we weren’t quite sure they were supposed to be in. It’s got a vibe for sure.
I would love to know more about how the passing of your uncle impacted your music and who you are as a musician? What would you say is the biggest lesson he taught you?
You know, the death of my uncle was rough. A lot of people like to draw the music connection but at the end of the day, he was more like my grandfather. The lessons, I learned from him weren’t about notes and riffs but about life. He lived 89 of the craziest years in this country and through the civil rights era. The biggest things I got from him were to work hard (I played 200+ shows last year) and to always be a gentleman. I think those things have and will continue to take me places.
What do you think makes for an ideal show for you? What has been a favorite performance of yours so far? Do you have any upcoming shows this summer?
The best shows start with a captive audience. I come from a theater background and love when people are there to listen and be taken somewhere. Mostly because I like to take people on a journey from the beginning of my story to the end. I want you to walk away feeling like you’d have easily paid double for the show! I love playing in Appleton, WI. They’ve got a festival called Mile of Music and people are super supportive. I’ve had shows that were just wall to wall people and to play to crowds like that keep you going. You face a lot of rejection in the business and if you’re not careful, it can make you jaded but when folks are actively listening and responding, there’s no better feeling. Going back to creating the world of Sinner-Songwriter, I’ve been bringing my sign along with me. It really sets the mood! I’ve got a bunch of mid-west dates coming up here: bit.ly/2IhS4oU
We are currently living through a very trying and politically charged time right now so I am curious to know how your own music is reflecting this time period? If you don’t think it is, why is that? Would you say that other musicians are making music that has been influenced by this climate?
We are. I think as a black man in this country, I’d have to do a lot of bending to talk about my life without talking about politics. It used to be something I steered away from but at this point, it’s unavoidable. “Oh, Beautiful” is about being on the receiving end of a relationship with very specific roles that I’m supposed to play in their life. It actually plays on a line from ‘America, the Beautiful’. “I dance with the ugliest truth, just to know where I stand with you. Oh, Beautiful, forsake me not.”
What has it been like keeping up with your social media accounts and all the different platforms? Is it hard to stay up to date on it all?
It can definitely be tough to keep all the plates spinning! I’m getting back into Twitter because I just enjoy it. I enjoy the community aspect of it and I think that’s what social media is actually about. A lot of artists use it as a way to just promote but you’re missing an opportunity to connect with people about things you both care about.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
My influences are across the board. Otis Redding, Ray Charles. On of my music jobs is to play cover gigs which is fun because it forces you to learn songs you wouldn’t normally learn and play in ways you wouldn’t normally. That’s been an exciting challenge that has definitely influenced me. Oh man, I’d love to work with Jack White, I’m from Michigan and he’s a god where I come from so I think working with him would just be the best thing in the world.
If you were going to be stranded on a deserted island forever, what musical item would you take with you?
I think it’d have to be an acoustic guitar, it’d be easy enough to fix right? Also, I have food right? I mean…I love music and everything but….
If your music was going to be featured on any TV show that is currently on right now, which would you love it to be on?
Oh man, this is so tough. I feel like it’d be great on something Marvel like Luke Cage. I would absolutely lose it.
At the end of the day, what do you hope your fans take away from your music?
It sounds crazy but I hope they take what they need. A bunch of people can enjoy the same thing for completely different reasons. The record is about so many parts of my life; Success, Failure, Shame, Race, Heartbreak, Love, and Chicago. So whichever entry point people connect with my music, even if its just “Hey this dude did everything himself and maybe I can too” I’m happy.
Where can our readers connect with you?
Instagram and Twitter: @PhillipMScales