Surely one of the great wrongs in the entirety of the music industry is that Jill Phillips is not a household name. This is a heinous crime against the arts. It will not stand. It must be rectified. Together, my wife, Danielle, and I will inflict correction upon the world. Wonder Twin powers, activate!
Eric Peters: Jill, your new album, In This Hour, releases 11/8/11. This album’s initial recording and release were delayed by the May 2010 flooding in Nashville. Would you mind commenting on that, the damage to your home, and perhaps your emotional or psychological, even professional, reaction to that and to any ensuing events?
Jill Phillips: Thankfully, we were not affected as severely as many of our neighbors. There is a street right next to us that is completely evacuated and all the houses are being bought out by FEMA. Our damage was minimal and the water only filled the basement, not the main level of the house. Still, the time, money and a canceled show or two to take care of it all ended up depleting much of what we had saved for my record. We were also exhausted for a while and I was in no place to make a record. All of this was the catalyst for trying to fund the record through Kickstarter, which ended up being a big part of the story.
EP: I’ve noticed an increasing vulnerability in your work in the past couple of albums in which you seem to be delving into subjects, places, and emotions that perhaps you haven’t wanted to go previously. Has that been a conscious decision on your part, or a natural progression?
JP: I am a very private person by nature, even though I can be chatty on occasion. The mix of my personality and having begun my career at a young age with a Christian record label shaped the way I wrote for a while. I am proud of many of those early songs and still play quite a few, but I was in a different headspace when I wrote them. I was thinking about radio and sales and trying to please everyone, and that can cripple you when it comes to being honest in your writing. I should say that I think it’s possible to write honestly and find commercial success, but I think it takes a lot of fight. I probably cared too much about what everyone thought, and having some of those obstacles removed has felt like a weight lifted. The older I get and the more loyal and supportive the audience is, the less I have to fear, and that is always a good thing in art. Maybe part of it is just growing up, getting older, feeling more comfortable in my skin.
Danielle Peters: The nature of several of these songs is very personal to you. Do you write in the midst of your experiences or do they come together after you’ve had time to process?
JP: I think I probably lean toward processing more, then writing. Maybe writing is part of the processing too. The song about my father came eight years after his death. At a recent show, I was singing “Grand Design,” which was written right before his death, and I lost it on stage. I completely fell apart and it really took me by surprise. That’s when I knew I was in a different place with that song and I needed to write another one for where I was now, eight years later. Something had obviously been changing in me all that time and it finally came out in a song.
EP: Many artists bristle at this question, but I wonder if you had a central theme in mind during the writing and recording of In This Hour?
JP: Bristle, bristle. Just kidding. I often have central themes when I’m making a record. I wanted to focus the microscope in a little bit more this time and write some very specific, personal songs. I wrote a song for a close friend, a song about my father, a song for a family member struggling with addiction. I believe specificity often translates better than generality–I’ve come to believe that in recent years, anyway. I was also profoundly impacted by a conference I attended at Laity Lodge with Eugene Peterson, Dr. Albert Borgmann, Pierce Pettis, and other leaders from across the country discussing the implications of faith and technology. As a semi-working mom of three kids, I feel the effects of our frenetically paced society, and I want to live more simply. I don’t want to open my computer and nearly cry because I have more e-mails than I can possibly answer, more tasks to accomplish than I can physically perform in one day. How do we navigate these things responsibly yet without a posture of fear? I am really interested in that question; several of the songs on this record were written after that conference.
EP: Who or what inspires you on an average day?
JP: I’m really inspired by being a part of my community. I like knowing the parents at my kids’ school, going to basketball practices, seeing friends from church, having people over for dinner. I like showing up at Baja Burrito for lunch and seeing you, Andy Osenga, Jeremy Casella, and Randy Goodgame. These small daily routines are life-giving to me. I need people in my life and I want to know them and be known in return. Two of the hobbies that bring me joy are cooking and running. I feel very alive and at peace when I am doing those two things. I also love to play good music around the house. Now that it’s fall I have David Mead’s “Almost and Always” record on repeat as I cook and clean, and it reminds me that everyday life is rich and beautiful.
EP: Do you like bowling?
JP: Ha! My husband is at his weekly bowling lunch right now. I can’t say I love it but I do enjoy going from time to time as a family. We just got back from the Northeast and we all went candlepin bowling. I have to admit, it was one of the highlights of the trip. I don’t like bad smells, so most of my resistance is in knowing I will smell like a bowling alley the rest of the day.
EP: You obviously value strong melody. Your songs seem to hinge upon thoroughly catchy, fluent melodies and hooks that burrow deep into the listener’s brain for days and weeks on end. If you were forced to choose between one or the other for the rest of your life (thankfully, you don’t), would you choose to write only great melodies (with unmemorable lyrics) or only great lyrics (with a forgettable melody)?
JP: I’m a melody kind of girl. That’s one of the reasons I love your music so much, Eric. You have that killer combo of catchy melodies and thoughtful lyrics which is perfection in my mind. I don’t know if I could choose melody over lyrics because at the end of the day I want my songs to be about something meaningful, but the songs I like have both. I don’t know if my songs accomplish that, but that’s definitely the direction I want to be headed. Andy played me some songs the other day by a new guy everyone is raving about and the words were fantastic but the melody was a bit monotone. I just couldn’t get into it. We each have our bent and what speaks to us, I just happen to love great pop songs with insightful lyrics.
EP: Aside from the always-welcome presence of your husband and fellow artist Andy Gullahorn, you inexplicably asked me to contribute on a song, and you had a few new guest voices contribute to In This Hour, namely David Mead and Matthew Perryman Jones, two superb songwriters and singers in their own rights. Would you mind talking about how their involvement came about? This is your second album with producer Cason Cooley. Could you share a bit about that decision (if there was any debate in your mind) and how he came to be involved in your work?
JP: Yes, I did branch out a bit with this record. The truth is that I don’t know how to make a record without Andy Gullahorn. He will be a constant presence as long as I make music because we are growing up together in marriage and in music and he knows instinctually what I am trying to accomplish. His playing and singing on the record is always just what the song needs and he comes up with the best ideas.
I did feel the need, however, to bring some new faces into the mix. I had this mid-tempo, jangly melodic song that I just could not finish and I immediately knew I wanted you to help me. I wrote the song about my father with Randall Goodgame who was equal parts co-writer and counselor. I wanted you to sing with me on the song we wrote together and Randy played some piano on the song he co-wrote. It was so nice to be able to work with you guys because I love your music and our families live life together. You both knew what I wanted to say and where I was coming from. My producer, Cason Cooley, was also working with Matthew Perryman Jones while he was working on my record. They are old friends and Matthew stopped by the studio one day while we were working. Matthew has one of those voices that exudes passion and empathy and I asked him to sing with me on “I Didn’t Know That I Knew.” He knocked it out of the park.
As you know, I am a huge fan of David Mead’s music. I can’t think of a voice I love more, and his records are at the top of my all time favorites list. We had met briefly through a mutual friend and I asked this friend if he thought David would be willing to sing on my record. I really didn’t know what to expect, but he graciously accepted. Cason and I kept looking at each other in the control room while he was singing and tried not to freak out. He was that good. I was most impressed with his humility and his desire to keep working, when we were more than satisfied, because he had more ideas or thought he could improve what he had done. His background parts are some of my favorite things on the whole record.
I wanted to work with Cason again because our experience making The Good Things was so wonderful. I thought that record signified a shift for me and I wanted to keep on that trajectory. Cason is a fun person to be around and he’s incredibly passionate about making records. He has the technical expertise required to know the right gear, the right sounds, the right engineer, the right players, etc. for what I am trying to do. He’s also a musician and he cares about the songs, the performances, and the overall feel. His philosophy lines up with what I want for my records. Some producers are all about the feel, some are all about the gear and the technical side, and he is both. I am so thankful to have had an opportunity to work with him again.
EP: You’ve called Nashville home for seventeen years now. Knowing that so few musician/artists living and working in Nashville are actually native to the city, do you and Andy (Gullahorn) ever feel a pull back to your respective homelands? Reflecting on your own personal roots, are there one or two things you miss most about your native Chesapeake, Virginia?
JP: Yes, I do. Nashville feels like home, but I don’t feel like a Tennessean if that makes any sense. When I go to Virginia and North Carolina to visit my relatives I realize that I’ve been shaped by those places. I love the history, the architecture, the trees, the water, the seafood. My mom grew up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and we go there at least once a year as a family. It’s a spiritual experience for me because I’ve been going there since I was a child. My grandfather bought the land when it was worth nothing and he dredged the inlets with a dredge he built himself. My dad is buried in my hometown in Virginia and my mom still attends the church I grew up in. Andy and I were married there, my father’s funeral was there, and the people have known me all my life. The pull is much more than the place itself. It’s the shared history and the memories.
EP: Would you care to explain why yours is the music of choice in the Peters family car? Also, would you please explain to my five-year-old that he is emotionally, psychologically, and legally obligated, at least on occasion, to choose his father’s music instead?
JP: My kids always want to hear your music, so how about that? I’m not going to do anything to discourage Ellis Peters from liking me, because that child is an absolute doll. I want him to grow up and manage my career.
EP: When people write about the artist Jill Phillips in the year 2645–the very same year that cutting edge technology makes possible the $10.00 digital withdrawal from computerized bank implants in our foreheads–are there one or two things in particular you hope to be known and remembered for?
JP: Our pastor, the infamous Thomas McKenzie, taught a wonderful sermon about this not long ago. He talked about how most of us won’t be remembered for long after our lifetime, very few of us for more than one or two lifetimes after we are gone. I am really fine with that. I don’t think anyone is going to remember me in 2645–I’m not the Beatles for crying out loud! I just want to, in the words of Sara Groves, add to the beauty. I want my life to matter while I am here and to love the people around me well. At the end of the day it’s not about me, it is about the One I am following. This gives me a lot of peace and it keeps me from stressing about my footprint in this world. The small day-to-day stuff matters. The first song on my record called “Show Up” deals with this as well. Rich Mullins always said that if you are trying to leave a legacy you will end up leaving a legacy of ambition. I want love to be the theme of my life.
DP: It seems like there are a couple of songs that are charges to the Church. Do you feel compelled to write to any one particular group, perhaps specifically within the Church?
JP: I have gotten to a place where I don’t really think about writing to a specific group of people. I think that is part of the freedom I mentioned earlier. I wanted to write a group of songs that were personal and honest and I hoped they would resonate with someone else. I can honestly say I didn’t have a target group in mind. Most of the songs, if they are charges, are charges to me.
EP: The world is a better, more beautiful place with your music filling its halls. We readers and fans consider it an honor to call earth “home” at the same time as you. Thank you for continuing to create, for putting yourself forward, for being brave in that respect, and for loving your kids and hubby. Now, barring any political backlash, are there any questions I have failed to ask? Anything you’d like to say or add before we conclude and readers finally realize how utterly terrible an interviewer I am?
JP: These are such incredibly thoughtful questions. You just need to set them to a catchy tune! Thanks to both of you for being a part of this record and for your friendship. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone for your support of this record.
EP: World at large, consider yourself corrected. Before we have to open another can of Wonder Twin powers on you, go buy Jill Phillips’ brand new, wonderful album In This Hour. Now.
by Jill Phillips
In This Hour is available for pre-order in the Rabbit Room store.
Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.