[Editor’s note: Jill Phillips has been working on a new album. So, “Matt Conner,” I said, “get you gone and find out what she’s up to.” Thus did he sally forth, and thus with this interview did he return. I have no idea why I’m talking this way.]
Just to start, I’d love to get an update on exactly where things are with the new album.
I’ve taken a little bit more of a pause in the past month-and-a-half for obvious reasons. We’ve been traveling and everything. But before school let out, we’d gotten to where there were basic tracks for all of the songs—percussion, some overdubs. We actually did some recording three or four weeks ago with Ben Shive, who did piano for one or two songs. We’ve had a cellist come in.
So we’ve done a good bit. Maybe we’re a little over halfway done. I still have to do my vocals. I have maybe one or two finished, but I really didn’t want to do those piecemeal. I wanted to be in the zone and do it, so I did one, took a pause, and then I’ll get to the others when the kids start school next week. When they’re home for the summer, it’s just impossible to get that much work done. [Laughs] My goal is to have it done by Hutchmoot. Maybe that’s ambitious, but we’ll give it a shot.
This is the longest you’ve gone between recordings, correct?
It probably is. I don’t even know how long it’s been, to be honest. It’s been a while. Andy and I alternate doing records, and his last one took longer as well. That means mine will take longer. That’s not his fault. That’s just both of us. [Laughs]
His took longer because he was on the road a ton, and I remember him having this realization. He was on the road at Laity Lodge and trying to get it out. He brought recording equipment to Laity, which is his favorite place to be in the world, and then it didn’t work. He just realized, ‘I am not supposed to do this. I’m going to enjoy Laity Lodge. I’m just going to postpone my album. It’s not going to come out for the Christmas tour. It’s just going to come out later.’ So that pushed back my album as well.
Honestly, that’s just fine. It really was. I do feel like the kids are at an age where they need you a lot. You think it’s when they’re babies, but it’s now. There are so many activities I need to be there for, and Andy’s been traveling quite a bit. If he’s going to travel at that rate, I need to be home a little more to enable him to travel. So all of that meant that we both probably needed a bit more time. Hopefully we won’t stay at that rate.
How does the material usually come together? Do you take things in a thematic direction or is it just culling together the ideas that have developed over a certain period?
A bit of both. There have been times when I thought more thematically. I think I still have to think thematically, because even if I’m piecing songs together that have been written over the last few years, I want them to be cohesive. I have a song that I love that’s been written for four or five years. My friends love it and agree it’s a great song, but it’s just not fit on any album that I’ve done. It won’t go on this one either. [Laughs] Maybe one day it will fit in, but I think there has to be cohesion and not just a good song. They have to have a similar tone. They don’t have to be the same, but there has to be a similar purpose. I want someone listening to the record to feel like there’s this cohesion either sonically or lyrically, whatever it is.
With this one, Andy is going to produce one of my records for the first time by himself. We’ve never done that before. We’ve done that with the Christmas record and that sort of thing. But I really felt like these songs were lending themselves to a really stripped down, organic approach. I probably won’t always do that. I like to do the full-band production. It’s really fun. But this record in particular, the songs seem a bit more mid-tempo. I mean, I’m not a rock and roll artist, but these songs feel easy, more melodic, more simple. Those are the songs coming out, so I thought we could just do this at home, keep the budget low to do what we want.
I also didn’t want to do a Kickstarter this time. It’s been four years and people were really generous. I’ve even got an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, when is your next Kickstarter?’ [Laughs] But I didn’t want to do back-to-back albums with Kickstarter. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to be able to pay for it this time. People were so generous, I just didn’t feel right about asking twice in a row. So we’ll do it at home and keep it in the family and have a bit more control over when it releases—instrumentation, budget, and all of that. It’s turning out really nicely.
That song that you said that you have? What is it about it that doesn’t fit?
Well, sonically it’s really different. It’s a rock song. It was up. It was really pointed, and I just felt like it just didn’t fit on this record, which is more songs of encouragement. It didn’t sound like it was coming from the same era, because it wasn’t. I remember last record talking with Cason about it. We decided the same thing. We thought it would be fun to produce, it sounds great, but it just didn’t fit with what I was saying with the rest of my songs. So I feel that’s okay. It was from a different time. I have to choose what’s more true for me now and choose the songs accordingly so that I can sing them with authority, with passion, with emotion, and feel like it’s me now.
So what is inspiring you at this point?
I was talking to a friend about this, and it sounds so Hallmark card that I’m almost hesitant to say it [laughs], but these songs are really about encouragement. For whatever reason, that’s a role that I have had in the past year or two with friends and family. I feel like I’ve been the beneficiary of that from so many friends and mentors and people that I love. The songs that were coming out were songs saying, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ There’s a million songs like that. It’s not like anybody needs mine, but it’s something we need to hear. It’s something everybody needs to hear at some point, maybe every day. I don’t know.
So those are a lot of the songs. They’re songs born out of friendship. They’re born out of joy and sorrow and walking with people and people walking with me telling me it’s going to be okay. That’s the gist of where a lot of these are coming from.
That’s interesting to me since it feels like Andy’s last album is the same way. Several of those tracks are the stories of others, if I’m correct.
It makes sense. It certainly wasn’t intentional. We did write some of the songs together, maybe half or less than half, but it does make sense. We’ve been on that parallel path of finding out what’s really important. The older we get, we realize it’s the people around us, the community, our church, our neighbors, our friends. The songs come out of that. That feeds the songs. That feeds everything.
This past year, I had friends who’d gone through really difficult times, friends that have gone through cancer. It’s been hard stuff. At the same time, there’s been this richness and beauty where God has met them and me and everyone that’s involved. It’s been bittersweet, sad to watch people struggle, sad to watch people die, sad to watch things happen that you don’t want to happen to people that you love. At the same time, my faith has been increased a hundredfold.
So that’s where I want to write. I want to write in that place, the place that a good friend of mine calls the “both/and.” The honesty of the struggle and the hope. That’s the only thing I want to say.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.