Rabbit Room Interview: Jill Phillips

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If you’re a Rabbit Room regular, then Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn should be common names that display on your iPod or iTunes. Both songwriters continue to release albums year after year that become important for the spiritual journey for many of us — an old friend reminding us of what is true amidst a culture that lies to us daily. Now, the duo turn their attention to the holiday season to bring an unexpected Christmas release that should avoid the holiday cliches and cheese that Andy hates so much. It’s just easier to let Jill explain.

The Rabbit Room: The new release is going to be a Christmas album. Obviously the holiday music category is already quite stocked, so did you hesitate to do a project like this in the past? And what makes this the right time?

Jill Phillips: I think we felt that way for so long and that’s why it’s taken us so long to do it. We’ve had people telling us since I started 12 years ago, ‘Oh, you should do a Christmas record.’ It was always, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Then when Andrew’s [Peterson] tour became a big part of our Advent season, people would still say, ‘Oh, you should do a Christmas record?’ And we’re thinking, ‘No way.’ [Laughs] It just always felt opportunistic, or not like the kind of thing that would be our first priority.

But I do love Christmas music. I really, really love it. During Advent season, I just really enjoy listening to it. I love being on a tour that’s been a part of my own worship during that month of December. That’s become such a tradition for us.
But the flooding and the damage in May sucked up the money that we’d been saving for my record. We felt we needed to postpone that for a while, but I also felt like I was creatively dying. [Laughs] I’d been in mom-land for a really long time. It’s great and I’m grateful for it, but I felt I had to do something that was creative outside of the bounds of parenting. So Andy and I began to brainstorm together on what we could both work on in our own studio that would appeal to us and that we could get done in the time crunch we were under. And we kept coming back to the holiday project.

It’s what we did with Kingdom Come a few years ago, to work on something in our house together. He is not a Christmas music or holiday music kind of guy, so I knew that it would take a different slant and be a very interesting project. I knew it wouldn’t be your typical Christmas record. It would be more centered on the church year with some traditional things thrown in. It would be acoustic and organic and produced a bit more like the Kingdom Come record.

The Rabbit Room: How many songs did you come up with?

Jill: Maybe 30 or 35 that we thought might potentially work. We didn’t want to do something just to keep it interesting. I think that’s so annoying. We weren’t going to take every Christmas song that’s been around for ages and put it in a minor key or do something weird. We didn’t want to do that. But we also didn’t want to do something that has been done.

What we tried to do is choose songs that wouldn’t be the expected person to sing that song. What would it sound like for Andy to sing his version of “O Holy Night?” What would it sound like to hear an acoustic-only version of “Christmastime is Here,” since it’s only been done on piano? It’s not anything too crazy and it’s true to us and what we find interesting.

The Rabbit Room: Is there a most pleasant surprise?

Jill: Yeah, the thing we were both least excited about was doing a song that was more recognizable and traditional. We had three original songs and some that were reworked hymns. So we chose “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and I thought, ‘This might be the snoozer of the record, the one that’s most boring.’ But the arrangement that Andy pulled off is one of my favorites. It really is one of the best on the record, and I wasn’t expecting that.

The Rabbit Room: Can you talk about the originals? Where do they come from and what do they speak to?

Jill: The first one was for City on a Hill, the compilation put together by Steve Hindalong. He’s a friend of ours and he asked us to try to write a Christmas song to pitch for that record. We did and they liked it, but for whatever reason, it didn’t end up on the record. So we had this Christmas song that we both really loved that had been sitting around for years. We’ve never had an opportunity to do anything with it.

Then Andy had written a song with Jason Gray that you might have heard at Hutchmoot that he wrote about a short story by Walt Wangerin, Jr. I love that song. I absolutely love that song, so he put a version of it on the record. Finally, we worked with this old hymn, “Nations That Long In Darkness Walked,” that not a lot had been done with and we put that to music. So there were a couple of different ways those original songs came about.

We also did a more obscure Advent hymn–it’s not an original–called “Once In Royal David’s City” that’s really beautiful, but nobody else really does it. So we did that one. We tried to pull originals from things that were not done very often as well as things more recognizable.

The Rabbit Room: That has to be fun to uncover a gem like that.

Jill: Yes, I’ve only heard one person do that one and it was Sufjan Stevens and he did an amazing version of it. But he also did a Christmas record that had 40 songs on it or something. [Laughs]

The Rabbit Room: Yeah, the five-song EP project.

Jill: Yeah, I think he did every song that is out there, and it’s kind of fun to listen to that. But this whole journey has been surprisingly fun. I think Andy is having fun as well. He did this bluegrassy version of “In The Bleak Midwinter” and I just loved the way it’s been turning out. It’s been really fun to be creative, yet at the same time, we can do it quickly. We don’t have to come up with 12 new songs. It’s been fun to interpret the songs and see what we want to do with them.

The Rabbit Room: You mentioned the time crunch a few times, so what does that mean? Can you explain that more?

Jill: Sure. We were hoping to start my record sometime in early summer and have it done before we left on Andrew’s Christmas tour this year. We’ve learned that that’s a good time for us to release records. It’s what works for us. The kids are back in school in the fall and for whatever reason, that’s the cycle that tends to work. But with the flooding, we were overwhelmed, not only with the things that needed to be done, but we were overwhelmed financially. It was just thousands and thousands and thousands in home repairs we weren’t expecting. We lost everything in our basement from the HVAC to the hot water heater to the washer and dryer–everything that was in the basement.

Even though we had insurance and a lot of it was covered, there was still a plenty that wasn’t covered. It pushed everything back and making a record just takes time. You don’t think that it does. You think you can go in there and just knock it out, but the scheduling, the logistics, the finding the studio, child care–it all becomes a challenge to turn out a record quickly.

I think that’s why Andrew and the guys just left for two weeks. They left their families for two weeks and that wasn’t super-exciting, but they knew that what they could do in two weeks of isolated time up there would equal what they could do in two months at home. So Andy and I didn’t have that luxury this fall. It was nice to have something where we didn’t have to put finishing touches on all of our songs or wonder which ones we were going to keep. We were working with three or four originals and then just finding the other songs. That was really fun in a different way.

The Rabbit Room: If you guys continue to be a part of Behold the Lamb of God, I assume this means your own Christmas music and release won’t get a lot of support?

Jill: Yeah, we thought about that. It would be hard to fit it in unless we did it around Thanksgiving. [Laughs] Most churches don’t want to do that, so I think it will probably have to be–at least for this year–just Behold the Lamb. And that’s okay with me. It really is. It probably won’t last forever. There will come a day when it won’t happen and I’m sure we’ll miss it. So we just take it year by year. We get an email in September that asks, ‘Is everybody in?’ Then you respond and you’re in for another year. But I don’t think beyond that.

The Rabbit Room: How many years have you been involved there with the projects and tour?

Jill: Let me think. I first sang the song when Andrew did his first concert in Nashville at First Christian. They weren’t touring it yet. They were still doing the stripped down version with Silers Bald and Gabe [Scott]. I did one Nashville show and they had me come sing the song and I was pregnant with Drew, and he’s now almost nine, so it was a while ago. [Laughs] It was at least eight-and-a-half years ago. I’ve been pregnant three times singing that song.

It really has become part of our Advent season or our tradition that we do as a family. It’s been great. I think the tour has been going on for six years, maybe? I think that’s right. We never had a clue when he asked us to do it. It’s like anything that’s successful in that you usually don’t know what it’s going to be in the beginning. We just thought it would be a fun adventure for a year. We would have 10 or 12 shows and it was so wonderful and fun that the shows were well received.

Well, every year it just kept expanding with the amount of shows. We were thinking we could get up to 19 or 20 shows and it’s at that point that I realized, ‘Oh, this is going to be something they’ll want to do every year.’ It became the defining thing of Andrew’s career in a way. It became the thing that eclipsed his other albums of work and I think it will be the thing he’s remembered for. So we’re just glad to be a part of it as long as we can and as long as it works for our family. If it comes to a point when it doesn’t, that will be a sad day. For now, though, it’s okay.

I do have to miss every Christmas thing known to man. We miss all of December. We miss all of our kids’ Christmas everything–all of the pageants and whatever. We just know, though, that this is what we’re doing every December for as long as it’s feasible.

The Rabbit Room: After you reset yourself in 2011, where does the attention turn?

Jill: I think if we can get this record completed the way we would like, I will feel very, very pleased. Then my attention will turn to my own solo project with Cason Cooley. He did the last one and he will be on the tour as well, so we will do some pre-production on the road in December since we will have that time without kids. He has two little kids as well, so I just look forward to that. When I feel that I have the 11 or 12 songs that I feel really great about, then we’ll head into the studio. That will be the next thing.

The Rabbit Room: And what of Andy?

Jill: He’ll start his in the summer most likely, whenever I’m done. We just leapfrog records. It’s just too hard for us to do it at the same time, so my guess is that he’ll keep writing and get his songs ready. Like right now, I’m getting my songs ready and then when I’m done with mine, he’ll start on his projects. It’s the only way we could do it, I guess. When our kids are all in school, it might be different, but this is what works for now. [Laughs]

The Rabbit Room: So what are the details for the release?

Jill: The goal is to have it out by the beginning of November and it’s going to be sold at the Rabbit Room. We’re starting to move our store from my own site to the Rabbit Room just to take one more thing that we have to worry about out of the equation. For years, we’ve shipped all of our own orders and it’s finally gotten to the place where Andy and I looked at each other and decided we could use some help. So the Rabbit Room is there and iTunes is still a big thing.

So I think Pete [Peterson, Andrew’s brother] and all of those guys now are making a page specifically for our music so we can specifically sell it there and then Pete will ship it out. So we will all be sending things out when the project is ready. That should be beginning of November. We just had our photo shoot last weekend and the designer is working on the artwork right now.

The Rabbit Room: What’s the title?

Jill: We don’t know. [Laughs] Right now, it’s just Christmas. If it doesn’t work, you might as well just call it Christmas. Everything else just sounded pompous or ridiculous or not at all Christmas-y. We would pick random lines from the hymns and it would sound like a hymns record or something. So we just say Christmas until we can come up with something better.

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.


18 Comments

  1. Jonathan Rogers

    I should mention that my previous comment was an utter fabrication. Neither Jill Phillips nor Andy Gullahorn have ever owed me money. If anything, I owe them money, since every time I’ve been to Pla-Mor lanes with Andy, I get free bowling shoes. It’s like something out of Entourage. The shoe lady gives me a wink and a nod as she pushes the shoes across the counter, and my face glows with the reflected glory of Andy’s celebrity.

    Here’s my real comment: I can’t wait to get my hands on this record. I was going to say Jill sings like an angel, but I think that would understate the case. There’s a soulfulness in her singing that I don’t think an angel could do; you have to be human to sing like that, I suspect. And Andy’s particular brilliance on top of that…this is all very exciting.

  2. Peter Br

    Sharon: the first time, or the second? Or the part about bowling? I would like to bowl with Andy and the gang sometime. Maybe there’s a patronage tier there somewhere.

    This record sounds tremendous. Bleak Midwinter should be amazing from those two, and Andy’s Peanuts cover — oh, I just can’t wait.

    See you folks in Corsicana, with four of our five this time! I expect this album will be one of the first we pick up off the table.

  3. Laura Droege

    I love that you’ve put songs on this album that haven’t had much done with them. “Once in Royal David’s CIty” is beautiful and I really don’t know why no one sings it! I’m also interested in hearing “Nations That Long In Darkness Walked,” because I’ve never heard this hymn before (to my knowledge).

    I hope I get to attend the Behold the Lamb concert again this year (at Southwood Presbyterian in Huntsville, AL). I’ve been twice and I’ve cried when I’ve heard you sing “Labor of Love”, Jill.

  4. Leigh McLeroy

    What Jonathan Rogers said. The second time. Can’t wait to hear it, Jill and Andy! Come to Houston, please! I’d say my house, but my living room is teeny-tiny. (That’s real small in TX).

  5. Eric Peters

    If “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” didn’t make the cut, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

    Also, I can’t wait to hear this record.

  6. Paula Shaw

    One of my favorite hymns is “Once in Royal David’s City”, and having come from the Anglican Communion, I’ve sung it every Christmas Eve for the last bazillion years. As a former worship leader in an Anglican Church, I specifically scheduled that hymn every year at our CE services. I cannot wait to hear it on your album. I can’t wait to hear the whole album! I love, love, love Advent/Christmas/Epiphany so much. Did I mention how excited I am that your album is coming out? You guys have such a terrific blend, and you know just how to play off of each other’s voices in a way that is so complementary. Awesomeness, sheer awesomeness. I’ll be looking for the time we can order this project! So, so excited!
    🙂

  7. Guy Draper

    Jill & Andy gave a live sample on Sunday at our church in Spicewood, TX. It was really, really good.

  8. Peter Br

    Aw man! They were in TX? I rarely hear about these things until it’s too late (or if I do hear in time, it’s impossibly scheduled).

    We need a Square Peg aggregate calendar.

  9. Aaron Roughton

    Peter, I knew about the Spicewood show, and I confess that I forgot to alert you as part of the Square Peg Alliance Texas Alert Alliance Network. For this I am truly sorry. But I didn’t make the show either, even though I live a mere 30 minutes away.

  10. Tenika Dye

    Just read Matt Conner’s article on the Christms album in the Nov issue of CCM magazine! YAY for more coverage. 🙂

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