Release Day Interview: Jill Phillips on Mortar & Stone

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It’s release day for Jill Phillips’s new record, Mortar & Stone (available here in the Rabbit Room store). Last week I chatted with Jill via Facebook about her record and other things. Mostly other things. She was just coming in from tutoring a student at her kids’ school, which draws students from very expensive neighborhoods, from housing projects, and from every sort of neighborhood in between. That was where our conversation started.

Your kids’ school is pretty interesting—this meeting point between families of privilege and families who don’t enjoy nearly the same advantages.

I agree. I want my kids to go to a school where people don’t have all the privileges they have. I want them to know that in all the important ways, those other kids aren’t that different. I think the things they see there hopefully build character and compassion. We talk about their school and friends in the context of the gospel all the time. I want them to see Jesus there and in their classmates. The thing that makes people the most anxious about sending their children there is really its greatest gift.

I think that has some relevance to the music you and Andy [Gullahorn] have been making—and the life y’all have been living—for a long time. So many of the songs on Mortar & Stone are about the blessings that come out of things you didn’t want at all.

That’s really interesting. I do think that’s true. I don’t think we can avoid pain. Our kids can’t avoid pain growing up. I can’t avoid pain in my daily life. Part of maturity is knowing who to turn to when hard things happen- who is Lord of it. I want to sing about all of those things.

Every grownup in the world will tell you that the things that made them a better person are the hard things, and yet most of us don’t want hard things for our kids. As much as I know I need Jesus, I don’t want my kids to have to need Jesus

I know, it’s so true. Even as I write that and know I believe it I fight it every day. I don’t want them to suffer, I don’t want to suffer.

Kids are the final frontier when it comes to the gospel.

You would know, too! I hold on to some of the stories you guys have told about your kids as we enter the teenage years.

Speaking of kids, I’ve got to tell this anecdote: My kids are big Jill Phillips fans. They’re also big Mrs. Gullahorn fans…

I love your kids.

One day we were listening to one of your CDs, and my son—he was eleven at the time—got to looking at the CD cover and said, “Look, Jill Phillips looks just like Mrs. Gullahorn!” I thought he was joking at first, but he wasn’t. When I told him that Jill Phillips WAS Mrs. Gullahorn, you could have knocked him over with a feather.

HA! I love that story so much. Laundry and dishes by day, stealth musician by night.

He’s used to knowing people who turn up on the iPod, but you’re the only one of our musician friends who uses a code name.

I know, the name trips people up all the time. They think I am either making a feminist statement or trying to distance myself from Andy. The truth is I did music before we were married:)

Even though it says Jill Phillips on the cover, your music IS the music of Mrs. Gullahorn. It so obviously grows out of the life you’re living every day.

Absolutely. No one outside of music knows me as Jill Phillips. Jill Gullahorn, mom, neighbor, wife, friend—that is absolutely how I see myself. My life feeds my music, not the other way around.

Wait a minute. Is that completely true? Doesn’t your music feed your life too?

Well, I guess that’s true too. But I suppose I mean that without my daily life my music would be without context. They have to go together maybe is a better way of putting it.

Aha! That was the first “gotcha” question of the interview. The first of many.

I don’t doubt it!

To what extent does your sense of self come from the fact that you make music?

I have thought about that before. Honestly, I’m not sure because I’ve always been a career musician. I am sure if it all came to an end there would have to be some kind of reckoning and I would know the real answer. It is a big part of who I am, but not the most essential thing. I feel I identify much more with being a wife, mother, friend and neighbor.

That’s the second time you’ve identified yourself as a “neighbor.” I love my neighbors. But I don’t think of “neighbor” as being in the top four categories of my identity. What’s so great about your neighborhood?

It’s never been on my top four either. We just landed in this amazing neighborhood when we moved into our current house. When we moved in they were all out in our backyard waiting to meet us. The people who live in this neighborhood are invested in each other’s lives. I love them. I use neighbor in the literal sense and the figurative sense in which Jesus talked about neighbor.

I’ve met several of your neighbors at the bowling alley. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but while they may be great neighbors, they aren’t all great bowlers.

Ha! But they will show up week after week.

That is a great point. And I also caught the veiled criticism of my poor attendance record at Bowling Lunch. It’s hard for me to get there every week, so don’t judge. Let me just tell you that criticizing your interviewer during a “gotcha” interview is not a good move.

Not at all:) I have no idea who comes every week except a few neighbors. You could be President of Bowling for all I know.

Too late. The gloves are coming off. Back in the day, you and I competed against one another in an American Idol Fantasy League.

Very true. Those were the days, right? That league was the best.

You earned a reputation in that league for threatening to punch people in the throat. That’s a lot of anger just below the surface.

No, just a sad attempt at humor.

Mmm hmmm…doesn’t that refusal to acknowledge your anger issues just make you that much more angry?

In all seriousness, I don’t think I’m angry. If I am going to go to a bad place it will be fear or anxiety. That’s my poison.

Songs dealing with fear and anxiety aren’t exactly the fast track to radio hits, are they?

No, but they should be! A lot of people are afraid. Just watch the news for two seconds.

You make a great point. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money by stirring up fear and anxiety.

It’s a whole industry. But the way to deal with fear is to name it. Name the fear and know who is the Prince of Peace who brings healing. It’s a constant process.

Yes and amen. The fear industry, on the other hand, says, “You’re afraid? You don’t even know the half of it. Listen to this other thing you should be afraid of.”

Yes. My friend Suzanne Stabile is an enneagram teacher and she says the news shows really ramp it up around sweeps time. Lots of wars and rumors of wars, danger about certain products our kids use, etc. They know we watch even when we don’t want to.

It’s a strange phenomenon, but very human. I do that kind of thing any time I get away from gospel sanity. Which is to say, pretty often.

Absolutely. We may not change our reaction but we can recognize it and counter it with truth.

Here’s one of many things I love about your songs: Your songs say, “This broken world, this hurting world where fear and anxiety romp around at will—this is exactly the place where the gospel does its work”—not some imaginary world where I’m hap-hap-happy all the time-time-time.

That is really kind. I sure hope they say that. I have had the benefit of learning from a lot of great people along the way who emphasize that fact. This world is beautiful and it is where His redeeming work is happening. Cycles of Good Fridays, Holy Saturdays and Easter Sundays all the time.

That’s what I love about Flannery O’Connor’s stories too. So, see: I like you and Flannery O for some of the same reasons. I’m going to entitle this interview “JR talks to the new Flannery O’Connor.”

I’ll take that any day! You know, you are the one who made Andy fall in love with Flannery O’Connor. He talks about her writing all the time.

I consider that one of the great accomplishments of my writing career.

He might say that too:) But I am not as tough and honest as she is. I aspire to be.

How is anybody who is fully engaged in family, friends, and neighbors going to be as “tough” as Flannery O’Connor? She didn’t have to be in the middle of it every day the way you are. There are different kinds of toughness.

She just seems really fearless in her writing. I will probably get more and more that way with age, but I’ll always be my personality I suppose. An encourager by nature.

Here’s hoping. As much as I love Flannery O’Connor, I wouldn’t much want you to turn into her. Here’s something else I love about your songs: I love the fact that if I put your songs beside Andy’s songs, it’s obvious that they come from intertwined lives. It sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but there are plenty of married couples who might not be talking about the same things.

I really appreciate that. I am such a fan of his songwriting. One of the great gifts of being married to Andy is we are interested in growing together. We don’t want to be stagnant. I feel that there are similar themes we are drawing from that do flow from our lives and what we are learning.

Mortar & Stone and Beyond the Frame feel like companion pieces to me.

Oh, I love that. You know, it makes sense. He produced Mortar & Stone and we worked at home. The songs were simple and I wanted simple production to fit them. I think he is really gifted at that. I heard him do it on his record so beautifully.

On a different note, I see that the door fell off Bono’s private jet while he was flying to Germany.

What??

This is one of the amazing things about doing an interview on FB chat…the newsfeed just keeps coming.

It will be on the news in a second. “Private plane danger at 5:00!”

As it turns out nobody on the plane was ever in any danger. So, more fear mongering. I’m sorry. Is that rude to go off and read a news story in the middle of an artist interview? I meant no disrespect.

Not at all. It’s Bono. You’re a Christian for crying out loud. Unavoidable:)

You’ve probably folded two loads of laundry during this conversation. Actually, I bet you’re careening around Nashville in your minivan texting this whole interview on your phone.

No, I’m upstairs in a quiet house. Heaven. But I’m not above it. I multi-task all the time. I’m a mom. It’s survival.

I know many of the songs on this new record came from walking through some pretty intense situations with friends.

It’s been a hard year in our community and with some dear friends. I feel like it’s natural that the songs would be informed by real life. And I have walked through some pretty hard years myself so I wanted the songs to ring true to anyone in a hard place. Acknowledging the pain, clinging to the hope.

That’s what you were saying a minute ago: naming the fear or the pain or the anxiety is a step toward bringing the gospel to bear on it. Which is a very different thing from wallowing in it.

Yes, I think so. And maybe there are seasons for wallowing and we have to be patient and bear with one another. We are all at any given time in different places with our faith. We have to remind each other of what is really true and who we really are. I have had many people do that for me, who currently do that for me. And I have had the great blessing of being able to do that for my friends from time to time.

You’re a wise lady.

Nah. I’m copying all of this from a blog.

Has anybody ever told you that you look like Jill Phillips?

Yes, actually! A really smart, funny little Rogers kid.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


5 Comments

  1. Mark Niemann

    Great interview. I always love sensing the personal side of individuals who I am not daily connected with.

    Great album, too! I let my wife borrow it two days ago…no sign of it since!

    Thanks for the behind-the-scenes insight into Jill’s everyday existence.

  2. Ashley Barber

    I nodded along and laughed and sighed contentedly with the truthiness of this conversation. Thank you both for all of it.

  3. Goodgame

    I love these people. Jill, year after year, you keep writing great, meaningful songs. I was driving with my daughter today, and she was singing along to That’s Not Who You Are. I’m so thankful for your songs and their power for me and my family (and the world and the galaxy and the universe and all the universes).

    And I think this album may be your best yet. But I had to qualify that with “think” and “may” because they’re all so good.

  4. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    This is fantastic. It’s got it all. What an honor and a cool treat to hear from two incredible people this way. Wow. Could I be an even bigger Jill Phillips/Mrs. Gullahorn fan now? Didn’t think so, but I must be.

    This exchange is the sports equivalent of a incisive pass through a determined defense in soccer, followed by a worldy of a goal, followed by the two teammates doing a tasteful, humble-hearted, good-natured celebratory dance.

  5. JamesDWitmer

    Something about the quiet, grounded, pain-seasoned but kind and hopeful tone of this interview encourages me.

    I can’t identify a particular, quotable “zinger,” but I think Nashville is blessed to have the Gullahorns.

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