A couple days before our interview, I had absolutely no idea who Phillip Phillips was, except what my friends had filled me in on: his big break was on American Idol, he had a couple of viral hits. Not much to go off of. But as I burrowed through the internet to research the guy, I came to understand what his life had been like for the past few years––rough and relentless.
In 2015, Phillips old record label 19 took their gloves off and went on the offensive, slamming him with a $6 million lawsuit that just ended the summer of last year. During this wintry period of his life, Phillips wasn’t touring, he wasn’t producing music. He was weighed down by the titanic pressure of an “oppressive” management team that sought to snuff him out for good, but he didn’t let such toxicity fester for long.
The flickering embers of his passion flared to form his latest project, Collateral, a fiery, refreshingly eclectic album that spotlights what is perhaps Phillip Phillips greatest quality: sincerity. Phillips has never had a black-belt in lyricism, but there’s a lot more going on this time around, a lot more honesty, especially in the choruses. “Feeling me up while I’m sinking down / It’s better this way, you can watch me drown,” he sings with grit in “My Name,” his voice soaring above buzzsaw guitars and a pounding baseline. Damn, dude. That’s heavy. That’s a line that demands your attention. You can’t merely ignore something so poignant––your heart won’t forgive you. Even when he becomes more muted on songs like “Dance With Me” and “What Will Become of Us,” delicate ballads whose veins run a little closer to his folk-pop roots, his lyrics teem with a blinding honesty that makes you forgive Collateral’s more drawn-out tracks.
After several listen-throughs, I came to a realization: this is Phillips unplugged, unencumbered by A&R reps telling him what sonic ore to mine, what rivers to channel his sound in. This is Phillips at home. This is a Phillips that is unrecognizable. This might be Phillips reborn. Last week, before his concert at the Beacon Theatre for Bud Light’s “One Night Only” series, I had the opportunity to sit down with the newly transformed singer-songwriter and ask him about Collateral, past grievances, and what forces drove him to refurbish his sound.
The Knockturnal: When I listened to Collateral back in January I was struck by how different you sounded on songs like “My Name” and “Magnetic,” and I kind of felt like I was hearing the real Philip Phillips for the first time. Was Collateral a sort of catharsis for you, a way of telling the world you have more to offer than “Home” and “Gone Gone Gone?”
Phillip Phillips: Yeah, I think so. I believe that, and people love those older songs, which I love them too, they’ve gotten me to be able to do a lot with my career. But I think this album is the most honest I’ve been as a musician and a songwriter, and I think it really represents what all inspired me when I grew up playing music and I’ve gotten to show that through all these songs on Collateral. And there’s the blues, and “My Name” is really rock-driven. You know, “Magnetic,” which has a little R&B-ish sexiness to it, and I love that. And there are other songs that are more broken-down, more singer-songwriter and whatever. And I love those so much too. I think it’s very detailed, you know, in what I’m trying to say, and without saying what it’s about, I think you can relate to it. So I love it. I love this album.
As you mentioned, Collateral is injected with a lot more blues and rock and roll. Were those influences you’ve always wanted to draw from, but never had the opportunity before you signed with Interscope? Or is this kind of a completely new venture?
No, I mean, I’ve always tried to represent, you know, the first album happened so fast, and a lot of the songs were songs that I’d written kind of early on when I was 18, 19 years-old. And I always loved those, and those were a little more folk and a little rock-driven. There’s a couple of songs on that first album that drive me, you know, “Get Up, Get Down” had a little funk to it, but not going all that way like this third album has. And then the second album…I don’t know man, I just write songs that kind of feel good, you know? And I don’t really know what I want to write next. Some of these songs just start off as a guitar part, that are just exercises. You know, a song like “Thicket” that I had on the second album, it started off as a guitar exercise. And I said, “man, this is really dark and cool,” and then just kinda write something to it. So this third album, you know, definitely represents a lot that I wanted to put out there, for sure.
Did your past relationship with 19 [record label] drive the songwriting process at all in Collateral?
I think so, I think some of it. I think all relationships in some ways come to an end. And for me, getting this album out was really a big deal for me, because, what was it, three or so years, I think, three or four years, from the last release. It was really important to get these songs out, and went on this tour, first headlining tour in several years, and I was a little nervous, didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know if anybody was going to show up, and the fans and people that support me just showed up and loved all of these new songs. I couldn’t believe it. Even me and the guys and just people in the crowd would yell out some of the new songs, and we were like, “Dang, I guess they’ve been listening, that’s cool.”
We talked before about how Collateral is somewhat of a departure from your folk-pop roots. What is one thing your fans should know about you and the future of your music?
You know I’m always going to be honest about it, and I think that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re writing songs. It’s got to feel right. It’s all about a feeling, that’s what I always tell the guys playing onstage with me. They’re a lot better musicians than me. That’s what I like, I like to surround myself with a lot better musicians than myself because it makes me play better and learn more and just tell them it’s about just kinda closing your eyes and feeling the music. And there’s something that you can’t, you know, no one else can get that. You’ve got to find that yourself and get that. And that’s always what I’m always gonna try and do, is just write what feels good. Maybe somebody will connect with it, maybe they won’t, I don’t know. But I’m always going to try to write something that’s good.
Do your collaborators usually come from diverse backgrounds, from different styles and genres?
Yeah, man, I mean. Do you mean, like songwriting?
Yeah, I mean songwriting, instrumentation.
Yeah, this kinda goes back to where I love James Brown, but I also love Willie Nelson. So I mean, and Willie Nelson was an amazing guitarist — well, he still is. But yeah, I play a different show every night. There’s funk, there’s songs that are more straightforward. I think that’s what makes the show so much fun because, I think, fun for the band. It just kinda goes up, and goes down, and goes up. There’s a nice flow to it that you don’t get…I mean I’ve been to some concerts that are just such high energy the whole time that I get worn out from just standing there and seeing the songs. That’s amazing, I wish I could do that, but I think that also kinda represents the music that the fans this tour — there were people there that were 80, 90 years-old, then there were kids, 5 and 6 years-old. They relate, they love the funky songs, these kids. They’re dancing — they don’t even know what funk is, but they like it. And like I said, the rock tunes, there’s guys that are out there that are just like “Yeah!” It’s really cool to have that, man. It’s really cool.
So artists nowadays tend to get pigeonholed pretty quickly. Has this ever been a concern for you, or a mere afterthought?
Yeah man, for me you just kinda keep moving forward. I don’t really, I try not to live in the past too much. You kind of appreciate the past, and for me it’s — even when it get’s tough, I think everyone goes through tough moments when you feel like it’s not good enough or whatever, but for me, I think surrounding yourself with people that care about you too, you know, helps out. What do I know? I dunno. *laughs* I’m only 27 years-old!
You’ve had such immense success with your past work. At this point do you feel pressure to deliver something on that level? If this isn’t the case, does Collateral signify a moment where you want to experiment with your sound?
Yeah, I think there’s always a little pressure, you know, having “Home” and “Gone” that were really big songs. It’s a blessing, and also a curse in a way because whoever — label, whoever — might want that again, I want it again, I think anybody would want a song to get like that because so many people connect with it. But I don’t think that’s what drives me as a songwriter, you know. Again, it kinda goes back to writing something that’s honest. People and fans, they really know when something’s not real or not, you know what I mean? I’ve written some songs I wish I wouldn’t’ve written. I’ve written a lot of songs that I hope will never come out. But there’s other songs that, after you’ve played them a while, you think “maybe I should’ve wrote it this way or that way.” And there’s a song called “Dance With Me” on this new one that people really connect with. It’s just such a simple, honest song. I just saw that for the first time, in writing a song it doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to be cool guitar riffs or cool parts in a song. It’s just a few chords, really being vulnerable with yourself, and people really connect with that. And that was my first time really, I guess, witnessing that.
You’ve made it very clear in your interviews how important a role your wife has played in your career, and she even helped you pen “Dance With Me.” Will we ever see another collaboration between you two?
She’s always helping me out. I always try to — I think that’s what a relationship is about too, helping each other out. I’ll write a song or come up with something on the guitar, and she’s like, “Yeah, it’s cool,” or “Nah, that’s not cool.” She’s good. You’ve always got to have people that are honest with you, and I think that’s what always has helped me too, is, you know, people are like, “how do you not get a big head, or get this air about you?” And I’m like, first off, I know there’s a lot of other people that are a lot better than me out there. And, second off, my wife and family and friends, they’d slap me upside the head if I get too crazy. So that’s —
That’s important to have that check.
For sure, man. You got to. You gotta have that.
Moving onto Bud Light’s “One Night Only,” the concert series has such an intimate vibe to it. Do you prefer playing smaller or larger venues and why?
Oh man, I love playing all, any venues as long as people come out and they have a good time, you know. Tonight, at the Beacon Theatre with Bud Light, it’s an honor. It’s an honor they asked, they’ve done some really cool shows with so many artists, dive bars, and all that stuff. And just to be a part of that and be in a relationship with them, it’ll be a lot of fun tonight. Really good people. I’ve got to meet them before, and it’s just all about hanging out and having a good time, and that’s what we’re going to do tonight.
Your upcoming North American tour with Gavin [DeGraw] has some pretty fun venues scheduled. Any particular places you’re excited to play at?
Man, Asbury Park. I played there a few years ago, with me and Matt Nathanson, and when I was onstage, there were some really amazing shots I saw people were tweeting and stuff. The sun was setting, I think it was probably the coolest lighting I’ve ever had at a show. It was real lighting. You can’t really paint a of that. It was amazing, so I’m just excited to go back out there again, the crowd is awesome, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Well, I’m very excited for you too, and I’m sure your fans are too. Thank you so much.
Thank you, man, appreciate it. See ya.
Photo: Jesse DeFlorio