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Artist Spotlight: Jesse Phillips

It must be incredible to look back at your journey from music lover to music maker to band member to world traveler. Did you ever think growing up that you’d be where you’re sitting today (where are you sitting today, by the way)?

I’m actually at home in Birmingham (for three days), in one of my favorite spots: at my kitchen table. Success is defined differently by everyone, I believe, and in terms of where myself and the band sit figuratively, it’s far beyond anything I imagined as a youngster. The past few years have been at times exhilarating, surreal, challenging and life-defining. I’m a music fan first, so to have played 550+ shows since 2012 all over Planet Earth just because I like to make up songs with my friends is pretty wild.

For those who don’t know your life story (and kudos to those who do!) tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are. What instrument did you start on and when did you begin to really dabble in learning to play?

First, no one should know the bass player’s life story. (laughs)

I’m from a remote corner of British Columbia, in Canada. A very, very rural spot. My parents were into music and Dad played instruments around the house, so it always seemed like a normal thing to do. I had to move to a junior high and high school just south of the border in Montana (our community school only went to 5th grade), and that’s where I began playing the trumpet in the school band. I got into guitars around age 13 or 14, and have been pretty into instruments ever since. I’ve been a life-long amateur, though I got some formal education majoring in music education at Loyola University of New Orleans.

When did you realize that music was something that you wanted to pursue as a career?

In my early 20s, I kind of made the decision that I’d just do whatever I had to do in order to stay involved with music. I’ve always been in bands, and I thought I’d be a school music teacher, so I switched my major from English to Music Ed. My high school music instructor, Mike Atherton, was a huge influence. He had come up as a rock ‘n roll and folk guy, but gone to school and become a choir and band teacher. He was introducing me to all these new sounds and details in my early teens, in jazz or bluegrass or whatever, and it seemed like you didn’t have to decide what KINDS of music you liked, you could apply these general principles to all kinds of traditions. Things you learn about dynamics or phrasing, or the ear training and stuff that you pick up in a more academic environment can be applied to any kind of idiom. I thought I’d help more young folks understand that because, especially if you come from a rural area like me, sometimes these traditions can be very intimidating.

Jesse Phillips

We know you taught music for a bit (we were lucky enough to have you with us at Mason Music for a while) but did you grow up spending a lot of time songwriting?

My bands in high school made up a few songs, which is where it started. Later on, a girlfriend of mine had a big old Tascam 4-track cassette recorder and she let me borrow it around age 19. I was hooked. I’ve been making up songs ever since, and that’s really my favorite part of the thing. I’d consider myself a songwriter primarily, but I was having a hard time finishing songs around the time I met Paul Janeway, and he sort of became my perfect counterpoint. We had a real rapport that could produce things that were greater than either of us working individually. I’ve got a few solo nuggets still scattered around the Internet, but most of my early output lingers safely on archived tape and some random hard drives.

What were some of the first things you wrote?

Paul and I initially began working together in a rock band called the Secret Dangers. That kind of ran its course and never really gained momentum. Good band, but not focused so we were all over the place. Paul and I kept on working together, as friends, in a for-fun and posterity kind of way. We would recruit friends to come and play one-off shows at coffee places or whatever.

Paul Janeway and Jesse Phillips
Photo Credit: Jennifer Freehling

We also started going to record with Les Nuby at Ol’ Elegante (Homewood) one night a week, trying some different things in a more R&B fashion, which is where Paul’s voice naturally wanted to go anyway. The first real song with legs was “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” (on the first EP as well as our first LP). We had that in the bag, and I heard the first Alabama Shakes song to leak out, it was called “You Ain’t Alone”, and it’s a really good song, but in the ballpark of what Paul and I had already started doing. So it occurred to me around that time that the world at large might actually be into these kinds of raw, retro-modern R&B flavored jams we were writing.

The thing about songwriting that frustrates people is that it’s hard, super hard sometimes, to produce something out of thin air and give it form and feeling and familiarity without ripping off someone else. So you have to be bad at it and do it a lot and, gradually, you get better and then one day you can sort of make things that sound kind of like real songs. I still have a hard time calling what I do “songwriting.” I make stuff up.

When St. Paul’s first album debuted in 2013, things seemed to really skyrocket for you guys as a band. What was that experience like putting the first record together?

After Paul and I had made the initial EP at Ol’ Elegante, and the band was sort of falling together around the tail end of production on that, we got offered a record deal by Single Lock Records, an upstart in Florence, AL. They were legit, because it was Ben Tanner from the Shakes and John Paul White from the Civil Wars and finance whiz Will Trapp. They asked if we’d like to make a full-length record in Muscle Shoals at this place called the Nutthouse, a beautiful spot housed in an old bank, and, of course, we said yes. We made the record in five days of mostly live cuts with a couple overdubs, and it was supposed to break even at 1000 copies sold. It ended up selling 130,000 copies or something and still moves. We had a month, essentially, to finish writing that record after signing the deal, although Paul and I had a chunk of the stuff mostly finished. The biggest driver of that record was “Call Me,” a Wilson Pickett inspired song that was composed 100% collaboratively by the band in the rehearsal space, just randomly one night.

Since there are so many members of the band, is there ever a conflict over an idea for a song? If so, how do you as a band figure out the best route to take?

We work fairly harmoniously, but it happens. Deciding correctly is the role of a producer. You essentially hire someone with great taste to come in and solve those arguments. Whether they are helping with arrangement or construction or tempo or tone or vibe, having someone outside of the band in this role is important. Ears from outside the organization.

Y’all’s second album, Sea of Noise, was recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium and the list of legends who’ve worked there is massive. Is there a certain reverence or thoughtfulness that a musician has when recording at a place with that kind of history?

There is most certainly a vibe that comes from working and hanging out in a place like that, a quality of output one aspires to. The desire to make something that holds up to the legacy of things that have been produced there in the past is a driver, you wanna do that legacy justice. But the same was true for us working in Muscle Shoals, because that’s one that’s had some of the most inspiring traditions in music history. We owe a lot to Muscle Shoals and Memphis.

Paul talks about you being a big part of the direction and creation of the second album, as well as choosing the producer for the second album. Was there a lot of pressure to one-up your previous record?

Pressure is really only ever a problem if you let it defeat your muse. Records are time stamps. The music is created and developed before the creation of the record and evolves afterward in the live performance. There’s always going to be some pressure for us because the first record did so well, but to let that interfere with one’s instincts is a mistake, especially when it’s those instincts that have already driven you this far. You should evolve and make records you are proud of.

What’s your process like when you are starting a project? Does the space you’re in matter? The noise level, the caffeine level?

Oh boy, yes. All of it matters. Having a space that is dedicated to practicing or creating and getting away from the phone and other potential distractions is a must. Having the brain in the correct place is a soft science, but getting sleep and some outside time generally help me. Caffeine is important, but it’s easy for me to overdo it after one coffee, so I stick to herbal teas or Topo Chico later on. Our band should have a La Croix endorsement on the road. We crush cases every day.

Besides recording music, you guys have gotten to play some incredible gigs (um, hello Elton John at the Oscars 2017 Afterparty!). I’m sure there’ve been some incredible venues you’ve performed at too … any that stick out as favorites? Any that are still on your “bucket list?”

It’s a tough question because we’ve hit so many of the legendary spots. I love places like the 9:30 Club in D.C. that are basically perfect rock clubs. We did two nights at the Ryman in Nashville, which was a dream. The National in Richmond is an excellent place. You can’t look past the history of some of these places. Eventually, I’m looking forward to playing Red Rocks, in Colorado, if and when that happens.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones at the Ryman
Photo Credit: Josh Weichman

Where do you want to go from here? Is touring around the world the ultimate goal? Writing the perfect song (if there is such a thing)?

My only real goal at this point is to age gracefully as an adult who still plays in a band. And writing great songs. And getting better at instruments. I just bought an upright bass. That thing is an extraordinarily difficult beast.

You taught music for a brief time before touring, would you ever do that again?

I do think that, in many ways, teaching has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve been teaching in one way or another for most of my adult life. I would absolutely do it again and I’d probably be better at it now, understanding what it actually takes to survive as a musician on the road, or playing high profile gigs, or whatever. Experience = wisdom, or so they tell me.

Hear the latest album from St. Paul and the Broken BonesYoung Sick Camellia

Feature Image Photo Credit: Josh Weichman