Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Very Candid Conversation with Shawn Phillips


Shawn Phillips with guitar (1971)

Shawn Phillips got off to a start where he recorded two albums for Landsdowne: “I’m A Loner” (1964) and “Shawn” (1965). These albums would lead to a collaboration with folk music legend Donovan shortly after. Throughout the ’60s, Shawn co-wrote and performed some of Donovan’s well-known songs, such as “Sunshine Superman,” “Guinevere, ” and “Season of the Witch.” In addition, he would get a chance to provide backing vocals for the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita.”

Following the ’70s, Shawn would have a record contract with jazz legend Herb Alpert’s A&M Records . Several of his albums include “Collaboration” (1970), “Second Collaboration” (1970), “Bright White” (1973), and “Do You Wonder” (1974). Also during in the ’70s, Shawn would play at the legendary Isle of Wight Music Festival. In addition, he was briefly considered for the role of Jesus in the Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The contract with A&M came to an end in the late ’70s. From there, Shawn, without a record label, would record sporadically. He would also find a second career as an emergency medical technician and firefighter.

Through a Kickstarter campaign, Shawn released his latest album, “Continuance” (2018). The album continues Shawn’s musical talent. In addition, it continues themes of the essence of life and greed (there’s a Bernie Sanders quote in the album). As of the time of this writing, Shawn is busy touring in support of “Continuance.” In addition, filmmaker Alex Wroten is making a documentary about him.

In this candid conversation, we discuss Shawn’s musical career, his collaboration with Donovan, his performance at the Isle of Wight, the near “Jesus Christ Superstar” experience, and his other career as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. In addition, we talk about his latest album, “Continuance,” and the documentary being made about him. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview with Shawn. But most of all, I want to thank Shawn for the interview.

Jeff Cramer:  What brought your interest into music?

Shawn Phillips:   My father bought me an old Stella guitar when I was six years old. And I started from there. For about the first year, I just drove him absolutely nuts with E minor and A minor. And then the playing started to evolve, and I just continued to evolve since then.

JC:   All right. How did playing with your Stella lead to the two albums you did for Landsdowne. How did that happen?

SP:   Well, the original reason for me going to England was that I was – England was going to be a stopover for my way on to India, because I wanted to study sitar. And I was only in England for a month.

I went to a party, and I was playing some tunes that I played, and a man named Denis Preston was at that party. He was the head of Landsdowne Recording. The CBS Studios there in London. He said, “Do you wanna make some albums?”

I said, “Yes, as long as there is no time clause on the contract that I have to stay in England.” And he said, “Oh, that’s not a problem.” So we got in there and we recorded, originally, Shawn and I’m a Loner.

I’m a Loner album cover (1964)

They were later re-released on the Columbia label, I believe, under different names. But I met Don(Note: Shawn will refer to Donovan as Don), and that’s how I kind of got stuck in England. But I was on my way to India to study sitar. And that’s kind of what turned out.


JC:   How did you meet Donovan?

SP:   I was in London and I needed strings. I went to a music store called Ivor Mairants’ Music Store. And Don  was buying strings and supplies, and then we met up and we got to talking. And he’d heard of me through Pete Townshend.

JC:   How did you know Pete Townshend?

SP:   Well, I’d actually never met Pete. He heard me playing on one of the two Landsdowne albums and he said, “God, this guy really plays a 12-string. He’s the best 12-string player I’ve ever heard.” That’s the only instrument I was playing at the time, was my red Gibson 12-string.

JC:  OK, back to meeting Donovan…

SP:  So Don and I got talking and he said, “Hey, you wanna go smoke a joint and have something to eat?” And I said, “Sure.” So off we went, and that’s how the friendship began.

JC:   It also led to a lot of music collaboration. What did you bring to Donovan’s music?

SP:   Basically, the way we wrote together is that I would sit in the room and I would play the guitar. Don would make up lyrics. And that’s the way – especially, “Season of the Witch.” I mean, I completely wrote the music on that. And then for things like “Guinevere,” stuff like that.

Don had a set of chords. And basically, what I would do is I would play sitar and do an arrangement with the sitar while he played those chords. But, occasionally, he did one of my songs. He did a little song called “Little Tin Soldier.”

Shawn (sitting on floor) with Donovan (year unknown)

“Season of the Witch” is the one I wrote the music to completely. I kind of put the funk feel to “Sunshine Superman.” He had the chords, but I kind of funked it out there and made it a little more funky.

JC:  Now this is something all Beatles fans will want to know. How did you get singing backup vocals on “Lovely Rita”?

SP:  I was friends with Don. Don was friends with Paul. Paul invited us over to the house. And about two days later, Don was talking to Paul and Paul said, “Why don’t you guys come by the studio?”

And Don said, “I can’t, but Shawn can come hang out. He’s got a friend you’ll like. He’s name is Stephen Saunders.” And Paul said, “Sure, tell them to come by whenever they want.” So I showed up at the studio with Stephen, and it was as simple as that. Have you seen the picture of me in the studio with those guys and Dave Crosby?

JC:   No, I didn’t see it.

SP:   Well, there’s a picture on Facebook of some guy named Mark – I can’t remember his name now. He found the picture. And he posted this picture on Facebook. And I’m standing, smiling, behind Stephen. And John Lennon is leaning around the corner of the door. Paul McCartney was in the background, and David Crosby is standing up at the front of the picture. David and I were going into the booth to sing vocals on “Lovely Rita.”

Shawn (far top left) doing backup vocals for “Lovely Rita.” (1967)




JC:  From the time you were playing with Donovan, what brought you to go back to the studio and start recording solo albums in the ’70s?

SP:   Well, our relationship kind of came to an end at a point after he did the last tour in the States. And I had a lot of material that I was writing and I wanted to get it recorded. I came back from the States and I went back to England. And I was there for about three or four months.

The home office informed me that my work permit had expired and that I needed to leave England for three months. This was in 1967. So I talked to my friend, Casy Deiss, whom I wrote a song about.

And I talked to Casy and Casy said, “Oh, well go down to Positano and find a guy named Julio. Julio will help you find a place to stay.”

On the taxi ride from Naples to Positano, the cab driver stopped at the top of Positano where the statue of the Madonna is. I took one look at this thing and I just went, “That’s it. I ain’t moving no more.” So I settled in there and I just started writing.

And then about 1969, I guess, Jonathan Weston, who was my manager – my English manager at the time – he said, “You need to start working.” And I said, “Well, I got an idea for a trilogy of albums that I wanna make.” And he went back to England, to London, and he spoke to Dick James, who had a big publishing company at the time.

And Dick said, “Okay, I’ll put the money up for it.” And the money he put up at that time was $25,000. And we made the trilogy. And we sent the trilogy around and, finally, an A&R man in New York – a guy named Jerry Love – he listened to it and the afternoon that he listened to it, he flew to Los Angeles to give the album to Jerry Moss, [co-]founder of A&M.

And Moss said, “We gotta sign this guy.” So everybody at A&M was all gung-ho to release the trilogy. And then there was one guy in the accounting department, Bob Fead, who said, “Oh, this is not feasible. Nobody has ever released a trio of albums before. We need to take this apart and just release one album.”

So, they did. And they took all the songs that were off of what were on the original thing. Because the trilogy consisted of music, spoken word, and the last of the third disk was spoken word and a fairy tale  that I had written called “The Beginning of the End of the Story.”

I’m not gonna say the end of it, because if anybody ever hears it, I don’t want the end – the end comes as a big surprise. But that was the three things. And they took all the songs and they put them on one album, which they called Contribution, and that’s what came out on A&M.

Contribution album cover (1970)

JC:   So the whole trilogy was put on one album then?

SP:   No, only the songs. [Not] the spoken word things, the poetry, the instrumentals of the semi-classical music. The first disc was songs, the second disc was semi-classical music I had written and a couple of spoken words, and the third disc was, again, some spoken word things and the fairy tale. But you need to understand that the fairy tale was played by specifically picked members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Patrick John Scott was the man who did the arrangements. I sang the melody lines that I wanted to hear to John, and he incorporated them into a 27-minute piece of music that I narrated to. And one of the highlights of this was the person that played the harpsichord on the fairy tale was the world-renowned Wanda Landowska.

So they all came out. And, to this day, the fairy tale is still sitting in a vault at Interscope Records. At Universal Records. [Note: A&M Records was bought by Interscope and Universal.] So it’s never been released. They picked the songs because they had a commercial appeal. They didn’t pick the spoken word, or the poetry, or the instrumentals. They didn’t think any of those had anything.

The instrumental things were an instrumental piece I did on 12-string, and then there was a sitar piece that I composed. And that was some of the instrumentals. But those things have never been released. I actually have – somebody just recently brought me a CD of the remainder of the trilogy.

There’s a guy named Alex Wroten. Alex is making a feature-length documentary on my history in the music industry. And he’s dug stuff up that I’ve even forgotten that I did – for years. But, anyway, that’s what happened with the trilogy. And it came out, it did pretty good.

But the very first ad that A&M ever put out was – the very first ad, the name you saw on the ad was not Shawn Phillips. The first name you saw on the ad was – the caption on the ad said, “Not since Norman Greenbaum has there been –” You know, blah, blah, blah. Because, at the time, they were pushing Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” Anyway, that was about the only advertising that was done on A&M for that. But it did okay. And it got a little bit of radio play, so they got me in the studio to do Second Contribution.

Second Contribution album (1970)

JC:   Okay. This was jazz legend Herb Alpert’s label. Did you find that being at A&M – that was run by a musician – gave you certain creative freedom in what you were doing?

SP:   Absolutely. They gave me complete creative freedom. But there was one guy there – he’s passed as well now. A man named Bill. I loved Bill. He was a good friend. But Bill would take me into his office and he would sit behind his desk with his feet up on the desk, and he’d point his finger at me and go, “This is a business.”

And I’m going, “Bill, no. For you, it’s a business. It’s not a business for me. It’s a craft. It’s an art form. I’m trying to make music. I don’t care if somebody who doesn’t wanna think doesn’t wanna listen to it. I don’t care about that. I just wanna make the greatest quality music I can. And I do that not by sticking to a specific genre of music or a specific formula.”

And it never has been a business for me.

JC:   During that time, you had played the legendary Isle of Wight concert. How did that happen?

SP:   I had been at another festival. We were almost done there and somebody said, “Oh, there’s a huge festival going on at the Isle of Wight. And I know a guy with a private plane that’s gonna go there.”

One of the people that was hanging out with us was a lady horn player from Sly and the Family Stone. She played trumpet. She said she was frightened to death of flying. There were about six of us that were gonna go on this private aircraft. She didn’t wanna go and she made up the sixth.

I said, “Listen, you need to understand the science behind flying, okay? It’s fine. There’s huge science. There’s no problem.” And we got on the aircraft, we flew there, and I held her hand the entire trip there. Anyway, we get there and we’re all hanging out backstage. And I knew a couple of people that got me backstage. And we were all hanging out and I was – you can imagine the situation. How much hashish was going around.

JC:   Yeah. I can imagine.

SP:   Oh boy. I mean, I was so stoned, I could hardly walk. And in the middle of the afternoon, one of the stage guys – one of the stage managers – came to me and they said, “There’s been a cancellation and we need somebody to do a 45-minute set. Can you do a 45-minute set?”

And I said, “Shit, yeah. I can do that.” So I got up – and that’s how I played there. I can’t even remember what I played, but I remember – what I do remember from that is I got a double standing ovation from 657,000 people.

Shawn at Isle of Wight (1970)

JC:   That’s great.

SP:   [Laughs] And that’s kind of an experience you don’t forget. And the other experience that I remember that is as clear as this moment in my mind was, after I did my set, I walked out and Free was gonna play.

JC:   Yes.

SP:   And Free walked out and it was about 5:00 going on to 6:00. And I remember the sky was absolutely golden-orange with the sun setting behind the stage. And Free started playing [singing] “All right now. Baby it’s all right now.” And I’m looking at this from the middle of the crowd, and, all of a sudden, this enormous, 100,000-cubic-meter hot air balloon – purple and orange – rose up from behind the stage. That’s the other thing I vividly remember about Isle of Wight.

JC:   Another experience I want to talk about around that time is that I understand you were originally cast for “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

SP:   I was on tour in Philadelphia. And my manager, Jonathan Weston, at that time, gave me a copy of JC Superstar, and I said, “What are you giving me this for? I know about this.” And Jonathan said, “Well, they want you to learn ‘In the Garden of Gethsemane.’”

So they got me a record player. I spent about 45 minutes to an hour. I learned the song. I was put on an airplane to New York and they put me in a black, darkened Broadway theater. There was a line of about 80 people outside the stage door of this theater.

And I was into the front of the line, they put me in there. I had made friends with both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (the show's composers) when I was in England. I knew both of them. I’m on the stage. The audience is blacked out. And the piano player starts playing and I start singing it.

I get a little less than halfway through the tune when a voice comes out of the audience. And it says, “That’s fine. You can stop now. Thank you. And you can send everybody else home now.” I knew the voice. I said, “Andrew, is that you?” And he said, “Yeah, hi, man. How you doing?” But it was Andrew.

He came up on the stage and he said, “Okay, dude. You’re it. You’re gonna be JC Superstar.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And they took me downstairs, they took my picture, they put that picture in Time magazine, and then I went back on tour. I finished the tour, went back to New York to start rehearsals.

Now, I was rehearsing with all the original cast. And one of the original cast was a guy named Carl Anderson, a black man that played Judas. Carl and I became instant friends. When we sang the Jesus-Judas duet, everybody in the cast said it was just absolutely electric.

I mean, we were half an inch out of each other’s faces. We were screaming at each other. It was really amazing. And then, about three weeks into the rehearsal – oh, and I have to interject here. Carl Anderson has passed, okay? He’s died. But I have to tell you that Carl Anderson – if anybody wants to hear his records or find him – Carl Anderson is the only singer – the only male singer in the world – that ever made me weep when I listened to him.

Okay, anyway, three weeks into it, I come in for rehearsal, the stage manager says, “Sorry, we’re not gonna be using you anymore.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, basically, I’ve been told to ask you to return the costume and all this stuff. And they’re gonna call somebody else in.”

Jonathan and I were flabbergasted. “What’s going on?” What happened was, we found out that the show's producer Robert Stigwood – number one, Jonathan Weston was my manager, number two, Dick James was my publisher, number three, A&M was my record company, and number four, CMA was my booking agency.

Robert Stigwood found out he would not be able to make any money off of me, so they fired me. That’s why I was fired as JC Superstar, because Robert Stigwood couldn’t get a finger in the pie – or any other pie, for that matter. If you know what I’m saying.

JC:   Okay. I want to talk about some of the songs you recorded in A&M. You mentioned a while back about Casy Deiss finding you a place in Italy. There’s a song called “Ballad of Casy Deiss.” How did that song come about?

SP:   I’ve been there in Positano just about two and a half years, Casy was living in a village outside – I’m trying to remember the name of it. I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, he and his wife, Diana, were living outside of Rome.

He went out to chop some wood and he had a double-bladed axe. He had the wood under one arm and the axe over his shoulder when he was walking home. And lightning was generated from the ground and went through the axe and it killed Casy. They found him in the door. And she was pregnant when this happened.

So that’s how “The Ballad of Casy Deiss” came about. It’s an absolutely true story. And if you listen carefully to every single one of my songs, I never write from imagination. [I] write from experience. I think that’s one of the things that give the songs some credence sometimes. [To hear “Ballad of Casy Deiss” click here.]

My difficulty is finding chord structures and melody lines that nobody has ever used or heard before. That is the singular most difficult thing for a singer-songwriter to do – or composer – is to write a melody line that no one has ever heard. And when it comes to writing lyrics, the thing is –

When you write a song, you have to – each line in that song has to have many different implications into some facet of our lives, or your life, or our lives. Because whatever is happening in my life is happening in your life.

Okay. Each line needs to have multiple implications as what is going on in life. I have a different way of writing than other people. When I write a song, once I have written – I have three things, three criteria with which I write. They are anger, wonder, and technique.

Anger is you look at the world around you, and if you’re satisfied with what you see, then you’re just probably fucking certifiable, man. Wonder is to be attentive to every blade of grass and every drop of rain that falls on a flower. And then technique, the third criteria, is keeping the balance between the anger and the wonder.

And when I write the first line to a song, I do not leave the room until I have written the last line. And the reason I do that is because once you start on that, once you have a subject that you’re interested in, once you start writing on that, you create a specific train of thought. If you say, “Oh, I’m hungry. I’m gonna go have some lunch,” and you go have lunch and you destroy your energy output with the digestion of your food.

And when you come back, you will never find that original train of thought again. And that’s why I write the way I write. It’s also the same way with the composition of music. Once I’ve started a piece, I don’t finish until I think I have something where I can now add onto and elaborate on.

JC:   Well, I can’t pronounce the very long title. It’s actually my favorite vocal moment from you. It’s “She Was Waiting.” Tell me the story about that song.

SP:   So, “She was waiting for her mother at the station in Torino and you know we love you baby but it’s getting too heavy to laugh.”

JC:   Yes.

SP:   Okay. If I had said, “in E minor –” If I added those three things in E minor, it would, in fact, have been the longest song title ever created. But Hoagy Carmichael beat me. I can’t remember the name of his tune, but he beat me by one word on the longest song title ever created.

Here’s the deal. Here’s what happened. The reason that song came about. At the time just before that song was written, I was in a relationship with an English actress named Francesca Annis. A lot of people don’t know her name or anything, but she was in the movie Dune.

JC:   Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard her from.

SP:   Yeah, she played Paul Atreides’ mother in Dune. Anyway, I was in a relationship with Francesca and we were living together in my little house. And there was a 15-year-old girl – teenager – named Letizia who would come to our house. She would sleep on our couch. We would feed her.

We were like a small community of expats from England, the US, France, Germany, Italy – all different expats. And we had a little community going. Anyway, she’d stay with us, then she’d go to somebody else – one of our friends – and they’d let her sleep there and they’d feed her.

And there came a moment when we didn’t have the money to support this child. So what we did is we pulled what little money we had, and we bought her an express train ticket from Naples to Torino, where she came from, and we put her on the train at 7:35 in the morning. At a quarter to 12 that night, we’re all hanging out at the Bar Internazionale in Positano, and the phone rings. I take the phone. It’s Letizia. She’s calling from Torino. She is in absolute tears. She said in Italian, “My mother is not here. I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?”

We talked for a minute, and all of a sudden, Letizia says, “My mother is here.” So, “She was waiting for her mother at the station in Torino and you know we love you baby but it’s getting too heavy to laugh.” That’s the story behind that song. [To hear a live version of “She Was Waiting…(aka Woman),” click here.]

JC:   You would stay in Italy a bit. What would bring you back out of Italy?

SP:   An earthquake. That’s in 1980 on October 6th. There was a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in the southern region of Italy. It was centered at Santa Maria di Castellabate, which is right on the other side of the mountain from Positano. And, basically, what went down is it shook once. But it shook so hard that it cracked the foundations of my house.

After I moved out, they did what they could to repair it. But I had very heavy speakers and a lot of equipment in the studio and the house, and they were afraid it might collapse. That kind of called the end to that in Positano, and I moved back to Los Angeles. So I’m moving out of the frying pan and into the fire.

JC:   You would not record as frequently in the ’80s as you did in the ’70s.

SP:   That’s ’cause I had the money. A&M didn’t want to renew the contracts, basically, because I wasn’t writing what they wanted me to write. And I was just writing what I wanted and I was trying to get as farther out as possible. Even from the very beginning.

JC:   Yes.

SP:   And, after A&M, it was kind of fly-by-night to where somebody would put the money out for a new CD. One of the guys – at that point, I had a manager named Clancy Grass. And Clancy put the money up for Beyond Here Be Dragons.

And in the meanwhile, I had made an album with a guy – which was a big mistake – in Quebec, named Michel Le Francois, who wanted to make an album with me. But when I got up there, he wouldn’t let anybody else play on the album except himself. He wanted my basic guitar and voice, and he wanted to do everything else.

Well, as soon as I found out that that was gonna be the case, the relationship went downhill from there. And I had the tunes and we did them and all, but he really wouldn’t let me do – that was an album called The Truth if it Kills.

I didn’t do any music at all from 1994 until the year 2000. I mean, I was six years completely out of it.

JC:   I also understand you became an emergency medical technician and a firefighter.

SP:   That is correct. The firefighting I can’t do anymore. Mandatory retirement at 60 for firefighters. [Note: Shawn is 75 years old.]

Arlo Hennings, who would become my manager later on, said, “You can’t just quit. You sold 9 to 12 million records. You’ve got people out there who really love your work. You can’t just quit.” And I went, “Oh yeah, I can. Because I really like what I’m doing now.

“This is real. Emergency medical is real. There’s no superficiality, no bullshit going on like goes on in the music business. This is real life and death that I’m dealing with here. And that, also, and the firefighting.”

And he said, “Well, if I can put something together, will you do it?” So he put together a tour of South Africa, and I did it. And that’s when I met Juliette, my wife. Juliette came back to the States in 2000. In 2001, we got married.

JC:      Talk about your latest album, Continuance.

SP:  In 1972, I was the opening act for Yes in Holland. The sound guy was a young sound kid named Sjoerd Koppert. And, one night, Sjoerd comes up in the elevator. He’s dripping wet and he’s freezing in the hotel. It’s a brand spanking new hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam. No barriers in the parking lot. Nothing.

It’s brand new asphalt and all that stuff. Sjoerd comes up in the elevator. He’s dripping wet, and freezing. “Sjoerd, what’s the matter, man?” He says, “I just took the gear truck in the canal in front of the hotel.” Okay. So we go through the logistics of getting this truck out of the water. Sjoerd, he’s very upset. He’s destroyed. I take him to a cafĂ© and we get something to eat. I spend two hours calming him down. I said, “Look, you gotta understand, they can’t bring somebody in to do this overnight. Nobody’s gonna fire you. It’s okay. And it’s winter here. It’s black ice on the parking lot. And you need to understand that shit happens. Okay? That’s exactly what happened to you. And the truck just slid in the canal. So quit worrying about it. It’s not going to make any difference.”

This man never forgot that for the next 44 years. He got in touch with me on Messenger in 2015. And he said, “I was very impressed with what you did as your work. And I am managing a studio in Carpinteria, California, called Rose Lane Studios. I think it’s time you and I did a project together. The studio is yours from June through July.”

So I started a Kickstarter thing. I got the money that I needed to pay the musicians and to cover the costs of – there’s a lot of costs involved in making an album – and I got it made. And that’s how Continuance came about. And I would say I spent two and a half years writing Continuance. Because these are not simple songs. Every single thing on this CD is, musically, pretty complicated.

Continuance album cover (2018)


JC:   Your latest album, “Continuance,” I noticed there seems to be a theme with that one. The beginning song is “Life,” and it’s at the very ending you sort of get back to that theme again of life.

SP:   Yeah. The thing I wanted to get across is, basically, no matter what happens, life is going to go on. That’s all there is to it. No matter what happens in politics or anything else.

There’s a song called “Song for a Thief.” I mentioned Arlo Hennings, my manager. He’s my ex-manager who stole a very large amount of money – well, not large in terms of Taylor Swift kind of income. For us, it was a lot of money.

He stole it. He broke his fiduciary trust with me by putting it in his bank and keeping it. And, anyways, that’s the “Song for a Thief.” There’s the Bernie Sanders bite in “Furious Desperation.”

JC:   Yes. That’s what I was gonna ask you about.

SP:   Yeah, Bernie Sanders. Because that’s absolutely right. That’s really what’s going on. We are rapidly descending into an abyss of a global situation in which there are those that have everything and those that have nothing. And they are trying their very best right now to bring that situation into reality. [To hear Bernie and Shawn on “Furious Desperation,” click here.]

And until we put – listen, you gotta understand where I’m coming from here. We have had incredible advances in the last – just the single last century. We have made the most extraordinary advances in technology. You and I can see and talk to each other in real time, if we wanted to, right now.

There’s all the electronics, the technology, the media. The advances in medicine are astounding. We have people actually living in space as you and I speak. You have technology in armed, nuclear submarines. A submarine is the highest technology on this planet. There’s no question about that.

And all of this advancement, this incredible advancement, has come from the human mind. Okay. You’re gonna tell me that that same human mind cannot come up with an economic system that is equitable for the species on this planet? That’s complete and total bullshit. 

We need to change that. We need to stand up and say, “No, this is enough. You cannot – just because you are extremely wealthy, just because you are one of the 6,000 people in the world that are the wealthiest people in the world, that does not give you the right or the privilege to dictate what the direction our society – as humans on this planet – is going to take.”

They do not have that right just because they have money. And that’s what we need to address. More than anything else. If you look at any single problem in the world, you can boil it down to money. Okay? And that’s really kind of what Continuance is about.

But, at the same time, there’s this spiritual aspect of Continuance that says, “Look, if you’re out there looking for happiness, money ain’t gonna buy that happiness.” It might make you comfortable, but it’s not going to make you happy.  

The only thing that’s going to make you happy is for you to be individual, within your own sphere of being, to find the joy that is inherent within you. When we are born, we are not born as predators. Babies, infants, are helpless.

We are completely helpless as infants. What we are born with – we are born into a space of ecstatic wonder. That’s what we are born into. Look at the face of a three- or four-year-old. Everything is wonder. We outrun that.

Our society has built this ship up until it says, “Oh, you can’t live in a state of wonder. You’re not supposed to live in a state of joy or a state of wonder.” That’s absolutely just wrong. It’s just so wrong. All my songs, in one way or another, try to get that across. That’s what Continuance is about. And Continuance is the word itself: “Let us continue.” That’s what it’s about.


JC:   Okay. What are your plans now that you’ve recorded “Continuance”?

SP:   I’m driving up to Quebec. I have a full month’s tour in Quebec from June to September. My son, Liam, will stay with me for about six weeks, then his mom will come and get him and drive him back to get him ready for school.


Shawn and son Liam (year unknown)

And I’ll stay there till September the 30th. I’m trying to put concerts together in Buffalo at The Tralf, Ann Arbor – The Ark, then a club called Space in Evanston, Illinois. And then I’m going to go over to Minnesota. I’m going to play a club called Crossings in Zumbrota. And I’m going to see if I can’t book a theater gig in Minneapolis. I also have to play a private concert for a woman named Judy. Judy put $2,500 into the Kickstarter thing. Anybody who put that kind of money gets a private concert.

JC:   That’s good.

SP:   So that’s it. And then, after that – you know what? I’m gonna tell you the truth. I’m 75. I could continue touring for a long time, but I can’t continue touring the way I’m doing it now. I tour alone. I have 300 kilos of equipment that has to be unloaded and loaded, set up, torn down, and loaded back into the van every other night.

Shawn on tour (July 2, 2018)



And then I do all the driving. I do everything. I can’t continue to do this. So I think what I’m going to do, is after this tour, I think I’m gonna hang it up. The fact is, everybody thinks, “Oh, Shawn Phillips. He’s big rock and roll.” I’m not any of those things.

I haven’t ever thought in terms like that – myself like that. And I don’t really have any money. Unless I have – Continuance suddenly took off and sold millions of records, then I would continue to tour.

Now, in 1996, I let my membership in the Grammys expire. I have renewed my membership in the Grammys. I am submitting Continuance to the Grammys for consideration for CD of the year. And if anything happens with that, well, that would be great.

If I even get a mention – if I even get a nomination – that would be fantastic. Short of that happening, I don’t think there’s much else gonna go on. I can tell you that even though I might not be on the road, I will never quit writing. It’s a gift that I cannot negate, nor should I. I just can’t do it the way I’ve been doing it all these years.

As far as I know, I’m thinking about writing a book. When I write the book, I will be writing in conjunction with a professor in Indiana. A man named Sam. He’s putting the different chapters together on how the book should be written. And I think I’ll spend the time writing the book we wanna put out. Then there’s the documentary about me by Alex Wroten I mentioned earlier.

JC:  Sounds like a lot on your plate. Thank you for taking the time out to speak with me.

SP:  Okay. I just wanna say thank you for the interview. And I wish all your readers hope, love, and clarity.

Shawn in Alex Wroten’s documentary (year unknown)












Friday, October 27, 2017

A Very Candid Conversation with Anthony Phillips


Anthony Phillips (year unknown)

In 1967, guitarist Anthony Phillips founded the original rock/progressive group Genesis with singer Peter Gabriel, keyboardist Tony Banks, and bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford at Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey, England. He recorded their first two albums, From Genesis to Revelation (1969) and Trespass (1970). He would leave shortly after Trespass. (Phil Collins had not joined the band by the time Phillips left).

For a few years, Phillips wasn’t active in the rock music scene, but in that time, he learned more instruments—keyboards, bass, and drums—and studied classical music. He and Mike Rutherford worked on Geese and the Ghost (1977), Phillips’s first solo album. Geese and the Ghost also featured vocals from Phil Collins. Phillips’s music was a mixture of various musical genres: progressive rock, experimental, pop, and classical oriented. Phillips recorded over thirty-one albums from 1978 to 2012. Harvest of the Heart (2014) is a five-CD anthology of his solo career.

In addition to his active solo music career, Phillips expanded his musical horizons and composed music for nature documentary films as well as library music. According to writer Nate Patrin, library music “(a.k.a. production or stock)” is defined as “music recorded in a multitude of contexts and styles by work-for-hire musicians, owned by music-library labels, and lent out to commercial enterprises in TV, radio, and film.”[1] In October 2017, Phillips rereleased Slow Dance, a classical-oriented piece album with bonus tracks and a 5.1 remix. He just rereleased his pop album, Invisible Men (1982).

In this candid conversation, we look at Anthony Philips’s time in Genesis, his solo career, his forays into film and library music, and his current reissues. I want to thank Billy James from Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but most of all, I want to thank Anthony for his time.

Jeff Cramer: What encouraged you to get interested in music?

Anthony Phillips: Gosh, well, I think it’s because there were other guys I knew who were learning to play the guitar, and people are always looking for something to kind of excel at, right? I was sort of okay at sports, but I’m not quite good at football or cricket. So, I thought, “Well, guitar is a nice thing to do.” The Shadows were around, and they were doing appealing instrumentals, but I think the big thing was the Beatles. I mean, the Beatles exploded with all this kind of raucous color but also melodic as well. There was so much energy and melody like I’d never heard before. It was mind-boggling. I had always loved hymns. We weren’t a particularly a religious family or anything, but I love melody. I think it was a culmination of other guys playing the guitar and then the Beatles. Then all of that came off in their wake, you know, like the Rolling Stones and whatnot. It was a great time to be around because the sixties was a time of enormous change and innovation. I consider myself very lucky to have been learning at the time when there were so many great musicians whose careers have carried on. People kept saying, “Oh, the Beatles have only got two or three years.” How wrong they were.

JC: How did it build up to Genesis?

AP: Well, I was in a cover band with three other guys doing the Beatles’ “Slow Down.” Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks were in another band. Genesis wasn’t really a band as in everybody was singing and  playing their live instruments together.  We got together as a group of songwriters, really. I was writing stuff, and Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks were doing stuff together. We sort of came together when Mike [Rutherford] and I were doing some demos and asked Tony to cover our keyboards. Then Tony said, “We can get Peter to do some vocals.” Jonathan King produced us. King is very much a pop producer. We did a couple of singles with him, which weren’t personally my favorite, but he did let us do an album, the very first album, From Genesis to Revelation (1969). We were still in high school and we didn’t have much arrangement skill.

From Genesis to Revelation (Anthony, bottom left)—1969


We didn’t have much control over the album, and the whole thing ended up being unhappy. [To hear Genesis’ “The Silent Sun,” click here.] After we graduated high school, we were at a crossroads, questioning, “Should we give this one up? We’ve had a couple of singles and an album, or do we try and go from songwriters to actually playing our instruments properly on stage and take the band route?” It was a close decision, and it very nearly didn’t happen. Mike and I had done a fair bit of live playing at parties and stuff, but the others hadn’t really. Strangely enough, it was such a shame that Peter Gabriel was not a natural performer.

JC: Oh, really?

AP: He is very shy. Lots of shy people try to be themselves on stage, but it won’t work because they’re very shy and don’t command the audience. Peter’s persona was partly developed because of the fact that Mike Rutherford and I spent time tuning our twelve-string guitars. So, Peter started making up wild stories and built that whole sort of persona. Peter’s imagination is pretty vivid, and the whole audience was spellbound with his rather bizarre stories (laughs). It gave us time to get our twelve-strings in tune.

JC: Genesis was finding its footing by the time you guys recorded Trespass, but that was the last album you recorded with the band. In your words, why did you leave Genesis?

AP: Well, it was stage fright. I’d had glandular fever before I went on the road, which physically had knocked me back without realizing it. It’s this thing that stays in your system for a long time, and it can affect your nervous system as well, which I didn’t know at the time. I kept getting sick while we were on the road, and it wasn’t just colds. I was very weak all the time and it was the glandular fever. I was quite a natural, keen performer, but I just started getting stage fright. In other words, your sort of look at your hands playing the guitar and you’re thinking, “Hang on, how am I doing that?” Going on stage had started to become a major challenge and eventually I just thought it wasn’t really for me.

Genesis (1970) with Anthony Phillips (on left)

Looking back, stage fright was just an unfortunate act that happened to me and loads of other artists. Also we had too many composers in the group. I think you can only have so many strong minds working together; otherwise, you get too many people trying to have their share of the cake. And then you get a lot of anger. While that wasn’t the reason I left, it may well have contributed possibly to some of the background, because we did have four very strong minds and personalities, and that’s a lot. If you think of all the famous songwriting partnerships, they’ve nearly always been two. But we had four guys. I think that’s quite rare. It’s no wonder that there were regular departures from the group where people perhaps didn’t feel that they were getting their full share of the cake, or that their vision was diluted. I think it probably would have come to a head anyway for all those reasons. [To hear “The Knife” by Genesis, click here.]

JC: After you left Genesis, you went down another path altogether. You went on a solo career and started to learn how to play other instruments.

AP: Yeah, it was quite a passage. I was a bit of a lost soul for a while. Despite the best efforts of one or two of the masters at  high  school who thought I had melodic skill or had tried to teach me classical music, I just couldn’t really hear it.Partly I think I wasn’t hearing the right kind of stuff. When I left, I starting to play some more popular classical stuff—it was more melodic, arresting . . . you know, the New World Symphony. It was a revelation for me because I had always thought of classical music as being rather dry, arid, and rather formal. Suddenly, here was music bursting with color and melody. I was absolutely determined to have those skills for writing classical music, having that color under my fingers.

And so I embarked on a bit of a road. It was a sort of circuitous route because I couldn’t read music, so I started with a piano teacher to just learn the rudiments. This can be very difficult for someone who can play reasonably well by ear because then you have to train your eyes to work and not let your ear anticipate where you’re going. I was terribly frustrated. I would throw the music across the room quite a lot. I spent a couple years with a piano teacher. I could play classical guitar, so I had that sort of string to my bow—pardon the pun—but I also studied orchestration, harmony . . . all that kind of stuff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I think I studied that stuff for three or four years, and I taught as well. It  was the sort of starting gates for The Geese and the Ghost, and I was armed with a few more skills than I had before.

JC: The album, The Geese and the Ghost, was originally supposed to be a collaboration between you and Mike Rutherford before it become a solo album?

AP: It was really Mike and I. I think the problem with the group of Genesis was that Gabriel had left and the whole thing was kind of rocky. Nobody knew at that point that Phil Collins had the potential to be a megastar who would lead at the front. I mean, he only became a singer by default because they couldn’t find anyone else to follow Peter. There was a hiatus where we needed to decide what to do. Mike and I did the album, and Steve Hackett (who replaced Phillips in Genesis) did his own solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). But once Genesis got back together, they very much wanted a united front and didn’t want to have a lot of people doing solo albums, which sort of made sense. The Geese and the Ghost had a lot of Mike on it, but I can understand a group relaunching itself. It’s gonna be confusing and side tracking to have a lot of solo projects going on. So, The Geese and the Ghost (1977) became an Anthony Phillips solo album. [To hear “God If I Saw Her Now” with Phil Collins on vocals, click here.]


The Geese and the Ghost album (1977)

JC: I think that album does show the beginning of your solo career. While it obviously has Genesis elements, it also has instrumentals that would become part of your solo career.

AP: A lot of my career was really fashioned by need and, you know, a lot of the time. One has to remember that before you had your home studio, you very much did what the record company wanted; otherwise, you wouldn’t record a record. There was no way of actually recording music unless you did what the record company said. It’s different now, because you can do it all at home on a relatively small budget. I was lucky in my career to record things I wanted. I was able to introduce a few orchestral elements and hopefully combine classical elements to match classical instruments with rock ones but in an integrated way. It wasn’t the sort of rock band on one side of the stage and the rather prim orchestra on the other. I was trying a combination of sounds, some of which were orchestral sounds.

JC: I noticed that you have a lot of solo albums. Are  there any that you would like to discuss? I mean, we’d be here all day (laughs) if we discussed every one of them. Are there any albums that you’d like to talk about in particular that hold a special memory?

AP: The two rock albums, Wise After The Event (1978) and Sides (1979). Rupert Hine was the producer, I think, and mixed in the results. It was great fun working with the brilliant [bassist] John Perry and [drummer] Michael Giles—it was a privilege to work with them. I think you sort of have to fast track into Slow Dance (1990) where I finally had the chance to work on a large scale again. It was a wonderful outlet for larger-scale pieces, which I had written over the previous ten years that I hadn’t been able to record. I threw my heart and soul into them. If I had to choose, it’d probably be The Geese and the Ghost because of the youthfulness (it was my first), and Slow Dance because it was something that came at the end of a period in this sort of semi-wilderness.

JC: Now, Slow Dance (1990) was an interesting concept in itself because the album is the piece. It’s a two-part instrumental.


Slow Dance cover

AP: Well, I think it was a bit of guesswork to be honest. I wanted to do an album and I had an X amount of material already. I got a new synth, which was quite cutting edge at the time; it’s called the Emax. I assembled the body of music of different sections that I thought were strong, and then thought, “Well, how can we combine these and try and make them work together?” Obviously, some couldn’t work together, so that was a challenge, but it was exciting because I was fairly convinced that some of the basic ideas were creditable. The challenge was really to make it kind of hang together. I worked on sections for a quite a long period of time. I mean, it’s much easier to do an album or a song. (To hear a live version of the “Slow Dance” opening, click here.)

JC: What made you decide to reissue the whole Slow Dance?

AP: I’m with a new record company called Cherry Red Records, which is located in England, and  they wanted to rerelease albums I did. This is always a moot point for me. There are some die-hard fans who are going to go out and buy these no matter what they do to them, and therefore, going out and buying an album again with this specific record company’s stamp on it. I don’t think it’s right. So, I was determined to try to provide something extra. The re-releases have had a various amount of augmentation at either end, and nearly all have had extra CD material. A lot of the albums have been remastered. There’s also a lot of extra bibliographical material so there’s lots to read about. I think about five or six of the albums are in 5.1, which obviously isn’t cheap. I don’t imagine that many people have the original albums, so I hope gradually more will buy the reissued albums, and that they will appreciate it.

JC: I understand you’ve also done library music (“production or stock music”). Can you talk about composing that?

AP: Initially, I was very privileged to work on a lot of programs that were brought back from South America, from Amazonas, the southern part of the Amazon, by a wonderful man who’s sadly not with us anymore. The film footage  could be very varied—anything from an animal stalking or some beautiful sunset. It was quite taxing and the money wasn’t brilliant. Some of the producers were very demanding and I just sort of stumbled onto library music.

Library music is very much a library of photos. You have a great photo and you can use it over and over again. This is equivalent in music, but as I said for reasons of budget, time, etc., the trick is to try to write something that is quite timeless. The discipline is that you can’t really change very much. You have a piece of music that has a sort of rough length of between two or three minutes, and while it has some change and development, it can’t go from a quiet twelve-string section to a loud piece with saxophones and stuff. You’ve got to work to create and develop it, augment it slightly, but be careful not to take any strange U-turns. I have always enjoyed it a lot because it’s a bit like doing an album but without some of the great pressure that you get with doing albums. And, of course, the other thing is the potential financial reward if you do create some tracks that get used repeatedly over and over again. The results are substantial. I’ve been very lucky. There are too many library companies in competition, but I was very lucky. The company I was working with got taken over by a series of bigger companies. We ended up by being part of Universal. I’ve used the income I have made from some of my library music to help fund some of the solo projects, particularly some of the 5.1 reissue work.

JC: Talk about the compilation of your solo work, Harvest of the Heart.

AP: I didn’t choose the material; the material was chosen by the record company. I think I suggested one track that I thought was a better choice, but aside from that, it was the record company’s choice. I said, “You know, I’ll leave it up to you guys.” When the record company finds an artist with a big catalogue, they often do a boxset, but my worry was that we probably had too much material on it. My compilation was five CDs.

Harvest of the Heart (2014) album cover

JC: (Laughs)

AP: Looking back, it might have been better to have had a double CDs or perhaps three CDS, but the record company knows more than I do.

JC: Are you working on any new solo projects? I mean, I know about the reissue of Slow Dance . . .

AP: Well, yes. Invisible Men (1982) is the next one to come up. (Invisible Men was released shortly after this interview took place.) Funnily enough, it was a sort of a controversial album at the time because it was pop songs. I felt a little bit awkward about it because I didn’t feel that sort of poppy pop songs, but record companies were like, “We need a hit, otherwise, we won’t record you.” So, we have a nice bonus CD with proper outtakes, sometimes an instrumental, and some other songs. I hope we’ve provided something that’s worthwhile buying, not just something that repeats itself.

At the moment, I’m involved in quite a lot of different things. I’m prepping up a new acoustic album. I’ve also done a lot of library music and I’m involved in writing a piano duet for . . . I’m not allowed to say, but it is for someone who’s very famous in the classical world.

Invisible Men album cover

JC: What is your secret to keep going?

AP: Well, I didn’t really have a choice but to keep going. In ’91 or ’92, I had my Virgin Records deal. Then Virgin got taken over by EMI, and EMI got rid of any artist who wasn’t making a lot of money  and that included me. It was around that time that a lot of the library music kicked in. You know, necessity is the mother of invention. One of the areas particularly perturbing is if somebody asked me to remix a library track of something I had recorded five or six years ago; I’ve got very little chance of doing it properly because I have to go back to an earlier computer. There are so many things that don’t read or aren’t compatible with each other. Things are moving very fast, and there is often incompatibility between them. So, there’s a bit of a minefield. People who are inventing and putting out new computer stuff seem to think there were no previous computers. None of the new computer stuff is compatible with old computers. I think that’s a real danger. You know, I guess the older you get, it’s gonna be harder to keep up, but I’m still enjoying trying to keep.



[1] Nate Patrin, “The Strange World of Library Music,” Pitchfork, May 14, 2014, accessed October 25, 2017