It's like pulling away from the maze. While you're in the maze, you go through willy nilly, turning where you think you have to turn; banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they're the shape of your life. It's hard to explain.
An oft remarked historical fact about Cleopatra is that she lived at time that is closer to our time than when the Pyramids were built. This little tidbit is often used to emphasize the vast expanse of the history of civilization, which is of course still nothing compared to humanity’s existence as a species — a mere dusting of thin topsoil on top of a deep geological strata. But within the popular imagination, Egyptian history often gets compressed and conflated with the Hollywood imagery of Elizabeth Taylor and our sense of what happened when — be it King Tut or the fire that destroyed the great library of Alexandria — it all gets a bit muddled (if you are able to speak of Ramses II at any length or discuss the distinctions between Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, you are a more dedicated aficionado than most).
But time and memory can be like that within our own lives as well. Having worked at one employer for a particularly long stint, I’d occasionally get confused as to how certain people didn’t know each other, because after all they’d all worked for this same company. Then it’d be like, oh yeah — he left three years before you got here. It takes photo albums, or perhaps these days, Facebook timelines, to help give us some context our own eras.
The current moment is subject to distortion as well. The ebbs and flows of the clock, whether time seems to drag or be racing at a break neck speed is relative to the observer. Waiting for the day to end at the office when nothing is happening moves at a different rate versus being so inundated with tasks that you completely miss lunch and are a bit surprised when you see how late it is. And if you’ve fallen in love, the duration between rendezvous with your new significant other can feel like a lifetime.
But what is a lifetime? Well, if you’re Time Lord, like the good Doctor, you’ve got a baker’s dozen (or more, as it happens). He (or she, as it happens) has taken on many a new face and new clothes and entirely different personality over the course of his/her existence. But that can be a good metaphor for humans as well. We’re not the same person though the course of our existence — we lead different lives within our time on earth. Sometimes concurrently. With distance it’s easier to see the epochs, the transitions.
I had a specific bit of Doctor Who lore in mind when I was writing “Lifetimes Without You” — a bit obscure, a novelization of an adventure that never ended up being televised called “Lungbarrow” where the Doctor revisits his ancestral home. A lot of thankfully non-canonical lore got introduced like his people being birthed by being woven in “looms.” At some point someone is looking at the Doctor’s DNA, and being a Time Lord with multiple incarnations he had multiple DNA strands — one for each of his regenerations to date (just go with it). The person who’s looking at this remarks that he’s been “burning through lives quickly” or something to that effect. Which for those you know follow the program and try and think about the actual duration and durability of a given body that the Doctor has gone through… well… maybe don’t try and think about it so hard.
So that “burning through lives” — that stuck with me and I felt like there was something there. I just wasn’t sure it would work as a line in the song — would people get it it? This is one of those times where it’s a good thing that songwriting circles exist. I played it at one and someone pointed to that as their favorite line in the song, making it a bit of a "Hey Jude" moment for me (Mac said he felt like the “movement you need is on your shoulder” was filler but Lennon insisted he keep it as it was the best line in the song).
This same person also said that an extended verse about Prometheus and his torture via vulture pecking out his liver was a bit too visceral. So that ended up getting excised in favor of watching water drip, which someone else had remarked they said the song reminded them about. This actually is a lovely contrast to deluge of Igauzu falls as well as the Bosporous and Rubicon — the former waterway between the dividing line between two continents, the other a crossing of historic significance. Prometheus still makes an appearance of course, along with Napoleon, which feels very Dylan.
I’ve mentioned before the association this piece has with “Tea for Two” — the bulk of the piece being a fairly typical (for jazz, at least) ii-V-I chord progression with a bit of 6th and Major 7th goodness thrown in for contrast. It’s really the key changes that are particularly different, and here they become compressed into a short little turn around. It was the turn around that caused the song to really come to life in my opinion. That bit about the pyramids just sort of came out while muttering about through the chords progression trying to figure out what the heck to do with this bit that I liked harmonically but otherwise was a bit at a loss as to what to do with (sometimes an interesting way of developing lyrics is to just let yourself say random stuff as you play through something). I’m guessing the thought process can be traced back to “You Belong to Me” by Patsy Cline (which I know of through a Dylan cover) — “see the pyramids along the Nile” — but at the time it was a bit of a surprise to me. It certainly gave me a direction to go after that.
I have a soft spot for this song, but I guess it's not mainstream enough for songwriting competitions and the like. Fortunately singer-songwriter and classical guitarist Eugene Josephs was a fan of this one and he volunteered to cover it at the very first EGPhest — in his own musings he asked something along the lines “are they Gods?” in references to the protagonist and the object of his desire. Fittingly in that in the revival of Doctor Who, the protagonist has been labeled as “a lonely God.”
It’s also a favorite of Greg Yee of the Complements, and they've covered it as a soulful ballad. Alicia's into my tune “Girls Who Don’t Get the City” (off "Fish from the Sky") but I’d asked Greg to sit in at Doc’s Lab one night on Lifetimes and he became a bit enamored with it so they ended up doing both songs at EGPhest II (overachievers that they are).
Having this sort of vote of confidence from those artists is what in part led to me to decide that “Lifetimes Without You” should really be part of “At Home At Sea.” All songs have a history, and this one is no exception. I saw it as being part of a different set of songs in my catalogue and there was another song I’d originally thought would be in its place on the album, but with each album maybe being your last, one feels one has to choose the songs you really want to be out there and given a chance to be heard.
The ukuleles on the track were producer Ben Osheroff’s brain child. Originally some of those piano lines were done on a uke, but to get them to stand out, Ben switched up the instrumentation. Bringing in Eve Fleishman to do backing vocals, who like me is a fan of Blossom Dearie (who’s version of Tea for Two I had in mind) was a bit of a stroke of luck.
I’ve performed the song a bit more a slow burn, with a bit more emphasis on the heartache, but the album version brings out some of the sweetness and Americana Highways correctly noted that it is ultimately about falling in love and its grandeur as much as it is about longing. There’s, as usual, some personal history in the mix — some big dreams and expectations never got fulfilled from a particular life I led at one point. I did make it to the bazaars of Istanbul eventually, but I’ve yet to get to Igauzu falls, let alone make some grand romantic gesture there.
All that does feel like a longtime ago these days.
Anyway, you can find my name on the wall of the SF Jazz Center, those you enterprising to go hunt for it. The jazz center itself is no longer so new, of course, and I don't get there as often as I'd like these days but it’s well worth a visit if you get a chance.
In the meantime, maybe give this song a spin.
"At Home At Sea" gets it's fourth song premiere today with Glide Magazine featuring the track "An Alternate Route (To Your Heart)" on its website. This is the biggest publication to date to feature one of my songs. Of the track Glide says:
"...hear Phillips’ love of jazz music come through in the quietly whimsical piano and simple, emotive brush stick drumming and standup bass. Phillips has a quiet, loping vocal delivery that feels relaxed and confessional, playing the role of lounge crooner meets street busker. "
Read the full text and a listen!
It was somewhere in San Pedro de Atacama — probably The Valley of the Moon, when the song came back to me. It’d been years since I thought about it, and yet there it was, inexplicably. I’d written it under a different title ages ago. I never had more than a single line at the end of the chorus section and not the one I used.
I’d been in Providencia a few days before, a neighborhood in Santiago, for its eponymous jazz festival — my excuse for choosing to go to Chile when I did. This was something I used to do. Pick a jazz festival somewhere in the world and go to it. Just an excuse to to explore a place I’d never been before. I wasn’t able to get a ticket to the event itself, but on the other side of the river from the festival was a park where the locals were hanging out, catching the show for free. There were some vendors walking around the crowd that was camped out on the slightly terraced ground all looking towards the sculpture garden where the festival was being held. It was a pretty good view of the stage, albeit from a distance. One of the songs that stuck out was a rendition of “Its Only a Paper Moon” which seemed a bit funny to me because they were literally underneath a decidedly real moon, which to me had a distinctly yellow hue that I’d attribute to the atmospheric haze of Santiago. It was one of those moments that you want to capture somehow so I’d started playing around with just trying to get that down somehow as lines to a song.
So now I had some music to set these lines to — though they weren’t really behaving. But then again, neither does the chord progression, which towards the end of the verse has an odd key change that carries over into the chorus.. That was deliberate messing about at the time but led to an interesting sort of build up. I didn’t quite have the refrain yet, but I had in mind the fact that my attempt to take a photo of the moon and the jazz quartet with my camera phone had come out as basically a blurry smudge in the dark — hardly a satisfying representation of the experience.
I was doing a lot of the usual things you do in San Pedro — salt flats, geysers, the Flamingo National Preserves. It was all beautiful but it was a lonely experience. I met a lovely family from Brazil in the hotel where I was staying and there was the daily churn of tour groups where your thrust together with a collection of strangers for a few hours to share in a little adventure, but for the most part I was on my own. I was sending photos to someone back in San Francisco each day, and it was nice to be able to share the experience in that way, but it also felt a bit hollow.
While visiting one of the saltwater lagoons (with a salinity greater than that of the Dead Sea), I managed to get the moccasins I was wearing sopping wet and having failed to rinse them off properly, a thick layer of salt was left behind after they dried out. So that’s where the “salt encrusted shoes” line came from. It just sounded interesting to me, and once I had the full refrain, I liked the way the assonance of “salt” and “all” as well as “shoes” and “truth is” got embedded into the section along with the much more deliberate attempt to have rhymes at the end of the 1st and 4th lines of the chorus. It’s almost ABBA with “shoes” and “truth is” being close enough for government work. Getting the cadence of the last line to be anything other than a odd number of bars just didn’t seem to work, so I went with it and left it as a “bar five” as they say in the biz.
So the second verse became a collage of more things I was seeing an experiencing — the natural beauty of Chile’s northern deserts and the colorful but decaying urban beauty of Valparaiso. One could write endlessly about the murals and neglected architectural gems of Valpo or the ruddy desert palette of Valle de Luna, so I feel like I gave it all rather short shrift with all of two lines. But of course photos can never capture it all (and it’s a curated version of the experience at that), so I guess it works out.
Then of course one has to come back to one’s own reality and that’s the third verse. Which at first seems unreal. But ultimately we travel to come back. Hopefully having learned and experienced some new things and allowing us to look at our own world in a fresh light. I would argue there’s also something of ourselves we leave behind in the place we visited— that experience, which if you’ve had the luxury of traveling with someone else, you can reminisce about together. But otherwise what else was it besides the equivalent of a dream? Only more slightly more substantive because of the keepsakes we collected and the photos we took.
There is also a whole other subtext to the song and what and who it might be about that I think I will leave to the listener’s imaginations. There’s the literal carrying of a device (i.e. my phone) that allows me to share all these experience with the world, but I trust the emotional weight is such that it’s clear there’s another level to it all.
Aside from the odd key changes, there’s a lot of suspended chords and dissonant tensions (that MajorMinor7 in the chorus, for instance). This led to some gentle ribbing from Mario Noche when he covered it at EGPhest II, suggesting I’d given him an unusually hard song to play. He prefaced his performance with his own composition, a tribute to Jobim, and then launched into a bossa nova version of the song.
So when it came time to record and my producer Ben Osheroff wanted to do it as a bossa, bringing Mario into the recording studio seemed fitting. Prior to that we had struggled a bit as to what to do with the instrumental passage — I’d imagined it as more of a horn section, but so far we hadn't been able to make it work. Ben had Mario do some guitar licks over the verse section and between that and the piano we later added, the track came together unexpectedly well.
I was a bit surprised when the song got picked up for a premiere in Americana UK, but also glad that the track gets a chance to shine. It’s been released as a single now, so take a listen.
This year, the “phest” convenes at the The Secret Garden SF, a unique and eclectic performance space for all manner of artists to create and congregate in an intimate salon setting. Weather permitting, we’ll be making use of this lovingly tended gem’s enclosed outdoor environs — but sumptuously decorated indoor rooms are available as well.
I have put in the order for this year's rubber ducky part favors (butterfly rubber duckies, as befits the setting) but more importantly I've been busily reaching out to performers and building up a list of artists from all over the Bay — people I know from open mics and Balanced Breakfast. I'll be making an announcement at some point about this year's participants and I greatly appreciate everyone who's agreed to take part so far.
I get a lot of kudos when I tell people about the whole deal — inviting folks to cover my songs for my birthday — but it's not the easiest thing to do. I know people are busy, a lot of them traveling during the summer vacation months. And musicians are touring or have other gigs or other commitments — this in part why I wanted to do the event on a Sunday afternoon. I do my best to suggest songs that I think will work for the person performing as well as honor their request to do a particular song, though I'm also mindful of the fact that I'd like there not to be a huge number of repeats. I might enjoy it if everyone did their own take on "Sett'n My Own Pace" but maybe it's less enjoyable on the whole for everyone. And I do have this conceit that while there are handful of songs of mine that might be considered S-Tier, as the kids would say, there a whole catalogue of creations that I'd love hear someone else take a stab at performing.
There is of course some inevitable churn and turn over as things come up and folks can't make it — and I accept that as part of this crazy thing I'm doing, which is making a pointed effort to get what I really want for my birthday, a chance to hear other people perform these odd little ditties of mine. Rather than it be a huge ego trip, it's actually quite humbling. The level of creativity people put into developing their own interpretations or just the uniqueness of hearing someone else's voice is an amazing thing. But it does require a lot of asking, and following up, which is not something I necessarily find easy.
I chose to do it on the 4th this year because 1) it reinforces the "4" (the fewer numbers to remember the better) but more importantly, I'm trying to dodge the plague that is "Outside Lands" which is either competition or driving folks out of the city to avoid the crowds. I hope folks will swing by. I feel a bit odd about putting on a price on a ticket for a birthday show, but there are costs involved, and if nothing else it commits people to coming that much more. I'm trying to offer some budget friendly options early on to get people onboard, and trust me, this is not a money making proposition.
This year’s artwork is a contribution by illustrator Jesse Israel Art, who earlier this year collaborated with me to create a music video for my song “Lighthouse at the Edge of the World” which is a major part of the new album “At Home At Sea” (available July 12th).
Here's a black and white version of the artwork if you all want to color your own.
Post it with the tag #EGPhest to Facebook and Instagram.
...the password to the event is duckduckgoose
Both the music videos for the new album have been selected for the Audio Shoot Unsigned International Music Video & Film Festival which takes places July 6th-7th in Wexford, Ireland.
The video for the "Lighthouse at the Edge of the World" will be competing in the "Best Animated Music Video" category whereas "The Albatross Song" will compete in the "Best Folk Music Category." The festival takes place in Murphy's Barn a restored 17th century barn about and hour and forty minutes from Dublin. There will be live music as well as street food and craft beers as part of the festivities.
... slyly humours, sneakily affecting"
"At Home Home At Sea" gets it's 3rd song premiere of the PR campaign leading up its release on July 12th with the featuring of "All I Can Share Is Photos" on Americana UK, the UK home for Americana, alt.country and alternative.
This travelogue through Chile takes us from Santiago, up to San Pedro de Atacama and back down to Valparaiso in a few verses. Moreover it is about the vagaries of travel. Especially travel alone, with a broken heart. The recording features Mario M. Noche on guitar, who had previously covered the song in a similar bossa nova type style as part of EGPhest II. Aird writes "It’s singer-songwriter folk shot through with a cocktail jazz sensibility. You might hear touches of Vivian Stanshall, and thereby a frisson of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band."
Check out the full article and give this song a listen.
“Lifetimes Without You” taps into the grand sense of timelessness that falling in love inspires.
"At Home At Sea" gets it's 2nd premiere with the track "Lifetimes Without You" getting featured on Americana Highways — check out what they have to say and give it a listen.
I'll also note that I'm listed on Billboards upcoming releases for July 12th, just under Ed Sheeran,
The extended musings of a songwriter.