'American Idol's' Phillip Phillips Talks New Album, Facial Hair, Future (Q&A)
On Nov. 19, the season 11 winner will release "The World From the Side of the Moon," which features collaborations with Train producer Gregg Wattenberg, the writers of "Home" and his girlfriend.
Lots of artists let themselves go while recording an album. It might mean growing out a beard, wearing your favorite jeans several days in a row or shaking off all your inhibitions as you put pen to paper and voice to track. In Phillip Phillips’ case, it’s all of the above.
“I kind of got lazy,” the American Idol season 11 winner tells The Hollywood Reporter of his increasingly fuzzy facial hair. “I'm probably going to shave it soon. I actually need a haircut, too, but I want to keep my hair as long as possible, because I'll probably be bald soon.”
Hardly, but the 22-year-old Leesburg, Ga., native might bear more of himself in other ways -- namely, the songs on his debut album, The World From the Side of the Moon, nearly all of which he wrote or co-wrote. Among Phillips’ collaborators: producer Gregg Wattenberg, who’s worked extensively with Chris Daughtry and Train; “Home” songwriters Greg Holden and Drew Pearson, who teamed up for the rollicking “Can’t Go Wrong”; and his girlfriend, Hannah Blackwell.
“She helped me with a song called ‘Take Me Away,’ ” says Phillips. “It's not on the core album but a bonus for the Target album.” Phillips says the pining track -- which includes the lines “You’re all I wanna see/All I wanna touch and feel in every way” -- came from a poem Blackwell wrote about him.
As for the lyric he’s most proud of, that comes from a song called “Tell Me a Story,” which Phillips wrote with David Ryan Harris. “I had all the music written,” he says of the melodic track accentuated by a scratchy vocal, strings and a Mumford-meets-Dave Matthews vibe. “The first verse and the chorus were written, I just didn't have a second verse. So David Ryan, who plays with John Mayer a lot, came in there, we got to know each other a bit, and I showed him what I had. He started pushing me to write more, and after a couple of days, this came to me one night: ‘Hope is just a ray of what everyone should see/Alone is the street where you found me/Scared of what's behind you/Scared of what's in front/Live with what you have now/Make the best of what's to come.’ "
Phillips says it’s just one of the songs he hopes “people connect with,” but there’s plenty more material to tug on the heartstrings, including “Wanted Is Love,” “A Fool’s Dance” and “Man on the Moon,” all accentuated by the sounds of strings -- violins, cellos, banjos and many acoustic guitars -- sometimes horns (saxophone, trumpet) and Phillips’ distinctive breathy vocal style. The singer sat down with THR to talk about the forthcoming release (due out Nov. 19) and where he sees his future.
The Hollywood Reporter: First, where did the album title come from?
Phillip Phillips: It’s a lyric from the first song on the album, “Man on the Moon.” I was going through all the lyrics because I had to make decisions at a quick pace, and it kind of stuck out to me. I asked a few friends, and they liked it. People might compare it to Dark Side of the Moon, but as long as I have a different album cover of the sun with my face looking down at the Earth, it'll be OK.
THR: What does it mean?
Phillips: I was starting to think about all I had been through, and someone gave me some DVDs of the whole [Idol] season, so I was kind of watching myself from a whole different world that no one else really knows. It’s interesting to see how it happened and so fast. That's how I picked the title: I felt like I watched myself grow, and this whole album is representing where I am.
THR: Did I hear right -- you recorded the whole album in three weeks?
Phillips: Yes. We just finished it. From first cutting acoustic guitars to last week, it was exactly three weeks. Like I said, I was pressured on time, but it kind of helped the sound. We didn't overanalyze things or overproduce anything; we kept it raw.
THR: And you went with one producer, Gregg Wattenberg.
Phillips: Great guy -- just down-to-earth, and he made me feel home. We had a really good connection,. He would listen, and we’d figure it out. It was a great learning experience.
THR: You recorded in the heart of Manhattan, which is surprising for a Georgia boy. Did the city seep into the songs?
Phillips: I loved it! Honestly, I like New York a lot better than L.A., but I had the songs already written so it was a matter of getting in there and doing it. Now when I write, I might feed off that, but I haven't written since we got done.
THR: What did you expect the recording studio experience to be like, and what was it really like?
Phillips: I honestly didn't know. I would record with my brother-in-law a bit at home but nothing professional. It was interesting. Something I didn’t expect was this guy Dave Eggar played cello on almost every song on the album, so I think I’ve got to get a cello player now.
THR: What was the most challenging part?
Phillips: We would get tired because we were working like 15 hours a day, or even more. Me and Gregg, we’d just look at each other all worn out and sometimes he would tell me, "We're gonna do this; it's gonna be all right." That was probably the toughest part. Just getting as much done as we could because we had a time limit.
THR: Greg Holden and Drew Pearson wrote “Home,” which became a huge hit for you. What was it like to work with them directly this time?
Phillips: We all got in a room, and I showed them an idea of the guitar part, started singing the verses and we just wrote the lyrics together. It's called "Can't Go Wrong," and I really like that song. It's similar to "Home.” We all had a good time getting to know each other. This is all new for all three of us. … They understood where I was in my situation, and I understood where they were.
THR: But just the fact that the song is as big as it is, they must be so stoked.
Phillips: They are. They were telling me it’s done great things for them. But they wrote it, like, a year ago. They didn't expect any of this to ever happen, so it’s just amazing.
THR: It’s been five months since you won American Idol, is it everything you thought it would be?
Phillips: It's a great experience, but it’s tough. Watching it on television on season 10, I was like, "Yeah, I could probably do that"; once it’s the real deal and you're actually doing it, it’s not easy. You're working 12-to-13-hour days, recording, waiting, a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. But it really helps you with the media and perfecting your performances. The worst part is you’re on live TV, because I messed up so many times on the show. I tried to pull it off and you can sneak it by people -- hopefully.
THR: Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
Phillips: On a stage somewhere. I'm a live guy, I like playing out, so hopefully I’ll just be touring out a lot. If people will want to come see me, that would be awesome.