THE PHILLIP PHILLIPS many people got to know after he won season 11 of "American Idol" in 2012 fit snugly into the folk-rock revival happening on top 40 radio.
Phillips’ hit singles, “Home” and “Gone Gone Gone” had the earthy acoustic instrumentation and the big vocal harmonies and arena-sized beats that had turned songs by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers into big hits.
But there was a whole different artist lurking within Phillips, and his 2012 debut album, “The World from the Side of the Moon,” also showcased a rocking, jazz-tinged sound that many compared to the music of the Dave Matthews Band.
Phillips, in a recent phone interview, said those sort of songs are closer to his heart, and when he started work on his recently released second CD, “Behind the Light,” he wanted to make sure to spotlight the rockier side of his sound.
“The first album did have a lot of rock to it as well, that not many people got to see unless they bought the whole album or came to a show,” Phillips observed. “And this (second) album, I wanted to kind of stray away, a little bit more away, from that folk-rock, because it wasn’t necessarily me. I was more into the jazz-rock type stuff. And this album really shows more of that, and that’s why I’m a lot more proud of it because it represents me so much more.”
While “Home” first surfaced when Phillips performed the song on “American Idol,” he said the more rocking side of his sound shouldn’t surprise those who paid attention during his run on “Idol.”
“It’s what I’ve always represented, even when I was on ‘Idol,’” Phillips said. “I would change up a song, like a Billy Joel song. I didn’t really do any songs that were folky on that. The Damien Rice songs, ‘Superstition,’ whatever it might have been, it still had that technical kind of guitar riff that I would play with horns or you had a little rock feel. This album (“Behind The Light”), I kind of represented that to where I’ve always played music live, even before ‘Idol,’ with a band. That’s exactly how I play, just (now it’s) a little bit more mature. I’ve learned a lot more musically and started writing songs. This whole album, it really shows that.”
According to Phillips, it was his record label’s idea for him to show a folky side to his sound. In fact, 19 Entertainment/Interscope came to Phillips before he recorded “The World from the Side of the Moon,” with a deal. If he would record “Home” and a second folk-flavored tune, which turned out to be “Gone Gone Gone,” Phillips could do whatever else he wanted musically on that album.
Naturally, “Home” (written by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden) and “Gone Gone Gone” (written by Derek Fuhrmann, Todd Clark and Gregg Wattenberg) were chosen as the singles from the album – and the move worked like gangbusters. “Home” topped three “Billboard” magazine charts (Adult Alternative Songs, Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40) and went top 10 on three other charts (including the all-genre Hot 100 singles chart). “Gone Gone Gone” was released next and topped the Adult Alternative Songs and Adult Contemporary charts. The album, meanwhile, went platinum, with more than one million copies sold, in November 2013.
For “Behind the Light,” Phillips didn’t encounter any demands from 19 Entertainment/Interscope.
“They let me do the record how I felt was right,” the soft-spoken 23-year-old native of Georgia said. “We would send the song in to John Janick (head of Interscope), and he would come back with a couple of things, some feedback, ‘You want to try this or try this?’ And we would try it and sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. But it was really me and Gregg (Wattenberg) and Derek (Fuhrmann), we really worked hard on this album.”
As that quote suggests, Phillips re-teamed with many of the key collaborators from the first album for “Behind the Light.”
Wattenberg was back on board to produce the album and also had a hand in writing four of the songs, while Phillips teamed up with Fuhrmann and Clark on three songs. Fuhrmann also co-wrote a pair of songs with Phillips and Wattenberg, while Clark co-wrote the song “Fly” with Phillips. Two other writers from the first album—David Ryan Harris and Jon Green —also each co-wrote a tune with Phillips for “Behind the Light.”
The music “team Phillips” wrote and recorded for the second album does accent the rock side of his sound a bit more. In particular, several songs have a bigger sound. “Trigger” builds from its understated verses to a bold, hard-hitting chorus. “Lead On” is a chugging rocker with a bit of a soulful groove. “Thicket” is a taut, jazzy rock track that sounds especially Dave Matthews-ish.
But the folkier side of Phillips’ music is also present. In fact, songs like “Raging Fire” (the first single), “Searchlight” and “Unpack Your Heart” have many of the stylistic trademarks of “Home,” from the easy-going vocals, to the acoustic textures to the big thumping drum beat.
Phillips, though, feels he succeeded in emphasizing more of his jazz/rock-oriented sound, as well as the musical intricacies he likes to build into his songs.
“I really wanted to show the music, how musical I like to be – and how I am with the live show as well. I wanted to represent that through the songs on this album. I feel like we did,” Phillips said. “I like to do different things on the guitar or with string parts. I like to where people can hear a little more of the technical parts instead of just strumming away on the chords and not really hearing all of these little bits and having little hidden things in there as well. This album, I think, really shows that with the musical aspect of things. And lyrically, it’s a lot more mature as well. Like with the first album, I wanted there to be different emotions, and this one really shows that. But I think it shows it in a little bit more kind of a grown up (way). You can tell I’ve grown a little bit from the first album.”
Phillips is promoting the second album by following up a recently completed summer co-headlining run with O.A.R. with a fall headlining tour, including the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon gig.
He plans to avoid getting into any musical ruts by keeping things fresh—both for himself and his band and for his fans—from night to night.
“We’ll definitely be playing songs off of the first album and this new one, for sure,” Phillips said. “But I like to keep it different every night. We play a different set every night and in a different order. We might change something up in a song, because I like to keep it fun for us and (keep us) on our toes, and also for our fans.”