Kathy Phillips is one of the rich New Jersey music scene's best female artists. On her indie debut, "Sway," are four songs that could be hit singles: the touching jazz-pop of "Leaves Changing," the haunting "Angels Never Sleep," the uplifting "Fly High" and the bouncy "Change Your Heart." The disc, released in 2001 on producer Matt Angus' Clinton-based Black Potatoe Records, also is beautifully cathartic, with expressive lyrics, heavenly melodies, gorgeous harmonies and excellent musicianship by many of New Jersey's finest players. They include guitarist Anthony Krizan (Spin Doctors, Lenny Kravitz), keyboardist John Ginty (Robert Randolph, Jewel, Lou Reed) and multi-instrumentalist Kim Williams (Angus, Matt Angus Thing).
But it's Phillips' angel-meets-devil live show that's even more appealing and works well in supporting her recording. Between the two, she sounds like an artistic, yet commercially viable, mix of Norah Jones, Natalie Merchant, Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill and Jewel with a sound she calls pop folk-rock.
"I would love to go into the mainstream like Sarah McLachlan and Jewel," Phillips said. "I don't think struggling makes me a better artist or person. Sure I'd love for someone to give me the funds to really go out and do this right. But for now, I'll continue to plug along. It's all about the journey.''
Over the past three years, Phillips' journey has taken her from a tentative debut solo gig to a show just a couple of weeks ago in which she led a group of Central Jersey's best musicians in jams on several of her own tunes, as well as difficult rock classics, such as the Allman Brothers' "Southbound" and The Band's "The Weight."
Before fronting and leading her own band, Phillips was in a harmonic folk-rock trio called Fedora with former songwriting partner Jay Morrissey, who wrote most of "Sway" with her. Now Phillips makes magic with keyboardist Williams by sharing soulful, angelic harmonies that radiate with warmth from both the stage and stereo.
The best multi-instrumentalist among New Jersey's many rockers, Williams also is a member of her husband's band, the Matt Angus Thing, and spent many years with him in an improvisational folk-rock group called Angus. Other members of the exceptional Kathy Phillips Band are guitarist Gregg Sullivan (Blood, Sweat & Tears), bassist Jeff Wilson, who has his own bluegrass outfit, and drummer Dave Becker, who also has gigged extensively with Angus.
"I think it's really about experience and gaining confidence," Phillips said. "That confidence, the good players respect that. I went through a lot of players in the beginning. My insecurities got the better of me. I made my mistakes. I wasn't always sure of what to do. I was always more of a team player than a leader. Now I have a better idea of what works and what doesn't, and I just try and keep the communication open."
Phillips has spent much of the past year assembling her tight, top-notch band and is ready to take to the road and radio.
"I can handle it now," Phillips said. "I know I'm most comfortable when I'm singing, when I'm onstage performing. It's like home to me. It's a comfort zone. Singing makes me comfortable because I just love it."
Phillips has proven herself with one of the best indie CDs to ever grace the strong, prolific Jersey scene; a spellbindingly good live show; and a voice that tingles the spine one minute and warms the heart the next.
Phillips donates her time and talent to many performances to benefit breast cancer research and music education. Phillips is a co-founder of Jersey Jams Fund (www.jerseyjamsfund.org), a United Way music education program for New Jersey children. Of the program's 60 artists, Phillips and Williams have been the most supportive, along with sponsors Black Potatoe Records, Atomic Productions in Clinton and S.R.A. Studios in Scotch Plains. The program helps New Jersey Children of 9-11 pay for music lessons and school band equipment, while providing music mentorship to all New Jersey children with free special events.
"Music helps and soothes and heals so many people," Phillips says. "I like to help people with music and volunteering my time. I like performing so it's just easy for me. I enjoy it, and it's for a really good cause. It's doing something good. I need to do good things because there's so many negative things out there. I try to make a little bit of a difference. If everybody just did something good, whether it was once a month or just once in their lifetime, it would make a difference."
Phillips will be performing in the coming weeks at Redwoods in Chester, Havana in New Hope, Pa., and Maxwell's in Hoboken. For more info, check out www.kathyphillips.com.
Making a difference with Kathy Phillips: A singer-songwriter's journey