What makes a performer special? The ability to empathize through a well-turned lyric, the talent for writing an effective hook, a connection with an audience projected from the stage, and a sense of purpose and passion in an artists' music are all qualities possessed by those who are able to make the transition from musician to performer.
New Jersey's Kathy Phillips has shown that possessing all of these qualities is endearing to fans and critics alike. Her debut album, Sway (Black Potatoe Records), released in late 2001, was recognized by The Courier News with nods for Best Female Artist and Best Song for her smooth, polished sound, a graceful connection between jazz and folk.
One of the top New Jersey independent CD releases of 2001, Sway brought Phillips into a scene which has embraced her music. In return, she has offered her support to the scene, by contributing her track "Angels Never Sleep" as part of the Jersey Jams Fund compilation CD to raise money for the charity's scholarship programs.
Phillips has performed throughout the local scene, gaining greater attention which she should be able to use as a launching pad to greater success, additional venues at which to perform, and a follow-up CD. In the short-term, she will continue to perform at Jersey Jams Fund events.
Chorus and Verse asked the talented songwriter and vocalist about her participation in the Jersey Jams Fund initiative, as well as the success of her debut CD and her plans for the future.
Kathy PhillipsYou were an early supporter of the Jersey Jams Fund. When and how did you become involved with the JJF, and how do you feel about its progress over the past couple of years?
I first became involved in JJF when I heard Bob Makin was looking for NJ artists to contribute a song that was either written in response to the 9/11 tragedies or already had tracks recorded that would be appropriate. My CD had been released a couple of months after 9/11 and Bob had listened to it and asked Matt Angus, who was also involved in putting the compilation CD together and had produced mine, if I had a track. I think we all wanted to do something to help make a difference, and this CD and its objective to raise money for the families of victims seemed like a great way to do something. I was honored to be a part of it.
The progress that has been made is really exceptional. A good amount of money has been raised, music scholarships have been given, and it’s a continuous effort to help people. I think Bob has really done a good job to make this work. He’s got a big heart.
You contributed the track “Angels Never Sleep” to the fund’s compilation CD, Jersey Jams, Jersey Cares: A Charitable Tribute to the New Jersey Families of September 11. Can you recall the inspiration behind the lyrics to that song, and how you feel about it two years later?
The song “Angels Never Sleep” was a previously-recorded track that I had recorded for my CD. I had written some songs in response to 9/11, but I thought this one was a good fit for the compilation. I thought the message behind it might bring some kind of comfort to those that had lost someone. The song is about knowing that those we have lost are never really gone from us. They are out there somewhere watching over us. I wrote this song long ago for my friend Kristin Graziani who lost her life at a young age due to a heart condition.
How did you first become attracted to music, and when did you start songwriting and performing? Can you give us a little background about where you grew up, went to school, and other jobs that you’ve had besides your musical aspirations?
Kathy PhillipsI’ve loved music since as early as I can remember. I was just naturally drawn to it. It was always a dream of mine to be a singer. That was the one thing and still remains the one thing that I’m 100% sure of in my life. I grew up in Rockaway, NJ. I didn’t come from a musical family although everyone was artistic. I took flute and violin lessons and started singing in the school choirs. I gravitated more towards singing. After school, I started singing in cover bands and worked that whole circuit. I think that’s where I worked out most of my stage comfort and really found my voice.
Gradually I started meeting musicians who were writing their own music. It was really enticing and when I started writing it opened up this whole creative world that I had been missing out on. There’s nothing quite like the creative process of songwriting. It’s therapeutic for me. And, ultimately, if a song I wrote could touch someone and make them feel something, that’s what makes it so special.
As far as non-musical jobs, I’ve got a long list; from putting stickers on potato chip bags to waitressing to working for an advertising agency.
Your bio talks about your love of performing to an audience. Can you recall the first time you were in front of a crowd and somehow express the emotions you feel when you know that you’ve capture their attention? Do you feel naturally comfortable being on stage, or is that something you’ve had to work on as your career has developed?
I love performing. I feel most at home when I’m on stage. One of my first times onstage; I remember getting a solo part in one of the high school shows and being incredibly scared. It was a horribly unhip song, so maybe that’s why I was so scared!
I still get butterflies before a show. Nervous energy is good. It’s keeps things exciting.
Your debut album Sway was released by Black Potatoe Records in November 2001. How did you start working with Black Potatoe, and what made you choose them for supporting your first record? How have they been to work with, and are you pleased with the performance of the CD?
I started to work with Black Potatoe before I started to record Sway. Label head Matt Angus heard me on WNTI with my trio Fedora (Jay Morrissey and Pat Hooey) at the time. Somewhere along the road, he asked me to do some backups for his band, Angus. Naturally, I said yes. I still had my trio going on which eventually turned into a duo and then just me. I had a bunch of songs that I really just wanted to get down on tape. When Matt heard them, he really liked them and said he’d record and produce them under Black Potatoe. He brought together all of the incredible musicians and brought a whole new life to the songs. I was so incredibly happy with the final result. So, yes, they’ve been great to work with and have become dear friends of mine.
Describe your songwriting style. When and where do you normally like to write, and how long do you usually work on a new song before playing it live? Do you tend to sit and write a song from beginning to end, or jot down ideas and put them together at a later time to create a new song entirely?
I don’t really know what my style is. I feel like the songs sort of write themselves sometimes. They just happen. I don’t like to sit down and say 'ok, I’m going to write a song now.' That just never works. The ideas just come when they’re ready, mostly when I least expect it. Generally, I have to be moved by something. Oddly enough, I find that I get some of my best ideas when I’m driving. Then I’ll go home and try to work it out. When I’m writing with others, it’s all about the moment and just letting whatever come out. That’s when it feels like magic. I wrote a lot of the tracks off of Sway with my good friend Jay Morrissey that way.
Ever suffer from writer’s block, or just can’t figure out where to take some lyrics that you’re working on? What other things do you like to do to relax when you’re not involved in music?
Sure, I suffer from writer’s block. It bums me out, but sometimes life just gets in the way and I get caught up with day-to-day stuff and being creative seems to get put aside. When I’m not doing music, I like to just hang out with friends and just chill out. I wish I could say I did something exciting like skydiving, rock climbing or scuba diving. I’d be up for that, though. But generally I don’t have all that much time, so quality time with friends and family is good.
Do you have any tricks or tips for keeping your voice in shape? Do you ever rehearse, or do anything to prepare your voice before a performance? How has your vocal training with Kate Baker affected your style, and what do you think about your own voice when you hear a playback?
Kathy PhillipsI try to keep my voice in shape by doing vocal exercises every day. I am not a purist, but I try to drink a lot of water, I don’t smoke, I try to get enough sleep and I always warm up before gigs. The voice is an instrument and, unfortunately, you have to keep your body in good shape or else your voice will suffer. I still have bad habits, but I just try and balance them out with the good ones.
I’ve studied with jazz singer Kate Baker. She helped me work through some vocal issues. She specializes in vocal therapy and really knows the voice inside and out. I love the way she teaches because she really works with singers to bring out their individual style.
It took me a long time to be able to listen to my voice and not hate it. When I was recording the vocals [on] Sway, if I wasn’t cringing then we knew we could keep it. I’ve learned to accept it now. But, I still re-do my answering machine message at least five times!
You perform in several formats, as a solo performer, in duos, and with your full band. Do you have any preference for any of these formats, or does each provide its own set of advantages? Who are the musicians whom you normally perform with, and what are the qualities you look for in collaborators?
I like doing both acoustic and full-band performances. The acoustic gigs are intimate and relaxed. You can really hear the songs in their bare-bones format, the way they were originally written. The full-band gigs are so much fun. I love the interaction with all the musicians; it’s high-energy and full-on. I’ve been working with some of the greatest musicians: Kim Williams, who plays keyboards and sings harmonies, is really my partner in all of this now. We do all gigs together. Gregg Sullivan and Steve Gibb have been playing guitar, Jeff Wilson on bass and Dave Becker and Tom Nelson on drums.
As far as what I look for in collaborators, I think I need to respect them as players or writers and have a good connection with them.
You’ve had an opportunity to perform at a number of great local venues, including The Stone Pony, the Wetlands and The Saint. Do you have a favorite room, or somewhere you consider “home base”? Are there any local venues you haven’t played at yet and are hoping to, and are there any plans perform outside of the local area in the future?
I don’t really have a “home base room” that I play in. I loved playing the Stone Pony and the Stanhope House, knowing what great players had been on the same stage. It was a really cool feeling. I think I’ve hit most of the local spots. I’m planning to go up to Boston and then to Atlanta.
What are you planning for your show at the Urban Word Café in Trenton as part of the Jersey Jams Fund “All You Need Is Love Fest?” Will you be performing electric or acoustic, how long do you expect Your set to last, and will you be performing new material, or tracks off Sway? Are you planning anything special for the event?
I’m doing this show as a trio, with Kim Williams and Matt Angus. We’re going to be doing some songs from Sway, some new songs, some of Matt’s songs and, of course, some of our favorite Beatles songs. I think we have about a 45-minute set and then we’ll do a final Beatles jam with all the artists. I’m looking forward to it. A lot of fun for a good cause.
Any plans to record a follow-up to Sway? Do you have other material written and ready to so, and is there any schedule that you’re working with towards releasing your sophomore effort? What are you hoping your career will bring you in the year ahead?
I can’t wait to do another record. Recording Sway was one of the greatest experiences. I’m in the process of writing and gathering new material for the next one. Hopefully, I can get back into the studio soon.
As far the future goes, fame and fortune would be great, but what I would really hope for is to continue writing and working with great musicians and hopefully have more and more people listen and enjoy the music.