Interview – E. G. Phillips

E. G. Phillips is a jazz/swing musician who’s sound is very reminiscent of the classic jazz/swing era in the first half of the 20th century. If you’re into this sort of music, make sure you give his music a listen after reading this interview.

By Jane Howkins

You recently released a couple of tracks which we reviewed, Brave Heart, Luna!, and The Octopus Song. What can you tell us about the songs?

Brave Heart, Luna! is a song I have a lot of affection for. It grew out of a sort of catchphrase that the 5th Doctor used to use to buck up one of his companions during his tenure as the titular Time Lord, and actually came from an ad lib by the actor during one his earlier episodes. I appropriated the phrase ‘Brave Heart’ to try and give some reassurance to a friend of mine and some point I decided to turn it into a song. Obviously I’m having bit of fun playing off the idea I might addressing the moon itself, and there’s a shout out to the much neglected colour mauve (another oblique Doctor Who reference). When I played it out, it made for a great set capper, able to grab people’s attention as it builds to its big finish. I really felt like it needed to be a big band number for the album and I’m incredibly pleased with how it turned out.

The Octopus Song came about because I had a show at the Octopus Literary Salon I wanted to promote and at the same time I came across Sy Montgomery’s book The Soul of an Octopus, which I found very inspiring both because of its anecdotes about the author’s interactions with individual octopuses she came to know as well as bits of ‘found poetry’ related to the nature of consciousness and Hawaiian legends about the origins of octopuses. So I wrote the song as a sort of promotional tool that I could sing at open mics and the like. At the time I was listening to Nat King Cole’s song You’re Looking At Me which I cribbed some chords from, but more importantly, I like the revelatory aspect of it, where the narrator reveals in the end that he’s really talking about himself.

The line from the chorus Alien from an Alternate Earth seemed like the perfect title for the album as a whole. During the pandemic, the songs themselves seemed to come from another time and place. And of course, they are a rather untypical mashup of singer-songwriter and jazz (being too jazzy’ for the folk crowd and ‘not jazz enough’ for the purists on that side of the spectrum). There is also my own experience of drifting away from tech to focus more on producing music, which has been a bit like slipping through the cracks between worlds.

Has the pandemic hindered your work much?

I’ve missed the the live performance aspect quite a bit — it’s not the same doing zoom calls or what have you, and there’s nothing like having to take a new song out an perform it in from of an audience to get a sense of how it actually plays in real life. Of course now that things are starting to come back, I feel a bit cautious about wading back in so I’m taking it a bit slowly.

What is the writing and recording process like for you?

The writing process can be a bit obsessive once a song has developed to a certain point — it’s very hard to resist the temptation to be singularly focused on tweaking the lyrics and working through getting a decent voice memo type recording that goes end to end.

Recording is a whole other deal. I know a lot of songwriters enjoy co-writes and it does seem to be the Nashville equivalent of a 401K to have as many co-writes as possible, but for me it’s a solitary process. Recording on the other hand, at least if you’re doing it with a producer and the musicians, is by it’s nature a collaborative process where the output is necessarily a function of who you’re working with and what they bring to the table in the way of ideas or skills. It can be quite exciting to see how something develops and at the same time you have to adopt the philosophy of improv to say “yes, and…” in order to keep yourself open to new possibilities.

Recording is also by far the more expensive part of the process.

Do you plan to release any more singles in the near future? Have you started writing for an EP or an album?

I have another EP that just needs to wrapped up with the mastering and artwork, so I’ll be starting to release singles from that, as is the fashion these days, not long after the Alien From an Alternate Earth LP drops just to keep feeding the content beast.
Style wise it’s a very different set of songs, more folk rock, but from my stand point it’s sort of Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the same project given the the time period in which the songs were written and some of the themes that crop up. At one point I was wanting to do all the songs as one big album, but eventually I acquiesced to the reality that there were two distinct groupings.

What/who influences you most as an artist? What have you been listening to recently?

Lyrically I’m from the school where Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell are all tenured professors but my sense of harmony and melody, as well as what I like in the way of instrumentation, that all has been heavily skewed by classic jazz works by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus.

Lately I’ve been listening to more Tom Waits, as that’s a comparison I often get. I also keep up with the latest releases from local San Francisco groups like Seal Party, which is the group my producer for Alien is a part of.

Where are you based? What is the music scene like in your part of the world? Are you influenced by your surroundings?

I’m based in San Francisco. The music scene is still slowly coming back after the pandemic. There’s definitely a community here — this is where the musician meet up group Balanced Breakfast got started, and there a lot of family faces on the open mic circuit. I’ve tried to do my part to foster some of that through my EGPhest event, in which I invite different local performers to come play my songs for the occasion of my birthday, which is really a nice way to get local musicians to come together and celebrate the art of song and performance.

Lots of references to the Bay Area get sprinkled throughout my songs — I find it very natural to incorporate place names and the visual sumptuousness of the built and natural landscape into my songs — despite what synch licensing people might tell you. Of course, when I travel, that also tends to inspire songs as well.

Do you have any tour dates lined up?

I’m still working up to doing live performances, having been a bit cautious about the prospects of getting people out to shows with whatever residual lingering scepticism audiences have about going out due to the pandemic, so it’s mostly local stuff like farmer’s markets, open mics, and small or outdoor venues for now.

What can people expect from one of your shows and why should people come and see you perform live?

While the instrumentation is usually scaled back to just me and guitar, a lot of the performance for me is the space in between the songs which is a chance to talk about them in different ways and interact a bit with the audience.

My model in that respect is that satirist Tom Lehrer, who often took oblique and round about ways to link one song to another. There’s an improvisational aspect to it and a chance to have some fun — I definitely shun the dry and tentative “this where I was and this what I was thinking” introductions that are, alas, all to too typical for folk singers. So each time it’s a bit different.

Any last words for the fans?

Brave heart. brave, brave heart.