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Deeper Into Collaboration, Part 1: Ben Shive interviews Jill Phillips

Have you listened to the new Jill Phillips record yet? If you haven’t, stop everything and listen immediately. Then, when you’ve finished crying, come back here and read this beautiful interview where Ben Shive (who worked with Jill to produce the record) asks Jill some questions about the craft of songwriting, the story of her lifelong love of music, and the meaning of collaboration.

Ben Shive: You are the all time name-that-tune champ in the 80’s pop genre. Seriously encyclopedic. You’ve always been an active music listener and I know you still seek out new music. I find that listening gets a little harder for me every year and I think that’s common. Can you talk about what keeps you interested in new music? What are you looking for when you listen? Is there anything you used to look for that you don’t care about anymore?

Jill Phillips: Ben, this is such a good question. I don’t know that I can ever re-create the influence of the artists I was listening to in my early days as a musician. Susan Ashton, Jonatha Brooke, Patty Griffin, Rich Mullins, Crowded House—their music shaped me at a pivotal time. It feels like thinking of your childhood hometown or best friend; there’s a wistfulness to these names that parallels my own journey of being a student at Belmont and growing into being an artist. These days my listening is different and it’s harder to find artists that are as influential to my work, where I want to dive into everything they’ve released and absorb every word and note. I do find those artists occasionally and it’s a gift as I get older. It happened recently with Daniel Tashian (the Silver Seas)—I’m a bit late to the party but he felt like the next artist I will listen to over my lifetime, not just for a month.

I don’t listen to some of the early artists who inspired me quite as much anymore, almost as if they were for that season. I still listen to and enjoy old music and songwriters I have loved for decades, but I’m listening to a lot more gospel and soul music. I think in this season of life I’m looking for more unrestricted emotion in songs—not that it’s inherently better, it just seems to be what I need right now. I feel less self-consciousness coming from these voices and the wisdom, hope, and character that comes from suffering. I am drawn to voices that aren’t affected and contorted to whatever the latest style is. I care very much about words and writing, but I am equally drawn to the vocals and the overall vibe. That being said, if you looked at the songs downloaded on my phone you might be hard pressed to find an overall theme. Next to Callie Day, CeCe Winans, and Maxwell, there might be songs by The War on Drugs and Bleachers.

Deeper Into Love is a wisdom record. From the beginning, I think your catalog is essentially wisdom literature. When did that quest for wisdom begin? What have you learned about the nature of wisdom along the way? How has your new vocation shaped your search?

I have never thought about my catalog as wisdom literature. That’s really moving to me, thank you. I think I’ve always been an old soul and have asked deep questions from a young age. I’ve often been an observer and wanted to sit in the mystery and complexity of things. I would lie awake late into the night thinking about philosophical and theological questions, and honestly, I don’t know why. Some of it is personality and some of it is growing up in a home with two parents who were teachers and in a church with a lot of great mentors who encouraged me to ask deep questions. I still attend a church that welcomes reflection and have also had the opportunity as a musician to travel to places across the world where people are leaning into learning and growing. Being a musician and being a counselor both flow from a posture of being awake, asking deep questions, making observations, and trying to integrate many insights into one song or one concept.

I don’t know that I have an answer for how I define the nature of wisdom, but the best I can come up with in my own life is being rooted in Love: knowing I am loved by God, loving God, loving others. Being part of a bigger love story. And to embrace my humanity and who God created me to be as best as I can. Spiritual direction and wise mentors have helped me so much in this journey of really beginning to accept how loved I am by God. And that changes everything. There is so much spaciousness and freedom in his love and sadly we don’t always experience that from the church or Christians. But it is the truth.

This verse from the Message translation of Galatians sums up what wisdom looks like vocationally and personally in this season of my life: “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” I want to spend the rest of my life practicing this and inviting others into this freedom as well.

“Writing on the Wall” and “Deeper” each turned out to be prescient; each was written about grief just before you experienced a profound loss. What do you make of this? How has writing correlated with your circumstances and inner life?

It is so strange, isn’t it? I know grief is all around us all of the time, but when I experienced my first great loss after my father died, I had no idea how much it would open me up to this reality. The more I live and love, the more I have experienced loss. It is such a constant part of life now. I wouldn’t know where to begin in telling all the stories of loss and grief I’m holding right now, mine and others’. There are still losses that gut me and shock me, like losing Thomas and Charlie McKenzie on the first day of recording this project, but I am more and more experienced with loss as I grow older. I love that the Bible says Jesus was a Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. Suffering has only increased my capacity to experience peace and joy. What a bizarre mystery. I think that’s what we were trying to say in the song “Bright Sadness.”

My writing has always correlated with my inner life and circumstances. I truly don’t know how to do it any other way. Each album is a snapshot of where I am and what I am wrestling with or being comforted by at that time. Early in my career, I tried to write songs that pleased others, but I was miserable and it didn’t last long. I have the ability now to write what I want about what I want, and I hope that helps me sing with authenticity and authority.

This is the first time we’ve written together. What’s it like stepping into a new collaboration? What are the joys of writing for you? Does collaboration enhance those joys or change them in some way?

I think I’m always a bit scared stepping into a new collaboration. I am grateful our path to writing was organic and based in years of friendship, which made it easier for me. I am very relational, so writing with people is always easiest for me when there is safety and relationship. It’s such a vulnerable thing to share your heart and vision with someone. I hope that as I have gotten older I can show up and worry less about proving something. Most performers like me grow up with some performance-based wounds, so collaboration is always an invitation to be present more, hustle less, and tap into the larger creative process at work. Co-writing has never been as easy for me as it is for Andy, who could write with someone new everyday, but I am usually encouraged and expanded in some way by each experience.

You’ve worked with some great producers: Wayne Kirkpatrick, Matt Stanfield, and Cason Cooley. This is the first time we’ve worked together and you came in like a pro. You gave me a lot of room to do what I do but you weren’t afraid to speak up when you wanted something or when something wasn’t right. Were you always so comfortable in the studio or has that been a process?

I am so glad you felt that way! I thought it was incredibly easy to work with you too. It felt effortless and natural and I needed that so much in this season of life. I was not always so comfortable in the studio and I remember my insecurities getting in the way when I was beginning to record as a student at Belmont. I would internally shut down at suggestions or criticism, even if I didn’t voice it. I would get in my head too much. Insecurity and ego can stifle the creative process like no other, and I’m grateful I’ve had decades to get more comfortable in my skin, know my voice, own my limitations, and just go in being more myself. That has also freed me to explore more from this safe base and take creative risks.

Suffering has only increased my capacity to experience peace and joy. What a bizarre mystery. I think that’s what we were trying to say in the song 'Bright Sadness.' Jill Phillips

Wayne Kirkpatrick was instrumental in starting me on this journey. He is an amazing man and was the perfect person for me to begin working with as a young artist. I’m actually getting emotional thinking about it now, as it’s been so long since I’ve revisited this time in my life. He had industry credibility and success, and he used every bit of that to advocate for me who had no power. He did not have to do that; he could have lined his own pockets. He could have tried to write and play on everything and he didn’t—instead, he empowered me and Andy to be ourselves and do what we do. He made sure I sang my own songs and he had Andy play all of the guitar. He was comfortable in who he was, which created a generous work environment, and that experience has stayed with me to this day.

And there is so much I could say about Matt and Cason, too—they are so supportive and collaborative and have always believed in me. I learned about incredible attention to detail from Matt—we would work long hours to get everything exactly how we wanted it. I learned a lot about big picture vision from Cason and creating an overall sonic landscape. Not to mention amazing lunches every day! We spent as much time talking about where we would eat as we did going over vocal comps. He is so fun.

I felt a perfect blend from you of letting me be myself and also pushing me to something better and more beautiful with every word, every vocal take. I would be content with something and you would find a way to elevate it. And it never felt critical; it was freeing to have someone expect more from me and from the music. I am so grateful for each of you and each of these experiences.

Click here to view Deeper Into Love in the Rabbit Room Store, and stay tuned for Part 2, where Jill interviews Ben.


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