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Phil Keaggy - The Renaissance Man

  • 1999 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
Phil Keaggy - The Renaissance Man
By Bruce Adolph, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}}

{{Phil Keaggy}}'s accolades are too numerous to list. As far as well-known Christian musicians go, he's a legend in his own time. Phil has been playing guitar for over 30 years. This is the third time Christian Musician has interviewed Phil in four years of publishing and we can't seem to shake one undeniable fact: Phil is gaining ground with age, not losing it.

We've seen him several times recently in concert settings and guitar seminars and this masterful musician keeps getting better. I've spoken with some of Phil's longtime friends and they are saying things like, "Phil has just been on fire lately in his playing." He has been in an exponentially productive season of his career and has pumped out an unusually high amount of product in the last few years. As you'll see from this interview, he shows no signs of letting up. {{Phil Keaggy}} is a renaissance man. He's flourishing with creativity and is skillfully taking the art of guitar playing to a new level. I was thrilled to catch up with this perennial cover story and to fill you in on the latest with {{Phil Keaggy}}.


CM: Can you bring us up to speed on what's happening with {{Phil Keaggy}}?

PK: I've had quite a year. It's been the most musically prolific year of my life. The last two or three years have been simply amazing, musically. When I did the ==True Believer== album in 1994, that was really a stretch for me. After doing that album, I came to really enjoy performing those songs live. The songs "True Believer" and "Salvation Army Band" took on a whole new meaning. What I was doing immediately following that album were things that ended up in the last vocal album. It took me a good many months before I felt competent to actually write vocal songs again. For instance, the song "Days Like You" was actually me expressing my doubts. I was in a songwriting rut, and that song portrayed and expressed what I was going through. After that I did the ==220== album, and I was compiling the pieces that went into ==Acoustic Sketches== sometime around 1995.


CM: ==Acoustic Sketches== recently won a Dove award, didn't it?

PK: Yes it did. I don't think it's on anyone's top-selling list, but it's an album that has meant a lot to people, whether they are musicians or not. It's an album that I'm very happy to hand out to people. I've entered a new season of instrumental songwriting that's really exploded since ==220== and ==Acoustic Sketches==. I ended up doing ==On the Fly==, which was as easy as breathing. That album came about so easily, with a lot of joy. There's a lot of freedom expressed on that album, both on acoustic and electric.

Following that, Judith Volz, who does A&R for me, worked out a situation for me to do some albums for Unison. The first one I did for them was the Christmas album. I finished it in June of '98, but it wasn't released last year. My good buddy John Schroeder at Fingerstyle Magazine got permission for the fan club to do a limited release of that Christmas album. We called it A Christmas Gift. It's the Unison album with a different sequence and artwork. It opens up with "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," which is done very tongue-in-cheek. It has a kind of ukulele-ish sound at the beginning. I'm playing a three-quarter size classical, a little student model. That's the same guitar I played on "A Sign Came Through a Window." It sounds like rubber bands being played. The album went through some major changes and the title was changed to Majesty & Wonder which released this year. The album is produced by me, and I play all the instruments on it. I play quite a variety of guitars: the Tacoma Papoose, Langejans' Classical, Langejans' Grand Concert, the Olson Acoustic SJ - I've been playing that guitar for fourteen years, and I still love it. I love Langejans' guitars too.

My manager, Norman Miller, always dreamed that I would do a classical album with the London Strings. He asked me to consider making the Christmas album that album. I told him, "I must admit, I'm very happy with the album as it is." It was all done in my little basement studio, which I call Keaggworth. Dave Shober is the man responsible for recording and mixing the strings project. Dave has a tremendous ear, and is very good with the big picture. Norman and I got together with Myrrh and talked about a new Christmas album, which would primarily be the one already recorded. I transferred all my tracks - guitar, bass and mandolin - to ADAT and gave them to Dave. We decided to take off "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Jingle Bells," and I wrote three new instrumentals, called "The Nativity Suite." There are three pieces in "The Nativity Suite": "Visitation," "Shepherd's Song," and "Flight Into Egypt." The first two pieces were completely inspired by the music of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, an English composer who lived between 1872 and 1958. I'm a lover of his music. His "Carol in Prelude" as well as a couple of Christmas songs were the inspiration for "Visitation" and "Shepherd's Song." The string arrangements for Vaughan-Williams' pieces were too complicated for me to learn, so I used them as a catalyst to compose my own pieces. They're similar in the sense that folk songs are similar to each other. "Flight Into Egypt" is a complete departure from the other two. It's got more of a Jethro Tull vibe to it. I play the Parker guitars on the electric parts and my Langejans R6 for the middle solo. I also play bass on it and I did a percussion loop as well.

We got together with Carl Marsh, an orchestra arranger, and he suggested that we also record Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." We took off two songs and added these four others, giving the album a completely new feel. Dave Shober hired the musicians-Chris McCue on drums, Eric Darkin on percussion, John Mach on the Irish flute-and he brought in a bell choir and added {{Michelle Tumes}}' voice. I trusted David completely. When the day came for me to got down to Darkhorse studios to listen to what he'd added, my eyes welled up. I couldn't believe how gorgeous everything was.


CM: This was after adding the London Session Orchestra?

PK: Yes. Dave Shober and Carl Marsh went to England-I didn't even meet any of these players-to record. It sounds like I'm playing with them, but they actually just took my tracks over. They added strings, horns, woodwinds, and there's also an incredible harpist on the album.


CM: Who wrote those parts?

PK: This is interesting. One of my Langejans guitars is rigged up with a McLish sensor pickup and a midi out, so I used my GR30 Roland guitar modules and came up with a lot of parts: harp parts, voice parts, string parts, woodwind parts. It really amazed me because Carl Marsh and Tom Howard took those tracks and actually scored for the real instruments based on what I had done, and then added more. What you end up with on the new album is basically my ideas, enhanced. It's a very lush, happy album with a regal sense about it.


CM: What gear are you using live?

PK: For the acoustic set up, my guitar goes through the Boss Dimension C pedal, and that goes into-believe it or not-a blues driver, in case I want to have a little sustain. That works pretty cool for songs like "John the Revelator." After that I go through a volume pedal, and out of that go directly in the Jam Man, and then from there I go into a GBX 166 compressor.


CM: Since they don't make the Jam Man anymore, do you have a couple extra in the closet? You're so good on it.

PK: I do have an extra one in my studio. Chet Atkins introduced me to the Jam Man, and he said, "Phil, it looks like this thing was made just for you." It really improved my sense of rhythm. So there you have it. It's a fairly simple setup. I can carry the Jam Man and the compressor right on the plane. I check my Olson in a Calton case, and I'm having special cases made for my Langejans as well.


CM: Tell us about your other Unison albums.

PK: They're all going to be released at the same time this fall. There are four volumes, and they express the complete range of my abilities. I like every one of them in a very special way. The four titles are: Brush Strokes, Splash, Electric Blue, and Still Life. The first one is kind of dreamy; I do a lot of guitar synth on it with the Langejans. It's got a couple of pieces that could've been on Acoustic Sketches. It has that kind of a feel. I worked with a percussionist named Michael Elkefer on a couple of pieces, and Ken Lewis did a few as well.

Next spring I've got a Spanish-style instrumental album coming out. I used mainly my Langejans, but I also use the electric once in a while. I brought three string players into my little studio, a cellist, violist and violinist, and multi-tracked them on a piece called "Overture." There are some salsa-sounding pieces as well.

Besides that, we've got the Premium Jams that were released through the fan club on Canus Major. It's a double cd set that just came out. It's a collection of all the DATS from the ==Crimson in Blue== sessions with John Sephera, Wade James and Phil Madiera. It has the 220 sessions with Spencer Campbell and Lynn Williams, and a few other snippets of things. It's got loads of electric guitar.

I co-produced an album for a friend of mine, Keith Mohr, that recently came out on Canus Major. I played guitar and bass and engineered and mixed it.


CM: What are your plans for touring?

PK: There's no giant tour scheduled, but right now I'm doing two weekends a month. I may be doing some dates with {{Michael Card}} and some with {{Ragamuffin Band}}. I also may be doing a few sets with {{Mike Roe}}.


CM: Are there any guitarists you're excited about right now?

PK: I've been listening to Lawrence Juber's new album and I think he's great. I'm still a Martin Simpson fan and a John Renbourn fan. He's one of the patriarchs of modern folk guitar. Peter Finger is awesome.


CM: You've made thirty albums at this point in your career. What does music mean to you now?

PK: It's ever-changing, ever-evolving. I like going new places with the guitar. I keep discovering alternate tunings, which has been kind of fun and has created new avenues for me to play melodically. It's exciting to be able to come down to my studio and just see what happens. I've been grateful for the opportunity to produce a lot more myself.


CM: What's giving you your inspiration these days?

PK: I continue to read Oswald Chambers, and recently I picked up the Book of Common Prayer. I've been feeling led to focus more on the Word of God these days, because everything else is somewhat scaffolding when compared to the actual essence of God's Word. It is the primary source of our walk and our inspiration, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit's presence in our lives. Getting back to the most essential words of comfort, encouragement, exhortation, rebuke-whatever you need-helps to understand the heart of Jesus and live the Christian life. To do justice, show mercy and walk humbly with your God is something to strive for.




Win A Tacoma Papoose Guitar Autographed By Phil Keaggy!


Musician Resources on the Music Channel at crosswalk.com and Christian Musician Magazine are giving away a TACOMA PAPOOSE GUITAR autographed by PHIL KEAGGY to celebrate the release of his first instrumental Christmas album ever: Majesty & Wonder!


Go to the contest area now at http://music.crosswalk.com/keaggycontest. For more chances to win, just refer your friends!