Phil-O-Sophically Speaking

PhilThe Phil Keaggy Interview
by Bruce Adolph, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%%

It's eight o'clock in the morning and you have an interview with the legendary guitarist {{Phil Keaggy}} in one hour. What do you ask him? How do you draw out of him what he's thinking as a player? Do you ask some of the same old questions everyone else asked of him: Tell us about what Jimi Hendrix said about you being the greatest guitarist in the world on the Johnny Carson show... or was it Eric Clapton on David Letterman... or Gandhi on the Dick Cavett Show? Then you realize that Phil Keaggy is more than a "guitar hero", he's a real person with a true passion for the things of the Lord. He is humble about the high accolades for his guitar playing abilities, and even more than that, Phil has demonstrated a friendliness toward us that makes me smile when I think about it. So out the window goes the usual questions. Let's just talk with Phil Keaggy about what's going on in his life right now. He has an album out that really impressed us. It is a rich blending of both vocal and guitar chords. It is the best vocal album Phil Keaggy has released in a decade. It is self-titled, it is ==Phil Keaggy==.

%%Christian Musician%%: It's been quite sometime since you've had a vocal album out and with this album your vocal performance is much more aggressive than we've heard from you - like Phil on vocal steroids - tell us about it.

{{Phil Keaggy}}: I've desired to do a vocal album a lot sooner than this, the last vocal album I did was ==True Believer== on Sparrow. I'm not sure that ended up being what everybody thought it was going to be. I found that it was not as easy to sing on that album as it is on this new one. I felt completely at home on the new one, mostly with the material because it was my material. I co-wrote everything with other writers so musically it's my music and lyrically it's other peoples contributions (about 4 or 5 songs are my lyrics). I did the vocals at home, primarily through a wonderful microphone my co-producer/engineer Tom Laune has, a Manley (made by David Manley). It is a new microphone, it is a stereo mic but we used it mono. It sounds beautiful when you record a guitar also. It's a great microphone and it brought the best of my voice out and of course Tom knows how to record (he's a great engineer). Although I've also been happy with my Audio Technica 4033 mics - I use them regularly.

The basic tracks were done at a couple different studios: Bennett House, Franklin and Omni. Then we did a lot of my guitar overdubs, leads, lead vocals and all the background vocals were done at home through Pro Tools (Tom owns the Pro Tools system). We had unlimited tracks that way. It was great to work in my own home environment because it was very relaxing; I could work through the day so it was comfortable that way.

The album is a collection of songs I've been writing since the last album ==True Believer==. Some of the songs have been just sitting around waiting for a home and fortunately Myrrh Records gave me a home for these songs.

The oldest song on the album, "Jesus Loves The Church," was actually written when I lived in California back in 1985. {{Sheila Walsh}} gave me a couple of lyric sheets of words she had penned. One of them was "It Could Of Been Me" which ended up the new =Way Back Home= album re-release. I wrote "Jesus Loves The Church" for her album and then she went to England and her producers there apparently thought that it wasn't pop enough or something and wrote their own music to her lyrics. So I've kept "Jesus Loves The Church" around for all these years. It did come out on Backroom Tracks Vol. 2 but the style is a little more different: it's slower and in a lower key on the new album. It's a very heartfelt, good lyric.

CM: Your background vocalist is terrific on that tune.

PK: Gianna Jesson is 20 years old, she is a young girl who has a powerful ministry. She has a speaking ministry but she also has a gorgeous voice. Our family befriended her and we had invited her to come out and visit sometime. She came out at the time when we were at the point of recording "Jesus Loves The Church". I had written this bridge part to the song that has a little bit of a Titanic/James Horner moment there and I thought that it would be lovely to have a beautiful voice on it. At that moment she knocks on the window of the studio and says, "Hi". I said, "Come on in I've got something here for you to do." On "Above All Things" we used a female voice that was sampled off of a CD (she is the first female voice on that song). We did a lot of experimenting with different vocal textures. There's a lot of people contributing to the album. There is Gene Miller singing background vocals on "Chase The Bad Away", and we have Keith Moore, who co-wrote "A Little Bit Of Light" with me.

CM: The song "Chase The Bad Away" is a good example of the balance of power on this album between the guitar parts and the vocals. You sing without abandon on it.

PK: I had written that song back in 1995 and I basically sang it exactly like my demo, all of the ad-lib parts, everything. I took a mini-disc demo with me into the vocal booth and I said "I've got to do it like I did this demo." When I record a lot of my stuff at home I do it with abandonment, with a freedom. Sometimes where I find myself squelched and intimidated is in a big studio situation trying to sing (through a glass) to a producer.

Tom Laune and I got along splendidly co-producing this album together. I completely trusted him sonically (and in the pocket kinds of things: phrasing) and he completely trusted me and my judgment musically. He knows how to record instruments and we have a really good sounding album. I was very free vocally, the texture of my voice, the range. I sing deeper on this album and I also sing as high as I want to where it is called for.

CM: The song "Days Like You" has a great guitar tone to the first solo, kind of like a Wah pedal half open?

PK: That is my new Gibson ES-336 (which I played on that song as well as "Chase The Bad Away"). I bought a Wah-Wah pedal the day before and that's what you hear. The solo was originally a slide guitar solo but it just didn't have the energy, and we both agreed it needed a bit more life to it, a little bit more spark to it. I played that through a late '50s model Kalamazoo amp. If you listen to the end of "Chase The Bad Away" there is some really nice Cream/Clapton-ish tone coming through and that's that guitar. Since I don't have a (Gibson) Les Paul anymore, the ES-336 is a wonderful guitar to get that Gibson configuration of pick-ups and tones.

CM: Why don't you have a Les Paul anymore?

PK: I sold it years ago to pay some bills and I was a fool to do it, you know (Phil breaks out laughing), because the bills are still with me. I've talked to many guitarists who have done it, it is a lapse of sanity that makes you do it for bills. You'd think you could find another way of doing it (taking care of the bills). Now for giving money to the less fortunate, that's another story, but not for bills. I've done that with two guitars that I really cherished, my Les Paul and a Yamaha SA-2000 which had a beautiful tone and was a great instrument. The Les Paul has been in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in a showcase now for the last year and a half. So there you have it (laughing), or there you don't have it!

CM: "Tender Love" is one of those Beatle-esque big production type songs...

PK: I played my (Fender) Strat through my little Vox AC-15 with just a Tube Screamer in between. There's a lot that goes on in that song. There is an eight piece horn section we recorded in Nashville and the strings were recorded in Abbey Roads Studio in London that Tom Howard had arranged the music for. They played on "Under The Grace" and "Quite Suddenly" as well.

CM: So it does have an authentic Beatle-esque vibe going on.

PK: In fact, Tom Howard was walking about the studio in London and the manager pointed to a certain microphone and said "yeah, that microphone was John Lennon's favorite right there". You know those old tube microphones hang around forever. Tom said that the musicians really enjoyed playing on the music; I was really pleased to hear that.

CM: Tell us about "Above All Things"?

PK: The lyric was inspired by the writings of St. John Chrystostom, words that he had spoken encouraging men to say to their wives. So I adapted it, added a few more words to it and put in a verse configuration. It has a nice Celtic feel to it.

CM: How many records have you done now?

PK: Oh, almost thirty including the Glass Harp album.

CM: You know what amazes us about you is that you really know your catalog of songs and albums so thoroughly. You'd think after 30 albums you might misplace something in your memory banks but you know all your music chronologically.

PK: My albums are like landmarks (laughing). I've been living life chronologically, I've been creating music chronologically. Sometimes I can remember a song I wrote ten years ago better than I can remember a song I wrote last month. I don't write or read music; it's just memory. I often take the chance of playing a song in concert I haven't rehearsed and a couple of times I've embarrassed myself. It's just me, it's not television (laughing), so it's O.K.

CM: Where have you been getting your inspiration from lately?

PK: Authors Phillip Yancey, Richard Foster, and of course the Bible, also other music. I love Irish music. I love soundtrack music, Vaughn Williams music.

CM: Even though you've done 30 albums, it seems like you've been picking up speed here lately?

PK: I've just mastered my third album in the last three months. I have a Christmas album for Unison (a subsidiary of Word Records) that distributes to KMarts, WalMarts etc., as well as the Music to Paint By series that I'm doing, as well as a regular instrumental album. It's a great situation where I can create in my own home, my own music, produce and engineer it myself and not have to go on the road so much to make a living. So I've accomplished two albums in a couple of months for the Music to Paint By project. The Christmas album was a lot of work to do, I put many hours into the eleven songs because you're taking traditional songs and rearranging them. I added many instruments to them. I played mandolin, classical guitar, the (Tacoma) Papoose is on a couple of the songs and it sounds absolutely beautiful (it records so nicely). I played bass. I played the Roland GR-30 with my Langejans guitar rigged up with a McClitsch pick-up (Paul McGill installed it for me). I've gotten so much use out of my GR-30 because it is immediate contact with the string (it's not this space between like many guitar synths have), it tracks so unbelievable. On the song "Jesus Loves The Church" I recorded all of the woodwinds, flutes, the string sounds, the ethereal sounds, the oboe, all that was done on my guitar. I'm not into doing gimmicks, I try to make it sound like real instruments. On the Christmas album I play a trumpet and clarinet going back and forth in a Dixieland style on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". It's just a hoot to be able to have the freedom to make this kind of music. I love to have the freedom that says "do what's in your heart." I am very grateful to Myrrh for giving me this freedom.

CM: Give us the run down on what guitars you've been using for these three different projects.

PK: For the vocal album I played a funky little 3/4 size classical on the opening track that a friend of mine bought for my daughter. I played my older Olson acoustic guitar on much of the album. I played my brand new Olson on "Above All Things", "Quite Suddenly" and "A Little Bit Of Light". If you listen to "A Little Bit Of Light" you will hear how perfect the tone of that guitar is. I play Jerry McPherson's Guild 12 string on "Unspoken Word". Now on Music to Paint By, that album is 90% the Langejans Grand Concert acoustic guitar. Then on the Christmas album I use both the Olson and the Langejans quite equally.

As far as electrics go, on the vocal album I used my Gibson ES-336 on a few of the songs. I used my 1964 Fender Strat on "Tender Love" and also some rhythm parts on a couple of the tunes. I also play an old student model Gibson on the slide stuff. So you can see I'm mostly playing acoustic on the vocal album except for a couple electric moments.

For pedals I'm using an old Ibanez Tube Screamer and a great pedal made by Bob Weil called the Jeckyll & Hyde.

CM: Have you made any guest appearances on other artist records lately?

PK: I played a couple of songs on the ==Surfonic Water Revival== record (KMG Records) with my Strat. That was fun, Phil Maderia came over with his ADAT and we plugged it in and had a blast. I played on {{Jamie Owens Collins}}' record (about five songs for that) and it is some of the most beautiful music; you can tell that this lady has such a deep maturity in what she's writing and how she sings. I fell in love with the songs. I played on one of {{Annie Herring}}'s new songs. I played on {{Michael W. Smith}}'s new Christmas album. I sang on one of the {{Rich Mullins}}' songs for ==The Jesus Project== too.

CM: You have been in a rather prolific stage of your musical career, you've been releasing a bevy of albums in the last few years.

PK: After the ==True Believers== album, I did ==Acoustic Sketches==, ==220==, and ==On the Fly==, so basically since 1995 I've done five instrumental and one vocal album - six albums in three years. So that's busy, with having a family and doing concert dates.

CM: How do you protect your creative time?

PK: Down in my studio I have a phone that blinks when it rings (I can turn the sound off on it), and I've got another phone line that I take my chances with. There have been many times where I'm in the middle of a take with my headphones on and I hear this weird sound. I'll have to back up the tape to see what it was and I'll say "Oh, it was the phone that was ringing" (laughing). But there's always another take in me.

CM: That's a great attitude.

PK: I don't feel like, "Hey, I just played the best lick I could ever play and now I can't do it again." I don't really feel that way. I don't think licks are to be treasured that way, they're not necessarily holy.

We can't think of a better way to wrap up the interview than with that last let's-put-everything-in-perspective type statement from {{Phil Keaggy}}. He is an extraordinary person.