Quebec loves Shawn Phillips

The Gazette, Montreal, Saturday, april 15, 2000    (PDF version)

The folksy Texas drawl of Shawn Phillips – the singer-songwriter who was greeted as the Second Coming in Quebec in the “sensitive” ’70s, and was the object of some of the most vicious critical barbs anywhere – echoed on my voicemail: “Hi, I just got back from South Afri-kay .Let’s talk a spell.

” I welcomed the opportunity. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I wrote the following bum bons mots for The Montreal Star in 1973: “He holds falsetto notes longer than anyone in the business … He sings long, ponderouslyrics faster than anyone else. He probably sings more words per show than anyone, too … Don’t ask me to quote any of his pearls of wisdom because I can’t remember any; they went by so fast.He tells cryptic tales of international hippies like himself, doing beautiful and perplexing things, going through heavy emotional anguish,and the like.”

Now I looked forward to burying the hatchet. I wanted to find out how he felt about his curious spot in Quebec cultural mythology – he’ll receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Quebec star and Phillips fan Roch Voisine before performing at Café Campus on Monday – and how he keeps on keepin’on and, of course, how he survived the critics.

‘There are certain things about melodies that touch people anywhere.’

“I don’t quite know how to put this,” he says warily. “I’ve become kind of disillusioned by trying to write intelligent music for intelligent adults. I have to tell you that I am extremely cognizant of how my music affects people’s lives. But the music business today is not far removed from the acute ward of a major mental institution. It’s very, very difficult for me to breakthrough the manipulation between the radio stations and the record companies. The problem is a single word: Format. That’s their excuse for not playing someone’s music, ‘Oh, it doesn’t fit the format.’ But I’ve always contested that the prime responsibility of record companies is to present the finest talent they can find. And that is not happening today.”

Phillips is 57 now. True, he’s had his day – in the ’70s, with albums like Contribution and the anthemic song Woman – yet he’s still greeted as a cult hero in Quebec and places like SouthAfrica, South Korea, Italy. Way back when, we young rock critics scratched our noggins trying to figure out why he was so popular here. Maybe it was because Québécois fans didn’t understand his words.

“It is the music,” he says simply, firmly. “Themost difficult primary thing for any composer is to create unique melodies that no one has heard before. I’ve succeeded in doing that. There are certain things about melodies that touch people anywhere, to the point where they will find somebody to translate the words. Then they find that I’m not telling anybody anything new, I’m only confirming what they’ve already known within themselves.

“The difficulty for me today is that I’m writinga lot of music, but not a lot of words. There’s only so many ways you can tell people that there is an absolutely extraordinarily joyous place with-in them. After a while you start repeating yourself. Some of the things I’m writing now have a tendency to be a bit vitriolic. But I’ll continue to write until I simply can’t do it any longer. I figure I have maybe another 10 years.”

Quadruple bypass surgery in 1994 led to a second career of sorts. While recuperating in Austin, Tex., where he lives, he noticed the community bulletin board on TV said the fire de-partment needed volunteers.

“I told them I could do little stuff like maintenance of the trucks. As I got better, I became a certified basic firefighter. If I were any younger I could go to any city in the world and actually get a job. But they don’t hire firefighters at 57. It’s work that is extraordinarily gratificational.”

On a sojourn in Montreal last summer to maintain his career’s “life and limb,” he rode with Urgences Santé for two months “to practice my skills” on breaks from weekend club gigs in town.

“It was pretty amazing going into people’s houses. It would take about four minutes until they said, ‘Mais vous êtes Shawn Pheeleeps, what the heck are you doing here man? ‘That’s about as up close and personal as you can get!”

His tone becomes seriously emphatic. “Here’s the bottom line: I like to help people in moments when they cannot help themselves. I got a standing ovation from 650,000 people at the 1973 Isle of Wight Festival, and years later a little old lady grabbed my arm, after I had taken care of her for a fractured pelvis and got her to the ER inminimal pain, and when she said ‘Thank you so much, ‘the Isle of Wight just, like, disappeared off into the distance.”

The music biz is littered with second acts – think Cher, Aerosmith, Tony Bennett – so why not Shawn Phillips? If Tori Amos can succeed with stream of consciousness and hip-hoppers score with anything that rhymes, maybe Phillips has come full circle. Toward that end he’s plan-ning an album, his first in nearly a decade.

“The folks that see my shows are completely flabbergasted as to why I am not recognized by the music industry. My fans have insisted that I make another album. With the money I made in South Africa and I’ll make in Quebec this time, I’ll be able to sit for a while. The album will be called The Craft.

“It’s going to be a sonic adventure. You’re going to listen to this album as if you were listening to a movie score. You’ll hear the music like you’re one of those folks who has THX six-channel stereo Dolby capability in their home. Once the CD starts there will be no blank spaces unless it’s musically appropriate. From start to finish, it will be one long adventure, it’ll be another concept album. I’m going to make an album that the music business simply cannot ignore.” Right now, there’s the matter of getting the synthesizer that “started dying on me in South Africa” fixed or renting a new one for the Café Campus gig.
‘I’m going to make an album that the music business simply cannot ignore.’

He’s on the road six months a year. “It’s the only way I know how to make a living. I have no one to help me, I drive every place I go. I just got a brand spankin’ new engine in my van because I couldn’t afford a new vehicle, so now I can put another 240,000 miles on there. It’s difficult, the distances I have to drive. What the hell, I buy an audio book with six cassettes in it and I’ve got 1,000 miles under my belt before I know it.

“I’m in a period of transition. I’ve just gone through a divorce. What I need most is to be stable, so that I can get this album done. According to my manager, something better happen with this album or I can just absolutely forget about making a living out of music.”
Finally, the critics.
“I don’t ever think about that,” he says diffidently.
“It’s just one person’s opinion. The fact of the matter is that in the last five years I haven’t ever gotten a bad review. I’m not doing anything except continue to get better, man! You practice your craft, you can only improve. I take care of myself. Maybe I should take a lot of drugs and trash a couple of hotel rooms, maybe that would help the career somewhat.”

His voice betrays frustration. “Ah, I dunno, man, maybe I got too much sense of responsibility. People who see my concerts just cannot un-derstand why radio won’t play me. The people in the business understand. It’s not how good you are, but how much money you make. That’s the bottom line.”

Shawn Phillips will play Café Campus, 57 Prince Arthur St. E., Monday night at 8:30. Tickets cost $20.50.


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