Well-known for his work with May Erlewine, The Verve Pipe, Joshua Davis, Jeff Daniels, Stevie Wonder, Millish and more, Phillips has released a solo project. Get the back story; listen to the single.
SCROLL DOWN TO LISTEN TO PHILLIPS’ SINGLE
Support our coverage of
West Michigan's music scene
For Brad Phillips, everything old is new again.
A veteran of the Michigan music scene, he’s worked as a sideman with musicians across the musical spectrum, with Jeff Daniels, The Verve Pipe, May Erlewine, Joshua Davis, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Mark O’Connor, Pat Metheny and Iggy Pop among those who have benefited from his prowess on violin, guitar and mandolin.
Now the Ann Arbor musician is striking out on his own as a singer-songwriter, and he finds it, well, different.
“I try to be a more authentic version of myself,” says Phillips, who also spent a dozen years as the fiddler for the Celtic-fusion group Millish.
He’s played numerous times in the area accompanying performers like the above, but now is looking to bring that that best version of himself to venues across the state as a solo performer. That starts by writing original music, including his first single release, “Dance Again.”
So why the emphasis on authenticity? What does that even mean?
For Phillips, it has to do with playing and writing from the heart, showcasing what he’s feeling. “My professional world didn’t have a lot of that. I would try to be something else to satisfy others’ needs,” he says.
The breakthrough came from a stage performance, but not a musical one. “I got cast in a play at the Purple Rose,” he says, the Chelsea theatre owned and run by Jeff Daniels. That’s where he learned from the other actors about using their own personas to bring to life the characters they were playing.
“Great actors (use) their own experience, honor their own selves. I was a people pleaser. Then the Purple Rose empowered my inner self.”
That wasn’t so much a concern when he first began playing. In fact, his initial idol was a singer he heard on the radio who he tried to emulate.
“I wanted to be Neil Diamond,” Phillips says. Things changed as he discovered a new passion. “That was before the violin came in.”
Indeed, the violin took hold, and Phillips was named Michigan State Fiddle Champion at the tender age of 16. He went on to take up guitar and mandolin as well. He later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
INSPIRED BY BLUEGRASS ICONS, STUDYING JAZZ
All the while he was taking in various music. “Mark O’Connor was a huge influence. When I started I was very intense. I was gonna learn all this guy’s music.”
Other acoustic bluegrass figures, such as Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, their band Newgrass Revival, and Edgar Meyer inspired him as well. The idea to combine the varying styles and genres appealed to him, and served him well when he went to college.
“I went to Michigan for jazz violin undergrad. I didn’t have a huge jazz background,” he says.
But his experience in bluegrass proved invaluable: “I learned my improvisational (skill) from a different background.”
Now, after all these years of working with and for others, he’s bringing the experience of working with those singer-songwriters to his own music.(He did previously release two projects a few years ago: “Ridella’s Cave: The Liberty Street Sessions” and Brad Phillips & The Roots Music Strings’ “Breaking Free.”)
Now, he’s showcasing his own country-esque storytelling and folk/Americana stylings.
That’s not to say his music is simple. The string arrangement for “Dance Again” — a version of which originally was written for the “Willow Run” play — includes four viola parts, each recorded a different distance from the microphone.
“It’s a fun studio trick. I have tons of composition and arranging experience. I want to use every skill that I have,” says Phillips.
While he can overdub to his heart’s content in the studio, onstage he limits himself to one instrument at a time accompanying his voice. “It’s a solo show, me and five or six instruments. No loops or backing. I start on guitar. Then I go to fiddle, hit them (the audience) with a blast of tunes: jigs, reels, old time fiddle music.”
Phillips performs April 1 at North Star Lounge in Ann Arbor with Dave Boutette and Kristi Davis, April 22 at Tecumseh Center for the Arts in Tecumseh with Drew DeFour and Kin Curran and May 3 at The Ark in Ann Arbor with Chris DuPont and Kylee Phillips — the same lineup that also plays May 4 at Midtown in Grand Rapids, sharing the bill with Frances Luke Accord. He’ll also join Fiddle Fire at Holland’s Tulip Time on May 9.
Phillips is not averse to performing with a full backing band. “It’s all about finding the right people,” he says.
“Of course. Shimmin would be on board, and Chris Dupont,” he says of drummer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Shimmin and guitarist and keyboardist Chris Dupont, longtime friends who contributed to “Dance Again.”
“I’d love to have a full band with rhythm and strings. I wish I could do that everywhere I go.”
Despite his newfound dedication to his own original music, he still has his fingers in any number of other pies. He’s a lecturer at U-M in Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation. He’s also a resident artist at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, working as a composer, sound designer and actor. And he still enjoys working with friends such as Erlewine and Davis.
But in conversation it’s clear that stepping out as a singer-songwriter and performing as same is more satisfying than anything else Phillips has done.
“My dream looks something like headlining a folk festival someday,” he says. “I’ve got to get out there more, present my voice, songs and story.”
LISTEN: Brad Phillips, “Dance Again”
Copyright 2023, Spins on Music LLC