Born in West Texas and now calling Nashville home, K Phillips began writing songs at the tender age of six. His first full-length, 2012’s American Girls, garnered accolades and on March 10th the singer-songwriter released his latest, Dirty Wonder, a dynamically eclectic, wildly literate, and sophisticated ten song set. A breakup record that’s part autobiographical, part imagined, and part observational, Dirty Wonder is an album filled with clever allusions, sexual tension, and richly detailed stories. Shortly after his performances at SXSW, Phillips graciously took the time to speak in depth about the album, songwriting, and more.
Gordy Quist from the Band of Heathens produced the new record. Why did you want to work with him and what did he bring to the project?
I love the Heathens, they’re an artist’s artist. They may not be a household name, but they’re wildly successful in the sense that they’ve been able to maintain control over their career and make the music they want without compromising - and that gave me the inspiration to do my thing.
Gordy is a friend and mentor to me, and was one of the first people who heard the first songs I ever recorded. He’s that rare kind of genius, a Renaissance man really, who is successful at anything he sets his mind to, so when I found out he was producing I knew he would be great at that too and would contribute something terrific to the album, which he did.
Between the first record and this one you left Texas and moved to Nashville, yet the album was recorded in Texas. Did you return to Texas or was it completed before you made the move?
It’s kind of been a blur (laughing). So, the initial tracking was all done live at 12th Street Sound with myself, Rich Richards on drums, Ricky Ray Jackson on guitar, and Gordy behind the glass, but before we could finish, I had to leave to play some shows. So, in order to finish the vocals, which had to be overdubbed because the piano and organ I play tend to drown them out, I bought a mobile rig and completed them on the road. Some of the vocals were done in California, some in Phoenix, and still others in Connecticut and New York at Adam’s apartment [Duritz, who guests on “Hadrian”]. Then, the record was mixed at both Modern Electric in Dallas by Beau Bedford and in Chicago by Brian Deck. Both have areas they’re really good at - Brian did some Modest Mouse and Counting Crow’s records and Beau’s worked with Jonathan Tyler and Leon Bridges - and by working with both of them I knew we could capture what we wanted on the different tracks.
An album’s title often pulls together or represents a record, so why did you choose Dirty Wonder for the title?
That song, which was originally called “Raised To Run,” was written for the record, but after we recorded it, I realized that I didn’t like the words and the title bothered me because it sounded too much like “Born to Run”. One day I was in San Antonio with my mobile rig when I decided to press record and start ad-libbing. The song was made up on the spot from the moment I pressed record to the moment I pressed stop. I had no idea what it was going to mean, but I felt like I had to do it. Whereas some songs on the album took me seven years to write, this one took like, three and a half minutes.
For using it as the title, well, “Dirty Wonder” as a song just fit the breakup theme of the album. You know, being on the road is a weird thing. It’s a bunch of completely depressed people traveling in a van together, playing for fifteen people, going to a hotel room alone, and then waking up to repeat it all over again. It’s a breeding ground for bad things to happen. And that plays into this song, which is about the grass always being greener – you’re in a relationship, but you meet another person and you don’t know what’s going to happen with that person, but you do know that if your significant other found out, you’d be in a bad situation. So, ultimately, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Those themes of temptation, staying, and leaving in relationships flows through the album, beginning with “Had Enough” which opens the record. Since the first track on a record always sets a tone, why did you place that particular song there?
Because I think that’s what happens right before you make a big decision or life change - you realize you can’t go on like that anymore and you may have to let some things go. It applies to things - I’ve pawned a lot of guitars that I hope to buy back one day - but it also applies to people in your life who you realize aren’t moving in the same direction as you are and you have to let them go…. but hopefully someday, you’ll make amends.
There’s a line in that song that really struck me – “my nightmares are not what they used to be.”
That line was inspired by a woman I met at Soldiers Songs and Voices, an organization that teaches vets to write songs, almost as therapy. This female soldier’s whole battalion was killed by a bomb and she said that since learning songwriting her nightmares weren’t what they used to be. And I thought man, I haven’t had nightmares since I was a little kid and this woman who fought for our country had her life engulfed in nightmares so much so that they’re a regular thing, like me having coffee or watching Netflix is a regular thing. That hit me hard and so, she kind of inspired that line.
In contrast to “Had Enough”, the album is bookended with “Hock the Horses” which has this incredibly dark, yet utterly sensual vibe.
“Hock The Horses” was inspired by a few things: years of listening to the sexy songs of Leonard Cohen, the city of San Antonio, which is this very sensual place, and Tlazolteotl, who in the Aztec religion is known as the filth goddess – a woman who comes to your deathbed and swallows your sins, but in life is a temptress. It’s a sultry song about temptation that really, I just love. It’s not going to be on the radio or anything, but in that way, and this is going back to what I was saying about the Band of Heathens, it was me saying I just want to record this song because I like it. I’m very proud of that song.
It’s one of my favorites from the record.
There are many reasons I like this record and one of them is your songwriting which comes at relationships from such clever perspectives and is also incredibly literate. You enjoy poetry, but coming from Texas, were you inspired by the storytellers there such as Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and Ray Wylie Hubbard?
Yeah, totally and Townes Van Zandt too. Even though they’re all different, they’re all examples of guys doing it the way they want. I consider Ray Wylie the people’s poet – his songs are almost a meditation. On a side-note, I was an assistant engineer on a Ray Wylie Hubbard record and almost got to play accordion on it, but as they were recording, I remember Ray being like, ‘How many tracks is this?’ and the engineer says thirteen and Ray says, ‘Aw, I only wanna give them ten’ and I was like “Nooooooooooo!” (laughing)
And Rodney…. he is so learned in his songwriting, and his book, Chinaberry Sidewalks was just so incredibly well-written as well. I remember buying that book for my little baby artist self and being so excited to read it. I was living in Houston at the time – I was poor, it was humid, the mosquitos were all around, and the AC was out. I wanted to read his book as a departure, and as I was lying in bed trying not to let mosquitos eat me, I’m reading about how he was poor, living in Houston and how the mosquitos were around and I’m thinking ‘this is not a departure at all’ (laughing); it wasn’t very uplifting at the time, but it was a very, very good book.
It hit too close to home though in that part.
In addition to the lyrics, another thing that struck me about the album was that that you’re not afraid to let the songs breathe and don’t seem to feel the need to keep a song at three minutes.
I’m in love with written words, yet I think sometimes words can be too engaging. I mean, who am I to tell you how to feel every five seconds? Songs are words and music - one can’t survive without the other, but at the same time, I like songs without words because it’s not all about me or the narrator. When you read people like Larry McMurtry, you’re lulled in and before you know it, you’re a part of the town, desert, or whatever you’re reading about. I like my songs to be like that. Who knows though, instead of songs becoming longer, maybe music will go from three-minute songs to fifty-nine-second songs because that’s how much you can fit in an Instagram video, but personally, I like to let my songs breathe.
That’s interesting you say that because I once spoke with Robert Earl Keen and he said he was working on an album full of ninety-second songs because that’s all the attention span people had these days.
I love that! I don’t know how I forgot about him when we were talking about influences earlier because he is probably one of my biggest influences. His #2 Live Dinner album changed my life. I mean, all of the songs are terrific, but in-between the songs he tells these great stories…and coming from Texas the songwriting doesn’t come first, the stories do. He’s a great storyteller and an unmistakable, amazing singer.
Speaking of singers with distinctive voices, last summer you toured with Rob Thomas and Counting Crows. That must have been an unbelievable experience.
Going out on tour with them was like winning this special lottery. Adam is a great musical philanthropist who every year puts on this thing called the Outlaw Roadshow. Eight years ago they had a last-minute cancellation and I borrowed money from my mom to fly my seven-piece band to NYC to play it. After years of playing it, Adam called and asked if I would open for the Crows and Rob Thomas - and it changed my life. I got to play Red Rocks in front of ten-thousand people on that tour and usually, when you’re the first of three you play in front of maybe 1/3 of the audience, which is fine, but Red Rocks is a destination – people get there at 7am and so by the time you play at 10pm, all ten thousand people are there in front of you. After performing there, I now feel like I could play in front of anyone.
Adam has become a good friend, but he has also taught me a lot. I think for me, the music thing was always there, but there’s so much more to learn about the business side of things, like how to behave on tour, how to handle yourself professionally, and how to be a great behind the scenes bandleader. Adam taught me those things and more and I will carry all of that with me as I move on. I’m very grateful.
You know, all I want to do is work and get better at my craft -- and every day I wake up and say thank you God for giving me this life and allowing me to do this.
K Phillips and the Concho Pearls will be in NYC area for two shows:
April 21st at Hill Country BBQ Brooklyn 8pm No cover
April 22nd at Hill Country BBQ Manhattan 9pm No cover
For more information visit his official website
Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Spotify
Purchase Dirty Wonder HERE