Something From Nothing: Latifah Phillips

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The fact that I have the ability to create something from nothing with my words will never cease to amaze me. One of my writing goals for 2013 is to land at least one interview per month with a person (or people) whose creative work I enjoy or appreciate or am otherwise inspired by. August’s interview is with my longtime friend, Latifah Phillips. I first met Latifah when I was a junior in college and we moved into the same house. One night during the first week of living together, she pulled out her guitar and asked me if I wanted to hear the song she wrote, which prompted an involuntary inner eye roll from me. Then I heard her sing and felt like a big a-hole. Latifah has been singing and making records for basically her whole life, mostly with The Autumn Film and Page CXVI, which are the bands my husband plays in. Every time I hear them create something new, I'm inspired. Hopefully you’ll be inspired too.

Q: How did you get started in music?

A: I first started playing piano when I was 2 years old and cello when I was 3. My big sister was in the Suzuki program, and we both started on violin then switched to cello. I played cello competitively until I was 15 then quit, which broke my mom’s heart. She told me she knew I wasn’t really quitting music because I still played all the time, but I was done with competing. 

When I was 16, I decided to pick up acoustic guitar because everyone wanted to play Dave Matthews on the guitar. I bought the Under The Table And Dreaming guitar tab book and learned '#34' and 'Satellite', which felt really technical. Then I took some lessons and learned 'Blackbird', which is when I realized I liked singing and playing guitar at the same time. Sarah McLachlan had just done a version of 'Blackbird' that was beautiful, so that was memorable.

Then I just played and played and played. When I got to college, I realized I may have a voice that people wanted to listen to. I remember I had taught myself a song called ‘Peace‘ by Jennifer Knapp. I sang it to myself in the stairwell in my college dorm, which had great acoustics, and I was moved by the experience. I thought “I wanna sing. I wanna write.” That was the year I wrote my first song, which is a song I literally don’t remember anymore.

I remember thinking when I was in high school that I wanted to be a musician, but I never told anybody because I never thought it could ever be a reality. It just wasn’t practical - I thought I would be a lawyer or a doctor or some sort of politician, because those were the aspirations that everyone around me had. Even though creativity was such a huge part of my life, even from a young age, and it was how I understood the world.  

Q: So when did that change?

A: It was in that stairwell. I called my friend Sarah crying. She was the first person I told “I want to be a musician” and she was so confused by it. Then I called my parents the same day; my mom was crying and my dad just said "No". He thought it was a phase.

I remember having 2 overwhelming concert experiences. One was Sheryl Crow, my senior year of high school. I went with this girl - I think I was her 3rd invitation because everyone else said no - we were kind of using each other. I remember Sheryl Crow singing 'Strong Enough' onstage and I was looking at her performing, singing these great pop songs, and I thought “I wanna do that so bad”. Then I remember my sophomore year of college, I went to the Boulder Theater and the Indigo Girls were playing a show. I called a friend crying after that show and said “We should do this”. I remember those moments really compelling me to pursue music.

Q: What would you say is the most satisfying part of earning your living as someone who’s a creative?

A: As someone who had to work lots of other jobs while still doing full time creative hours, I feel incredibly grateful now. It didn’t come easy in the sense of “I just want to do this” and woke up and it was laid out for me and there was all the money. So I’m incredibly grateful for every opportunity. The most satisfying part is just not feeling divided. When you’re working lots of other jobs, you just don’t have the energy that you wish you did to pour into the projects - the energy that you know they deserve. It’s really frustrating as an artist to not give your art your best, because what’s the point? And when you’re exhausted and tired and stressed out about paying bills, it’s really hard to give your best to your art. So not feeling divided is the most satisfying part. 

Q: What’s the most frustrating part?

A: It’s an opportunity-based business and there’s always a fear that the opportunities will stop and then your income will stop. It’s not like you work for 40 years and then you get a pension. There’s no retirement. You have to be pretty strategic with your income and intentional, which is hard for lots of artists. The other reason that’s frustrating is because I’m still overworking. Granted, I’m doing things I love, but part of the cycle is you just want to say yes when you can because you feel like if you say no the opportunities will stop coming. I’m still trying to figure out the balance of resting and what to say yes and what to say no to.

Q: What is your favorite song that you’ve ever written?

A: So much of the stuff I do is re-writing with the hymns side, so the song I’ve re-written that’s my favorite, is probably 'Joy'. There’s some stuff in there that’s original, and that’s one of those like it just flowed right through me. It happened in the length of the song. And it’s interesting, that’s the song that resonates with the most people. That I've written all by myself that would be my favorite, probably 'Ocean Blue'. I really love that song because it’s honest and sad and I’m someone that thinks about death everyday. That song’s pretty morbid, but it’s also a love song and I think that’s just kinda part of my personality so I think that’s why I love it. And it’s just simple. I don’t know if anybody likes that song. I know my one friend Michelle likes that song. I really love that song.

Q: What are some of your favorite songs that other people have written?

A: 'Tornado' by Jónsi because of how it makes me feel, and how beautiful and sad it simultaneously feels. The landscape of the music he creates is so full and so satisfying. 'Long Ride Home' by Patty Griffin - that’s a great example of some of the best storytelling in a song. And it’s just her and her guitar. I feel like I have to include Ben Gibbard because he an incredible architect of songwriting. My favorite Death Cab song is 'Brothers On A Hotel Bed'. One song I never get tired of is Al Green 'Let’s Stay Together'. That's one of my favorite songs of all time.

Q: Does producing other people's records helps you with songwriting? 

A: I’ve only produced 5 other records besides my own, and what I love about it is I feel like as a producer your focus is on helping other artists be themselves and bringing their gifts forward. I don’t want everybody else’s record to sound like The Autumn Film or Page CXVI. I want them to sound like the best of themselves. It gives you so much freedom to explore sound and melody and style, that it definitely is going to inform my next project. I think great art informs great art. I think bad art informs bad art, too. It’s really important to be creative in other ways. I think it’s important to take a break, so you can come back more refreshed, and that way I’m not making the same record over and over again. I always want to be growing and changing and learning in my art. I think that’s the most exciting. 

Q: What one record are you loving lately? 

A: Gossip In The Grain by Ray LaMontagne. All the way through, it's just lovely. There’s a texture about it that makes me feel relaxed - like everything is going to be okay.