Introducing Songwriter Melissa Phillips
East Bay artist Melissa Phillips has steadily attracted new fans since leaving the songwriting gates in 2012 with the release of her debut album Fits & Starts. A song from the collection, "Centralia," was selected for the KFOG Local Scene 10 compilation (2013), and she regularly appears at notable area venues with her stellar backing band, the Sincerelys. After a whirlwind fall which included a performance at the Great American Hall and getting married, Phillips reflected on her songwriting process and what's currently feeding her muse
Deborah Crooks: How did you first start singing? Who are some of your earliest influences?
Melissa Phillips: I remember singing along with the radio pretty early on and being encouraged to "sing louder." I loved picking out the harmonies. I didn't really start performing until later. Having access to music classes in school was huge for me. I had some great music teachers in junior high and high school who pushed me in a very positive way. I was in chorus, singing ensembles. I did district chorus competitions, musical theater, church choir — all of those things helped me figure out that singing was something I was good at and that I wanted to pursue it in a bigger way.
I grew up on Top 40 radio, that's the soundtrack of my childhood. If it got played on the radio between the 1970s and 1990s, I probably know the words! I loved Whitney Houston and the first tape I ever bought was I Wanna Dance With Somebody. When I was 11 or 12, she was just it for me. But I grew up in small towns and you don't get a lot of variety on small town radio. I don't think I really had any idea what was out there until I went to college and I was exposed to what my friends were listening to. We used to sit around the dorm rooms with our CDs and a stack of cassettes and we'd make mix tapes. I still have those mixes and they have some really good music on them. It was the first time I heard Paul Simon, Crowded House, Van Morrison, [and] Indigo Girls. I really think that time spent making those tapes was more valuable than some of the music courses I took because it really helped me develop my own opinion about what I liked and, ultimately, what I wanted to do.
How did you make your way to California from Oregon and have the different places you've lived influenced your work?
I did move to California from Oregon (I lived there for a few years in my early 20s), but I actually grew up all over the place. I had a sort of unconventional nomadic upbringing, we moved around a lot. I got to see so much of the country from the back seat of a car as a kid. I didn't start writing my own music until I was much older, but I do think being able to experience that kind of a life as a young person informed how I see the world. It gave me a good awareness of how other people live, which is definitely something I find important, not just for writing, but also for being a human.
Do you keep to a writing schedule or do you write as inspiration strikes? Words first or do you write to the music?
I get ideas in bits and pieces. Mostly lyrics first but sometimes they come with a melody. On any given day, my bag is full of post-it notes scribbled with lyric ideas. I carry a notebook to write stuff down and if I come up with a melody I record it into my phone. I don't have a writing schedule but I do sit down frequently with my ideas and see what I can wrestle into shape. Sometimes it comes fast and easy, but more often than not it is a slow process for me. I try not to rush, I'm not in a race. Songs will be done when they're ready. I just finished a song that I started back in 2010! I kept going back to it and I tried for a long time to force it into being done, but it wasn't ever quite right. I stepped away for a while and came back with fresh eyes and finally knew when I'd figured it out.
Any current listening or reading obsessions feeding your muse?
I am in the middle of a lot of books right now, my goal is to read 38 over the next year! Here is what I currently have a bookmark in: "Where I Was From" by Joan Didion, she's a favorite, especially her non-fiction. I'm reading a book of short stories by Alice Munro, a memoir by Mary Karr, and a biography of Dorthea Lang. As for music, I have these in heavy rotation right now in my car: Rosanne Cash - The River and the Thread; John Hiatt - Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns; Holly Williams - The Highway. I also really like the newest Tom Petty and Ryan Adams albums.
As far as other obsessions, I am pretty addicted to Instagram. It's a nice community of supportive, creative people sharing interesting images of their daily lives — crafters, photographers, musicians, writers. Sometimes looking at beautiful stuff is what I need to simultaneously calm and stimulate my brain after a work day. Just seeing someone else do something creative can motivate me to do the same.
What can listeners expect in the next six months? Any big shows or new recordings?
I'm on a little hiatus from performing right now so I'm focusing on writing. I hope to go back into the studio next year with a batch of new songs. I'd also like to do some regional touring again and definitely get back on stage with the full band.