Living Legend Asks, “When Was the Last Time You Heard Music That Made An Impact In Your Life?”

Friday, July 6, 2012 14:17

An Interview with Phil Perry

By Casey Pukl

In an interview, I’m typically the one asking the questions. This is not at all the case when talking to the one and only voice— Phil Perry. I should’ve known that I was in for a unique chat when his wife emailed me prior to our interview to tell me that Phil was unlike anyone I had probably ever spoken with. “He’s just a musical genius… nothing more, nothing less.What he does to a song or to an audience is as normal as breathing in or out. You’ll see,” she wrote. Lill, you were absolutely right. For the rest of our blog readers, you’re in for a serious treat.

Perry is a huge slice of American musical history. From his early time as a member of The Montclairs to his continuing successes as a singer, songwriter, and performer, Perry has stood far out from the rest. His extensive discography includes 8 solo albums and countless credits on other performers’ records. Read on to find out who he credits with his gift, what his thoughts are on the ever-evolving music industry, and what he thinks the ultimate poetic justice would be.

PP: So what do you want to know?

CP: Everything! I was just telling your wife yesterday that I remember my piano teacher teaching me to analyze chord changes on, “We Belong Together”. 

PP: It’s a pretty easy song, it just doesn’t sound like it when you try to play it. But it really is pretty easy.

CP: This is true, but it sounds more complicated. That was the whole goal of the exercise— that once you break it down, it all makes sense.

PP: It’s just the circle of fifths.

CP: Exactly.

PP: It’s no big deal. But because there’s no music education in these schools anymore, a lot of the people don’t have the foundational knowledge of music to be able to determine what it is they like and what it is they don’t.

CP: Sure. Everything has been broken down to their simplest form these days.

PP: Well, you know, it’s the assertion of the digital age. I remember when programs for the computers were just to assist you in the recording, now they make programs to do the complete recording for you.

 Is that the original intent of our creator for what music was supposed to make? We wonder why it’s not selling as much, and it’s very simple— we’ve taken the human element out of the form.

I’m sure people don’t look at it as such when you kind of synopsize what’s happened to the industry in the last 30 years, but that’s what happened. At least on the music side, and in the business side, the bean counters end up running the show and deciding what a hit was with no prior knowledge, or solidification and work in that regard. In other words the came out of accounting and went into A&R.

I can certainly understand why the industry would make that move, but it starts with the music. We’re in the middle of the second decade of non-impact music. I remember a time when you could, when I was in my late teens, hear music and I would have to pull over when I was driving. I couldn’t drive; I had to hear. When was the last time that you were in your car and a piece of music struck you like that.

CP: It has certainly been a good long while.

PP: I’m sure it’s still being written. I’m sure it’s still being composed; there’s nothing new under the sun. Why aren’t we hearing it? Well because everything has changed. I’m just thankful to be able to ride a little bit of the crest of the change.

CP: Totally. For our readers who don’t know much about your background, can you tell me a little bit about where you, I know you were in The Montclairs, but before that, where did you start getting your musical education?

PP: I got mine from the good nuns at St. Louis Catholic School, in East St. Louis, who heard a different kind of talent coming from me. Since I was maybe the second or third group to integrate this particular parochial system in southern Illinois, they were sensitive to talent because it was a way to give those kids a better life. Sister Elizabeth Ann locked onto me because I stuttered. She used to make me read out loud, but not in a loud volume and every third or fifth word I would have to look up at the mirror at myself, and the exercise of doing that put more emphasis on me watching myself then stuttering. Then, she heard me in the back of the room whistling one day, and she didn’t say anything but then she stood behind me at the whistle that I’d done. I switched over to humming and did the exact same thing. She didn’t say anything still [laughs], and I started tapping out rhythms with my pencil and I changed the time signature a couple of times and she patted me on my shoulder and said, “Phillip, take your books and come with me.” To the principal’s office we went, where I thought I was going to obtain the beating of life, and if you know anything about the parochial school system in the 50s and 60s, there was a lot of that. So she got right in the principal’s face and said, “This boy has a musical gift and we are not serving his talent and God does not honor that.”

CP: Wow.

PP: That plain, that blunt. My folks got a call, and a couple of days after that, they wanted me to go to The University of Illinois to get tested for music aptitude. When they got the results of the test back, my schedule changed.

So, that’s really where I thought, “Okay, they must think I’m pretty good at this for them to have done this. So let me just do the best I can, and see where it leads.” So I did.

CP: I’d say so!

PP: But what let me to know that I could make an attachment to an audience was a midnight mass at the school. One of the boys that was scheduled to sing a particular song became ill, with strep throat as a matter of fact. The lady that ran the combined men and boys choir came to me maybe 5 or 6 days before Christmas Eve, called my mom and dad, and they put me on the phone and they told me I needed to lead. I said I knew the song. I’d never sung it, but I knew it. She said, “Well good. You’re going to sing it at midnight mass on Christmas Eve because the other boy cannot talk.” So I said, “Okay.”

So when you have a midnight mass, the kids that are serving the mass and the kids in the men and boys choir had to be there early so I was early and heard a chain clunking underneath the choir loft in my church. I recognized it, and sure enough it was my grandmother, and she sat on the end of the pew and everybody had to walk over her, because she was doing the best she could to stay there. I think my dad probably went and picked her up and dropped her off and then went back to get my mom. Anyway, mass started, I started singing and I noticed that the old lady stood up and was looking at me, so I was a little afraid of that, to have to look at her watching me. So I just focused on the altar, finished singing the song, and when I looked back down, everybody in the church was standing up looking at the back. So I thought, “maybe this music thing ain’t so bad” [laughs].

CP: Yeah, maybe not, right?

PP: And from then to The Montclairs to Perry and Family, to various sideman opportunities I’ve been given, I still feel the same way, and I still try to conduct myself with the same reverence for other people’s music as I have for my own.

CP: Sure. That has to be what has made you one of the most sought after vocalists in history at this point.

PP: Well, I don’t know if I’m one of the most sought after, but I feel like throughout my life I’ve really been blessed and given opportunities that I did nothing to deserve, other than just try to be good and try to hear and feel the magic in every piece of music. I try to feed off something that they didn’t know that they were even looking for, that they needed, but they got. I figured if you built a reputation on treating people and their music with respect and honor, that the respect and the honor that you gave will take care of yourself.

CP: That’s such an amazing attitude to hear, honestly.

PP: It’s an attitude that’s born of understanding at a young age that I didn’t do anything to get this voice, or to hear what I hear, so if I’m going to be true to the God that gave me the talent. The potential exists every time I use the talent, to be used by the creator who gave it to me to speak to the spirit of the people that need a certain word. It’s part of a personal relationship. He gave it to me; I’m just trying to give it back.

CP: Absolutely. Not only do you sing, but I know you also write incredible songs.

PP: Thank you! It’s the same thing. When people think of composers, they think of someone who just sits down and is writing the song in the spur of the moment, and there are certainly a lot of composers over the centuries that have been able to do so. The idea comes out of nowhere.  So I get the idea, and from the moment I get the idea, I am just trying to recreate the sound that I am recreating between my ears. I’m glad the music that I write touches people, and it is incorporated in their lives, and it’s very humbling but, once you write a song, once you record it, you have to let it go. Because if you don’t, you end up writing the same song over and over again. Because it gets stuck on you, and it wasn’t about you even to begin with.

CP: That’s very true. You’ve just made me rethink my whole song-writing process, sir [laughs].

PP: Look, don’t misunderstand me, I hope I’m not painting a false picture here.

CP: Nope!

PP: The digital age has allowed us to do things at a rate of speed and in a timeframe that before the digital age, was totally impossible. But the other side of the coin is, because the computer does everything, you lose the interaction of the individuals, and it’s the interaction of the individuals that creates magic.

CP: Sure. Technology in music should be used as a tool and not necessarily as a replacement.

PP: Yea, I saw a thing on James Taylor the other day on the public broadcast channel, and it was just him and a guitar, and it was staggeringly poignant, and one of the lines of the song he was playing was, “But I can sing this song, and you can sing this song when I’m gone.” And with just a guitar and voice, it was so impactful, and it reminded me of what I got in to the industry for.

CP: Absolutely. James Taylor is probably one of the “end-all-be-alls” in my record collection.

PP: Well he has to be one of the premier folk lyricists of the last century.

CP: Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that.

PP: I can say the same thing about Smokey Robinson, could say the same thing about David Gates, I could say the same thing about Jim Croce, I could say the same thing about Jim Webb. I mean, back in the day, that was how you gauged what you did; against people like that in terms of song structure, in terms of how the harmony really supported the melody and most importantly for the story. I find it hard to listen to the radio today because there’s not really any intriguing stories. There aren’t any stories that allow opening for the listener to become part of the story, which I always thought, was the main characteristic of all the songs that I loved in my life.

CP: There’s that and I feel like listening to the radio, it’s just so…You put on a James Taylor record and you hear a million different harmonic progressions that you can tear apart, and study and work out in your head and follow. Now…

PP: Now they require more effort, they don’t pay for effort now, they just want to pay for the product. All they really want to pay is for that. I mean, consider the amount of product that Sony moved 20 years ago, and take a look at the product they move now. There are maybe four or five artists that are keeping that company alive.

CP: Oh it’s staggering when you think about it.

PP: And I am not mad at any of those artists, and don’t know them personally, but I know that in the music industry as it existed when I broke in, that music industry does not exist today. 

CP: Kind of touching on how much it’s really changed, you seem to have really adapted and really embraced all of the recent changes.

PP: You give me more credit then I deserve my dear, I’m just a old stubborn man who’s invested too much time in music to change now.

CP: Yes, but I saw that you have your own channel on your website and you’ve kind of kept up with the new model and social media when a lot of artists have just thrown their hands up and said, “No label support anymore, I’m done.”

PP: You credit it as insight, I just happened to have married far beyond my station. I have a wife that loves me, that’s intelligent, and that once I explain how I see things going, she immediately starts to figure out a way to get the same thing done.

CP: It’s all about the human element, the human interaction, and having that other person that you can bounce ideas off of and have someone that makes you better.

PP: Well one thing’s for sure, I trust her. Now, have a conversation with 10 other artists, ask them who they trust with their company, or their management offices, or their booking agency, see what answer they give. Then call and tell me what you found out.

CP: A lot of them probably wouldn’t answer that.

PP: That’s exactly right. But I don’t have that worry, And I don’t have that worry, because the same God that gave me the talent that I have, is the same God that gave me her. I’m not the same as a lot of artists that you know. A lot of artists are just worried about establishing a listening audience. After 43 years, I already have a listening audience, I just have to let them know that I’m going to be there.

CP: That’s absolutely true. What are you most looking forward to about bringing your show to Anthology this weekend?

PP: First of all, I don’t get the opportunity to come to San Diego very often. A lot of your patrons don’t know that I used to live in Cardiff by the Sea!

CP: Oh really? I didn’t know that!

PP: Yup, in the early 80s. It was beautiful when we moved, but it was a little too far from the music industry in LA. So I went back. I find the San Diego audiences to be fairly knowledgeable, really intent listeners. They want to be touched, they want their spirits to be spoken to. For a cat like me, it’s a joy to come down here. 

It’s tough to do two shows though. 

CP: It is a demanding night.

PP: Yes, but I’m a heart patient. I don’t want to die on stage! That’s the reality of it. Now, every coin has two sides, the other side to that statement is, I don’t know how not to give everything I have. Because I believe in what I say I believe, and believe in whom I believe gave me the talent, then where would be a better place to go home then from stage. What poetic justice that would be.

CP: Absolutely, but please don’t go on our stage [laughs]!

PP: Now, I don’t look to go. But I’m not scared of going when I do. So for your patrons in San Diego and the outlying areas of San Diego County, I would just ask them the same question I asked you. When was the last time you heard music that made an impact in your life? If it’s been too long, come to Anthology on Saturday and remind yourself how good it feels.

Special thanks to Mr. Perry for this gem of an interview. Be sure to come on out and let yourself be moved tomorrow night!

Phil Perry on Spotify

WHAT: Phil Perry
WHEN: Saturday, July 7, 7:30 & 9:30pm
TICKETS: $10-$44 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile