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Shawn Phillips interview

Walking Through the Fields:
The Shawn Phillips Interview

by Scott "Dr. Music" Itter

   Shawn Phillips may not be a name that rings bells for the casual music fan, but it is a name that can be tied to some of the greatest moments in music history. Whether it's Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” or The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips is someone that was there. The Fab Four had Phillips lend his vocals to “Lovely Rita,” and Donovan and Phillips used to sit in a room and write songs together. But this is only the beginning of the Shawn Phillips story.
   This is a man that studied sitar with Ravi Shankar and gave George Harrison some basic lessons before the famed Beatle later found Shankar himself. He is also, through his work with Donovan, the first artist to introduce the sitar to popular music. Phillips also gave guitar lessons to Joni Mitchell while she was working as a waitress in Saskatchewan. Mitchell was interested in learning Phillips’ 12-string technique. Some of the musicians that can be found on Phillips’ albums are iconic names like Rick Wakeman, Michael Kamen, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton. Other world famous artists that Phillips has had relationships with are Delbert McClinton, The Moody Blues, Bill Cosby, Bob Ezrin, Jerry Moss, ZZ Top, Cass Elliot, Paul Buckmaster, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Steve Morse, John Denver, Paul Simon, and more.
   So, surrounded by names that are giving every bell tower in the neighborhood fits of ringing, and playing such legendary concerts as The Isle of Wight, Shawn Phillips has remained a name that renders only an occasional chime. Even though he has released around 20 records and sold millions of them, I was intrigued by how many folks in the world still don’t know the name Shawn Phillips. Recently given the opportunity to ask Phillips about some of these things, I came to find a confident and educated gentleman that had all the answers.

Dr. Music: The late great Bill Graham once called you "the best kept secret in the music business." Now, after almost 20 albums and millions sold, you still seem to be a "secret" to many people. Why do you think that is, and would you prefer to have more fame and popularity?

Shawn Phillips:  “I'm not that interested in the fame, and popularity, but I would like to have the money that comes with it. I suppose the two have to go hand in hand. My "secrecy", is simply because none of the companies I have ever been affiliated with have cared enough to hire a national PR firm on an annual basis as part of the machine that creates the fame and popularity. Also, if you use a word like xenophobia in a song, or any word that the general public has to look up, they tend to shy away from any semblance of intelligence in popular music.”

Dr. Music: In the early 60's you were asked to play the lead in the original production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" but declined the offer because of your heavy recording and touring schedules at the time. Do you ever look back and wish you had accepted that role?

Shawn Phillips: I didn't decline the role. Robert Stigwood discovered that he couldn't get a finger into my business pie, as it were, (or anything else for that matter), so he fired me. In retrospect, Ted Neeley can't get arrested today, because he IS Jesus Christ Superstar, and cannot be seen in any other light. So I'm quite happy the way things turned out.”  

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Dr. Music: Not too many folks are aware that you sang backing vocals on "Lovely Rita" from The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's" album, which is sometimes called the greatest record of all-time. What was that recording session like? Was it as "magical" as one might think?

Shawn Phillips: Nope. It was just another recording session, just like any other. However, it got quite amusing watching Paul play the end chord on that song, (can't remember the name, but it starts off with, "I read the news today oh boy"), as they had 5 different pianos brought in just for that chord. I heard later they used 24 pianos for it.”

   It's at this point in the interview that I really begin to see just how special this man is. The fact that Phillips forgets the title to one of the most famous songs in the Beatles catalog, "A Day In The Life," tells me that he is an artist that has spent his entire life immersed in his own work. You have to remember, while Phillips was singing backing vocals in the studio with his close friends John, Paul, George, and Ringo, he was crafting his own captivating body of work. Discussing this recording session doesn't feel like "sacred ground" to Phillips. He is simply remembering an ordinary day in the studio with a few close friends.

Dr. Music: You have lived in many places around the world - Tahiti, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, Greenwich Village in New York , London , Paris , Italy , South Africa , etc. Do you feel that each area inspires your music in a different way? Is there any one place in particular that gives you certain musical inspiration that you don't get from any of the others?

Shawn Phillips: “I must dispel the myth that I lived in Haight-Ashbury. I never lived there, and only visited momentarily. The only thing that inspires me musically is life itself, both inner, and outer. However, that being said, I find that I become more prolific if I can see the drama of the ocean.”

Dr. Music: You've worked with, and/or have been associated with, some of the biggest names in music history: Paul Buckmaster, Steve Winwood, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Donovan, The Beatles, etc. Is there anyone that you have not worked with but would like to?

Shawn Phillips: Yes. Yo Yo Ma”


Dr. Music: Are there any up-and-coming artists from today's music scene that have made an impression on you?

Shawn Phillips:

     Phillips' simple answer of "No" when asked if any up-and-coming artists have impressed him is something that I view as "par for the course." Again, Phillips makes the heartfelt and poignant music he does because he envelopes himself in every note. I don't picture Shawn Phillips listening to anything other than his own creations. Phillips is about as focused as an artist can possibly be. Anything outside of the circle that he uses to create his art seems insignificant. Phillips has always remained focused and confident with his own talents as a songwriter, and his past and current catalog of great music is solid proof of that.

Dr. Music: Your professional relationship with Donovan has always been a bit clouded by controversy. You only ever received one co-author credit (for "Little Tin Soldier" on the Fairytale album). It is believed that you contributed a great deal more to Donovan's music, especially to the "Sunshine Superman" album. How would you sum up your role in Donovan's music?

Shawn Phillips: “We would sit in a room, and I would play guitar, and he would make up words, for many of his songs. Who would you say wrote the music? By the way, for publishing purposes, his real name is Donovan Phillips Leitch. I think you can figure the rest out as to who got the money.”

   The following video clip is from the mid-60's television show Rainbow Quest with host Pete Seeger. It features Donovan and Shawn Phillips as well as Rev. Gary Davis.


Dr. Music: You mentioned in an interview back in January of 1999 that your manager was searching for video footage from your performance at The Isle Of Wight. Did he ever locate anything? If so, when might it become available?

Shawn Phillips: “I don't think I was, or am, important enough for somebody to drag their ass through all that footage. Maybe one day.”

Dr. Music: "The Ballad of Casy Deiss" is one of my favorite songs by you, or anyone else for that matter. I do know that Casy was a close friend of yours that got struck by lightning while walking through the woods with an axe. At the time this happened, Casy’s wife, Diana, was still pregnant with their third child. It is rumored that many years later you got in touch with that youngest daughter, and you added new lyrics to the song to mention this daughter. Is this true? And, if so, is the re-worked version of the song available on CD?

Shawn Phillips: I never changed a word of the song, but Diana and her daughter Ila lived with me in Italy for a couple years after Casy died. Diana lives in San Miguel D'Allende, and Ila is a Federal Prosecutor in San Francisco. She puts the bad guys away. Good for her.”

Dr. Music: How do you feel about the internet, song downloads, and the digital age in general coming into the music industry?

Shawn Phillips: Well, it takes away control from the bean counters at least. Maybe creative music will become available to all.”

Dr. Music: You are a trained firefighter, a certified emergency medical technician, and a full seagoing crew member of the National Sea Rescue Institute. Do you still work/volunteer in these fields; and what effect, if any, have the experiences had on your music?

Shawn Phillips: Yes, I am currently a Navigator with the National Sea Rescue Institute in Port Elizabeth South Africa, where I live. I also do Firefighting, and EMS work with them as part of the job. I have only written one song about my public service work; "The Man", on "No Category." Otherwise, it's a completely different part of my life.”

Dr. Music: In the past you have used a much wider range of instruments than most artists of the singer/songwriter genre, including double-necked six- and 12-string guitars, standard electric and acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars, and the sitar. Can we still expect to see you using this wide variety of instruments on stage?

Shawn Phillips: Yes, but not the Sitar. I don't have one right now, I have a Surbahar, (which I don't carry with me), and the film composer J. Peter Robinson has my Gibson 12 string. I still use my Gibson/Fender doubleneck, Gibson Dove, Washburn 6 string, Fender Strat, and Robert Godin Multiac Nylon string, which I use to trigger MOTU's "Symphonic" plug-in, during the gigs. I like to surprise new listeners.”

Dr. Music: Out of all the wonderful experiences in your career, is there any one particular moment that is more memorable than any other?

Shawn Phillips: Yes, the standing ovation at the Isle Of Wight.”


Dr. Music: Some people might ask me who Shawn Phillips is, what should I tell them?

Shawn Phillips: Tell them he's a composer of original music, and just another human being trying to support a wife and two year old child.”

The following comment/question is from one of my readers who has been a huge fan of Shawn Phillip’s music for many years. I thought his insightful question below was definitely worth mentioning:

Joe S. (Dr. Music reader): You were most popular at a time of transition in this country [U.S.], with the youth asserting themselves in a way that really had never been done before. Much of this youthful "awakening" was centered on opposition to the Vietnam War, anything valued by the 'Establishment,' and the expanded consciousness of mind-expanding drugs. You were there and a part of all this as an observer, participant, and to some extent even a leader.  I always sensed an underlying theme in some of your older music which supported the popular themes of the day such as love and peace, which of course, was a very easy thing to do.
So ….how are these themes a part of your life today? Through the world-wisdom you have gained over the last four decades, do you think that you were ever misguided by idealism (however noble), and do you share any of the 'Establishment' values today?  Last, is there an important life-lesson that you could impart to us that you haven't yet put to song?"

Shawn Phillips: “There are 3 to 4 thousand extremely wealthy people who run the world. They don't care about humanity. The last thing they want is peace. I simply try to say that if the individual finds peace, then the world finds peace. That's the way we neutralize them.”

And finally, I asked Phillips to give me the first thought that popped into his head when I said the following words:

  • Fame – “Britney Spears”
  • 9/11 – “Jealousy”  
      I wanted to ask Shawn about his answer to "9/11" because I find it mysterious and odd. But then I thought about it. I view his answer much like an abstract painting; something that is supposed to be left open for interpretation. Having him explain his response I believe would have cheapened it. It is a deep response that will get many minds to look inside themselves for an explanation, and that's a beautiful thing.
  • Cass Elliot -- "Sweetie"
  •  Family -- "Biggie"

     Shawn Phillips is a "composer of original music." He's an intelligent gentleman that volunteers his precious time to help others in need. He's a survivor that has seen the uglier side of the music business, but decided never to take up residence in that dark ghetto. Shawn Phillips is the person that we all strive to be.

   I would like to thank Shawn Phillips for taking the time to share his thoughts and wisdom with me, and for his grace and inspiring spirit. Your music is a gift to all who hear it, and your kind and caring soul is a gift to all of humanity.
   Special thanks to Shawn’s manager, Arlo Hennings, for doing his job and being so gracious about it.
   And extra special thanks to Aurora for making all of this possible.


Shawn Phillips has just released a live DVD entitled "Living Contribution: Live at Kirstenbosch Gardens," as well as an accompanying 2-CD set entitled “Living Contribution: Both Sides.” You can purchase both of these titles on Shawn Phillips' website at:
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