Phillip Phillips skyrocketed to fame by winning American Idol in 2012, and his hit song Home remains the biggest-selling song ever for an American Idol contestant.
Phillips, 27, lives in southwestern Georgia with his wife, where they both spent their childhoods. He will perform on July 16 at Ridgefield Playhouse. Brad Durrell talked to Phillips about his career and upcoming show.
Brad Durrell: Tell me about working at the family pawn shop while growing up?
Phillip Phillips: It was real interesting at that age. My dad had it since I was 4 until five years ago or so. You got to meet a bunch of characters, a lot of cool people. You just never knew who was about to walk in or what was about to come in. It was a good time for a kid.
BD: You earned a college degree in industrial systems engineering?
PP: My dad studied that, it was his trade and what he did. He told me if I didn’t want to go to college I needed to get out of the house, and I didn’t want to get out of the house so I just went to college. I honestly just didn’t love it like I love music. I just did it so I wouldn’t get kicked out of the house.
Every time between classes or in the period right after college, I was playing music or learning something about music, so that was my real passion.
BD: How did you end up on American Idol?
PP: I never watched it but my mom had been a huge fan of the show since it had come out. I thought it was pop singing and I’m not a singer — I’m more of a music guy, who likes playing guitars and instruments and just jamming out. I don’t consider myself an amazing singer like a lot of other people are.
My mom or someone else told me to watch this guy Casey Abrams on American Idol, and I did. He was an incredible musician. I then said if someone like him could do it, maybe I can have a shot and I’d give it a try. They were having auditions in the area, and I got some gas money and went to Charleston, S.C. and did two or three auditions, then the final auditions in Savannah, Ga. I just kind of got lucky. Didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
BD: Did you know Home would be a hit first time sang it?
PP: I might have been the only person who didn’t feel that way. My wife — my girlfriend at the time — said she knew something big was going to happen with it. I think I was emotionally and mentally not connected to the song because I didn’t write it. I wanted to have something to do with the writing process and I just didn’t.
It took time to give my own meaning to it. But after playing the song a lot, getting comfortable with it, I definitely made it my own. That song is special to so many people and I’ll always be grateful for it.
BD: Any one show stand out as ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moment?
PP: The World Series games were awesome and definitely amazing. I get scared to death doing the National Anthem. I thought I was going to pass out the first time I did it.
A huge highlight in my life musically was opening up for John Mayer and Bruce Springsteen. It was us three closing out the night in Brazil at Rockin’ Rio in 2013. There was about 90,000 people there. It was the most insane feeling I’ve ever felt.
It’s just great being able to release music, like with my new album Collateral. It’s an honor and a privilege I don’t take for granted. Not many people get to play music for a living. It’s fun.
BD: Talk about learning from the struggles in your life?
PP: You have to go through some stuff to realize who you want to become and who you are at that time. I’ve been through a lot that a lot of people don’t even know about. I’m a pretty private guy.
Emotions are good. You can’t sing about happiness all the time. Happiness is great, and I’m happy right now, but you struggle with second guessing yourself and not having confidence in yourself or areas of your life.
I think to be a musician or songwriter you have to know what pain is. Pain is powerful. Sadness is powerful. When I was younger and first writing music, if something bad was going on or I’d get upset or mad about something, I’d pick up the guitar and write something and it was very therapeutic.
That’s what music is for me — releasing whatever emotions I have, good or bad. If you haven’t really gone through that much, you won’t really have much to say and people won’t connect to you.
BD: How do you write songs?
PP: When writing a song by myself, it’s definitely a longer process. I overthink things a lot. Whenever I write with some friends I really trust — the majority of them in Nashville — things happen faster.
I have a handful of people I really trust writing with. We just get in a room and have fun. I usually go in with an idea and show them what I’ve been working on and we’ll expand it from there. That’s usually how it goes. Sometimes I’ll just start from scratch. It takes time. You have to figure out what you want to say.
The songwriting, writing the lyrics, is the hardest part. You have to say whatever you’re saying in the right way to get the point across. The lyrics are very important. Musically, you can have a lot of fun with it and experiment.
BD: What do you like about performing live?
PP: It’s my favorite, just being on stage and having fun, making music and jamming with other band members. It’s the best feeling — I don’t have to worry about my phone going off or some emails. We change things up every night. Some people come to a few shows so it’s important to do that.
BD: What should people expect at the Ridgefield concert?
PP: It will be a good time. It’s an all-acoustic show. If people want to dance and sing, I’m OK with that, or if they just want to sit down and listen, that’s fine as well.