Monday, September 12, 2016

Interview Flashback - Under The Big Top with Phil Vassar

I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did close to a 100 interviews with different artists- and since both of those great sites have come down, I will reprint some of those interviews here to give them a home in perpetuity. This interview was originally published in December 2009 on The 9513.

Phil Vassar the singer has charted nineteen singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, including two Billboard Hot Country Number Ones in "Just Another Day in Paradise" and "In a Real Love." 

Phil Vassar the songwriter has written a number of smash singles for other artists including Tim McGraw ("For a Little While", "My Next Thirty Years"), Jo Dee Messina ("Bye, Bye", "I'm Alright"), Collin Raye ("Little Red Rodeo"), and Alan Jackson ("Right on the Money"). In 1999, he was named by ASCAP as Country Songwriter of the Year.

But it is Phil Vassar the road performer that is the inspiration for his new December 2009 album release, Travelling Circus. Playing the role of ringmaster- and even pictured that way on the new album cover- he’s taking his band of travelling showmen out on the road to promote the new album. Forget lions, tigers and bears. It’s guitars, pianos and fiddles, oh my. 

The 9513 had a chance to catch up with Vassar as he prepared for the launch of his new big top-themed album and talk about music, songwriting and his future on Broadway. 

Ken Morton, Jr.- Before we talk specifically about your brand new music, talk to me about the title of this new album and the meaning behind it. I take it you don’t have a secret ambition to drop everything and go to work for Barnum and Bailey quite yet.

Phil Vassar- (Laughter) Well you know I’m actually a trapeze artist. Just kidding. I’ve always called our group a travelling circus. Anybody that knows my game knows why. As I was looking for a title for the record, we looked at everything. We used to call ourselves a frat house on wheels- whatever that was. Travelling Circus just fit. It fits a theme because it’s what life is. It’s scary. It’s funny. And we’re kind of like a bus that’s like the clowns that jump out of the Volkswagen. We’re sort of like the clowns that jump out of the bus. So I thought it was a good overall theme. And then my buddy painted the cover. It’s just really cool. He told me that I’d have to be the ringmaster and I said, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.” And that’s before I even told him that it was a circus theme. That’s pretty interesting, you know?

KMJ- That’s a talented friend painting an album cover for you.

PV- Yeah, he did all the artwork for the record. Last year, he painted my girls and I. And he’s just great. He’s just a local guy- a local national artist. And we talked and both thought that would be cool. I’m sick of the whole glamour shots that we use on the cover. I just think that’s silly. No one wants to look at me. (Laughter) I just don’t look that good. 

KMJ- That’s funny. Well, talk to me about the new album. What can the Phil Vassar fan expect from the new record musically?

PV- I went with my band for one. The guys never get to go into the studio to do records which is kind of silly. I kind of get sick of working with studio guys because they’re working on your album at ten and then on McGraw’s record at one and then so-and-so’s at six. And I think it’s all between the lines too much. Everything to me starts to sound alike. The production is the same. I wanted to do it different. I think you can really tell. It sounds like me more live. I think that’s what I really wanted to capture. It’s more organic. And the way we set up in the studio was a little different this time. I used this little funky studio that I used to cut demos in that my engineer used to help me with instead of these $20,000 per
week fancy studios. Or per day. Whatever. Anyways, it’s a whole different deal. It’s a lot more me for sure. 

KMJ- You were the producer on this album. When you say more organic, what do mean when it’s different production-wise?

PV- I’ve always produced my own records, but I’ve always done it with somebody like Byron Gallimore, Dan Huff, or Frank Rogers. At this point, I don’t need those guys to produce my stuff anymore. I just wanted to go in with my own guys and do my thing. So that’s just how we did it. I love all my records and I’m proud of all the ones we’ve cut. I just wanted to do something different this time around. 

KMJ- Did it bring some different thinking having your own road guys in the studio this time around?

PV- Oh yeah. It allowed us to kind of hunker down in the studio for awhile. Instead of looking at the clock knowing that we can only do this and only do that, the guys would set up knowing we’d have an entire week at our own leisure and do stuff all day. And all night. The each had their own ideas and their own input. Sometimes it would work and sometimes it would be a train wreck. But what did work worked really well. And what didn’t work didn’t make the record. It was that easy.

KMJ- Any favorite tracks on the album thus far?

PV- I don’t know. I don’t know if I really have one. There’s just so much I really like. Even songs like “I Will Remember You” which is an older track that Kenny Chesney and I wrote awhile back that had never made a record, which hadn’t made the last three or four records, made this one. Everything on the record is pretty brand new, but on every album I’ve had one thing that I’ve brought something back from several years ago that hadn’t made a record previously for some reason. 

KMJ- As I looked through the writing credits, your name is on every track but with other writers. But how do you go about choosing who you want to work with? Is it pretty free-flowing or do have certain songwriters in mind for certain kinds of songs?

PV- No, never really that. I just have guys I write with. For the most part, they’re just friends. Not many. We just write and see what happens. 

KMJ- How did that Kenny Chesney collaboration and song theme come about?

PV- One of us was going through a break-up. I don’t remember which one of us. I think it was him. It’s a really good song, I just hadn’t found a spot on one of my previous records. 

KMJ- I know the record previously had a February release date on it but they’ve pulled it forward into December. What was the reason for the big move forward?

PV- I don’t know, that’s a record-label thing. It wasn’t my choice, that’s for sure. We’ve got a song just coming up the charts right now. But when you’re on a big label, they have their own agenda and it’s rarely the artist’s agenda. It seems rushing it a bit if you ask me, but it’s their decision. That’s just what we’re going through. But we’re dealt what we’re dealt and you just go out and do it. 

KMJ- Your first single off of the album was one that obviously gathered lots of discussion, “Bobby With An I.” What were your thoughts of the song and that single being released first?

PV- I just thought it was a fun song. I think it’s a great song. I think it’s funny. I’m sick of the same old songs- sick of hearing about our economy and talking about how bad life is. I thought it was time to throw something out there really different. Of course, we had a lot of people that were kind of offended by it. But I think they’re idiots. That’s what I think. It was just meant to be funny. It is what it is. It wasn’t meant to save the whales or anything like that. I wish I could do that with every song, but I can’t. We just have to stop taking life so seriously. That’s really what the song is about. 

KMJ- I thought the last track was one of the most autobiographical of the bunch and is called “Where Have All The Pianos Gone?” That’s been a distinction of yours within the country genre. Talk to me about that song and how the two work together.

PV- I wrote the song with my friend, James Slater, who’s a really good friend. And he’s another piano player- and a great songwriter. And we were talking the one day about Billy Joel, Elton John, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Barry Manilow, Ronnie Milsap- the list just went on and on. Think about all those guys and how many great piano guys there were. Lionel Richie is another. The first song I ever learned was “Easy Like Sunday Morning.” I was just a kid. We asked one-another, “Where have all the piano players gone.” And out of that, came the song. And it’s a really cool song. And I don’t know if it would have ever made another record if it wasn’t up for me to do it. 

KMJ- Beyond Travelling Circus, what does the future hold for Phil Vassar?

PV- We’re going back out on the road and it’s the biggest show we’ve ever taken out. It seems like every year, I’ve taken out a bigger and bigger show. Our Circus Tour is going to be a lot of fun. So I’m definitely working on that. And we’re in the middle of working on a Broadway show from a movie about a waitress and I’m in the middle of that. There’s a lot of different things going on. It’s all really good stuff. I’m excited about the next year and I’m just trying to keep it all rolling. 

KMJ- For this Broadway show, are you just doing the music for it or is there more to it than that?

PV- I’m just doing the songs. Music and lyrics. I don’t have any aspirations of being in it or anything. It might be fun to do something like that at some point. There’s been movies and things offered before which may be fun to do some time in the future, but we’ll have to see how it pans out. 

KMJ- Last question for you. What is country music to Phil Vassar?

PV- I think it is real music for real people. It’s a very lyric-driven genre. It’s not about how many chords you can put in a song or what the production is like. That’s what I really like about it. It’s about a song. It’s really as simple as that fact. 


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