Stop me if you've heard this one before - Nashville is a truly remarkable place. As trite as it might sound to say that after New York Times, Travel & Leisure, GQ, and every other publication has already re-purposed the same sentiment, the sentiment rings true. As a long time Nashvillian, it never ceases to amaze me that the sheer number of fascinating people just a stones throw from your front door seems to be in perpetual growth. Such was the case for this week's feature subject, Phil Madeira. A veteran Nashville's Americana scene, Madeira and I are literal neighbors, but it took his fifth solo album Providence to be released before we became acquainted (for the record, it's a large apartment complex, so it's hard know everyone there). But dang, once Phil met up to chat, it was one of the most exceptional conversations we've had the great fortune to run on Now/It's. Phil shares some wonderful insight into his formative years in Rhode Island, the inspiration for this newest record, as well as his consciousness for faith and politics, and his prolific body of work which includes being Emmylou Harris' band leader, working with Buddy Miller, The Civil Wars, and more. A true treasure of Nashville, Phil Madeira reminds us of just how fortunate we are to live in Nashville.
Now/It's met with Phil Madeira at Bongo Java, in the Belmont neighborhood of Nashville.
N/I - Well how are you?
Phil - I’m doing pretty good. How are you?
N/I - Doing well. Doing well. I appreciate you meeting up with me.
Phil - Aw man, yeah. I have a ten o’clock interview with The Tennessean somewhere else, so I need to set my alarm.
N/I - Alright. I set one for 9:50 or so, because Maria had said you have to head out around then.
Phil - Yeah. I’m going to set it for 9:45, just because it’s over in Germantown, and I’ll Lyft over there.
N/I - No worries.
Phil - Do you do that?
N/I - From time to time.
Phil - If I have to go downtown, I don’t drive anywhere.
N/I - Sometimes I’ll have to work downtown and will need my car, specifically, but otherwise, it’s strictly Lyfting places.
Phil - So what do you do? You have this website….
N/I - Yeah. So this is a website that I do - I’ve written for some bigger publications in the past, and I still do from time to time, but for the most part, I just figured doing my own thing would be most appealing. I get to talk to people I want to, and I don’t have to worry about someone else overseeing my work.
Phil - Well I visited the site, and it looks fantastic.
N/I - Wow. Thanks! I really appreciate that. I really do. But outside of that, I work at 650 AM WSM, the radio station.
Phil - Okay, great.
N/I - I do some reporting and some promotional stuff there. Basically anything they ask of me.
Phil - Perfect. That’s great.
N/I - I think so. We might as well jump right into things - when does Providence come out?
Phil - It comes out April 6th.
N/I - Okay. That’s right. What has the lead up to Providence looked like for you? Obviously, some press obligations, but anything else?
Phil - It’s really been fun. I actually put out a fair quantity of my own music, but it’s never been the way I make a living. It’s almost like being a painter, where you just have to paint.
N/I - You might paint portraits, but you make your money from painting houses.
Phil - Something like that. But this record, I just thought that a lot of times, with Kickstarter, or something like that, you’ll just sort of use some of that [money] as your income. You manufacture the record, you get it to everybody, and you have a few left over and then maybe make $10,000 or something. You pay yourself. This time, I decided that this record is so personal - not like the rest of them aren’t - but I decided with this one I would hire a PR firm - which is why you and I are sitting here - and it’s really been kind of gratifying, because the response from everyone that’s interviewed me has been great. Everyone seems to like this record.
N/I - It really is. Not to cut you off, but running through everything that you’ve put out as a solo artist, and then listening to Providence, there’s a certain distinction that proves it as being more personal. It’s about where you’re from, and it easier to discern that fact versus past records.
Phil - Most of the records that I’ve put out in the last…. The last four things I’ve done - PM, Motorcycle, Three Horseshoes, Original Sinner - those are all compilations of me having a recording session over here, so I recorded three tunes. I might be making a record for somebody and we have some time left, so I’ll cut a couple of songs. It’s not that I don’t love those songs, like on the record PM there’s a song called “Old Song” on there, and it’s still probably my favorite song I’ve ever written. But in terms of an album, there’s cohesion because I’m used to hearing the stuff together. So if you heard those records, you wouldn’t necessarily think they weren’t cohesive, but this record was all written together, and it was recorded in two days. There’s only one drummer, there’s only one bass player. So it has that cohesive, song-to-song feeling.
N/I - There’s a thruline all the way to the end; from start to finish. What about “Old Song” sticks with you?
Phil - That song…. Do you know who Jimmie Lee Sloas is?
N/I - I’ve heard the name.
Phil - Jimmie is a Nashville, Row, session guy on all the big music that comes out of Music Row. He’s playing bass for Carrie Underwood, or someone like that. He’s that guy. Anyway, he and I are good friends - I’m not in that world. I’ve brushed up against it, I’ve had my Garth Brooks cut, my Toby Keith cut. Back when you made money doing it. But that’s never been my wheelhouse, in the least. So I got with Jimmie and we wrote that song. It just had some classic old-school country elements to it. I love the lyric. I can mp3 it to you. You might enjoy it.
N/I - I’d get a big kick out of that.
Phil - It’s a pretty sad song. I love sad songs. It’s super sad.
N/I - I’m right there with you.
Phil - Alison Krauss cut one of my tunes, called “Maybe.” It’s probably the saddest song I ever wrote. And that’s why she recorded it.
N/I - That makes sense. What do you think it is that allows you to draw from sadness….
Phil - What else are you going to do with it, man [laughs]?
N/I - That’s true. I would assume - not being a songwriter - that it has to be somewhat cathartic.
Phil - It’s interesting. The Providence record is a pretty…. There’s really no undercurrent of sadness on it.
N/I - And I was going to segue to that - it doesn’t sound all that sad at all.
Phil - It doesn’t. One of the songs on there, called “Dearest Companion,” I did write that for my partner who was dying of cancer at the time. And that was an afterthought. I wrote that the night before our second recording date. Most great art is somehow connected to suffering. I think when you have your happy stuff - like right now, man, I have a surge of writing love songs, because I’ve met someone.
N/I - Oh, great!
Phil - And that still sort of goes back to the sadness. You’re so overwhelmed with this good thing that’s happening. But you wouldn’t be overwhelmed….
N/I - Without the experience.
Phil - You need the contrast.
N/I - Exactly. The experience gives way to more experience. Happiness is relative to sadness…. I could throw out all sort of vague platitudes, but nonetheless, that’s interesting to hear. In talking to people that write songs, I can speculate as much as possible, but might as well just go straight to the source. So being that Providence is your fifth solo album - why did it take you five albums to start deliberately writing about where you came from.
Phil - Honestly, had I not been up there, and had I not had this experience that I touch on in the liner notes - I’m at the top of the Newport Bridge, which is this iconic structure that essentially connects the East side to the West side of the state. It crosses the Narragansett Bay, and it’s a suspension bridge, and it’s pretty tall, because it’s so long. So I’m at the top of that, and I look North, and there was this morning sunlight that just made me think, “Man, you grew up here.” The beauty of the place I’m from - I go home there every year - but I just was struck and that’s when the idea hit me to do a song cycle about growing up there. The songs came quickly. “Crescent Park” was the first one that came to….
N/I - Why was that?
Phil - I don’t know. The music is kind of blues-y…. I don’t know. I guess I don’t really know “why” a song comes, but it’s all true. I did work as a ride operator one summer off from college. Man, it’s really bizarre, actually, this woman listened to that song, and had these shoes made for me [points at shoes]. Isn’t that bizarre?
N/I - Oh, no way! That’s wild.
Phil - I put them on this morning and thought “Man, these are really flamboyant. But I thought fuck it, I’m going to wear them.”
N/I - Why not? And it adds a little bit of anecdotal intrigue to this whole conversation.
Phil - They’re pretty fun. I posted a photo of them to Facebook… I’m doing this concert in Providence on album release day, and someone going to that concert said “You have to wear those shoes.” And now I know what I’m wearing [laughs].
N/I - Makes things easier for you. So there’s a bit of a theme coming from Providence, and New England, and all that - but it’s my understanding that you’ve always been drawn to the South, and that leaving New England was almost inevitable?
Phil - Well, I think if I could have had the level of career that I have staying in Rhode Island, why wouldn’t I?
N/I - Well that’s why I wanted to ask….
Phil - To me, the music of the South - which is really the case for everybody - everybody who likes…. I guess I’ll call it pop music. Or rock. Popular American music has its roots in the South.
N/I - Absolutely.
Phil - So to be drawn to - particularly black gospel music - that’s the first stuff I heard. My mother would play these Mahalia Jackson records. So they would have had their roots…. Well, you go way back, they’re unfortunate roots. But I originally was going to go to LA. That made more sense. I knew people in LA. The music business in terms of anything that wasn’t country, was happening out there. It was 1983. But a friend of mine that my wife and I told that we were thinking of moving to LA, and he just happened to toss out that he thought we should go to Nashville. And it was weird, but it was one of those few times in my life where the bell goes off, the neon comes on and you know something is true. So we came here. We knew one person here, when we came.
N/I - So how do you go about navigating that?
Phil - Well, the one guy we knew here was in the music business. He hired my wife. He managed a Christian band called Petra, who I wasn’t a fan of what they did, but I did start in that world. I was never right for it. Even though I was a person of faith, I’m too irreverent.
N/I - I can understand that. I consider myself to be the same. Obviously, I don’t sneak jokes into interviews all that often, but with my writing, I’m fairly self-deprecating.
Phil - Interesting.
N/I - So that world of writing, media writing, or whatever - you’re only provided with a little runway for irreverence. So I can understand feeling unfit for that situation.
Phil - Right. And so if I’m a person of faith, but I’m discouraged by the current state of American religion….
N/I - Is it the self-seriousness?
Phil - It’s a political thing, man.
N/I - Sure.
Phil - All these people who say they love Jesus, but then they put Trump into the White House…. It’s mind boggling. Now, if you’re one of those people, I apologize [laughs].
N/I - I am not [laughs].
Phil - I just assume that anyone I’m enjoying a conversation with, I assume there’s no way they voted for Trump. And then I’m surprised when they say they did.
N/I - Every once and a while, there’s a moment when a great rapport can be immediately destroyed by the time politics comes up. And it almost never seems to come up naturally. Somehow it gets forced into the conversation. Then everything shifts, and whatever was going before is now dead.
Phil - It’s pretty weird.
N/I - It’s unfortunate. That leads to a nice natural segue to your song “Gothenburg” - the commentary behind that is somewhat…. I won’t say political, but there is a consciousness to it.
Phil - That song came out of me thinking about my grandfather - whom I never met - and thinking about his journey. I think he came over once by himself, then once with his wife - and maybe they had kids by that time - but they still kept going back to Sweden. I think they really wanted to make it work. Having been there, I understand. But they eventually just went all out and came here. And that’s when my mother was born. So that song is voiced as if I’m talking to my two daughters - there’s that line of “and that’s where your grandma was born/It’s a true story, I just wanted you to know.” But there is that stuff about the melting pot being their grandmother’s neighborhood. The question that you hope somebody is going to ask themselves after listening to a piece like that is “Wow. Do I really want a wall?” I went out and heard David Hidalgo - from Los Lobos - the other night at City Winery, and he sang a lot of Mexican tunes and stuff. And I thought, “What if our wall was that thick? Where all we had was Anglo….
N/I - Anglo, Protestant….
Phil - And you think of what we would have. You’d have shitty cooking….
N/I - A lot of heavy creams.
Phil - It’d be New England, man. So that song is gently political.
N/I - Sure. And again, that’s why I was hesitant to classify if as “political,” but I just wanted to point out that there was an obvious commentary there.
Phil - Well, I’m very political.
N/I - And that’s great! I just wanted to make sure that it doesn’t seem like I’m putting words in your mouth.
Phil - And I appreciate that. Really.
N/I - But still, personally, I think that stuff needs to be talked about more and more. I feel heartened by the fact that there are people such as yourself, who are able to present these ideas in a manner of which isn’t lambasting one group or another. There’s no “You’re a shithead” if you have a differing opinion.
Phil - It’s really just telling a story that doesn’t say anything. It’s not “shitting” on anybody. It’s just telling a story. Now, what do you get from that story? If you’re thinking, you’ll probably arrive at, “Oh gosh, that’s right. We were immigrants too.” But, most people don’t.
N/I - Realistically, the truly indigenous peoples of America have been apportioned to a small section of the country, and everyone else everywhere else are someway connected to an immigrant. They’re naturalize Americans, technically.
Phil - It’s really amazing.
N/I - There’s a beauty to the “melting pot,” as you say.
Phil - There definitely is.
N/I - So you recorded Providence in two days at Sound Emporium.
Phil - Well we recorded the vocals. We pretty much cut live piano, bass, and drums. I sang. And then I took that home and basically farmed out parts. The guitarist John Scofield plays on some. So I sent him a rough mix. I sent Will Kimbrough a rough mix. There was a horn guy that I used named John Painter, and he was amazing. I sent him the tunes I wanted horns on. So in other words, it wasn’t completely recorded there.
N/I - Okay. So you used the space to get the bones of it down, and then added flourishes in post.
Phil - Added a little sugar to it.
N/I - Great. Well let’s talk a little more about Nashville. You’ve been in town since….
Phil - ‘83.
N/I - I’m curious. What have the past thirty some odd years of change looked like to you?
Phil - Well, Nashville in the last decade it’s really blown up.
N/I - It’s at a fever pitch.
Phil - And it’s kind of sad to watch. I think if I was a real estate developer, I’d be really excited, but I’m not. When I moved here, it was not a diverse town. When I moved here, it was just black and white. There was no Hispanic presence, really very little Asian presence. So one of the great things that’s happened over the past twenty-five years is that the diversity has happened to where if you want some really great Thai food….
N/I - You actually have some options.
Phil - And of course, we have great Mexican and Indian communities, so we’ve become a bit of a melting pot here as well. I think Tennessee - I love Nashville - but I wish we were a more progressive state.
N/I - Yeah. It’s the whole “Blue city in the heart of a red state” effect.
Phil - But that’s the South, you know.
N/I - Absolutely. If you’re not opposed to it, I’d love to know how you got involved with people like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller throughout your career.
Phil - Oh gosh. My mantra, and my advice to anybody in the music business, or anybody moving here, or maybe in any line of work - I’ve learned to say “yes.” And with me, I’m kind of known as a multi-instrumentalist, to the point where I’ve picked up certain instruments when someone asked if I played such and such.
N/I - Right. Picking it up out of necessity.
Phil - And I have a pretty good instinct for learning instruments. But with Emmylou - we were around each other quite a bit, once I started playing with Buddy Miller in the early 90s. Buddy and I, we were both kind of refugees from the Christian music scene. His wife, Julie Miller, in my opinion, was the greatest thing that ever happened to Christian music, but they didn’t know it. They didn’t know what to do with her. Her songs were broken, and beautifully human, and it just was not what that market wanted. Now, it was what that market needed, if you ask me. Of all markets, you’d think that’s the one that’s really looking for the most reality. But that kind of reality did not exist there. So Julie eventually found herself making independent records, and that led to Emmylou cutting some of her songs, meanwhile, Buddy and met at a Christian festival. So that’s where I met those two, and I was like “Who are those people?” And then they moved here from LA. So with Buddy - I’m having lunch with him tomorrow….
N/I - That’s awesome.
Phil - He really was the person that kind of opened that Americana world to me, which was fantastic. And then, eventually…. Because he’s close to Emmylou, I was sort of automatically around her once and a while. So when she put her band together around 2007, she called me and invited me to be in her band. And I’m still with her. That has opened up a million doors for me.
N/I - I wouldn’t doubt it.
Phil - Are you familiar with the Mercyland records I put out?
N/I - I am! I actually listened to one this morning.
Phil - Oh, cool. So with those, in large part, the people that I invited to be a part of that, who weren’t really familiar with me - I had gone to her first, and asked if she would want to be on it, and she said “Absolutely.” So when I went to whoever - The Civil Wars, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, whoever - and said Emmylou is on it….
N/I - That helped things go much quicker, I bet.
Phil - They weren’t getting on it because of me, necessarily [laughs]. So working with Emmylou - probably every interview I do, I acknowledge that relationship has brought me so much opportunity. And I assume it’s bringing something to her, because I’m still with her band ten years later. Her band right now, Red Dirt Boys, which is Will Kimbrough, myself, Bryan Owings, Chris Donohue. We’ve just done a record.
N/I - As The Red Dirt Boys?
Phil - Yes. I went to [Emmylou] and told her we wanted to do a record, and if she’d mind if we used the Red Dirt Boys name? And she said “Only if I can sing on it.” So she’s on two tracks. That’s the sort of person she is - just really a team player. So I’m excited with that. I want to deal with Providence, let it have it’s life, and then I’ll jump into finishing the Red Dirt record.
N/I - So with the Mercyland releases, what was the inception point for that?
Phil - Man, that was interesting. I was on a bus. It was my first gig with Emmy. It was 2008 when we started our tour. Obama and McCain were campaigning for president, and I was just sitting there as a person of faith, so embarrassed by other people who call themselves Christian, and were so hateful about Obama. It seems like this has been growing versus shrinking. I don’t think we’re evolving at all, man. Not in the short haul.
N/I - There are more places for people to be reductive in the way they exist.
Phil - Oh, I know! Anyway, so I was so sickened by the kind of people who were hijacking the story of Jesus, that I went to Emmy and told her that I wanted to do a gospel record, but I wanted it to be inclusive. I wanted it to say “God loves everyone.”