Hard To Categorize: Joseph C. Phillips' Album 'Changing Same' Is Out Tuesday Joseph C. Phillips Jr. creates music that sounds classical, funky and sometimes cinematic. He deconstructs his compositions for NPR's Rachel Martin.

Hard To Categorize: Joseph C. Phillips' Album 'Changing Same' Is Out Tuesday

Hard To Categorize: Joseph C. Phillips' Album 'Changing Same' Is Out Tuesday

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Joseph C. Phillips Jr. creates music that sounds classical, funky and sometimes cinematic. He deconstructs his compositions for NPR's Rachel Martin.


The music that Joseph C. Phillips Jr. makes is hard to categorize. Maybe it's jazz or classical, maybe alternative something or other.


MARTIN: Phillips is a composer with a new album expected out soon. And what we're listening to now is one of his new compositions. It's called "The Most Beautiful Magic."


MARTIN: Joseph C. Phillips Jr. joins me now from our studios in New York. Welcome to the show.


MARTIN: I am sure you have been asked this a million times, but I'm going to ask anyway. If you had to describe your music, which I'm asking you to do now...


MARTIN: You know, how do you do it if it doesn't fit traditional labels? How do you describe your genre?

PHILLIPS: I do need to have, like, an elevator pitch. So I have (laughter) to have something so that people know what to listen for.


PHILLIPS: It's definitely from the classical tradition. You know, there's - it's basically an orchestra. But it's also bringing in all kinds of elements from popular music, from jazz, from film scores. And take all these themes and then spit it out into something that's hopefully different and new and hopefully me.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about a new recording that you've done. This is called "Miserere."


MARTIN: Which means have mercy.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I have had enough. I am tired of always, always waiting for a change to come.

MARTIN: Can you tell me a little bit about this particular work, where it comes from?

PHILLIPS: When I wrote the piece, it was coming from a place of deep pain and hurt. My wife and I were - had a miscarriage, and this was our first miscarriage. And I remember getting the call to say there's no heartbeat and, you know, just feeling this pain. Like, it was just a very difficult time. So that's kind of where it came from. Even though "Miserere" isn't particularly directly about this, it's about that pain that you feel, this sorrowfulness. But yet, there's a hope, you know. We've had multiple miscarriages after that. But now we have a little boy who's almost 1.

MARTIN: You have a baby. Oh, congratulations.

PHILLIPS: So yeah, so we're very excited. Thank you. So there's that hope even though you have this kind of sorrow, and you don't know how you're going to get through things. And sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't. But in this particular case for us, it did.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I am forgotten, left with my hope.

MARTIN: You're working with a vocalist on this particular piece. How does that change how you construct a song?

PHILLIPS: Well, in this particular case, I wrote the lyrics for "Miserere," and so I already had that conception in mind that there would be this - it would be kind of a vocal soloist, and then - on the first half. And then the second half is improvisation, although it's sort of directed. I have - the - you know, the musicians have music, and they have themes that they have to play. And then there's some people have specific themes to play.


MARTIN: When you're building something out with full orchestration, how do you know when you have too much? Do you ever have to catch yourself and say, OK, this extra layer, I don't need that?

PHILLIPS: (Laughter) Yeah, you know, in one of the movements, when I listened to it back - "Unlimited," for example.


PHILLIPS: In my mind, I think of those acrobats who are twisting the plates, and they have to keep twisting the plates and everything - all these little motives are happening and layered on top of one another...


PHILLIPS: And you kind of keep it going. And I think there's this great scene in "Amadeus," the movie, where Mozart's like, how many voices do you think I can do in this opera, like, at the same time, simultaneously? And he just keeps saying, one, two, three. And when I listen to "Unlimited," I feel like it's like - it's kind of like that. There's all of these layers.


PHILLIPS: Sometimes, I'll have to say, yeah, you know, I want to take that out. And there's been a few times where I loved something, and it worked really great in the movement. But I just thought it shouldn't be there. Like, and sometimes it takes me a while to figure that out.


MARTIN: I read that this was inspired by the inauguration of President Obama. Is that right?

PHILLIPS: Yeah, so I was there (laughter) in 2009, and it's more about from a historical sense. You know, if you think about whatever is - you know, people who like his politics or don't like his politics, I think you can agree that having the first African-American president is a historical event. And so this is something that I wanted to convey with the music. And it's about the hope.


PHILLIPS: Growing up, I never really thought that there would be a black president. I just - it just never really seemed like something that was possible. And then all of a sudden here it is, within my lifetime. Standing there that day, it seemed to me like there was this unlimited possibility of yes, you can do whatever you want.


MARTIN: Does this piece stand as an exception to your work in general, or are you an optimistic guy?

PHILLIPS: I try to always have within me, like, there is hope. There's a chance. So I feel - I always feel pretty hopeful.

MARTIN: You also teach kindergarten, so you have to be (laughter).

PHILLIPS: (Laughter) Now that makes you very (laughter), very hopeful. Yes, but the kindergartners, when I go in, you know, you have to be there. You have to be on. And whatever you give them, they'll take. And you can't be, like - when I walk into the auditorium or something and 250 kids screaming your name, it must be what Prince feels like...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PHILLIPS: When he walks into a room, you know, like, they're screaming, Joe, Joe. I'm just like - I tell my wife, OK, well, when I'm 80 and no one's going to remember who I am, I'm going to look back to those days where those kindergartners were screaming my name and just - I do love teaching the little kids. And it does relate to, as I mentioned, what I'm doing. I try to - with my music - try to keep this sort of hopefulness and this lightness about myself so I don't think myself so seriously. I mean, I try to keep myself (laughter) in check. And the kindergarteners definitely keep me in check.

MARTIN: The album is called "Changing Same." Joseph C. Phillips joined me from our studios in New York to talk about his new album. It drops this week. Joseph, thank you so much for talking with us.

PHILLIPS: Thank you, it was great.

MARTIN: Our theme music is written by B.J. Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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