A truly diverse and eclectic musical artform, country-rock can be just as orchestral and majestic as progressive rock. Case in point is The Wine Of Youth, the 2020 CD by California-based singer-songwriter Zach Phillips. Front and center on the 13-track CD are Zach’s catchy, up-tempo songs, which are adorned by his smooth, heartfelt vocals and his multi-faceted electric and acoustic guitar work. With Zach handling all the vocals and guitars, The Wine Of Youth also spotlights well recorded performances by Gregg Montante (bass, drums, guitars), Bobby Cressey (keyboards) with Gloria Taylor on backing vocals. Ostensibly atmospheric, yet hard-driving country-rock brought into the 21st century, The Wine Of Youth is that and much more. Speaking about the inspirations behind The Wine Of Youth, Zach explains, "The Wine Of Youth is definitely an homage to California, particularly what I term “the old, weird California.” In other words, we tend to think of California in terms of surf and L.A. entertainment culture. Those are key elements, but my experience of the state has been different. I’ve found it to be a place of incredible beauty and also a little strangeness — albeit the right kind of strangeness." In the spirit of country rock legends like Bruce Hornsby, The Eagles, and New Riders Of The Purple Sage, the music of Zach Phillips is a well-honed mix of folk-based rock and electric country rock packed with ample and often blazing electric guitars. Played loud for maximum effect, The Wine Of Youth is a timeless contemporary masterpiece by the soon to be better known Zach Phillips. www.zachphillips.com
mwe3.com presents an interview with
mwe3: Can you tell us where you’re from originally and where you live now? Can you contrast life in the two cities?
ZACH PHILLIPS: I moved to San Diego about seven and a half years ago but spent most of my life in Chicago. Interestingly enough, both cities have a certain Midwest mentality. There’s a politeness, an emphasis on family, even with San Diego’s chilled surf culture. But San Diego feels much smaller and is, of course, half the size in terms of population. You get to know people faster.
I think Southern Californians are very individualistic — maybe it’s the state’s pioneering spirit and history. Midwesterners have an inherent humility. I love both ways.
California also gives a lot but isn’t afraid to take back, and can do so unpredictably. I’d been through a half-dozen tornados living in the Midwest, but nothing prepared me for my first wildfire. We don’t live too far from the ocean, and people told me, “We only get big wildfires inland.” And, of course, this being California, that didn’t last long. Within the first eighteen months of being here, a massive fire tore through the neighborhoods a mile from my home. And it was destructive. Someone said, “Well, it’s the same conditions that make this place so dangerous that also make it so beautiful.”
Incidentally, that was the last fire we’ve had nearby. Things have calmed down. For now.
mwe3: What was your musical background like? Did you study music early on in your life and what music, artists and influences inspired you in the beginning? Were there other musicians in your family and can you remember your first instrument?
ZACH PHILLIPS: I began playing guitar at 12 and was inspired by my older brother who remains to this day — and with very little practice — a bit of a musical polymath. He’s someone who can play bass, trumpet and jazz piano with the best of them, then go off and program fantastic drum loops. My father played a little classical guitar in college. Since retiring, he now practices about three hours a day. Pretty inspiring. But he didn’t play much when I was growing up. Beyond my brother taking trumpet lessons, I don’t think our home was especially musical. But music was encouraged and respected. In terms of my influences, I see my life split as before Bob Dylan and after Bob Dylan. I came to Dylan’s music late, at around 20 years old. Since hearing Blonde On Blonde for the first time, I’ve never listened to music the same way.
That said, I’m just as influenced by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris as I am Kate Bush and Brian Eno. I’m also a big fan of British folk-rock, ambient and even a fair amount of art-rock and prog-rock. And “Moonlight Sonata” remains my favorite piece of instrumental music. In other words, there’s always been a slight progressive influence to my folk-rock and country-rock.
mwe3: Every musician has some key music that inspired them early in their life. You seem relatively young so what year and month were you born? You must have missed Beatlemania although you’d never guess it’s still going on 56 years later! What era of music did you grow up in and do you have a favorite era of music history?
ZACH PHILLIPS: You’re so right about Beatlemania going on 56 years later. Other than Dylan, The Beatles remain my favorite artist, followed by probably the Stones and Joni Mitchell. As far as my favorite era of music goes, I’d probably choose the 1970s, simply because it was the high point of the album concept.
Thank you for the compliment about my age, by the way. Hah! I’m 43, born in early March, so I’m very much a child of hard rock and, soon after that, the grunge era. U2 was also huge at the time and going through their postmodern “Zoo TV” period. That was a really inspired moment for them.
Speaking of musical eras, it’s funny… I’ve noticed music made by the next generation tends to be more optimistic and buoyant than the grunge-era rock I grew up with. And millennial artists like Vampire Weekend are making some of my favorite music of our time and can weave styles and genres more seamlessly than just about anyone. Still, I sometimes miss the attitude and sheer strangeness of early to mid-1990’s rock music. I mean, some of the mainstream music at the time was pretty cynical and furious. But it was very potent rock ’n’ roll.
mwe3: How do you feel about the internet being the source of most musical information these days? Is the internet fair and balanced, at least for musicians? Music releases used to be kings and 55+ years ago, think 1965 the 45rpm with a picture sleeve was the most important thing, at least in my world.
ZACH PHILLIPS: Speaking for myself, I think the internet has been generally good for independent artists, and we’re all pretty blessed to have it as a research tool. Yesterday on YouTube, I found this great, obscure live recording from Trees, an excellent British folk-rock band from the early ’70s, for those who don’t know them. That wouldn’t have happened pre-2005. Also, based on my Spotify stats, 100-some people in Germany listened to my music in the last few weeks. Definitely small numbers, but that would not have been possible two decades ago.
The only downside for me personally has been the rise of a song-oriented culture, which is probably an effect of streaming. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but as a listener, I’m less of a song person and more of an album person. For me, and to your point, albums are a perfect medium. I’m never fulfilled by a single track. Forty-five minutes of incredible music with a consistent thread from an artist I love is my preferred listening experience. But that’s just me. Everyone’s experience is unique and theirs and valid.
mwe3: The first thing that grabbed me about your new album The Wine Of Youth was the album cover art, which is amazing. Did the Grammys ever have a category for album art? How about the girl in the lower right? I can just about picture it happening! The cover is brilliant and it has a very youthful vibe to it.
ZACH PHILLIPS: That is incredibly thoughtful of you to say. Thank you for that, Robert. I was also blown away by the image when I first saw it. A British artist created that collage for the album cover.
A little background on it. The woman in the lower right corner is, in fact, my wife. The collage began with a photo I took of her when we hiked to this scenic, little lake up in the Sierras, not far from Tahoe. The photo alone looked like a potential cover for a subdued folk album, or something along those lines. But it didn’t quite capture the spirit of “The Wine Of Youth,” which, for me, is a meditation on time, universal cycles and, of course, California — at least in spirit.
I’m glad you thought it was a girl. That’s partly why I chose the image. Because of the angle, it’s hard to tell if the person is a girl or a woman, looking forward in life or backward to the past. You also can’t tell what she’s seeing. She came to the top of this mountain with a lake of clouds, and there are people there. Are they spirits? Are they memories? Are they real? Is she among them, or is she observing them? Is it literal, or is she on the shores of a different consciousness? As you said, you can just about picture it happening, but it’s still somewhat elusive. At least that was the intention behind it.
I’m also glad you picked up on the youthful vibe of the cover. I was hoping the cover felt surreal, even psychedelic, but playful — not to mention a little homemade and indie-rock. One of my favorite album covers is the collage for Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. It’s not only a striking image, but to me, it’s childlike in the right way. It says, “This music might get unusual, but I assure you, it’s safe.” I love that. Even if my music gets challenging, I want people to feel embraced by it, not alienated. Also, adding a little surrealism to the concept of country-rock — a typically down-to-earth genre — seemed to speak to the music on the album.
mwe3: The Wine Of Youth starts off with a brief, way too short instrumental called “A Sky Full Of Diamonds”. Why is that song so short? Do you like instrumentals and would you consider more of them on future releases? Can you contrast writing instrumentals compared with pop-rock vocal music?
ZACH PHILLIPS: Again, that’s so nice of you to say, and I do love instrumentals. I can listen to Beethoven’s piano sonatas all day. I think it goes back to my early influences, listening to Dylan and Leonard Cohen side by side with Rush.
That track played an important role in the structure of the album. As I began assembling The Wine Of Youth, “Ladybird” felt like the right opening song, not only musically but also as a manifesto and statement of purpose. Unfortunately, I couldn’t picture the opening drum fill and guitars as the first sounds people heard when they pressed “play.”
So, I thought about how to introduce the song quickly and also capture the essence of what’s to come. The first thing I heard was the mandolin melody that became “A Sky Full Of Diamonds,” and I cut a demo right away. I think the only elements that changed when we recorded it in the studio were the addition of the delayed guitar and one of the short guitar bursts at the end.
For me, the big difference in writing instrumentals versus pop-rock vocal music is in the final polish, which can be a more cerebral process when lyrics are involved. Typically, and I imagine this is the case for many songwriters, my songs and lyrics arrive almost fully formed, but not quite. For the final lyric edit, I have to shut off my subconscious and activate the analytical, left side of my brain. “Is that really what I meant by that line?” With instrumentals, on the other hand, it’s all intuition, sort of like improvisation. I would love to write more instrumentals if I found the right context for them.
mwe3: Is The Wine Of Life album a kind of tribute to the California rock legacy? It truly transcends time and space. “Ladybird” is a great opening following the instrumental intro. What inspired “Ladybird”, both the lyrics and the title? “Catch a wayward magpie”… what does the symbolism in the song’s lyrics mean?
ZACH PHILLIPS: The Wine Of Youth is definitely an homage to California, particularly what I term “the old, weird California.” In other words, we tend to think of California in terms of surf and L.A. entertainment culture. Those are key elements, but my experience of the state has been different. I’ve found it to be a place of incredible beauty and also a little strangeness — albeit the right kind of strangeness.
For instance, in San Diego or L.A., let’s say you go hiking up a mountain. You feel far away from everything. It’s dead quiet except for the wind. The beauty is ancient and overwhelming. Yet if you walk slightly off the trail, you might step on a rattlesnake, and if you stay out a little too late, you start to worry about coming face to face with a mountain lion. All the while, you can see the city skyline from where you’re standing. All very pretty, all very disorienting. For a Chicagoan, that’s surreal, having both worlds live side by side. I was hoping this album captured a little bit of that beautiful strangeness that you can’t help but sense on the West Coast.
I had intended “Ladybird” to be a song about rebirth and renewal — in a larger universal sense — but masquerading as a love song. The magpie is a trickster and sometimes a negative omen but also a sign of rebirth. The idea was, what if we could harness all that power and shift a dark cycle into something new and beautiful — the idea of a ladybird bringing in the spring? And one way to get there, at least it’s my way of getting there, is to sing until it heals us, so to speak. In that sense, “Ladybird” is a rock ’n’ roll-as-salvation song.
mwe3: Do you consider The Wine Of Youth to be a country rock album or a more straight-ahead rock album? I remember when rock and country music kind of came together like a hand in glove, though they were always connected or rather inter-connected. Is “Spirits Rising From The Lake” a good example of the country-rock elements to the new album?
ZACH PHILLIPS: That’s a good question, and I think so. I probably consider myself a folk-rock and country-rock artist — maybe cosmic country. And “Spirits Rising From the Lake” is definitely representative of that.
Speaking of “Spirits Rising From The Lake,” there’s a great short story by Haruki Murakami called “The Elephant Vanishes.” It’s about this moment when the most unbelievable thing happens to the main character. He has this bizarre, otherworldly experience. But then he re-enters the world of daily life and responsibility. As the story ends, you realize he’s going to start doubting that this transcendental experience ever happened to him. And he’ll only disbelieve it more with time. I thought that was a powerful metaphor, and it inspired the song.
mwe3: Do you prefer writing the ballads or the more hard-rocking tracks? Do you look at the more introspective songs like “Stars Fading Behind Clouds”, “Stranded In The Night” and “The Lonely Hunter” as providing a more even balance to the overall album sound?
ZACH PHILLIPS: I prefer writing slow songs, for no other reason than I physically gravitate toward them when I sit down with an instrument. But as a lover of music, I have no preference. It’s all great.
To your point, those slow tracks were definitely crafted to add balance to the overall song cycle. Funny enough, I removed a lot of ballads from this album for pacing purposes. Had I kept a few of the outtakes in the final order, the album would’ve probably felt uneven and a little plodding.
As a side note, “Stranded In The Night” is probably the song I feel closest to on The Wine Of Youth. I remember listening to it after I released the album and thinking, “Wow, that’s awfully personal.” Hah!
mwe3: Do friends of yours or fans have certain tracks that are favorites on The Wine Of Youth album? For me, one of the key tracks is “Cascadia” which I kept on replay for a while! Is it really about earthquakes? How many guitar tracks are featured on “Cascadia” and can you give some insights into the way you put the music and lyrics together on that track? I also like the way the piano is recorded on that track. How did you get it to stand out so prominently?
ZACH PHILLIPS: “Cascadia” is about West Coast natural disasters for sure. More figuratively, it’s about pressing on, particularly when some believe you’re doomed to failure or extinction. I respect all of the thinkers and mystics who believe a cataclysmic event will wipe out the West Coast, and as humans, I think we’re all slightly fatalistic enough to believe that sometimes. But in my opinion, that’s no way to exist. Of course, anything can happen, and it often happens unexpectedly — 2020 has taught us that. But still, we persevere.
“Cascadia” began as a slow piano ballad, sort of a hymn. That ended the moment I played it on guitar. I think the tempo instantly sped up by at least 30 beats per minute.
Nailing the lyrics to “Cascadia” was tricky. Play it too straight, and it sounds preachy and didactic; play it too sarcastic, and it has no heart. The only way to bypass that was to write lyrics that I truly, genuinely believed, and that were written with the innocence of an old-school American folk song. I also sang it a little more softly than you typically would with a song that’s so aggressive, and I added the high harmony throughout the entire track, so it sounded childlike, almost playful. Then we lowered the vocals in the mix, so the singer sounded as if he were struggling to be heard — a town crier amid chaos. A lot of deliberation for garage rock, I suppose, but the end result felt right.
The guitar tracks on “Cascadia” are a sonic illusion, in a way. I believe there are only four guitars on it: two rhythm, two lead. It’s mostly carried by an overdriven and distorted acoustic rhythm guitar, along with a clean acoustic guitar. I actually doubled the electric Telecaster lead guitar part on an acoustic guitar, as well. Then, we inserted that acoustic lead guitar into certain spots to create a sense of disorientation. Occasionally, the electric and acoustic lead guitars play together in unison. The intention was to sound like a party at the end of the world, with a noisy garage-rock outfit as the house band.
Believe it or not, for the piano on that track, I banged out the part on a keyboard. We recorded it as a MIDI file, and we later found the tack-piano sound in a library. I think it was then filtered through an EQ plug-in to remove some low-end and give it that jangly barroom tone. I know, not very romantic! We didn’t know anyone who had a tack piano, so we had to improvise.
Let it be said that my collaborator on this project, Gregg Montante, is a sonic mastermind. He co-produced the album, played a bunch of instruments, recorded and mixed it, and arranged the string parts. He also did the gauzy lead guitar parts on “Stars Fading Behind Clouds,” “Doesn’t Feel Like California” and “Spirits Rising From The Lake.” He’s brilliant.
mwe3: Tell us more about your love affair with the guitar, when did you. first pick up the guitar? Working in the music world, you must have a great collection of both acoustic and electric guitars. Which ones are among the guitars you feature on the new album?
ZACH PHILLIPS: My Fender American Stratocaster is like a reliable, well-behaved racehorse. We were able to do a lot with it tone-wise on my leads for “Ladybird,” “Cemetery Girl” and “Light Is Light.” “Cascadia,” on the other hand, required an almost outrageous Telecaster bite. For that track, I deliberately bent certain notes too much to give it added tension.
I have a Larrivée acoustic dreadnought that served as the foundation of many of the strummed acoustic guitars. But oddly enough, the secret weapon on the fingerpicked acoustic songs was a Taylor GS Mini, which is essentially just a really nice, inexpensive compact guitar. That thing plays like an extension of your arm. It feels and sounds like a parlor acoustic guitar but has enough attack and definition to hold its own in a mix without a lot of equalization. I used that on pretty much every fingerpicked acoustic song.
Gregg has a love affair with his new Ponce guitar, which is a high-end electric. He used that and a custom Fender Strat for his parts.
Once we start talking pedals and effects, it’s anyone’s guess. Gregg has an incredible pedal board and we were tweaking sounds on the fly — a little tremolo here, a little overdrive there, a tiny bit of delay. Everything went through a modded Fender Blues Deluxe with spring reverb. Gregg did very little post-production processing of the electric guitars, probably because he did such a beautiful job recording them to start with.
mwe3: Another highlight from The Wine Of Youth, “Cemetery Girl” is a great song but it has some cryptic lyrics. What brought that track together? It has a great retro rock sound to it yet it’s also quite a current sound.
ZACH PHILLIPS: That progression haunted me for a couple months before I committed the lyrics and melody to it. Then I thought of the title, “Cemetery Girl,” and the idea of someone who’s beloved but unreachable. Is she a spirit? Is she alive? Is she a lover who’s withdrawn and can’t be forgotten? The idea intrigued me.
Sonically, I was picturing something like if Wilco met Neil Young met Lucinda Williams. The production and arrangement needed to be a little spacey. We wanted the recording to sound like gusts of wind on a mountain at night.
mwe3: “Caroline” is another stand-out track on The Wine Of Youth. Did you write that song about someone in particular? Do you like to write in first person or more in a third person kind of way, writing about yourself or writing about another person or event?
ZACH PHILLIPS: That’s also a great question. “Caroline” can be taken literally, but for me, that song is about the very moment when someone makes the decision — the conscious decision — to let go of his or her albatross. It could be a lover, a place, a life to leave behind. The refrain at the chorus is really the singer convincing himself that he’s ready to move on.
And, of course, it could be about a person or an amalgamation of people. But mostly, it’s about that moment of consciously letting go.
As to your question, I tend to prefer writing in first-person. My lyrics aren’t all autobiographical, but I like to sing them as if they are. Third-person has its place, but I almost never consciously gravitate toward it.
I relistened to that recording today. Gloria Taylor, my wife, did lovely harmonies on it. They’re blended into the mix, but they really add to the character of the chorus. Also, credit where it’s due to Bobby Cressey. He did that piano outro in one take. I asked him if he could play something “baroque.” He thought about it for a moment, said he was ready and blazed through that part. Amazing.
mwe3: Is “Doesn’t Feel Like California” a wake-up call regarding the downside of living in California? Is the heat and the earthquakes a downside to living in paradise? Here in South Florida, I live in fear of the hurricanes and the 2020 season is almost here again. So, by contrast is the next track “Hey, San Diego” a love letter to your adopted home town?
ZACH PHILLIPS: “Doesn’t Feel Like California” is a requiem, really. I wrote it after seeing the town of Paradise destroyed by a wildfire in late 2018. I was also hoping to speak to the ethos of the state, the idea of the singer wondering if he can stop a disaster simply by using his willpower. That’s a somewhat California idea — dreaming big, willing things into being, mind over matter, even when it might seem impossible, crazy or naïve.
You might deal with this in Florida, too, where hurricanes are a given. We know natural disaster is inevitable in California, and I’ll occasionally ask myself why I live here. And my answer is always the same: because I’m in love with it.
Along those lines, you’re spot-on. “Hey, San Diego” is a love letter to the city. It was originally conceived as Woody Guthrie-style folk piece, like “This Land Is Your Land.” Very traditional, very earnest and wide-eyed, so it needed to be propelled by a driving band.
mwe3: The album title track is quite a reflective song. You compare youth to a bottle of wine. I didn’t realize life would be so short. Do you have any ideas or thoughts on birth and death or how and why we are all here?
ZACH PHILLIPS: You are so right. Life is short, isn’t it? And for some reason, going through the passage of time doesn’t make life feel any longer.
I think the song “The Wine Of Youth” is, at moments, one of the more bittersweet songs on the album, although it ends with a sense of peace and resolution. The singer laments that all the dreams of youth are still inside him, but at this point, they’re impossible dreams. I think on our worst days, many of us feel that way. Then we realize that those dreams and that innocence weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Not even close.
Regarding why we are all here, I do know certain things seem to be true, even though I can’t make sense of them intellectually. I know that nature is good for people. I know that we usually become who we surround ourselves with. And I know most of us are seeking some sort of understanding or enlightenment, even if we don’t realize it consciously. It’s autonomous. It’s part of being.
During Thanksgiving last year, I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” with a friend. I asked, “What do you think this song’s about?”
He said, “It’s about why we’re here.” That was pretty insightful, in my opinion. “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” The big question is how to do that while we’re here on the earth.
mwe3: So, what do you think is the next steps we should take in the music world and in the greater world at large? Are you optimistic we can hopefully defeat this pandemic and are you willing to make any forecasts for the second half of 2020? We’re almost there…
ZACH PHILLIPS: Hard to say, although admittedly, I haven’t considered any alternative but defeating the pandemic.
Someone mentioned recently that if we made it to this point in life, it means we’ve survived 100 percent of the hardships we’ve gone through so far. Isn’t that a powerful idea?