Thursday, April 26, 2012

Phil Madeira Joins Artists In Harmony For "Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest of Us"

On Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest of Us, producer and writer Phil Madeira set out to create a recording that would gather a variety of artists, celebrating and expressing their collective belief in the importance of faith.

Phil Madeira is a songwriter, producer, musician and singer. His songs have been recorded in all genres by such artists as Buddy Miller, Alison Krauss, Toby Keith, Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby, Keb' Mo', Garth Brooks, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Shawn Mullins, The North Mississippi Allstars, and many others.

Mr. Madeira plays guitar, accordion, piano, Hammond B3, lap steel, and more. He has worked with Buddy Miller, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Vince Gill, Boz Skaggs, Patty Griffin, and he is currently a member in Emmylou Harris' band The Red Dirt Boys.

He received a Humanitarian award from ASCAP in 1986 for raising consciousness and money for the Ethiopian hunger crisis. He is also the recipient of a Dove Award for Country Song of the Year and a Juno Award for production.

For Mercyland, Mr. Madeira has brought together such extraordinary artists as The Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, Buddy Miller, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Madeira, Mat Kearney, Cindy Morgan, Amy Stroup, The North Mississippi Allstars, Dan Tyminski, Emmylou Harris, and John Scofield for the album.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Phil Madeira to discuss his own musical experiences, as well as the making of Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest of Us.

Hi Phil. Thanks so much for taking the time to participate in the interview, and congratulations on the release of Mercyland!

Phil Madeira:
Thanks, Chris. It’s my pleasure.

I have read that the music of Mahalia Jackson had a powerful impact on you as a boy. Can you describe your early musical experiences growing up?

Phil: I grew up in a very musical household. My mother was a church organist and pianist, and both my parents enjoyed singing together.

Civil Rights was a strong thread in the tapestry of our family’s ethos.  So, in our white middle class northern household we had these unlikely heroes: Martin Luther King Jr, and Jackie Robinson. My mother loved Mahalia Jackson, both her music and her story. My mother says that I was drumming when I emerged from her belly, and no doubt it was Mahalia’s prenatal influence on me.

Can you share your own experiences learning, playing, and writing music?

Phil: My mother wanted to teach me piano, but I truly wasn’t cut out for coloring inside the lines, if you will, and nothing has changed. I wanted to play drums, and that is what I wound up doing. I played my drums with Hendrix cranked on the stereo while my parents wondered what would become of me.

The list of influences is long, but if I start with my adolescent years, The Byrds, The Beatles, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Dave Brubeck Quartet would encapsulate the general tilt of what I resonated with. After high school, The Byrds stayed with me, especially Clarence White, which readied me for Bluegrass, as did The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Funny enough, both Chris Hillman and Jeff Hanna are friends of mine all these years after they influenced me.

Can you describe when and how you began collaborating with other artists and doing production?

Phil: When I moved to Nashville in 1983, I immediately found myself in a world where co-writing is just what one does. Some of my dearest friendships have emerged from collaborations, and have led to having my songs recorded by many artists, for which I am grateful: Alison Krauss, Keb Mo, Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, and others. So, that was the first step in working with others, beyond the bands I’d been in in my youth.

Production-wise, I started getting work on Hammond Organ in the early 1990s, and started getting a feel for what worked or didn’t, what I liked and what I didn’t like. I don’t think you can produce records if you don’t have an opinion, and God knows, I generally do. So, I was asked by a couple of Christian labels to produce artists, and while I am sure I did as right by these folks as possible, in the end, my blues and hillbilly tastes had nothing to do with that world.

I knew I was a poor fit in the Christian world, and gradually found my way out of that and into more alternative types of music.  Ironically, it was on a Christian gig with Phil Keaggy that I met Buddy and Julie Miller- they were misfits in that scene as well.  Doors opened and I wound up producing a few Christian music exiles like Sammy Horner and Terry Scott Taylor- records you’ve never heard of, but that I still resonate with.

Buddy recommended me to produce a guy named Greg Trooper, and I did two projects for him, and Nectar for Brooks Williams, which remains a favorite. The backdrop for much of this work was my marriage coming to an end, and I must say that a failure of that magnitude will teach you lessons that can apply in the studio and out. That kind of failure is also the sort of thing that can open a heart to concepts like mercy, because such loss provides you with a magnificent abyss from which to  call to your Maker. 

When did you begin playing with Emmylou Harris as one of her Red Dirt Boys?

Phil: The prelude to playing with Emmy was my involvement with Buddy Miller, who remains a dear friend. Playing B3 and accordion and a little guitar with Buddy (and Julie at times) was an experience that I will always treasure. I didn’t realize that harmonizing with Buddy was as educational as it was fun, but after all these years as a blues guy, I was learning that you can’t let a note drop off in country music, you have to hold it with no vibrato.

When Emmy asked me to join her band, I didn’t realize how many bases I’d have the honor of covering, but Buddy had prepared me in so many ways, and not just musically, but just by being a gracious person. My first inkling whenever I talk about this good fortune is to express my gratitude for having played with Buddy, and yes, touring with Emmylou is amazing. So, I’m a very grateful man.

The Emmylou situation is satisfying from many standpoints: the songs are top drawer, my bandmates are my brothers, the crew is fabulous, and Emmylou is a truly wonderful human being. A gig doesn’t go by that I’m not thankful for having played and sung with that voice.

You received a Humanitarian Award in 1986 for raising consciousness and money for Ethiopian hunger crisis. Can you discuss, philosophically, what that project meant to you?

Phil: I will say this: When you do something charitable, let it be its own reward, otherwise you will feel betrayed and bankrupt by expecting anything beyond the doing of it. That ASCAP award is meaningful to me, but in truth, I’d be a better man if I did charitable things covertly.

Before we discuss the specifics of Mercyland, I'd like to begin by asking you if you could briefly describe how faith and music influence and inspire you?

It’s all about spirit, isn’t it? Where do songs come from? Pain, joy, exuberance, suffering, being loved, being unloved. Music is the sound of Otherness. I’ve written hymns and drinking songs, I’ve written of love, and I’ve retaliated through music. Somehow, a string of notes and a beat (or none) can embody an intersection of human essence with the Divine.

When and how did you come up with the idea for putting an album together based on the theme of "personal faith"?

Phil: Emmylou and the band were out for our first weekend together a few years back. It was an election year, and we had CNN on. A preacher named John Hagee had been picked by McCain as his “in” with Evangelicals. The guy was on the tube spewing such inanity in the name of Christianity (yes, I know, I rhymed), that I was embarrassed for “the faith”. I thought, why does God get such crap PR from his own people?

So, I wrote to Emmy, and Buddy and Julie, and asked if they would want to participate in a project that asked “What if God is Love?”. It started there. The Civil Wars and John Scofield climbed on board early, and I just kept bumping into people whom I thought might be a decent fit.

Which artists and songs did you have in mind as you were developing the idea for the collection? Were there any artists that you just knew "had to be involved" early on in order for the album to build momentum?

Phil: Honestly, apart from knowing I wanted Emmylou, the field was wide open. I knew it was an Americana record, but I knew I had to invite John Scofield to participate. We had communicated a few times and I just dug the guy. Whenever my daughters and I would take a road trip, we’d always started our journey with one of his CDs, usually A Go Go.

This is kind of funny: when he came down to record “Peace In The Valley”, he and I dined the night before.  He’s a very cool, very New York Jazzman kind of guy, and he said, “Phil, man, now… you know I’m not a Christian, right?”

“Yeah, man, that’s the point”, I said.

“But when you said ‘What if Jesus was love?’ I thought, yeah man, I’m in.”

I didn’t remember being so bold with my invitation and I truly thought I would have avoided the J thing. But I suppose I can’t escape it.

Did you choose the songs and offer them to the artists, or did the artists choose their own contributions for the project?

Phil: I really wanted this to be a collaboration, writing wise, so the first invitation was to co-write. John and the Carolina Chocolate Drops chose to do traditional gospel songs, while others were willing to co-write. Buddy asked if I had something, and I asked him to sing an old song of mine called “I Believe In You”.  Emmylou brought in one of her “orphans”, a song she didn’t know what to do with.

The first co-write for the project was with the then little-known Civil Wars. Funny, I thought I was doing them a favor, but the record took so long to come out that it was me that became the recipient of the blessing.  We wrote “From This Valley” together, and it’s turned into quite a song for all of us.

Shawn Mullins and I got together and wrote “Give God The Blues” along with another writer, Chuck Cannon. This song became central to the project with its far-reaching theme of God’s care for everyone, no matter what they might believe or not believe about God. And I have to say, nobody can sing this song as well as Shawn. He’s amazing.

Cindy Morgan and I write often, and she was a person who gave me some confidence about making this record. Our tune “Leaning On You” was written and recorded on the spot- one mic; we really didn’t know it would be a final recording, but it had “it”. I had David Mansfield add fiddle, mixed it in mono, and love what happened. Cindy’s an amazing talent- writer and singer. I call her the love child of Dolly Parton and Donny Hathaway.  She’s so soulful.

Were there any artists that you were not familiar with before Mercyland?

Phil: Believe it or not, I had never heard Mat Kearney’s music. I had heard his name, and always with high praise. One New Year’s Eve, Merrill Farnsworth, my partner and the lyricist on “Mercyland” and “Light Of Your Love” asked me for a few hours alone with her daughters. I obliged, and went to a party in her neighborhood that I’d been invited to.

There were lots of younger people and I really was thinking “Why am I here?” when one of these good folk said, “Phil, do you know Mat Kearney?” and introduced us. Mat turned out to be a fan of both Emmylou and Buddy, and I just thought, “What the hell?”, and asked him if he’d want to be a part of this project. Thankfully, he said, “yes”, and we co-wrote “Walking Over The Water” for it.

The other surprise was Amy Stroup. I hadn’t heard a note, but Shawn Fowler, who was helping me get the project together, suggested her. We hit it off immediately, and now have a very zany friendship, which is odd, because our song “Fell Like A Feather” is so heavy.  She’s great!

Which artist(s) delivered the most surprising contributions into the project?

Phil: Gosh, I think I just covered that, but every one of the other 11 artists on the project came in and delivered the goods. It was an amazing experience of community and generosity. The North Mississippi Allstars were so beautiful and loose and so gloriously Southern! And the Carolina Chocolate Drops just showed up and threw down. I hope will have proven worthy of all this trust.

Looking back on the experience now that the album is finished, what would you say was most rewarding, and most memorable for you from composing and producing the Mercyland album?

Phil: Impossible to answer, because I truly love the record. Jamming with John Scofield and Dan Tyminski was sick, and was so much fun to work with these two maestros! One amazing fact is that most of these artists played guitar and sang while tracking, with little if any fixing. There was no auto-tuning, no click tracks, no cleaning anything up. In fact, John Paul White’s rebel yell at the opening of the record was probably a moment he figured I’d edit out. But I had to keep it… pure joy.

The fact that so many people were eager to sing of goodness and mercy is not lost on me. I was thinking the other day that the word “Gospel” actually means “good news”, and in that sense only, I like to think this is a real Gospel record.

To return to the beginning of our conversation, considering the idea of where music and faith connect, what would you say Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest of Us uniquely offers to the listener?

Phil: I think “God” is a loaded word these days. Fundamentalists of all kinds, even the atheist Fundamentalists, have all but ruined society’s ability to speak of spiritual matters without feeling judged or preached to. The polarities spew such arrogance, while some of us just want to humbly seek truth. This record is "for the rest of us", those who want to ask questions, those who can’t escape the notion of “Other”. If nothing else, it’s just damn fine music.

What's next for you?

Phil: As of this moment, I’m producing a benefit for The Women and Cancer Fund, with Americana artists covering Paul McCartney songs. So far, I’ve produced tracks on Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Holly Williams, Ketch Secor, Sam Bush, Bruce Cockburn, The Wood Brothers, Ollabelle, Teddy Thompson, Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, and The McCrary Sisters.

And of course, I’m already making plans for the next Mercyland excursion...

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This is a really great background piece on Mercyland! Love the album and love it all the more hearing more of the back story!