Music Exclusive: American Idol Winner Phillip Phillips had a Crazier Year than You Did
For the first time in weeks, American Idol winner Phillip Phillips is well-rested.
"I just slept like 11 hours, man," he says over the phone from the bed of an LA hotel room, some lingering grogginess compounding the natural ooze of his Georgia drawl and general dudely calm. "That is a very rare occurrence."
Since regional auditions for the 11th season of American Idol started last July in North Charleston, South Carolina, the 22-year-old Georgia native hasn't had much time to stop moving, let alone oversleep. One pivotal performance of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" clinched Phil's spot on a musical assembly line that spanned six months of televised performances (for which he had to miss his graduation from Albany Technical College), a summer of arena hopping between Detroit and the Philippines on the American Idols LIVE Tour, three frantic weeks of recording his debut record in New York, and an autumn of nonstop TV, radio, and online appearances to support his album and Idol coronation single, "Home"—which has since become the best-selling coronation song of all time. Somewhere in there Phillip also had eight kidney surgeries. The dude has earned some sleep.
"It's been a blessing of a year," Phillip says without a smudge of sarcasm, "but it's been pretty hectic also."
Trooper that he is, Phillip still took some time to hit us with his life story on one of his rare days off before he heads back to his family in Leesburg for Christmas (even multimedia sensations get a holiday breather). In the spirit of "Home," we chatted with Phil about the people he left behind to become an Idol, how one rockstar on record and another rockstar in his living room drove Phil away from a life of almost certain baseball, and whether or not he recommends this whole showbiz thing. A pleasant chat with a sudden superstar, plus his geekiest habit, below...
(Soundtrack while reading: Scope Phillip's album here)
(Bonus game while reading: Try counting the number of "man"s dropped in this interview. I'm convinced Phillip is the dudeliest Idol ever.)
SL: Were you born and raised in Georgia, Phil?
Phillip Phillips: I was raised in Sasser, GA, then I moved to Leesburg, GA for baseball. I kind of grew up there, and at 15 took up guitar and kind of quit baseball. I fell out of love with it, and in love with music, man.
So there was a time when you thought baseball was gonna be your destiny?
That's what I always thought, 'cause I started playing baseball when I was five, I think. And I did all the way up 'til 15, like I said, when I just fell in love with the guitar. I just wasn't feeling baseball as much as I used to.
What were you listening to when you first fell in love with music?
I listened to a lot of '70s—like a lot of AC/DC…Black Sabbath…Jimi Hendrix, so many others. It was more about guitar at first. I didn't start singing until I was 17 or 18. I started with the acoustic just learning chords, always fiddling around. My brother-in-law Ben [Neil] taught me three or four of the main chords that I practiced, and I learned all the AC/DC. I got into guitarists like Joe Satriani and Eric Clapton, and from there I got more into the acoustic part of music—John Butler, Dave Matthews, Andy McKee —a lot of those solo guitar playing singer/songwriter deals. But Angus Young was my first hero, man. He was just the best guitarist in the world.
Did watching videos of Angus perform make you want to be a rockstar?
Yeah, man, I wanted to be like him, to be able to solo and just rock the stage out. But I can't really solo [laughs.] I used to be able to solo a little bit, but I can't do that anymore.
You're a pretty engaging performer, though. Your eyebrows get into it at least.
[laughs] Yeah, I dunno, I just love playing the music, man. When I really get into it, you know…you just kind of lose yourself.
Your brother-in-law Ben came up on Idol a few times, and sat in on some sessions for your album. How long have you been making music together?
I've known Ben, I think since I was like…12? And he's 8 years older than me, so he was 20. Ben's my mentor, man. He's always been that and he still is. He's this amazing guy, amazing musician, and one of my best friends.
Do you remember the first time you guys hung out?
I don't remember the first time hanging out, but I remember watching him play guitar one night in my house, and I just thought it was amazing. I kind of asked him to teach me a little bit, like the main chords, and he did. I'd see him like once a month, maybe, and each time he'd kind of say "Oh, you're gettin' a little better," 'cause I was just listenin' to music through my karaoke machine, man, going back and trying to pick it out while listening to it. Sometimes I'd do right, and sometimes I'd do wrong and he'd tell me to listen a little harder to this chord, or this note, or whatnot. It was a great time.
And you guys played some early gigs together as the Phillip Phillips Band, right?
Yeah, when I was about 18 that's when I really started singing out. I went out and got us some gigs, we started playing together, learned a lot of songs, and just had a good time, man. As we played more we added a few more people, one of my friends played saxophone, and my other brother-in-law, Todd, played djembe. Sometimes we'd get a little bigger, and sometimes we'd just keep it me and Ben. We had a good time.
What kind of gigs did you play back then?
A lot of restaurants, a lot of festivals, weddings, private parties and whatnot. Some bars. Every time we played a 21+ bar all my friends would try to give me a hard time and say like, "man, how'd you get into those bars? You're only 17 years old!" And I'd be like, "…I'm the band, man!" [laughs]
Bars and restaurants are pretty different from the Idol stage.
Yeah. It's completely different. But those gigs are also some of the best times, those early learning experiences. You know, you have those great memories of equipment failing, guitars blowing out—just good memories of screwing up.
Do the screw-ups happen less now?
It happens a little bit, like the sound wont be just right, or a string will break. I'm always sad about breaking a string, it means I've played too hard—or, as one guy who plays guitar with me says, he says I "play with passion." I like that, so let's I just say I play with passion.
Speaking of passion—I saw a video of you singing at your high school graduation.
Is it weird for you that that performance is online for anyone to see?
Yeah, 'cause I hate that performance. I was so freakin' nervous, man, it was the biggest crowd I'd ever seen! There was four or five thousand people there. I was so scared, and you can hear it in the trembling of my voice at the beginning. After about a minute into the song I kind of loosened up.
How about Idol? Were you nervous then?
Oh yeah, man, I was nervous every time I had to get on stage!
How long did it take you to learn your coronation song, "Home," once it was given to you?
I didn't hardly even know it on the show, because I had to do so many other things for the finale, and after that they didn't give me much time to learn the song. So after the show was over I got to sit down and learn it a little better, make it more my own.
How long did it take you to put the rest of The World From The Side Of The Moon together?
Well, I had pretty much all the songs written, it was just a matter of getting in the studio and getting it done. You know, we had three weeks to do it, from cutting guitars to mastering, and we did it, which is unbelievable. It was right after tour, man. Right after we got back from the Philippines. The next day I went straight to New York and we started recording an album. After that it was right back to radio, TV appearances and whatnot. It was nonstop.
That sounds crazy stressful, man. What do you think of show business?
It's…definitely a different animal. It's not my cup of tea [laughs.] But I always tell people, after all the hard work and long days, once I can get onstage and jam with the guys, that's what makes it all worth it.
One last question: What's your geekiest habit?
Uh, man. I kind of have too many….dude, I don't know…. well, I gotta brush my teeth. A lot. Two or three times a day. I can go days without taking a bath or a shower, no problem. But my mouth's gotta feel clean. Even when I was a kid, I've always just liked having a clean mouth.
Do you have an emergency toothbrush that you carry around with you?
I don't, but I should get one.
No, you shouldn't.
[laughs] Well, I should at least floss more often.
Is Phillip Phillips the chillest Idol winner ever?
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Do you dig his album?
Should he carry an emergency toothbrush?