"It’s great working with Zara because she has clear ideas of what she wants to achieve. Her life has been eventful, so she has no shortage of subject matter, and she sings beautifully. I feel she is about to start another phase of her career."
"Meditation & KitKats;" did you see the cover? I was thinking to myself; if somebody had asked me about all the songs my response would be, they're really just about the last few years of my life and how I've gotten through life and if somebody said; how have you gotten through your life? I would say meditation and Kit Kats because to be honest, some days I've meditated and I'll be Zen and other days I've been eating Kit Kats all day," said a laughing Zara Phillips as she discussed her new album, the trials, tribulations and heartaches of being adopted, her producer Richard Thompson and more. "Some people relax with wine and/or a cigarette but since I'm sober, I can't do that so I eat Kit Kats!
Phillips has seen more than her fair share of the roller coaster ride that comes with being a professional musician but her talents do not stop there; they also include being an author, a playwright, actress, model and a mother. Her roots have stretched from the UK to Los Angeles and are currently located firmly in New Jersey.
Zara's past musical endeavors included stints with Bob Geldof, David Essex, she has also worked with Dire Straits member John Illsley as well as a song with Run-D.M.C.'s Darryl McDaniels but this current project has paired her with guitar great Thompson and her music has taken a new direction.
"I recorded it at Trellis Studio here in New Jersey and it's 11 tracks. Over the last 18 months I was starting to write but I had so many losses; it was like death after death. I wasn't in such a great frame of mind of how to start, my friend and photographer Andrew Cohen passed away in February of 2018, then my dad died in May and the following January my birth father just suddenly dropped dead and we had just met. So that was three of them in 11 months and it was just that every time I was catching my breath somebody else would go and also my birth mother had a brain aneurism at the end of 2017 and she almost died. So, from November of 2017 to January of 2019 it was just so difficult but after my birth father died, I wrote a couple of songs quite quickly; I think there was just so much grief that I had to put it somewhere. It took me a while; I had been writing a bit before but they were kind of shit and then I just started getting ideas. Richard said, "I'll produce it, just start thinking of what you want to write about" so I made a list of all the topics and what I could write about because so much had gone on. It was actually really good for me to do because I had finished with my book and I needed another project; I'd been wanting to get back into doing more music. I just started working and then I'd take the songs to Richard and at first, I was really nervous because I thought, oh he's going to rip them to shreds (laughs) but he really pushed me. He would say, "I'm not going to do it for you" because I was like; why don't you just write them? You're like the best songwriter there is. I really didn't want that though because I wanted to do my own thing but he really pushed me. He would suggest different things and then I would go away and I'd think about it; so that's basically how we did it. I was touring with him a lot so while we were on the road in the dressing room, we'd have time and it started formulating then."
Working on new music while on tour is not a new concept by any means; it's how most albums get to the ready for studio mode but for Zara this album was different in more ways than one. This was a comeback effort of sorts after she had taken time off to work on her one-woman play titled, "Beneath My Father's Sky" which had kept her busy for a period of time.
Like most musicians Zara couldn't stay away from creating and after working with Thompson both on stage and off she felt an almost urgent sense to get the ball rolling and so she did.
"We came back from the tour and I knew we had a window before we were going away again but obviously, we didn't know that it was going to be this long. So right at the beginning before the lockdown we started working and I was lucky because there is a violin player named Dave Mansfeld who lives nearby as well and he was able to come into the studio and play on some of the tracks. The others, percussion and bass; we used Richard's percussion and bassist because they are really good friends and they both live in L.A. They had said to me, "If you want us to do it, we have to do it this week because we are going away for a month" but of course they never went away for the month. I was thinking, I must get these guys because we're all going to be travelling soon; I kind of did it quickly but actually thank God I did that. They know each other so well and they booked a studio and in one day they did like six songs. So there's six songs with light percussion and bass and then some are more acoustic with just a little violin and mandolin added so it's more of an acoustic album. I wanted it sparser, more acoustic; I'm older now, I can't be a pop singer at my age. What people listen to in there 40's, 50's and 60's is more of the song. I wanted it to be more about the songs if that makes sense but of course it's beautiful with Richard playing guitar and the team I have is fantastic."
So what is it like working with the legendary Richard Thompson?
"I knew Richard's music before I knew him, he's an influence and working with him both with his band and a lot of shows with him just acoustically; his songwriting is absolutely stunning. The way he crafts songs and the melody and the way he chooses; I've learned so much from him. I've watched and I had to learn his songs because I've been doing the harmonies so I'm sure that has influenced me. I've always had a thing for lyrics, way before I knew him; I just love lyrics, they're the things that get to me. So, it has been just so much fun working with him with that around the lyrics; I'll bring him lyrics and as the producer/arranger he'll make a suggestion and he'd shift one little thing and wow it makes so much difference; it's like having an editor for a book."
Life throws twists and turns, some are easy to navigate and others not so much. Since she finds lyrics such an integral part of songwriting; what does she base her content on?
"I don't always write specifically about one thing but I think there are some songs," she explained with a slight pause. "I always feel that a song is always more about one thing; it's going back in time or an accumulation of things that have happened to you because in songs you only have such a short amount of time to say something unless you're telling a story with the focus verse by verse. I think it's more like capturing a time but on this album there is a song I have written about my kids and it's quite interesting really from a mother's point of view; they are growing up now and how do I guide them in this world that we are in? Sometimes I just have no words especially with what's been happening politically; since I've come to America it has changed so dramatically. I live a lot in England too but here the change is just unbelievable and there are so many British now living here and how we are treated differently; it's just a very weird time. I think I was writing from the mother's view; I don't know how to protect you and even the people in charge are not protecting you. I have no words anymore or know what to say but yet love is always there; the song is called "Love Is The Wheel."
A tireless advocate for adoptee's rights, Zara has worked faithfully for the cause while researching her own birth history and raising her own children. She has written books on the subject, attended groups, lobbied the state legislature and more; so how has this affected her music and day to day life?
"Oh God it has affected everything in my life; that's why I wrote, "Somebody's Daughter" and that's where I really delve into that and I have another book called, "Mother Me" which I wrote about 10 years ago which was really about what it's like for an adopted person to become a mother or a father and about the pregnancy and giving birth and keeping a baby. I always had a lot of depression when I was younger and didn't really understand why and I could never really talk about the adoption and I think that's why I acted out. Adoptees can really carry these feelings of I'm a mistake, I wasn't meant to be here, something terrible happened and nobody is telling me; there's so much secrecy and feeling like a mistake was a huge thing for me. My mother was young, I knew she wasn't married, there was shame, so much shame around it especially in the '60's and I carried a lot of that and then when I moved to America, I started going to adoption conferences. I met all these people, had become pregnant myself and I really got in touch with what it means to be a woman, a mother, to keep a baby, what it must have been like for my birth mother to have to part with me with no support, what it was like for my adopted mother to never have been able to give birth because she was infertile; I realized that I carried grief for all of us because it's just sad. Adoption is second choice, no matter what people say adoption is second choice; most people want to have their own biological children. Adoptees know, we know we're second choice; yes, some people do adopt babies that have already had children but it's more common the other way. So just having my kids, looking at them and seeing similarities; I had never lived with a blood relative before."
"I think what comes into play in my music is the wound of the grief of adoption and it's not like all of my songs are really depressing," she said with a chuckle. "There is a lifelong impact of being adopted and we have to fit in all these different families. I found my birth mother and then only four years ago I found my birth father and I was in my fifties; he lived an hour away from where I was living. I'm from England, he's from Rome; he lived in L.A., I lived in L.A. so, we had like followed each other. He was living an hour away and when I was playing a venue that I used to perform at; he was five minutes up the street! I never knew; how would that seem possible? He's from Rome, I'm from England; how can we both end up living in New Jersey? When I met him, we had such an instant connection; I absolutely adored him. We really connected and there's a whole bunch of other kids that he had and I found him via ancestry DNA; I matched with a sister who was also adopted American and living in L.A. She knew people that I knew in L.A. in the adoption world because she had gone to groups but they never put us together because she's blonde, I'm dark, she's American and I'm British; how could anyone think we were sisters? She was the key; she had already found him and she gave me his last name. We had a wonderful time; he'd phone me every day and then one day he went outside and literally just dropped dead of a massive heart attack. I was devastated because my adopted dad had died only nine months before; how weird was that? Who loses two dads in nine months? An adoptee does because we have to lose four parents. We have to do that four times, you only have to do it twice. I think that thing of a lifelong impact; now I have these siblings that I've met in my fifties that I'm now building relationships with and they're strangers. I wrote a song called "Perfect Stranger," so yes it comes out in all the music because; how does one make sense of it? It's almost too much to make sense of; I don't think people realize how complex it is."
Now firmly with both feet back in the music realm and a great "Team" behind her; what will she do with "Meditation & KitKats" in these times of quarantine and no live music?
"Who knows," she said with a laugh. "I'm going to do Facebook live shows and people will be able to see it because the video will stay up on my page and Richard is going to accompany me. The CD will be on CD Baby and all of the streaming platforms and then; who knows? I'd love to tour eventually but let's see what happens with this pandemic. Richard is always supportive and by me singing with him people are getting to know me and they may buy the CD just because they are nosy and wonder; who is she? What does she sound like?(laughs). It will be nice to get back on stage, this can't last forever; can it?"
To discover more about Zara Phillips and/or purchase her music; please visit http://www.zaraphillips.net/.
That's it for this week! Please continue to support live and original music and until next week....ROCK ON!
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Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 7 p.m. EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.