Phil Madeira is an artist, singer, songwriter, composer, producer and a musician’s musician. Since launching his professional career in the mid-1970s, he’s been a trusted contributor in the studio and on stage, in the writer’s room and on the road. His newest solo album, Open Heart, releases Feb. 14. Following on the heels of Providence, his most successful solo songwriter album to date, and an instrumental piano album called Crickets, Open Heart builds on a career that’s quietly accumulated important industry accolades, including an ASCAP Humanitarian Award and a Dove Award for his songwriting, as well as induction into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame. In anticipation of his album release next month, we wanted to know Madeira a bit better, so DittyTV Senior Editor Tim W. Jackson touched base with this accomplished artist for this 5 Questions segment.
I was obsessed with drums and drummers from a very young age. By the time I had my first drum kit, I was playing along to Jimi Hendrix records with the great Mitch Mitchell on drums. My influences back then were probably Mitch, Buddy Miles, and Joe Morello of Dave Brubeck fame. At the same time, I was constantly noodling on my mother’s piano, trying to figure out Beatles songs and some of the instrumental things that were on the Top 40 back in the day, like “Wade in the Water” or Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “In Crowd.”
When I got to college, I started focusing on guitar. I got pretty good at it, and then was asked to join guitarist Phil Keaggy’s band. He was such a virtuoso that I knew I needed to focus the same sort of energy on piano, thus the guitar went under the bed until years later when I was living in Nashville. I dove back into guitar because I felt like my songs needed to be simpler and rootsier. When I started making my solo records, it was all about guitar until I started writing the Providence record (still my favorite).
2) You moved to Nashville in the 1980s, transitioning from Christian music to more of the Americana and Roots scene. How have you seen the city change—in terms of music and otherwise—since then?
Yes, Nashville has changed a lot in 37 years! The CCM industry was good to me as a songwriter and musician, but I had really come here to be an artist, and it was clear that I didn’t fit the mold. The great producer Brown Bannister recorded five sides on me in the early ’90s, but the music was too Americana for Christian music, and not overtly spiritual. When I started playing for Buddy Miller around the same time, my world opened up, and I’ve been pretty ensconced in Americana ever since. In a way, I think my “Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us” projects have served to make the spiritual statements that are important to me, and given the election coming up, I may have to hammer another one out before November.
Well, it’s no secret that the four of us (Chris Donohue, Will Kimbrough, Bryan Owings, and myself) are dearest friends. We know how to play together without saying a whole lot because we’ve all been involved with one or the other for decades now. Emmylou has championed our music, and it’s great to be in her band. We’ve got a record done, just trying to figure out when and how to release it. Meanwhile, our credits list is kind of long. In short: Buddy and Julie Miller, Jimmy Buffet, Emmylou, Solomon Burke, Tom Jones, Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Sam Bush, John Scofield, Cindy Morgan, Patty Griffin, Amy Grant, Phil Keaggy, Al Green, The Civil Wars … .
4) And that brings us to your new album, Open Heart, releasing Feb. 14. You had some help from your Red Dirt Boys bandmates on that. But what do you want the world to know about the recording of that album, the songs on it, and the players involved?
As I did on Providence, I built Open Heart on the foundation of the trio: Bryan Owings on drums, Chris Donohue on upright bass, and myself singing and playing piano. The three of us tracked the songs “live,” with Kiko Negron on percussion on three of the songs. From there, I determined whether or not each song needed anything else. So, you’ll hear two songs that are just the trio, no frills: “A Problem Like You” and “When You Ain’t Got Love.” The rest of the material called for different things. All of the guitars were played by the great James Hollihan, Jr, except for the solo on “Rock on Your Shore.” John Mark Painter is like the fifth Beatle to me. He played all the horns. He is a go-to guy for me and many others. Cindy Morgan sang some lovely harmonies. She is like a sister to me. We jive well together musically, and somehow her gorgeous voice isn’t wrecked by my earthy voice when we sing together. Chris Carmichael brought a full 18-piece string section to “Monk,” which may be my most ambitious song to date, and Jason Eskridge and Nickie Conley did some harmonies. Last but not least, the great David Mansfield played some strings on two pieces.
Of course, without songs, there would be no players, no nothing, and once again, I’ve recorded an album of pieces composed entirely by me. The songs are love-themed, with a tinge of hope and a tinge of sadness, and what’s strange is this: When I was writing the record, everything was directed at a new relationship that had come my way. It was healing and exciting, and when it started becoming clear that neither of us were ready for it, the songs followed suit. Before any of this was written, I had gone through a real tragic loss. My partner of a decade had passed away and her departure was not the stuff of storybooks. It was harsh and difficult. I chronicled that loss in several songs, but was not going to record them any time soon. Open Heart was almost a denial of that pain, but as I listen now, I can hear my own heart being sung to. “You’re gonna grieve it for a long, long time.” You can’t escape grief. I was in the denial stage, I suppose, although “When You Ain’t Got Love” certainly was spot on.
When I was mixing Open Heart, I went into Blackbird Studio and recorded the songs that preceded Open Heart; that stuff will surface by the end of 2020, I suppose.
You’re right. That’s a difficult question. I’m going to say “Rock on Your Shore.” It’s soulful, tender, heartfelt, and probably showcases my songwriting abilities and my restraint as a musician. And as a person, I tend to be who the chorus claims to be, someone who’ll be there like a rock on your shore.