If you’re a guitar guy, then all I have to do is write the name “Phil Keaggy” and you’re probably already prepared to offer up praise for his abilities. The man’s prowess with the guitar is legendary, so much so that he can’t turn around without someone bringing up the longstanding urban legend that no less an authority than Jimi Hendrix once declared him to be the best guitarist of all time. It’s been pretty well decided that such words never came forth from Hendrix’s lips…or, at least, Keaggy’s pretty sure of it, anyway…but God knows that plenty of other axe men have offered compliments along those lines.
The reference to the almighty is an intentional one. Although Keaggy started in the more traditional rock world as a member of the band Glass Harp, he’s been a staple of the Contemporary Christian music industry since the early 1970s. But, c’mon, don’t freak out, okay? I’ve always been mystified about how music fans can be totally psyched to hear about an album, only to dismiss it because there were lyrical references to religious beliefs. It’s music, people. No-one’s saying you have to embrace the lyrical content as the truth…but you can certainly enjoy the tunes.
My buddy Chris Commander is the person who was responsible for introducing me to the music of Phil Keaggy. This was in the early ’90s, when the members of my circle of friends were…you’ll forgive the expression…worshiping at the altar of Jellyfish and Crowded House. Chris said, “Dude, you’ve got to check out the album,” and he handed me a copy of Phil Keaggy and Sunday’s Child. I’m sure he mentioned that Keaggy was a Christian recording artist, but that’s not the sort of thing that would’ve turned me off, anyway, and, besides, I knew Chris’s tastes and he knew mine, so if he thought I’d like it, he didn’t have to tell me twice. And, of course, he was absolutely on the money. From the Beatles homage on the cover art to the plethora of pop hooks, this was very much my kind of album.
It’s a pleasant surprise when you drop a line to a musician of Phil Keaggy’s stature and have his personal assistant drop you a quick line back to say that your idea of spotlighting a 20-year-old album “sounds like a great interview,” because you really never really know what artists are comfortable with addressing the past and which ones just want to trumpet their latest release. Keaggy was so pleased with the idea of reminiscing about the Sunday’s Child album, however, that he answered the phone for our interview by singing the chorus to the title track.
You can’t really beat a start like that…and I told him so.
Popdose: You can’t go wrong with an interview that begins with the artist singing a song from the album we’re about to talk about.
Phil Keaggy: (Laughs) Yeah, and I just woke up half an hour ago, so how’s that?
PD: That’s not bad. That’s pretty good recovery time. (Laughs) Well, look, Phil, it’s a real pleasure to be able to talk with you today.
PK: Hey, thank you!
PD: I saw you play in Virginia Beach…gosh, it must have been 15 years ago by now. But it was a really great show that I still remember fondly.
PK: Yeah, I’ve not been down that way in a long time. So, now, Will, have you and I met since then, or was it just 15 years ago?
PD: Probably just then.
PK: Oh, man! Well, you know, speaking of “Sunday’s Child,” the last concert I played was…I believe it was Liberal, Kansas. But a fellow in the audience shouted it out. He said, “Would you please play ‘Sunday’s Child’?” And I said, “Really, it’s a duet. It sounds dumb singing it by yourself; I wrote it with Randy Stonehill. Do you want to come up and sing it? Come on, sing it with me, then!” And he comes up…and he’s got the lyrics printed. So he really came prepared! So he actually had a lot of faith, because I’m Mr. Spontaneity. But I go for all the help I can get in these solo shows, and he nailed it. It was so good. I think his name was…Tim? But it really fun. People still love that song.
PD: Oh, yeah. The whole album, in fact. That was actually the first record of yours that I’d ever heard. We were all kind of getting into power pop at the time, and he was, like, “Oh, well, you need to hear this record. It’s going to blow your mind.”
PK: You’re going to have to give me your E-mail address, because…did you hear about the album I just did with Randy Stonehill? Well, not “just.” It’s been done for a couple of years! But it’s called Mystery Highway, and it’s coming out in May, I think. Hopefully May. But Randy and I re-cut “Sunday’s Child,” just with John Sferra, my friend from Glass Harp, on drums.
PD: Oh, cool!
PK: Yeah, we did the song – along with 11 other songs – and we said, “Let’s just do this again,” because Word Records owns the master of Sunday’s Child, and we wondered if we could pull it off however many years later. Let’s see, we did it in 1987…
PD: Twenty-two years.
PK: Well, we recorded this in 2006, but, still, that’s nineteen years. And we still sound like us! So we’re hoping that it has a new life. It’s pretty cool.
PD: So this was right about when computer technology was really starting to make headway in the recording industry, and you guys kind of took a major step back and put together this fantastic record that was almost entirely live. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
PK: Well, the band…when we cut the tracks, the band did it live. Rick Cua, James Hollihan, Mark Heard, Mike Mead on drums. I’m not sure if Lynn Nichols played anything; he was really producing. And myself, of course. Yeah, when we tracked, we were tracking live together. I think the only song that started off with just, like, a sequencing was “Everything Is Alright,” by Mark Heard, which started with just a loop, but then we played to that whole loop as a band, and then we did the vocals. I wish there would’ve been more video tape of those days, because the sessions were just absolutely so much fun. I have a clip of us doing the background to “Ain’t Got No” where you don’t hear the lead part; you just hear the background voices. That’s Russ Taff, Randy, myself, and Lynn Nichols. It was a lot of fun. The major difference between that album and the new album Randy and I did recently was that we virtually did this album for free, because we did it at my house, but we got really good sounds. We used the same kind of vintage guitars…y’know, Vox amps, Gretsch, old Fenders and Les Pauls…so we went for the same kind of thing, except that, instead of being recorded to analog tape, it was recorded to ProTools. But, y’know, hey, it’s okay with me. I got a friend of mine in L.A. to mix it, and he’s got it sounding pretty hot. But we’re not talking about that album! That’s not what you want to talk about!
PD: But it ties in, actually, because one of my questions was going to be whether or not you’d consider a Sunday’s Child reunion, and it sounds like, in a sense, you had one.
PK: Well, this is interesting, because we’re going to be on the road for six concerts in April and May, maybe a little bit of June. Not many concerts, but it’s John Sferra and Daniel Pecchio of Glass Harp, myself, Randy Stonehill, and Mike Pachelli doing the new songs from Mystery Highway, which does include the song “Sunday’s Child.” I’ll tell you what: if it sounded good and it was really fun to do, it would make a lot of sense to throw in “Ain’t Got No,” “Walk in Two Worlds,” “Talk About Suffering,” “I Always Do.” There are some real classics on that album. And I’ve worked off and on a lot with John Sferra. Even though I left Glass Harp in ’72, starting in ’81, we started doing dates again almost every year, and by 2000, we did a live album in Youngstown with the Youngstown Symphony. And we all keep in touch. In fact, Glass Harp played at a club a couple of weeks ago in Ohio. But Randy’s a fun guy. He’s hilarious. And he’s a hard-working guy. He’s serious about his music. He’s a real dedicated songwriter, and he’s a real team player. He rallies the troops, and he’s very up and positive.
PD: With Sunday’s Child, I’ve often said that the trifecta of those first three songs – “Tell Me How You Feel,” the title cut, and “I Always Do” – is about as good as it gets as far as pop music. It’s just bam, bam, bam.
PK: Wow, Will, that is one major compliment. You know, the album actually did turn a lot of heads. I once had a friend who said, “I rebuke you for having made such a good album!” (Laughs) And then some other folks had said to Lynn Nichols, “I didn’t know Keaggy could sing!” Lynn really worked with my vocals and tried to get them to be as good as they could be.
PD: I’m sure no-one’s ever told you that you sound like Paul McCartney. (Laughs)
PK: Well, I’ve had a couple of moments. (Laughs) I think today I look older than him, but I think I’ve always sounded younger than him and less mature. But, on the other hand, I’m grateful for being able to get out there and hit the notes. You know, the thing is that, with Sunday’s Child, it was a Myrrh release, and here’s the weird thing about it: people from RCA/Victor heard the master of the album…it might’ve been because of Jack Puig, who engineered and mixed the album, who must’ve gotten it into the hands of friends of his at RCA…and they flipped over it. They wanted to release “I Always Do” as the first single on RCA. But because of the Myrrh/A&M deal, we couldn’t do it…and A&M did nothing with the album. They didn’t care to promote it. They didn’t do anything with it. And it was really kind of a sad thing, watching this album that we thought was kind of a classic of its sort, in a way, just kind of… (Trails off) But radio loved it. I remember KYMS out there in California, a Christian radio station…I couldn’t believe it, but I was driving home from a friend’s house, and they said, “We’re going to feature this whole album and just play it song after song.” And they played all thirteen songs. And you just never hear of that sort of thing anymore, where a Christian radio station will play…well, anything of Phil Keaggy’s, let alone thirteen songs! (Laughs)
PD: You mentioned Jack Joseph Puig a minute ago. I actually became a fan of his through his work with Jellyfish, then later realized he’d produced Sunday’s Child, but I had no idea until recently that he had actually begun in Contemporary Christian music, working with Amy Grant, Russ Taff, and so on.
PK: Yeah, and he also was the engineer of my Ph’lip Side album. That’s when I first met Jack, and he showed so much talent even then. I think he got to really love guitar music, and that’s why Jellyfish had such a good sounding record. And look what he’s doing with John Mayer! I think he’s riding a wave. I hope he stays successful! He’s one of those kind of guys who, whenever I saw him, he was always just so up. Up to record, up to create, up to make good sounds. He was a regular Captain Nemo at the soundboard console.
PD: Two of my favorite songs on Sunday’s Child are actually the Mark Heard compositions: “I Always Do” and “Everything Is Alright.”
PK: Yeah, I would agree.
PD: Your work with him was actually what brought him to my attention. How did you and Mark first meet?
PK: I think we were doing concerts off and on, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We’d find ourselves in Vermont together on the same stage, and a few other places, and I remember that, in ’83, I sang on Randy Stonehill’s album, Love Beyond Reason, and it had the song “Save the Children.” That was recorded in Mark’s trailer. He used his garage to record the instruments, but the multi-track machine was in his trailer there in Pasadena. That’s where I got to work with him in the studio for the first time, but then I think I did one other session with him, and then Lynn said to me, “You’ve gotta hear these songs Mark’s writing these days.” And he played me demos of “Everything Is Alright” and “I Always Do,” and I just loved them. So we invited Mark to play and sing on the album, and that was awesome, having him there. An amazing man, an amazing mind, a true artist. Bruce Cockburn spoke of Mark Heard as his favorite songwriter.
PD: High praise.
PK: It is. Then, in ’92, I was recording Crimson & Blue, Lynn was producing that as well, and we got John Sferra and Phil Madeira and Wade Jaynes. It was a different line-up than Sunday’s Child, but Mark Heard was to come, and we were going to do one of his songs, “House of Broken Dreams.” And that’s when he had his heart attack. He was going to be coming from the Cornerstone Festival up in Chicago and then come right down to Nashville, and we were going to get into the studio and work on the song, ‘cause that’s one of my favorite Mark Heard songs. So Randy and I, when we did Mystery Highway, we did 11 of our songs, re-cut “Sunday’s Child,” and then we recorded one of Mark’s songs in memory and honor of him. It’s called “Love Is Not the Only Thing, But It’s The Best Thing.” So, y’know, it’s amazing, but it’s another tip of the hat, another correlation between Sunday’s Child and Mystery Highway. But Mark Heard was great in the studio. He did the low part of the vocals for “Talk About Suffering” because he had a cold that day, so he was able to hit those low A notes really strong. You know, G, A, G, A. But I’ve got some video clips of us in the studio working back then, and it was fun to be able to find those.
PD: Whose idea was it to do the Beatles homage with the cover art?
PK: It was the producer’s. I actually had a different cover in mind. In fact, there are a smattering of friends out there across the country and in Europe who have the Phil Keaggy choice for the cover. (Laughs) It was a picture that Ben Pierson, who’s a fantastic photographer, took, a black and white of my daughter Olivia sitting on a guitar case, with this Gretsch anniversary model standing up behind her against this concrete wall, and she’s got a little white flower wreath in her hair. She’s about four years old, and…I just loved that cover. So when the album came out, I wasn’t really knocked out by the Beatles thing, because it didn’t look like the Beatles to me! It was my goofy face and then these three guys in the background, one of which was Lynn Nichols, the producer. And I thought, “Oh, I don’t care for this.” I wanted to have the other cover. I wanted it to say “Phil Keaggy and Sunday’s Child,” and to me, that was Olivia, being as she’s my daughter. So my nephew works in a printing place, and I created this cover that had all the same photos and information inside the CD insert, but I had him make 500 of these new covers, and we took the shrink wrap off all 500 CDs, and in my house in California, we inserted these covers that I wanted and took them on the road and sold them, and we mailed them out through the fan club, since we didn’t have a website in those days. I think I still have about 30 of those inserts. I don’t guess you’ve ever seen it, haven’t you?
PD: I haven’t.
PK: Okay, well, I’ll E-mail it to you, along with that new version of “Sunday’s Child.”
PD: Awesome! And, you know, you mentioned Crimson & Blue, and not to overuse the word “trifecta” in my compliments, but whenever I’m telling someone about your more pop-oriented work, I always cite Sunday’s Child, and then I also recommend Crimson & Blue and Find Me in These Fields.
“Love Divine,” from Crimson & Blue
“This Side Of Heaven,” from Find Me In These Fields
PK: Yeah, they all kind of go together as a package, I think, just like Ph’lip Side, Town to Town, and Play Thru Me kind of fit together for that period, for that season in my life. (Writer’s note: Actually, all three of this trio of albums can be bought together, though it’s in an out-of-print set that ain’t real cheap.) Yeah, I liked doing those albums. We were still really in a rock ‘n’ roll mindset. I think, in a lot of ways, as a rock musician, I’m not really a super rock musician. I’ve never really seen myself as a real rock ‘n’ roll guy. (Laughs) It’s obvious! But as far as a guitar player and the kind of stylings I was doing, yeah, I think it feels like the top of the wave for me, or the peak, with that period between Sunday’s Child and Crimson & Blue. After Crimson & Blue…I’m trying to think of what I did. I know I did Beyond Nature during that time, and I went back to Sparrow and did this pop album called True Believers which is really the most unlike me of any album I’ve ever done, in my personal opinion. It was more of a manufactured concept: “We’re gonna make a pop album for you that’s going to launch you into the next ten years.” I don’t know if it did. (Laughs) It’s an unusual album to listen to for me, but there are a couple of good songs on there, though. Then I did an instrumental album called 220 for the same label, and that was a very cool album that I just…y’know, Christians and Christian bookstores and the people who were buying my music, or the marketplace for my music and where it was distributed, they couldn’t make the connection, because it’s electric guitar music. So it kind of fell by the wayside. But then I did a self-titled album back on Word…or Myrrh, I guess it was…that I thought was a real honest effort, and it had some good songs: “Tender Love,” “Under the Grace.”
PD: Yeah, “Tender Love” is very Beatle-y.
PK: Yeah, that is. And it was really obvious and deliberate. (Laughs) You know, I really appreciate the idea of reminiscing about the old days. I like that.
“Tender Love,” from Phil Keaggy
“True Believers,” from True Believer
“County Down,” from Beyond Nature
“Animal,” from 220
PD: Oh, my pleasure. Popdose is a site that not gives me the opportunity to write about music that isn’t necessarily at the top of the charts but also allows me to delve into the past to praise older albums that were maybe unheralded or underappreciated.
PK: That’s excellent, Will.
PD: And I do have a couple of other questions for you that friends and fellow writers wanted me to ask you, if you don’t mind.
PK: Oh, sure, okay.
PD: You embraced technology very early…in fact, the friend of mine who introduced me to Sunday’s Child saw you in ’85, and you were already working with a digital loop machine…but you’re also respected by guitarists who just plug into an amp and let rip. How do you find that balance between keeping up with technology and staying organic?
PK: Well, when I go out and play solo, I take a JamMan. I got this JamMan in ’94. Chet Atkins showed me his and said, “Phil, I think this thing was made just for yew!” I said, “I think so!” What I had been using before that was Roland SDE 3000, and before that I was using MXR Digital Delay when they first came out. They were actually created in the late ‘70s, so I would say that probably about 1980 I was starting to do little loops. And then they started to expand up to 4 seconds, and then up to 8 seconds, and then 32 seconds. I’m content with looping just up to 32 seconds, but there are guys who can do entire songs looping-wise now. There are times when I wish I had a little more memory, I gotta be honest with you. (Laughs) I’m doing this phrase and all that, and, boom, it comes to the end. But I’ve been doing that, and sometimes you get a little tired of it because you can pigeonhole yourself a little bit if you do that sort of thing. But on the other hand, it can also open up a whole other cool thing. And it depends on the compositions I come up with. Some of the instrumental stuff has really been fun, like “Shades of Green” and “Legacy” and “Nellie’s Tune.” And, of course, the old standby, “Salvation Army Band” and “True Believers.” Those songs really lend themselves to the looping machine, and it creates some excitement, ‘cause they’ll see me layering these things and building upon myself…a rhythm loop, a little phrase, a bass bit…and then be free to create and play lead over these rhythms and chords. It’s fun to do. Now, that’s the acoustic thing. The electric thing…I remember playing at the Erase event, and they invited me to play guitar, so I just brought my Les Paul and an old Vox AC30 and a Route 66 pedal, and that was it. No effects, just straight into the amp, except for a little overdrive. And the tone…people were just blown away. And, of course, it felt so good, and the band was so great. And there it was: just straight-ahead. A lot of the lead work I did on the album with Randy Stonehill was straight into the Vox, with a Strat or a Les Paul or the Gretsch. If it’s good tone and you’re playing it well, that’s all that matters. And I try to play well, and I try to achieve a good tone, something that sounds really vintage. I love the sound of vintage recordings, whether it’s clean tones or overdriving tones. So that’s it: I like both worlds.
PD: So how do you decide if you’re going to perform an actual effect on your guitar or use a computer reproduction of the effect?
PK: You know, that’s a good question, and it depends on the time of day, and it depends on how much time I want to take in actually setting up the mike and dialing in the tones and how much noise I want to make. That’s why I said “the time of day.” My studio’s pretty quiet, and I don’t think I really disturb anyone on the second floor – I’m in the basement – but sometimes I’ve done some things where I think I could get a good tone out of a Line 6 pod and I’ll just do that: dial in a simulated Fender Deluxe or a British sound. It all depends on the mood and how much time I want to take. But I figure that an album that’s a full project, and one where I want to keep a consistent thing going, I think I’ll stay with the amps. But it’s, like, a lead overdub and I can achieve a nice tone and a variety of tones, I’ll go with virtual sounds. I’ve tried some software, like Eleven, Amplitude, and you can get some really great sounds. But sometimes it actually takes more time to dial in the virtual sounds by way of software. Sometimes it just seems like, you know, you plug into the amp, the mike’s there, and there’s the sound you’re looking for. I’ve actually achieved what I’ve been looking for, rhythm and lead wise, just by plugging in and turning it up, and then I tweak it if I want to, EQ on the back end.
PD: Actually, that ties in to the next question: how do you prevent technological advances from getting in the way of just making music?
PK: Well, in my case, I’ve got the real basics of recording gear, so I don’t have the funds to launch into the big game. You know what I’m saying? I’ve got ProTools 002, which is reasonable 32-track software, computer-based. And I’ve got some outboard gear that I use occasionally. So I just kind of…the technological aspect of it doesn’t really get in the way too much. I’m better at playing than I am at engineering, but I’m getting by. I put out an album called Dream Again…well, almost everything I’ve done over the last 12 years, by way of necessity, I’ve recorded myself. For the last seven years, I’ve been an independent artists, not on a label. The Phantasmagorical album that I did, which was released this past year, sonically was a nice sounding record. Dream Again was a nice sounding record. I even like Inseparable, which wasn’t well-received, but I liked the places it went, and I did put a lot of my heart into that album. The Song Within, I recorded all of the guitar parts here. Yeah, I’ve kept fairly busy. It’s, like, I’m not as busy this year as I was in years previous, for some reason. I don’t know what it is. Slowing down, I guess. (Laughs)
“Thank You For Today“, from Dream Again
“Lazy K“, from Phantasmagorical
“Motor Of Love“, from Inseparable
“Early One Day“, from The Song Within
PD: So what you think that the music industry has become well over 50% home recording at this stage? Do you see it as a good thing?
PK: Well, I’d say that there’s something to be said for a great recording room. Honestly. My room is, like, a 20X20, 8 foot ceilings. Sometimes I’ll bring drums up into the bonus room that I have above that room, and the drum sounds just fantastic there, because there’s more space. There’s something to be said for being free not to be an engineer and just being the player or the artist or the musician in the band, and letting somebody else take care of all that. I mean, I kinda miss that, y’know? That’s why doing the album with Randy was fun, because we had John here, and Randy and I. That was the most we had at one spot, the three of us, whereas when we did Sunday’s Child, I’m telling you, we must’ve had a minimum of five people at one time. It was a real band. You had a real producer, a real engineer, and they did their jobs, and us musicians did our job, and that’s a real party. That’s real fun. So I miss that aspect of it. I read a good book called “Here, There, and Everywhere.” You’re probably familiar with it.
PD: By Geoff Emerick. I reviewed it, in fact. It’s a great book.
PK: It is a great book. I enjoyed reading it, and I enjoyed the technical aspect of it. Nothing was really over your head if you’re involved in music and you’ve been recording for most of your life, as I have. I found it quite interesting, and he’s pretty dead on right about the whole idea of how one guy is an expert at doing that, and they do that, and they do it well, and that frees up the other people to do their job the best that they can do. And it’s kind of tough when you have to be the artist and the producer and the engineer, and that’s basically just because of finances, really, in my case. And it’s not because I want to be everything. (Laughs) It’s not that. I like being able to call the shots in terms of, like, having the last word about a song that I’m going to be writing and recording. I like that idea, and I think it should be that way. But a couple of times I’ve recorded other artists and helped them out, and I can tell you this: I have a lot of respect for engineers, because they’re the ones that end up working the hardest and the longest, because they don’t get the breaks. The other musicians do. You know, like the Geoff Emericks, as opposed to the Ringos, like when Ringo learned to play chess during the Sgt. Pepper album. (Laughs) You know? He’d do his tracks, and that’s it, you have to wait for the next song! But, yeah, I love the process of recording, and I really enjoy it. In fact, I’m having a friend…a really amazing, talented guy… help me rewire my studio right now to make it work more efficiently. We did that yesterday, and we’re going to work on that some today, too. And, hopefully, we’ll get some better sounds out of it.
PD: One of our other Popdose writers wanted to know if there’d ever be any other volumes of the Underground series released?
PK: Well, you know, Robin – who set up the interview between you and me – says that a lot of people who are writing in would like to see a CD collection of what I had done back in those days. It’s kind of like The Vault: the demos from the old days, the reel-to-reel days. That’s basically what that was. I quit doing those back when I got into DAT recording, but there were six volumes of back-room tracks, and I think that I might bring those out and remaster them, resequence them, trim off some of the fat, and see what the most interesting things are, maybe put out a 3-CD set of the best of them. Would that be a good idea?
PD: I think so. Absolutely.
PK: And there’s a lot of stuff that I have that’s unreleased that doesn’t see the light of day, but I think they’re…well, who knows. What would be cool would be to put out a 3-CD set and then maybe include a bonus of modern back-room tracks. We’ll see.
PD: Okay, last one. I’ve gotta at least bring up the longstanding Hendrix rumor.
PK: Believe it or not, the last time I heard that was just last night. I played at a cathedral, I sat in with Michael Cart and John Michael Talbot, and they invited me to come out and play guitar on a couple of things with them. And in a cathedral, of all places, he introduced me with that quote. And there was a piano there, so I sat down and immediately started laying my hands on as many keys as possible, in order to distract him. (Laughs) I think I was successful in distracting him.
PD: I think my favorite part about the rumor is that it gets updated. Like, “Oh, you know, I actually heard that it was Eddie Van Halen who said that Phil Keaggy was the best guitarist he’d ever heard.”
PK: Well, you know, Eddie is not as big as Hendrix. He’s a guitar icon, but his face has not been on Guitar Player Magazine as often as Jimi Hendrix. I think people are starting to get used to the idea tha tit was impossible that Jimi Hendrix could ever have heard me and would never have said anything about a guy who, at the time, was only nineteen years old. We actually recorded our first album at Electric Lady Studios two weeks after his unfortunate death, so I just can’t imagine how he could’ve heard me. I think it’s just a rumor that someone’s kept alive, and it must be titillating enough to keep an interest there. But it’s just a strange, ironic sort of thing. I’ll never be in the category of Jimi Hendrix, and I couldn’t understand him saying something like that, anyway, even after all these years. So I don’t think it was said…and that’s it for that!