by Grant Moser
Chestnut Hill resident Neal Phillips, 58, can remember his mother playing the piano in their Maryland home when he was a boy. The folk singer/songwriter even remembers the first folk song he sang when he was a child: “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” But it wasn’t until he was 12 when he was really introduced to folk music.
His neighbor, a boy a little bit older, “had some Bob Dylan records, and he showed me how to play some tunes. I got interested in that, and then Peter, Paul & Mary, and later Simon & Garfunkel, that sort of thing. I liked the harmonies and that it was something that I could play,” Phillips explained.
He played guitar, which he picked up by ear alone, without lessons. He used to sit in his room and play the records over and over again to figure out how to make the same sounds. As a teenager, he, his brother Paul and a friend would play music in the garage together, just fooling around.
He attended the University of Delaware for both his B.A. (1975) and his Masters in Marine Studies (1978) and received a PhD in Ecology from the University of Georgia in 1983. Then he started working for an environmental consulting company in Florida, the same company that he works for remotely today. Phillips continued to play folk music, but it was mostly by himself and in his spare time.
Then in 1990 he met Terry Andrews. He was a folk singer, “sort of a Jimmy Buffett-style singer and guitarist. I started sitting in with him, playing bass and singing harmony. We played a lot of gigs together. We even recorded an album of his songs called ‘Silver Rails,’” he said.
Phillips learned a lot from Andrews about how to entertain people with a show, not just sitting on stage and playing music. Playing with Andrews also eased him into the idea of playing publicly. “When you’re with someone on stage who is very magnetic or charismatic, it’s like you have an umbrella of that person’s energy over you. They’re making it all possible, and you’re just supporting that. That made it very easy,” Phillips said.
His time with Andrews only lasted a year before he and his wife, Claudia, moved to Blacksburg, Virginia for her school. But he soon started playing with a husband and wife duo, and they formed a trio called Trifolkal that is still together today.
“Laura [Pole] and Greg [Trafidlo] had been performing together, and they had a show; they were good together. I was just supporting them. But over time it grew to be more of a three-way partnership where I was writing more songs and singing my own songs and they were backing me up. Personality-wise, we get along very well. We’ve been through many, many fun and challenging times together, and it’s a great friendship to be making music with people for 20 years now,” Phillips explained.
It was with Trifolkal that he also first performed original songs of his own. It was “One Small Thing” and then “The Tumbler,” which is a parody of “The Gambler.” Phillips has written many parodies and often incorporates humor into his songs.
These experiences playing publicly with Andrews and Trifolkal helped make music a large part of his life again. He joined songwriter organizations in Virginia and then similar organizations when he moved to Baltimore in 1997, and subsequently Philadelphia in 2004, because of his wife’s career. The local organization here is the Philadelphia Area Songwriters Alliance (PASA). “It’s really helpful as a writer to get feedback from someone else. You write a song and you take it to a group and get some critiques on it,” Phillips explained.
Even with his job at the environmental consulting firm, Phillips tries to play music every single day, whether it’s practicing or recording his music. It’s his way of maintaining the momentum. He is working on a new CD right now (he has four available currently) and hopes to release it this fall.
Although Phillips doesn’t do many gigs anymore, to keep his chops up and “try different things,” he sits in with a pick-up band that plays for contra dances (partnered folk style dances) in Glenside, as well as with Chestnut Hill resident Sam Rossitto at yoga studios playing kirtan, a call-and-response chanting accompanied by music.
He suggests that if someone is interested in learning about folk music, the best place to start locally is with the Philadelphia Folksong Society (www.pfs.org), which sponsors the upcoming Philadelphia Folk Festival in August.
For more information about Phillips and his music, please visit http://www.phillipsmusic.net/neal/.