Interview with Phil Roy
[As we sit down after rustling up some food at the breakfast buffet, Phil is saying how this is a new world to him, folk world and Folk Alliance, and that's he's seen a lot of talent around. We sat down next to Richard Julian and Mia Adams, Richard and Phil knew each other from past gigs.]
Phil Roy: Until six months ago, I never heard of the Northeast Folk Alliance, or the National Folk Alliance, or...
Puremusic: The folk nothin.
PR: The folk...no. It's off the radar of the nuts and bolts music industry that I was swimming in. I was aware of some of the artists, because I love good songwriting. But mostly people whose careers had begun a while back. Not many of the more recent figures. I know Richard here, we played together in Philly.
PM: Is it fair to say that it's only recently that you began to consider yourself a singer songwriter, that before that you were strictly a songwriter?
PR: That is true. The singer part I've always done, but never committed to making my own records. I would help other singer songwriters finish their records. The last records I worked on were with Guster [an excellent folk rock outfit], I wrote or co-wrote 3 songs on that, and one by Acoustic Junction, a band that's been around a long time, and Adam Cohen, on Columbia. So maybe I considered myself a singer songwriter, but not an active one. Until I made my record. That's all I want to be now.
PM: What precipitated the decision to make your own record, Grouchyfriendly?
PR: I got to a real crossroads, professionally. I was going to have to alter the music I was writing to make a living. My friends were having big success writing for groups like NSync, Christina Aguilera, and Brandy. I had the skills to do that, and have operated in that world. For a long time, I made a pretty good living at it. But for me, that really wasn't an option any longer. I was sick of trying to chase a hit. The rooms here are not filled with people trying to have a hit. Just people trying to make music, trying to write a good song. For twenty years in L.A., I was well rewarded for writing good songs. I had writing deals with big publishers, big artists and big films were involved. I sold a lot of records with people like Joe Cocker, I had the first single on his record that sold a couple of million copies, its called "The Simple Things."
PM: Did you cowrite that with someone?
PR: Yes, I'm a big cowriter. I wrote that with John Shanks, who just produced the last Chris Isaak record, and Rick Nair. They actually had a track already done, and I wrote the lyric and the melody. I did that a lot, I was the word and melody guy.
PM: That's a great way to cowrite.
PR: Yeah, it is. It's like a crossword puzzle. Besides the Cocker cut, Widespread Panic and Pops Staples both covered "Hope in a Hopeless World."
PM: How did Widespread Panic happen to cut that song, what's that story?
PR: They thought Pops Staples wrote it. See, it's an old school thing. When guys of Pops' vintage cut a song, they just put their name on it, and that's how it looked in the credits: Pops Staples, Phil Roy, and Bob Thiele.
PM: But that's not how the copyright read.
PR: Right, and it wasn't the way the publishing went. But that's just the way it was done back then.
The Neville Brothers cut four of my tunes.
PM: Let's go over those.
PR: On an A&M album called Family Brew they cut "Let My People Go," which was also on the live Neville Brothers record, and "Day to Day Thing." They cut "It takes More" and they also cut one called "Good Song." And Aaron Neville did a song called "My Brother, My Brother," which is on his Grand Tour record, which went platinum.
PM: So the Nevilles have been very good to you. Did all those cuts exceed the salary you were drawing?
PR: The state of the industry being what it is, I'm not embarrassed to say that it did not. I recouped in one out of the five publishing deals I was in, my EMI deal. But most people don't recoup their draw.
PM: That's true even in Nashville, where the draws are much smaller.
PR: I would hear about that from my Nashville cowriters. We didn't call it a draw in L.A., simply an advance. It's true, the deals I had as a pop writer for EMI or SONY, it's like what the higher echelon writers in Nashville get. [Phil actually depressed the pause button on the recorder while we swapped some figures, excellent L.A. move.] The thing about it is, the three years I was with SONY, I had dozens of records come out. I was doing my job. I could only get the cuts, I wasn't in control of how much promotion a record would get, or what the single would be, would a video be made, would a vigorous radio promotion work for or against me, and many other factors that determine how a cut actually earns. So it was frustrating sometimes. You could have a really big fish on the line, and sometimes he just wiggles off and swims away. And you can get all the cuts in the world, but all that matters to the publisher in the end is how much of that advance did you earn back when the numbers were all in. That's the bottom line. Those days are completely different than what I'm doing now.
PM: Whether it's as lucrative or not, it's got to be much more fulfilling to be an artist.
PR: It's much more fulfilling. [We get sidetracked a minute by the ketchup incident, nearly start a song called "Needs Never Die," and resume, backtracking.] So anyhow, it had gotten to a point where I was ready to leave the business in a hole -- I was ready to get out. [Greets an indie radio promotion guy a few tables away, begs off a conversation by pointing to the tape recorder, it's a convention.] So, I'd been working on these big projects that had huge expectations. I have high expectations now, but they're different. I have expectations to show up at a club and see a couple hundred people show up. That's a reality I'm very happy with. I was used to trying to nail a single on a record that was shooting to sell a couple of million copies, and that's hard to do.
PM: By an artist you may or may not particularly respect.
PR: That's right. But there is a thing about working musicians. I don't mean to demean anyone's craft, but say you and I write a song. We get a boy band to cut it. All of a sudden, I think "Wow, listen to the way that chorus comes in..."
PM: Suddenly, that group sounds pretty damn good.
PR: Suddenly, we now have some financial peace. But it's like going to Vegas. Like Nashville, where hundreds or more songs are written every day. How many of those are gonna get a Martina McBride cut? A very small fraction. I want to make my records, singer songwriter records. They're not folk records.
PM: No, your stuff is more soul, R&B based, more urban.
PR: Right, but there's a lot of guitars and stories. So I think there's a sufficient folk element there, you know. continue