Jill Phillips interview

( [email protected] ) Aug 08, 2003 12:54 PM EDT

Robin: You were first signed to Word Records a few years ago. Why did that partnership end?

Jill: Well, I think overall it was a feeling that it just wasn't the right place to be at that time. Maybe it just wasn't the right fit for me, or whatever reason. It wasn't a bitter thing, like people think of these things. We just said it didn't feel like the right place for us, and they said fine, and we left.

And then you went independent for a while. Was that scary?

Yeah. It was really scary. It wasn't scary being independent, it was scary just not knowing what we wanted to do next. [My husband,] Andy's job is also doing what I do, so we left both of our jobs at the same time. And then I found out I was pregnant, and we had just bought a house! So it was like, "Okay! What are we learning here?"

"What is God up to?"

Exactly, yeah, I knew that we were being taught something. So it was like, I really need to step back and reevaluate, and to grow more. We really didn't stop for long; we kept touring, we kept our same booking agent. Watermark let us open for them, which was so great of them, and very unusual in this business. But we just kept doing what we did, on a small scale. We never went out looking for another deal or anything; we just kind of did our own thing. We took some time, and it was really great.

Eventually we talked to several labels, and it was just never right. And then Fervent called, and we thought, "You know, this might be the right thing." It was time to do something else.

The independent album was called God and Money -- I guess that was a pretty significant title.

(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess you could say so! A lot of people said, "Oh, that's so cool that you put that title on your record." And we thought, "No, it's really not." It was just the name of one of the songs, and it was just applicable to what I was writing about during that time, which is that you can't serve two masters. I was really impressed by the verse, "You can't serve two masters. You either hate the one and love the other, or you'll be devoted to one and despise the other. You can't serve both God and money." That message was very real to us, because we weren't sure what our jobs were going to be [in the future]. You know, financially, when you don't know what's going to happen, that can really be a time of, "Okay, do I trust God, or do I not? I say I trust God, so do I trust God when it's really hard?"

Another thing was reading the biography of Rich Mullins that came out, called An Arrow Pointing To Heaven. I was always a huge fan of his music, so when I read that book, I was reminded of the way that he lived his life -- it was not about money or fame or any of those things. It was about doing what he felt like he was called to do, and going where he was called to go. I loved seeing a Christian artist that was like, "Forget the money, forget the fame, forget that I have a #1 song. It doesn't matter. It's insignificant." There's something really powerful about that. So I think that that was something that God was teaching me about, too.

Okay, so that's a brief history of what came before. What can you tell us about the new album?

I'm really excited about it. It's all new songs, except for one. There is one song from the independent record that's going on there -- a cover song that we do, called "God Believes In You." It's a Pierce Pettis song. I'm a big Pierce Pettis fan. The rest of it is new stuff that either Andy and I wrote together or by ourselves. We're producing it together with a friend of ours, Matt Stanfield, who actually produced the independent record with us. He used to be in a group called Plumb, back in the day. He does a lot of writing. He's just an amazing, amazing producer, and we're very thankful to be working with him.

Has Fervent been hands-off, and let you craft your record the way you want?

Pretty much -- as much as a label can. They've been great. They were very encouraging to us, and our vision of things. They met with Matt and talked with him and heard some of the stuff that he's done. I think it's a great combination.

(Jill's baby boy giggles in the background.)

What's his name?


He's cute.

Thank you!

He's adorable.

Hi Drew!

(He laughs and then hiccups. Everyone in the room laughs.)

What is your ultimate goal as an artist?

I think as an artist, my ultimate goal is to glorify God with the work that I do. That I would pursue excellence in what I do, the best that I possibly can. I take that seriously. I want to write songs that I won't look back and go, "Oh, that record was a sell-out." I want to write records that I'm proud of, that really have something to say. And if people like it, great, but I really don't want to have any regrets about those kinds of things. But most importantly, I hope that God will be glorified in it.

I've been observing this spectrum lately, with artists that are strongly focused on ministry on one end, and artists that are more focused on creating art on the other. And I've been asking a lot of artists about where they fit on this spectrum -- not to promote one as more important or better than the other, but merely to establish context. I think we too often compare artists creatively that have completely different goals and mindsets for their careers or their ministries, which bleeds over into what they create. So... Where are you at on that spectrum?

That's a good question. I think that hopefully, it would be both. That would be my goal, is that it would be both. Now I think sometimes when people say "ministry," they mean different things...

Right, a lot of people think of their lives as a ministry, which is also a good point. But that's not the context in which I'm using the word here.

I guess the way I would take "ministry" to mean is that we don't hand out the plan of salvation at our concerts or give altar calls. We don't do things like that. But I think, at the same time, if I was just singing songs about this life, or marriage, or having kids, and I wasn't coming from a Christian context, to me it would seem in vain. God is the most important thing in my life -- it's the thing that separates us from people who just sing about anything. And if I'm not sharing those truths about Jesus, I don't know that I would be happy at the end of the day. Now that doesn't mean that every song is about offering praise to God. But I want to write about things honestly. I want to write about God without fear, I want to write about marriage, I want to write about friendships, I want to write about family, I want to write about all of those things. And hopefully, if we do it in the way that we're supposed to do it, it will be a ministry.

Our goal is to create a sense of community with the people who listen to our music, and the people that come to our shows, in that we're all the same. We're all here going through the same things. We're not just putting on a show. This is real life, and we relate to you. And as believers, that's what we can do for each other, is to say, "I understand what you're going through, tell me about it." Let's encourage each other. Let's weep with each other. That's what our ministry is.

There's definitely something to be said for that kind of songwriting in a ministry context, even over praise & worship music, which is of course what the big fad is right now. If you've written a song about a life experience that anyone can relate to, but you've written it from a Christian perspective, that could give you an "in." Because they can relate to you, you've now earned the right to be heard by someone that might not ever listen to other forms of Christian Music, like praise & worship.

That's right. And you know, the Bible is full of all different kinds of books. There's not just Psalms, there's not just Proverbs, there's not just Revelation. There's everything, and songs are the same way. You don't want to have just one kind of thing, because life isn't like that. So you just write honestly about what you're dealing with. It's about getting the whole picture. As artists, we all have unique callings to do what we do and talk about what we talk about. Because we're all different and we all have different needs, maybe we can each meet a different area.

What's a book besides the Bible that has changed the way you look at your faith?

Oh, that's easy. I've probably told this to too many people now, and I need to shut up about it. (Laughs.) My favorite book is Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner. He's probably my favorite writer. I just love him because he's honest -- he's just really honest. He writes things about himself that are not even flattering, but he just tells the truth. This book in particular changed my life. The premise of the book is that he shares secrets from his life that he's never told before. One of them is that his father committed suicide. Another is that his daughter struggled with anorexia. It sounds really deep and heady, but he really feels like in talking about these things, that's part of what it means to heal from these things. It's part of what it means to be a Christian, is to tell your story, tell your secrets. He believes that if you tell your story truthfully and accurately -- or as he puts it, "anything like right" -- then other people will see themselves in that. Because we're all kind of going through the same things even if we don't think we are. He said, we're so used to putting forth this edited version of ourselves that we hope people will like. But he really thinks that if we're really honest with each other, that will allow us to share our most precious secret, which is of course, our faith. If we can't even talk about our lives honestly, how are we going to talk about our faith honestly?


So reading that book made me, hopefully, a better songwriter. I don't try to write about things that I think people will want to hear; I try to tell them the things that I'm going through. The struggles and the joys. And it's made me share some things on stage that I probably wouldn't have shared otherwise. Because I once thought you had to look all "together" or something. I struggled with anxiety for a long time, and I started talking about that on the stage. Just things like that, that I thought, "Why not? What's there to lose?" The great thing is that it's freeing and healing for me, and you also relate to your audience. They'll come up to you and say, "I went through the same thing!" Nobody gets anything from watching someone who looks like they've got it all put together. That's not the message that we're sharing. The message is that there's a healer, there is somebody who has it all together, and it's not me! (Laughs.)

They always say, "There's strength in vulnerability."

Yeah! And I think his message is not that you have to go out and share everything. Like you don't have to walk up to strangers on the street and tell them your innermost, deepest, darkest secrets. It's just about not hiding anything. Self-understanding gets kind of a bad rep, I think. It's like psychobabble that we throw around. We really do have to understand ourselves and where we come from and what our story is to be able to share with people. If non-Christians want to know about your faith, they want to know your story. They want to know about your life, and why it would even matter to them to become a Christian. And if all I can say to them is, "I was lost and now I'm found, and he saved me," that doesn't mean anything to them. You have to tell them your story.

What is God teaching you lately?

Oh man, I have a whole list. (Laughs.) Sometimes you'll know he's teaching you something but you're not sure what it is yet. You know what I mean? A lot of what I've been praying and thinking about lately is what it means to handle all of the different aspects of my life. Being a mother. Being a wife. Being an artist. And doing all of these things to the best of my ability and to the glory of God, without letting one of them go. Juggling all of the different things, but taking all of them seriously. To not neglect any one of them.

He's also teaching me a lot about death -- the fear of death. Post-September 11, everyone has been struggling with those feelings of, "What's coming next? What's going to happen to me?" My dad is now very, very ill.* He has a terminal illness and he's waiting on a transplant. And that will make you think a lot about death. All of this has made me think about how Christianity is not about fearing death. Christianity is about: there is hope after this life. What that really means, I don't have a full grasp on it yet, but I think that's been a huge thing for me.

I learned that a lot last year. One of the most profound things I heard in going through what happened with my dad is that, "This life is not the story, it's just the preface." This is just a drop in the bucket compared to what's coming.

Yeah, and I don't really comprehend that now. It's just one of those things that will happen to you one day in your life, and you don't think it will be when it ends up being. That's the kind of thing I've been wrapping my brain around, is, "Wow, it's here." You always think that one of your parents will be sick one day. Well, it's here. So what do we do? So that's been a huge thing. But there's been a lot of peace in it. We've all experienced a great peace through the whole process.