Artist Interview: Phillip Rosenberg on Songwriting as Practice

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Phillip Rosenberg wrote me regarding my thoughts on practice and music the same week I happened to be in Southern California. A songwriter who had spent time honing his craft in Nashville before moving to Joshua Tree, Phillip had recently began blogging about approaching song-making as one might approach their zafu or yoga mat, that is as a spiritual practice or ritual rather than something with a definitive endpoint.  We met up a couple days later at Kulak’s Woodshed for the weekly community open mic, where I heard a bit of his ‘Rags & Bones’ music live.  I found his literate songwriting to be grounded as much in the contemplative as everyday living and evocative of both Leonard Cohen and John Prine. He later expanded on his process with Bird in the Tree:

Q: How do you define practice?

PR: Practice is a discipline. It’s something that you devote yourself to and also a form of devotion, if you’ve got the right daily practice. At different times I’ve tried sitting meditation and breath-work in an attempt to quiet my incessant interior chatter, but lately songwriting interests me as a different sort of practice. Songwriting might be a way to peel away layers of defense and bravado and open to a sacred space where vulnerability, honesty and acceptance reside. I’m at the beginning of this inquiry so I can’t say too much about it right now. I would be interested in hearing the experience of others traveling this path.
Q: Name your early musical influences?
PR: Elvis, Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon. These are the shoulders I’m standing on. I notice, in retrospect, that they each challenged the mainstream culture at the time and pushed the envelope. They redefined our expectations of popular music. I was twenty when I purchased The Songs of Leonard Cohen and listened to “Suzanne” over and over again. There was something mysterious about this woman and this song, but I couldn’t define it. I knew “Suzanne” took an approach to writing that was unfamiliar to me, one that I had to learn. I suppose I’ve been working on that project ever since.
Q: Who or what inspires you now?
PR: It’s hard to outgrow Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, but Tom Waits comes to mind because he speaks the evocative language of the poet, a language rich in metaphor. In the song “Time,” for example, Waits creates unforgettable images: “Napoleon is weeping in a carnival saloon.”
This style of image-heavy, non-linear, multi-layered writing seems to point toward something important that each of us can interpret in a personal way. This sort of writing inspires me.
John Prine and Guy Clark are songwriting elders whose songs I love and learn from. I’ve also been inspired and influenced by some of the great Music Row writers in Nashville. They are consummate craftsmen. I’m a big fan of Bobby Braddock who wrote the Tracy Lawrence cut “Time Marches On.” Braddock manages to tell the story of one family through five decades in 3 minutes and four seconds.

Gary Burr, Don Schlitz, Matraca Berg, Gretchen Peters, Jeffrey Steele and Craig Wiseman are just a few of the really brilliant writers working in Nashville today. Their craftsmanship is impeccable and I’ve learned a lot from studying their work.

Q: How did you get to Nashville, and why and when did you leave?

PR: I was a framing contractor in Atlanta and a closet songwriter. In 1993, I started the local chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International as part of their regional workshop program and began to take songwriting more seriously. I’d just gotten divorced and was reevaluating what I wanted to do, as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, with “this one wild and precious life.” Nashville is a songwriting Mecca and I was wearing out Interstate 75 driving to Nashville for workshops and networking. I wanted to put myself in proximity to that kind of energy, history, and talent.
Nashville and Country music attracted me partly because country artists have historically looked to outside writers for material. This is changing and there have been other shifts in the industry. I often find the politics of country music objectionable and the subject matter too limited. When I decided to perform my own songs, living in Nashville was no longer a necessity. My wife introduced me to Joshua Tree, which is an amazing community of creative people. We moved here in 2008. The desert is a great environment for writing, with minimal distractions. The Internet makes geography less important and here I’m able to utilize the craftsmanship and knowledge of the forms that I learned in Nashville to write songs that can hold my interest.
Q: Can you describe a ‘typical’ day in Joshua Tree

PR: I’m usually up at around 5:30. I read for an hour or so, and then my wife and I drink coffee together. We live in a small cabin on 5 acres in the high desert so there are chores. In the mornings I water the new mesquites and cottonwoods we planted in the spring and I put out water for the birds and critters. I make my wife breakfast, pack her lunch, and send her off to the office. Once the two cats are ensconced on their respective pillows-of-honor, I begin work. Work starts with an hour or so of vocal exercises because I have found that the more my voice can do, the more interesting the melodies become.
I spend some time on-line finding new artists and songs I like.
My website is now up and running so I have to navigate those new demands and decide how much time to spend on them. It’s still so new that I struggle to keep from looking at my stats every 10 minutes. When I can’t put it off any longer, I have to start writing or I start to despise myself. I write about 4 hours a day. I usually have one or two things I’m finishing up or rewriting and three or four new ideas in various stages of development that are vying for my time.  I’m not always consistent. Writing every day is a challenge I’m still trying to meet. The fun part, where the muses swoop down with a big payload, comes when I go off to our trailer once a month or so for 3 or 4 days at a time. There’s no electricity and no neighbors. At the trailer there’s only walking and writing. I use a camping headlamp to see the paper at night. What shows up in these intense outings never disappoints and provides the material I work on for the next few weeks at home.
Q: What can audiences expect from you musically in the next year?
First of all, my audience can expect new songs. The writing is moving deeper into Rags and Bones territory and revealing more of the landscape along the way. What I’m writing now is in the same vein as “Song of the Bricoleur” and “Gone”— songs that speak to what I feel roiling under the surface both personally and in the larger culture. The new blog is already attracting some interesting comments and I will continue to develop that as a forum for conversation about both the craft and the soul of songwriting. Lastly, I’m looking for a producer and hope that next year will include a compelling recording of Rags and Bones songs.
For more information on Phillip’s music, visit his website: http://www.ragsandbonesmusic.com
Deborah Crooks
Deborah Crooks (www.DeborahCrooks.com) is a writer, performing songwriter and recording artist based in San Francisco whose lyric driven and soul-wise music has drawn comparison to Lucinda Williams, Chrissie Hynde and Natalie Merchant.

Singing about faith, love and loss, her lyrics are honed by a lifetime of writing and world travel while her music draws on folk, rock, Americana and the blues. She released her first EP "5 Acres" in 2003 produced by Roberta Donnay, which caught the attention of Rocker Girl Magazine, selecting it for the RockerGirl Discoveries Cd. In 2007, she teamed up with local producer Ben Bernstein to complete "Turn It All Red" Ep, followed by 2008's "Adding Water to the Ashes" CD, and a second full-length CD "2010. She's currently working on a third CD to be released in 2013.

Deborah's many performance credits include an appearance at the 2006 Millennium Music Conference, the RockerGirl Magazine Music Convention, IndieGrrl, at several of the Annual Invasion of the GoGirls at SXSW in Austin, TX, the Harmony Festival and 2009's California Music Fest, MacWorld 2010, Far West Fest and many other venues and events. She toured the Northwest as part "Indie Abundance Music, Money & Mindfulness" (2009) with two other Bay Area artists, and followed up with "The Great Idea Tour of the Southwest in March 2010 with Jean Mazzei.
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