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Phillip Phillips moves beyond 'Idol'

MusicMusic IndustryO.A.R. (music group)American Idol (tv program)Michael JacksonJennifer LopezSteven Tyler

They say fame changes people, but even after winning “American Idol” and releasing a platinum-selling album, Leesburg, Ga.-based singer-songwriter Phillip Phillips wants nothing more than to be himself.

“I already knew what kind of artist I was and knew what type of music that was 'me,'” Phillips said on the phone recently while on tour in Buffalo, N.Y.

Phillips — who is co-headlining Merriweather Post Pavilion with O.A.R. on Saturday — took the “Idol” crown in 2012 after wowing judges and viewers with his commanding vocals and guitar playing. He then found success on Billboard's adult contemporary and pop charts with his 2012 debut album, “The World from the Side of the Moon,” which featured his “Idol”-coronation song “Home” and the folk-rock hit “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

For his second album, May's “Behind the Light,” Phillips, 23, sought to extend beyond an “Idol” victory lap. While he feels the singing competition was a “great experience” that “prepared me for live television and making quick decisions,” he wanted “Behind the Light” to fully show off his chops as a songwriter and performer.

“It's not all about the singing for me,” he said. “I wanted [the albums] to really represent me musically and lyrically.”

“Behind the Light” is darker and weightier than Phillips' debut, but the minor-key melodies only serve to enhance his delivery, which remains striking in its earnestness and conviction. The album also features more elaborate instrumental arrangements, a development Phillips said was due in part to having his touring band join him in the studio.

“There's just all these different types of emotions throughout the album,” Phillips said of the moodier approach. “Not just with the lyrics, but with the music as well.”

The kick-drum stomp pulsing throughout his debut record has drawn comparisons to British folk-rock revivalists Mumford & Sons, but on “Behind the Light,” Phillips' most immediate point of reference is Dave Matthews, whom he covered on “Idol” late in the competition. 

Phillips said he isn't bothered, though, when critics compare him to other artists.

“If people want to say it sounds like this or that, I kind of take anything as a compliment,” he said. “I'm not ashamed of what is out there because it's all me.”

On songs like lead single “Raging Fire,” Phillips finds a warm, amiable middle ground between Marcus Mumford's dramatic affectation and Matthews' laid-back croon that he can call his own.

Working with fairly conventional pop music poetry, he sells it with just the right amount of gravitas: “If you listen close, you'll hear the sound / Of all the ghosts that bring us down / Hold on to what makes you feel / Don't let go, it's what makes you real.”

Phillips said he listened to a lot of Peter Gabriel and “Pablo Honey”-era Radiohead while writing “Behind the Light,” but his diverse palette of influences includes everything from AC/DC to Australian jam band the John Butler Trio.

When he had the opportunity to tour last year with Matchbox Twenty and John Mayer, artists he grew up enjoying, he had to get over the inevitable nerves and “give it all I had each night.”

Phillips said he was even more nervous when he auditioned for “Idol” in front of judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. He impressed them with his renditions of Stevie Wonder's “Superstition” and Michael Jackson's “Thriller,” but their chattiness beforehand nearly threw him off his game.

“I was sweating,” he said. “They wanted to talk, and I just wanted to sing and them to tell me ‘yes' or ‘no.'”

Phillips describes himself as a “pretty quiet guy” who would rather go to the movies than party. Recently he's spent his downtime binge-watching TV.

“‘Six Feet Under' is something I'm really into right now,” he said. “‘Orange is the New Black' is really funny, too.”

So far, the summer tour with O.A.R. has Phillips playing to receptive crowds, he said, despite stylistic differences between the two acts. Jamming on the hits and new tracks from “Behind the Light,” Phillips said his live show has a collaborative, “band” feel — the way he always intended it.

“We're always trying something new every night,” he said. “It's been a really great vibe.”

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If you go

Phillip Phillips performs Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. O.A.R. and Saints of Valory will also perform. Tickets are $36-$46. Call 410-715-5550 or go to merriweathermusic.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MusicMusic IndustryO.A.R. (music group)American Idol (tv program)Michael JacksonJennifer LopezSteven Tyler
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