Is there such a thing as “Alaskan music”? If you’re like me you might think of a cliché image of the flannel-clad lumberjack, corn cob pipe dangling from his bearded face, sitting on the porch of a log cabin noodling on some sort of acoustic instrument while singing songs about chopping wood and digging for gold. Or maybe nothing comes to mind beyond the band Portugal. The Man. The point here is that Alaska is synonymous with many things – mountains, eagles, salmon – but certainly not music. Luckily Evan Phillips is working to change this.
Back in May Phillips quietly released his fourth solo album, Silhouettes (REVIEW), an easy contender for one of the year’s best. He may not be a household name here in the lower 48, but up in his hometown of Anchorage Phillips has spent roughly the better part of 15 years toiling away to gett his own name out there and also to make the world aware that there are good reasons for all of us to be paying attention to music coming from The Last Frontier. Between being a member of alt. country band The Whipsaws, his well-received folk meets power pop collaboration with singer-songwriters Tim Easton and Leeroy Stagger, and his solo work, as well as working as a producer and running his own “boutique booking agency”, Evan Phillips is a one-man musical powerhouse. If he moved to Nashville or New York it wouldn’t take long for people to take notice, but Alaska is a vital part of everything Phillips does. His music may not conjure up my stereotypical lumberjack fantasy but his environment seeps into everything he does.
“I think living in Alaska has shaped everything I do, including songwriting. I spent about 10 years of my life exploring Alaska’s wilderness and climbing mountains all over the place. I think that comes through in subtle ways in my songs, whether it be the lyrics or the production,” says Phillips.
You can hear it on Silhouettes with song titles like “The Fox” and “Lonely Mountain”, and also in the crisp simplicity of the production that is as complex, textured and beautiful as the rugged Alaskan landscape. There is an airy sensibility and a bond with nature that can be heard on songs like the standout “Space Walker”, an ode to escaping the hustle and bustle of city life whose basic beat, layered brass, acoustic strumming, and synthesizer bring to mind the War On Drugs’ acclaimed album Lost In The Dream.
If it weren’t for the landscape, Phillips would not be involved in music today. He spent his twenties working as a mountain guide, and at 27 he sustained a climbing injury that made him rethink his path. While recovering he found inspiration in music and decided to dive headfirst into making a career out of it. Years of living out of his truck and scaling peaks gave Phillips the drive to take on the mountainous terrain that is the music industry, approaching everything he does with a DIY mentality. Being willing to take things into your own hands is a necessity when you are geographically removed from the rest of the country.
“I’ve really worked hard in helping to create a music scene that can sustain me. That’s why my music career is balanced between being a songwriter, performer, producer, and booking agent. I’m happy here because Alaska has always been my home and I’m very grateful to make a living as a musician on my own terms here,” says Phillips.
Silhouettes was definitely made on Phillips’ own terms. Production spanned five years, partially due to being so busy with his other projects, and also because he “really didn’t have a plan.” He sees his willingness “to be very patient” and “[allow] the songs and ideas to breathe” as “working in [his] favor.” Actually, it works in all of our favor, as the album is a refreshingly honest work of Americana where the instrumentation is as rich and fleshed out as the lyrics. Phillips exercises a sense or artistic restraint that allows him to strike the perfect balance between folk, rock, pop and alt. country without veering too far into any one style. For him, the music is all about feel.
“Being creative with sounds allowed me to achieve the nostalgic vibe I was going for on the album. It’s important to me for the listener to feel something in the songs, and I think experimenting with sounds can help achieve that,” says Phillips.
Working to put Alaska on the musical map is hard work, and even with a fine new album under his belt, Evan Phillips is already back to work booking bands, touring as part of Easton Stagger Phillips, producing other artists, and recording new material with his main band The Whipsaws. This combined with a more interconnected world made possible by the Internet gives him hope that his efforts to draw more attention to music happening in Alaska are paying off.
“The Alaska music scene is on the cusp of something great. I see an increased sense of working together between artists, and it feels like a collective movement is happening. There are also an increasing number of artists and bands touring Alaska which is very healthy for the local scene. It gets bands here motivated and inspired, as well as connects them with folks from the lower 48. I feel very fortunate to be in the middle of it all.”