Interview: NYC folk-rocker Phil Pickens announces his debut album out this fall

It’s not every day a frontman gives proper tribute to his bandmates, much less release a single doing so. That’s just what folk-rocker Phil Pickens has done in unveiling the infectious “Astronaut.”

The single comes ahead of Picken’s debut album which GroundSounds is happy to exclusively announce today. Before going into full pre-release mode, we sent over some interview questions to help get to know Phil better.

Check it all out below and be sure to keep it tuned here for more as it comes.

Hi, Phil Pickens! Congrats on your upcoming debut album Cathedrals. Can you tell us a little more on who you are and how you first started out as a musician?

Hi, GroundSounds! Thanks! We’re really excited to share the tunes 🙂 I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I was surrounded by nature, but Atlanta was a quick trip in the car. The house I grew up in had a four lane highway in the front and a small lake in the back, so it sorta felt like living in two different worlds – I’d feel the energy of the traffic zooming past the front door and then get lost fishing in the lake out back. Which sorta makes sense why I ended up playing Folk Americana music in the city that never sleeps.

I was quite a jerk in my earlier years – mostly because I didn’t really know where to focus my creative energy. My dad picked up a guitar for me when I was 10, thinking it might do the trick and he was right. I loved it. Miss Genie taught me how to play classical, Steve Cunningham taught me Jazz, and then I started playing folk and country later which became my focus. I loved playing with words and melody and telling stories through music. The first night in NYC I went down to the Lower East Side. There are so many great venues down there and I went door to door listening to one amazing band after the next. I knew I wanted to be a part of the community, so once I mustered up enough courage, I played a couple open mics and I’ve been plugging away ever since.

What’s your songwriting process like? Who are some of your biggest influences?

I usually start with an image in mind – maybe a character, a landscape, a mood – from there, the lyrics and music begin to emerge. Once I’m happy with the overall structure, I bring it to the band. I’ll send a scratch track to the guys where they’ll begin to develop their own ideas. Once we get in the room together, we throw it all against the wall and see what sticks. I love collaborating and the band (who I refer as the Astronauts) have so many creative impulses. It’s really amazing to hear someone’s interpretation of a song and then explore it. We play around with the groove a lot – and even if the tune is cooking, we’ll try a version that completely goes in the opposite direction – because why not and sometimes we find something useful. It’s fun. One banjo line, bass fill, key part can really teach us how to finish the song. The most important part of the process is to follow our drummer, Justin, or else we’ll get the stink eye. He’s the human metronome and we love him for it.

What inspires me is experiencing art. I love theatre, paintings, dance, fashion – anything that is an expression of creativity and is honest. Honesty creates the best art. You can walk down the street in a tutu and a sombrero – if that’s what you believe – and own it. I’m inspired by impulses that are rooted in truth, explore human nature and paint new unexpected scenes.
What are some of the larger themes at play on your upcoming album? What sort of headspace where you in when writing it?

One of the larger themes throughout the album is how we deal with loss – the way we say goodbye to loved ones, how we remember them, how we find hope. In the song “Cathedral” the lyric goes “re-accounting all the landscapes, the heartaches, and places yet to go” – The songs in the album all fall under that sentiment – exploring the dark moments but also embracing the moments of joy from the past and beyond.

The album is a touch autobiographical but with some extra characters and flipped perspectives. I always try to stay honest with my work and sometimes to find the truth, I find more dimension when I pretend I’m in someone else’s shoes. If I remove myself from the equation, it’s easier to avoid frustration or closing off entirely. Often I’ll take voice memos where I’ll improvise lyrics to a melody I’m working on. The weirdest things come out – nonsensical, ridiculous, cheesy lines, BUT there’s always one moment of gold that will make it in the song and help guide the story I’m trying to tell. 

If money were no object, what would your dream live performance look like?
It would be on a beach with the sun setting on the water. Blankets and hammocks along the shore. A couple grills, a clear night, and a slight breeze. My feet sinking in the sand and the water rushing through my toes as the tide came in. Laughter, joy, cuddling, and dancing. I can’t think of anything more luxurious than creating that moment. 

Any new artists/venues/purveyors of the arts in your local scenes you could turn our readers onto?
Difficult question. There are so many amazing friends and artists in the city it’s hard to choose – which is the beauty of it all. I’d like to mention a few though such as Great Caesar, who we shared the NPR gig with last year, great music with an explosive energy! Wyatt – upbeat with capturing lyrics and melody hooks. Abby Payne, she has such a unique voice and is such a talented musician. The Hollows, where every concert will wear your boots out after dancing the night away. And Bucky Hayes, a fellow Georgian, who delivers good ole southern cooking and grooving vibe. 

I find myself at Smalls Jazz clubs often to get inspired – a treasure in the West Village. Legends play there. It’s a sacred place and you feel the wisdom and all the feels from every note. Some other favorite venues are Rockwood Music Hall, Pete’s Candy Store. Also, C’mon Everybody does an amazing tribute night monthly which features so many great artists throughout the city.    

Where can we follow you and any shows coming up?

We’re booking a few festivals as we speak and some local shows. We’re on Spotify, Instagram, and Facebook. Folks join our mailing list, where we share all the news and tunes first. for more details.

Any parting thoughts? Open platform!

I just released my first single – finally! The song is called “Astronaut” and is actually not taken from the coming album – but the video gives you a good introduction to my band mates and I! That said, just relax and be an Astronaut!

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