By B. Simm
CALGARY — Tom Phillips thought it was going to be along the lines of a Rick Rubin project, who picked and produced songs for Johnny Cash to cover, giving the battered ol’ Man in Black one more fabulous romp to the top of the charts. It wasn’t exactly like that.
“Dawn Loucks, who ran the Saved by Radio label, came up with the idea originally,” recalls Phillips. She said, “’I want to do this project where [producer] Lorrie [Matheson] produces it and you sing it. But I want Lorrie to pick all the songs.’”
Phillips was fine with the idea. He had known Matheson for a number of years dating back to working at A&B Sound together before the digital age crushed the franchise, as well as crossing paths playing in local bands. They shared some common ground.
“We talked about it, but nothing really came about. One day I stumbled into Lorrie, he says, ‘Hey, I picked some songs for you.’ But then, all these song, to me, were way out of left field. Holy shit!” says Phillips, shocked at the selection of tunes that Matheson treasured and gave to him on a mix CD.
Nonetheless, Phillips stepped up to the plate. Along with Matheson and guitarist Tim Leacock they worked out some new arrangements careful not to do them like the originals were done.
“The thing about doing covers, is that I want to bring something else to the songs that adds to it. It was hard, because a lot of those versions were already fucking great, man!”
One of the songs that surprised Phillips and how far he sunk into it was “Mr. Superlove.” Originally written by Chuck Cleaver of Ass Ponys then covered by the Afghan Whigs and released as a split single with the Ass Ponys in 1993. “I just loved it. It was like an earworm.”
Amongst many of his eclectic tastes, Matheson has a penchant for American mid-West, alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt as well as a sweet spot for pop. A lot of the songs he picked for Phillips straddle country and pop including George Harrison’s “Behind That Locked Door”, Nick Lowe’s “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” and New Order’s “Love Vigilantes”. Sung with his rich resonant voice, Phillips puts a new spin on all of them.
“The songs that Lorrie picked were amazing, they were intelligent songs. The songs and way he produced them taught me a ton about being a singer.”
Catch Tom Phillips at a number of venues throughout the week including Mikey’s Juke Joint, the Blues Can and Wine-Ohs, and he’ll be happy to provide you with a copy of Mr. Superlove.