PHILIP SAYCE – “My Priority Through Music Is To Be Of Service”

April 21, 2020, a month ago

By Aaron Small

feature hard rock philip sayce

PHILIP SAYCE – “My Priority Through Music Is To Be Of Service”

“At this current moment, we’re all going through something that is quite difficult,” begins Canadian blues / rock guitarist Philip Sayce, who is currently residing in Los Angeles. Of course, he is referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. But on a more personal level, over the past two years, leading up to the April 24th release of his incredible new album Spirit Rising, Sayce faced some of the most challenging experiences of his life.

“My Dad passed away quite suddenly from a brain disease that is very rarely ever seen. The great folks in Toronto at Sunnybrook (Hospital) took really, really good care of him in his last hours. We’re deeply grateful for the support we received there through the Canadian healthcare system. That was something that came out of the blue, and it crushed us. It’s still something we’re getting through… grief is very complex, it’s different for everyone, and it rears its head when you least expect it in all kinds of different ways. There’s a lot of that in this record. Those experiences went into the writing and performances on this record.”

“On a completely different note, just the music business itself,” continues Philip. “I met my share of really unscrupulous characters. So, I’m taking a look at myself and seeing what is it that either, A – I’m attracting this type of person that’s absolutely not in alignment with where I’m going from a business sense. Or, am I doing this subconsciously? So, I’m taking some time to look at it. But I’ve really gone through the mills on the business end of things; it can really grind you down. All those horror stories that you hear from people, I think it’s an overall lack of scruples. It’s something we all deal with, whether you’re buying a used car, or whether you’re talking to a really dishonest manager, or agent. You’ve got to trust your gut instinct, and ultimately what I learned through this trial and tribulation is really, it comes down to self-belief. It comes down to the commitment I’ve made in my lifetime to make music that comes from my heart, with the intention of putting love in the world; something positive. If it reaches someone and resonates within them, that is the most amazing feeling. Staying buoyant, staying positive, and learning from those experiences and using them moving forward.”    

Ahead of the street date, several songs from Spirit Rising were released online, “Spirit” being the first one. That was followed by “Fits Me Good’, co-written with Richard Marx. Yes, the Richard Marx who sang pop hits “Endless Summer Nights” and “Right Here Waiting” in the late ‘80s; talk about a surprising collaboration. “I met Richard a number of years ago and we just hit it off,” recalls Philip. “We’ve done some writing and stayed in touch over the years. We’ve connected while out on the road. He is a serious, serious musician. His skill level, his talent would quiet a room of people when he starts singing. It doesn’t matter, he could be singing you the ingredients of the chocolate bar you’re eating. He just has this voice, it’s spectacular! He’s up there, he’s a real heavy cat. When it comes to writing, he’s brilliant as well. We traded ideas, threw the ball around so to speak; wrote a whole bunch of songs. This one felt like it really made sense. We needed an up-tempo rock track that had some hooks; Warner was really looking for something like that, and it seemed to resonate.”

“Give Me Time” was the third track from Spirit Rising shared ahead of release date; in fact, that’s a cover song. Originally done by Magic Sam and recorded in 1968, a year prior to his death from a heart attack in 1969. “Yes, Magic Sam passed away quite young at the age of 32. ‘Give Me Time’ is a song he recorded at home, playing on his couch. It’s very casual, and I fell in love with the song right away. I recorded it with my friend Michael Nielsen, who’s a terrific producer and composer. We just went and had some fun with it. It makes my heart sing to know that you are now aware of Magic Sam. That’s part of the reason to do it as well, is to help spread the word about Magic Sam. People should know about him. He is certainly one of the great singers and players of all time. What a beautiful artist he is.”

Furthermore, “Give Me Time” is one of three cover songs on Spirit Rising. Philip puts his own stamp on “Awful Dreams” by Lightnin’ Hopkins. This is quite different from the other tracks on the album, it’s the longest song at six minutes, and it has a morose, western movie feel to it, like a storm is coming. “That was the intention. A lot of the sonic atmosphere that’s created in that recording… there’s this feeling of something heavy coming along. I mean, no one can play like Lightnin’ Hopkins. He’s one of the heaviest artists of all time. For anybody that isn’t aware of Lightnin’ Hopkins, his influence on what we know as modern music is significant; it’s important to go and check him out. We did the best that we could on our interpretation of the song. Strangely enough, the lyrics… ‘Awful Dreams’, I think what we’re going through right now is kind of like awful dreams. I think also the lyric of the song, in a strange way, under the current social climate in America at this time is something that could be defined as awful dreams. It’s certainly one of the songs that, to me, is spooky. It might be one of the spookiest recordings I’ve ever been involved with.”

The final cover is from a more recognizable artist, yet it’s still an obscure song. “One Foot On The Gravel” by Jeff Healey was the exclusive bonus track to the “Cruel Little Number” single in 1992. “I wanted to do something to honour Jeff. I think about him all the time, every time I play my guitar or sing. The influence he had on me, and the opportunity he provided me with; it’s done out of respect and love. When Jeff decided it was time to burn the house down, it was on! I thought about Jeff in my heart while we recorded this song; I was really just trying to tell him how much I love him.” With regards to this specific song choice… “As you said, it’s one that’s not a familiar one. I wasn’t going to try and cover one that is really familiar by him; one of the songs he became known for. And just the vibe of the song is sort of an approach – the groove, the pocket, the key. It really resonates with the way I feel music, I really like the riff. The album, to me, needed something that also needed to be rooted in… it just needed those roots. Those roots are where I come from, and it’s a bad-ass song that I don’t think a lot of people know about, unless you’re a deep Jeff Healey follower. So, it was an opportunity to really, hopefully shine a light on that song.”

Delving into some of Philip’s original songs on Spirit Rising, let’s start with “Once”. It’s reminiscent of “Little Wing”; admittedly it’s a shorter song but is so impactful. “That’s a song I wrote in Toronto. I had the music for it for a while. It’s just a few chords, and the influence for it, as you said, certainly comes from Jimi Hendrix and his approach to playing ballads. Strangely enough, you don’t always think of Hendrix as somebody who wrote beautiful ballads, but actually, if you really stop and think about it, he wrote beautiful, tear-jerking, incredible ballads: ‘Little Wing’, ‘Angel’, ‘One Rainy Wish’, or ‘May This Be Love’. These are my favourite ballads of all time. To approach a song with that influence, that was the direction in my heart. I wrote it with Gavin Brown and Maia Davies, who are two very talented Canadians. I really love what they brought to the song, and how we wrote it together. Ultimately, where I went with it is, it’s for my Dad. All the playing and singing is dedicated to him.”

Then Philip turns it up as far as it can go on “Wild”, that song is a ripper! “That song was really about the idea of being wild and embracing that. I think a lot of suggestions as to who I should be, or who I need to be… that’s what I am, I’m wild! What can I say? I can’t do it in any other way. This is truthful and authentic to who I am. For that and because of that, it talks about it – all the highs and lows, and all the things in-between. But it’s a song about being really in touch with the personal power that I have and the ground that I cover when I’m standing. No one else is going to give that to you or help you develop that. You need to have a knowing, and a gratitude, and appreciation. That’s what that song is, it’s really about stripping away any bullshit or niceties and saying, this is who I am. I don’t care what you think, this is what’s coming from inside. Some days it might be real pretty and soft, and other days you just need to get out and scream and go crazy. We recorded it, for the most part, live. It was myself and the drummer on this song, Michael Leasure. We were in a room together, they pressed record, and we played the song. From there, I just built out anything else that needed to go on top of it. But it was very spontaneous and in the moment.”

Another unexpected collaboration, this time with Marti Frederiksen, can be found on “Burning Out”. Marti’s worked with Aerosmith, Buckcherry, Mötley Crüe, and Ozzy Osbourne to name but a few. Philip reveals how he came to work with Mr. Hitmaker. “Marti is someone I’ve known since I was a teenager (Sayce is 43 years old). He came to Toronto to produce and write a record for Jeff Healey (Get Me Some, released in 2000). We had met during that time; I was apprenticing with Jeff we shall say. Jeff was kind enough to have me in his band, so Marti and I hit it off and he said, ‘Why don’t you come out to LA? We should write some stuff for you.’ So, that was the first time I came to California. It’s interesting, Marti and myself, our paths have crossed so many times over the years. He’s been an influence on me in many different ways; I learned a lot from him as a songwriter, as a vocalist. ‘Burning Out’ – it just felt like the album needed something that just let it all out. It’s a similar kind of approach to ‘Wild’, but the lyric of the song ‘Burning Out’ is coming from a place of pain. When you hit the bottom and start looking around thinking, man, I feel like I’m burning out. You start losing your focus. You start losing your attention. It’s really an honest song of a place where I was feeling during the making of the record.”

The album closes with a beautiful instrumental, “5:55” – a reference to the time displayed on a digital alarm clock. “Yea, that’s exactly right. 5:55 being the time; it’s a very spiritual time. My wife and I looked at the clock when we had lost a very dear member of our family, and it was 5:55. So, the song is really dedicated to my Dad, and to family members who’ve crossed to the other side. It’s a vehicle, an opportunity to connect with them, and a prayer of gratitude for having had these spirits in my life. And I look forward to connecting with them on the other side.” And that’s where the album title Spirit Rising came from – people floating up to Heaven after they’ve left Earth. “That’s exactly it. And in many different ways, be it the concept of the spirit rising after it’s been broken, or after you’ve been run around in the business for a while. Once you’ve been in touch with your own personal power, and own personal worth and value, that’s when you feel your spirit rising.”

Usually when an artist releases an album, they tour in support of it. Obviously, that cannot be done for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of that, several bands have decided to postpone the release of their studio albums. “You know, the topic had never been raised. I’m certainly aware of a lot of other acts pushing their releases back. My priority through music is to be of service. And my priority through music is to carry on the power and the fire and the music that turned me on when I was a kid – like really little – that still burns bright deeply inside of me. My intention is to share that with people, and hopefully it resonates. I can’t control whether it does or not, but if it resonates and spreads some love, that’s what my job is. To push it back to say, ‘Well, we can make more money and blah, blah, blah.’ I can’t pass judgement on anybody else’s decision, but for me, that wasn’t an option that was presented. I feel I want to be of service through my music. At this time, if there’s anything I can put into the world that might make somebody’s day feel a little better, let’s put that shit out right now! People need a light. If this music and this record can help people through this particularly dark time, I would be so honoured. So, it needs to come out, that’s how I feel about it.”  

(Photos by Matt Barnes)


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