SOUND OFF Special Interview: David Phelps Discusses CLASSIC, Concert Tour, Christmas & More
Today we are talking to a well-regarded recording artist whose new release, CLASSIC, virtually acts as an overview of his impressive career thus far, especially with its overall wide embrace of titanic vocals and big emotion while covering the genres of pop, opera, gospel, classical, religious themes, theatre music and even more - celebrated crossover star David Phelps. In addition to all about CLASSIC, such as outlining its origins and creation, plus song selection process, actual recording and producing and more, Phelps also casts a glance back at his idiosyncratic journey thus far, opening up about the impetus for pursuing a life of music as well as how he has now made it a family tradition thanks to the participation of his siblings and even his talented young daughter in a special duet on the stirring new release. Also, as well as all about CLASSIC and its current tour, Phelps cites his foremost influences, reflects on some of his favorite recordings to date, illustrates the finer points of his recording process with his many collaborators (like the Gaither Vocal Band), points out some of his favorite holiday song selections and Christmas albums - and much, much more!
CLASSIC is available now. More information on David Phelps is available at his official site here.
Bring Him Home
PC: Your voice is so versatile - CLASSIC is incredibly eclectic insofar as the different styles of singing you do.
DP: Oh, thank you so much.
PC: Of course, many people know you primarily for your Christmas albums - you happen to have quite a few, as well as your gospel/pop music. So, how did you decide on this particular collection of songs, now?
DP: Well, of course I love Christmas, too, and those albums led me to this in a way, I think - all those different styles of songs and everything - but what has been the thing that has helped me the most is in naming this record CLASSIC, because it’s me; in terms of that I have a classic type of voice.
DP: You know, the great thing about the gospel genre - and I have spent a lot of time there - is that it has a bunch of different styles of music, too. The truth is, though, that I grew up listening to a lot of opera and Broadway as well as gospel… and there is my secret love of 80s rock, too. [Laughs.]
PC: We all have our secret musical sides!
DP: I come from a family where music was really important - my mother had this great operatic soprano voice and my sister who is older than me plays classic trumpet, so music is a big thing for us. I went to school and I have a degree in voice and that is where I really got exposed to a lot of opera and Broadway, too. My first exposure to songs like “Bring Him Home” from LES MIZ was in college, for instance.
PC: Trumpet and voice compliment each other so intriguingly - Barbra Streisand and Chris Botti recently duetted in her new tour, as a matter of fact.
DP: Oh, wow! Yeah, it’s so amazing how well that instrument compliments a tenor voice - which is kind of like a trumpet anyway, isn’t it?
PC: It definitely is.
DP: My sister actually helped me on this project, too.
PC: Did you two grow up collaborating musically at all?
DP: Well, I woke up every Saturday listening to her practicing her trumpet, so… [Laughs.]
PC: You had enough after that, right?
DP: Yeah! It’s sort of payback at this point, I guess! We definitely are a singing family, though, so we sing together quite a bit - and have - as well.
PC: You have some special guest vocalists on CLASSIC...
DP: Yes. On “Agnus Dei” - that is a song that I wrote and that is my fourteen-year-old daughter singing on it with me.
PC: It's hard to believe!
DP: Unbelievable, right?
PC: What a voice! It must be in the family DNA or something.
DP: You know, I worked on that song for a long time and I didn’t have my daughter in mind for it and we talked to a lot of great sopranos who were in line to sing on it, but it just didn’t work out with any of them for whatever reason. So, then, one day I walked downstairs and heard her singing along to the soundtrack for WICKED - she is just a Broadway fanatic; that is what her dream is - and I was just shocked. I said, “What is going on in there?!” It just blew me away - and I was hearing her voice coming from her room, all the way from the bottom of the stairs.
PC: What a great discovery! So, the duet just fell together?
DP: We went right to the studio and we had the track down in two hours, so I guess I would say so!
PC: What a wonderful memory.
DP: She had never even performed in front of a mic before, I don't think.
PC: Did you know she could handle the song once you heard her sing?
DP: Well, to be honest, I didn’t know for sure if she could, but I’ll tell you this: she had a love of animals and she always wanted to be a vet, but about two years ago she discovered Broadway and she just became totally obsessed with it since then - she can’t get enough.
PC: It’s a healthy addiction, though, no doubt!
DP: She just loves it - and it kind of reminds me of my obsession with music when I was a kid. I was just obsessed with music and singing and trying to do different things vocally. So, she suddenly became that way a few years ago and after that I would get calls from her choir director saying, you know, “Hey, a lot is going on with Maggie Beth - she hit a high D today!”
PC: A call sure to make a dad like you particularly proud, no doubt!
DP: Totally! It was out of the world to hear that. It just came out of the blue for us, though - it really did; it was such a shift in what she wanted to pursue. I always knew she could sing, of course, but all of sudden this young soprano voice started developing and it was just amazing to see that.
PC: And hear it.
DP: And hear it! She just has this natural thing going on that I think is actually pretty rare. So, then, I talked to my wife and I said, “OK. How do we do this? I mean, what if this doesn’t work out? I don’t want to crush her!” [Laughs.]
PC: A very, very delicate situation - and conversation.
DP: Yeah, it was. But, anyway, in two hours we had this amazing cut of this amazing young soprano voice on this record, so you can hear the proof of it there - I, myself, think it’s pretty amazing.
PC: It is. Speaking of your daughter’s generation: would you be open to performing on GLEE or SMASH someday?
DP: Oh, I’d love that! Definitely. I’d absolutely love that!
PC: You would be an amazing addition to any of them.
DP: Thank you for saying so! I’d love to. Absolutely.
PC: What were your favorite musicals growing up?
DP: Well, when I got really exposed to Broadway was mostly in college and LES MIZ was my first big thing that I really fell for. I did a lot of stuff in a show choir in college, so we did stuff from INTO THE WOODS and LES MIZ and a lot of shows. I will always remember when I heard “Bring Him Home” for the first time, though. [Sighs. Pause.] That was just an amazing moment - the emotion behind that song and what it is about really spoke to me.
PC: It touched your soul.
DP: It did. You know, I’ve kind of made a career out of really trying to pull emotion out of songs and try to translate that to every person in the audience out there, so when I am lucky enough to find a piece like that it is just incredible. That song is just one of those pieces that crosses over every boundary for all of us - and all genres of music, too.
PC: A universal message and a universal song.
DP: Yeah - it’s just something that we can all relate to. You can say the same about “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, I think.
PC: Another classic musical theatre standard on CLASSIC.
DP: I have a story about “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, actually. I went in to record that song and, of course, I had known it for years and years and I had arranged this version especially for the record before we went in to record it. So, I was listening to the demo that we made and I felt like, “Man, I think we’ve drained all of the emotion out of this.” It just lost its fire for me. So, I redid it that night - the night before we went in to record it.
PC: What changed?
DP: Well, I went back to the Elvis recording of it, actually. I love his recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” so much.
PC: One of the best renditions of it ever, no question.
DP: I listened to it again and I suddenly felt like, “OK. I’m going to take this back to just vocals and guitar, in the original time signature;” and, of course, then, at the end it sort of breaks loose into a different thing to kind of drive it all home. I was so happy with the way that that turned out because I think it really needed to be presented that way - in a sort of restrained, understated way. So, we went into the studio and the guitar player and I went into separate booths and recorded separately and then when I came back into the room I saw that the recording engineer who was interning on the board that day had tears running down his face!
PC: Why so?
DP: He said, “My grandmother was in the original cast of CAROUSEL on Broadway and she sang this song every night. I don’t remember one day where she didn’t sing that song,” so, that made me so proud and I thanked him for telling me that.
PC: What a fantastic story. Did you ever consider not bringing in the orchestra at all?
DP: We did. We do that song at Christmastime and we do it live sometimes, as well, and we have done it that way. It’s just a matter of taste for me, I guess - when I do it with my band it has a great combo feel that I love about it, so we wanted it to reflect that on this record.
PC: It’s a very inspirational iteration of the song, which is really saying something.
DP: There’s actually another story about that song: my sister, Sherri, had sung for fifteen years with me, out on the road singing background vocals and when I went in to record that I knew I wanted her to sing the duet part on it, the first part. She was diagnosed with breast cancer again during the recording of this album, though, so when we recorded the music video for that song - for “You’ll Never Walk Alone” - that was actually the last thing that she did before she passed away. So, to have her in the video and have her be a part of this project, on that song of all songs, is really special - especially because it was not planned at all.
PC: How moving.
DP: To have her voice ringing through on there for me is kind of like hearing my conscience or something - you know, telling me to, “Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain.” So, that song has taken on a whole brand new meaning.
PC: And so pertinent to its message.
DP: Yeah, it really is - and then there's the engineer’s story, too. [Pause.] It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?
PC: It is. Tell me about another one of the original songs you wrote for CLASSIC, “The Dream”.
DP: Well, “The Dream” is kind of my opus. The story with that one is that I have a violin player who travels with me and she is in my band. So, one day, she was warming up with her violin and I heard her doing this melody - I guess if you are a classical violin player you know it, but I didn’t at the time. It’s just this song that most of them know and practice with. So, I went out to where she was warming up playing this song and I said, “That is just a beautiful theme! I know I could really do something with that.” And, so, I knew that the record I was going to be working on coming up had a lot of classical themes on it, too, so I took that theme that she was playing that day and developed it into the song that became “The Dream”.
PC: What is the song about for you?
DP: It’s about a guy dreaming that he sees God in heaven, basically - like Moses does in the Bible.
PC: Was that the inspiration behind the song in the first place?
DP: Yes. The story is Moses's - basically the “What’s your name?” story. You know, he says that he was transported in a dream to the heavenly throne. So, the “I am, I am” - it is a take on that. I really love the ebb and flow of that song. It’s just my little classical piece, though.
PC: Your arrangement of “Bring Him Home” reinvents the melody a bit at the conclusion. How did that come about? It’s very daring - but it works quite well.
DP: Well, to be honest, I was just playing around at the piano one day and that came to me. My goal when I do arrangements like that is to never lose the magic of the song, you know?
PC: Capture the essence.
DP: Yeah. It’s like, “I’m singing this song because there is magic in it - there was something about the way that I originally heard it that makes me want to sing it for you now,” but, at the same time, I do want to put something of myself in there as well. Hopefully, I didn’t lose the magic with my arrangement and kept the spirit of the lyric alive.
PC: There is no doubt about that. It’s a tremendous version.
DP: The emotion behind that song - “Please God hear my prayer and bring them back to me safely!” - is so powerful. For me, arrangements on my albums are always very emotion-driven. I always try to drive home the point of the lyric through the arrangement.
PC: What instruments do you play?
DP: Just piano - and barely. [Laughs.] I always say that I play piano with my fingers crossed, basically.
PC: You have a very instrument-oriented family to help you out, in any event.
DP: Yeah, I am lucky! Some of them do show up on this record, yeah - my daughter and my sisters.
PC: A fellow gospel superstar has also done this column - Sandi Patty. You two have sung together once or twice, have you not?
DP: Yes, we have! I love Sandi. One time we did a video of “A Whole New World” [from ALADDIN]. We sang that duet many, many years ago - many hairstyles ago. [Laughs.]
PC: There have been some questionable hairstyles over the years, for sure! The 90s were rough.
DP: [Big Laugh.] There definitely have been some questionable hairstyles! You’ve got that right, Pat!
PC: 1994 until now - it’s been almost twenty years. What is your favorite of all your Christmas albums so far? ONE WINTRY NIGHT has my two favorites of yours - “Blue Christmas” and “O Holy Night”.
DP: Aww, I think those might be my two favorites, too! I think that’s probably my favorite Christmas recording of mine, as well. You know, I love going back and singing those songs and arranging them - I love arranging them, especially. I really love the vocal work that we did on that recording - you know, we had a lot of free reign to do a lot of a capella stuff because it was Christmas and everything.
PC: You get more room for experimentation.
DP: Exactly. You can get away with more stuff like that. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” were both really fun things to arrange on that, too, I though. I have to admit, I still love listening to those - once in a while, those will come up on my iTunes and I will listen to them and think, “Oh, that was just such a blast to do that, man!”
PC: There are some amazing arrangements on CLASSIC, as well - even some electric guitar and pop/rock stuff.
DP: I told you I like my rock! [Laughs.]
PC: What songs did not make the final cut for CLASSIC?
DP: A lot! I mean, we had a list of 130 songs we were considering when we started out!
PC: That’s a lot!
DP: We did demos for about fifty songs - everything from “Somewhere” to some more mainstream gospel songs. You know, it’s funny you bring that up because that was probably the hardest part of the project - cutting; you know, asking ourselves which ones we were going to cut and save for a second installment or something someday.
PC: CLASSIC II could become a reality sooner rather than later, then?
DP: I guess so!
PC: What about taking on “Empty Chairs And Empty Tables”, also from LES MIZ?
DP: Well, I haven’t sung that one yet, but now that you mention it I may take a look at that - it’s a good idea.
PC: Have you considered any JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR material? Have you ever sung anything from it?
DP: I haven’t recently, but, you know, I do have the soundtrack on my iPod and it comes up from time to time. I am definitely a fan of the music of the late 60s in general - and I love that kind of wild mixture of the choir and the gospel with the rock and other stuff going on in that like a lot of music at the time. There is definitely a lot there that I am drawn to musically.
PC: Puccini is one of Lloyd Webber’s biggest influences. You pull off his material expertly on this album.
DP: I am such a big Puccini fan - and, you know, he was so highly criticized for his orchestrations in his day and I don’t think many people realize how big of an effect he has had on the sound of the modern orchestra. The way that he orchestrated just reinforced the melody all the way through - and we are melody-driven people. We are drawn to melodies - that’s what we really remember. He wrote so many kinds of melody - and I think that’s part of the reason why people are still drawn to him all of these years later. I remember listening to Pavarotti singing “Nessum Dorma” over and over when I first heard it - my aunt had given me a tape of him singing and I was driving to my voice lessons in Houston the first time and when I heard him do that I just had to pull over and try to take it all in.
PC: It blew you away.
DP: It blew me away. I couldn’t believe him singing that - singing “Nessum Dorma”. It moved me so, so much. I’ll never forget it. So, from then on I was just hooked on Puccini. You know, it’s interesting to hear the arias he wrote throughout all his many operas and realize how much they have remained with us as a culture.
PC: He’s everywhere.
DP: Yeah! They’re in movies, they’re on TV, they’re in commercials - and, people hear them and they say, “Oh, I’ve heard this before!” And, usually, they relate it to something good, too.
PC: He conjures good energy.
DP: One other thing about Puccini and my goal with recording all of the opera stuff on this album was basically just to present this material as beautiful melodies on an album; as songs - I am not trying to recreate the operas. When I listen to any of these songs, I just say, “This is a beautiful song, taken completely on its own.”
PC: Out of context.
DP: They’re just incredible, artistic love songs! I mean, whether or not you know what opera it is from or what the story is or what character is singing it, they're just a beautiful songs. If you know the lyric of the song and what it means or not, it is just a moving piece of music!
PC: The international language.
DP: I really wanted to get the emotion across and to get that across - just as a piece on its own, in and of itself. I wanted to sing it in a way where it didn’t have to be a part of a bigger piece - I really feel like these are all complete in the music for them as it exists on the tracks.
PC: How did you arrive at recording this setting of “The Lord’s Prayer”? Have you previously sung any of the others?
DP: No, I haven’t - this is actually my first time recording “The Lord’s Prayer”. I think there is just something about this version that is, again, so emotionally driven - it’s so moving. I purposefully sort of redid it to reinforce the emotion - it starts off with that kind of Kennedy-style moment; a very lonely trumpet. Then, the rise in the music... I am really drawn to that.
PC: Can you naturally hit those kind of high notes without warming up a lot or does it take some coercion to get out those money notes like you do so effortlessly?
DP: Well, you know, the voice is like any other muscle, as I’m sure you know, so it’s always best to warm up. For me, it’s always best to warm up a little bit at least and drink lots and lots and lots of water - that’s the big key. Also, get plenty of rest - that’s another big key for me. Singing in that high register is something that comes a little more naturally for me than other singers, I think, but that’s not to say that I always do it right or that I’ll be able to do it forever. [Laughs.]
PC: You are aware of the limitations of the instrument.
DP: Definitely. But, yeah - it’s something I’ve been able to do since I was a lot younger, so it’s something you have to just be careful with; you can damage your voice if you are not.
PC: Is it true you have hit soprano high Cs before?
DP: Where did you hear that?! I think someone is stretching the truth a little bit with that - but, hey, I’ll take it! [Big Laugh.]
PC: What’s the highest note you have hit in the studio?
DP: I have hit high Ds and Es before, but no soprano C, I don’t think - I could be wrong, though.
PC: What is your vocal warm-up process? Do you have a tape you practice with or something?
DP: Well, for me, singing as much as I do, it really depends on the day - I kind of have to wake up everyday and figure out where my voice is. I still go to a voice teacher and he is absolutely incredible and teaches me so much - you know, it’s like any other professional athlete; you have to go to a trainer every once in a while to help you find different ways to accomplish something you are setting out to do.
PC: An illustrative analogy.
DP: You know, the third or the fourth night in a row you are singing you might do things that you normally wouldn’t do that will get you through but might not be good for you in the long run. It’s good to always have someone there who is objective. But, on a regular day there are a few things I do: I try not to talk too much and I drink lots and lots of water. Sometimes in the early afternoon I will do some light warm-ups if I know I will be singing a lot that evening. I do a lot of head voice practice to get everything in the right placement to make sure my cords aren’t too thick and all that stuff. But, I don’t do the same regimen every day - it depends on where I am with my voice on any given day.
PC: Having such a seemingly pristine instrument, have you still had occasional bad days from time to time?
DP: Oh, yeah! Are you kidding?! [Laughs.] A lot! Yeah, I have definitely had ones where it was hard to get through it - some days it just doesn’t come together, you know? There are nights when it just happens and the concert ends before it feels like it has even begun because you are having so much fun and then there are nights where every note is just a labor.
PC: What do you do then?
DP: On those nights I just go back to my training that I am just so, so thankful that I have now. You know, as a young singer, I was not appreciate of it at all - I felt like it got in the way - but, as I have gotten older, I realize how many nights I just go back to my training to get through it. I just tell myself, “This is how you get through this,” and that’s what I do on the nights that are harder than others. But, that’s all a part of being on the road as much as I am.
PC: You have a Christmas-themed leg of the tour coming up, yes?
DP: Yes. This is the fourteenth Christmas tour, actually.
PC: Congratulations! That’s quite an accomplishment.
DP: Thank you! Yeah - we love doing it. I have been doing this for fourteen years and this December is the most packed ever, I think.
PC: Will you be performing with the Gaithers?
DP: Yes, I will be doing some stuff with the Gaithers, as always, of course, and I will also be doing some solo stuff, as well. It’s a crazy time for me, like always, but I can’t complain because it’s a time when I guess people really like hearing me sing! [Laughs.]
PC: They do! It will be a change from CLASSIC material.
DP: CLASSIC came out in October, so we will continue to do that material once the new year rolls around, but, yeah, right now it is going to be a mix of CLASSIC and Christmas. We will be doing some of this stuff on the Christmas tour and then we will do the full-out CLASSIC tour again when we start up again in January.
PC: What Christmas material will you be adding? Anything new?
DP: Oh, there is so much Christmas stuff we do. We will definitely be doing some of the classic Christmas stuff from the albums and the stuff people expect - people always come out to hear “Joy To The World” and “Away In A Manger”. I think we have a great arrangement of “Away In A Manger” that I really love. Of course, as we were talking about, “O Holy Night” is one of those ones that they would throw tomatoes if I didn’t do. [Laughs.]
PC: Indeed. Perhaps “Joy To The World”?
DP: Oh, well, since my sister, Kari, tours with me, it’s great to have her doing her part on that one - it’s one of those moments where I just want to stop everything and listen to the band whenever we do it.
PC: Your arrangement of that is quite idiosyncratic.
DP: Well, the story with that one is that I went into the room with my orchestrator and I said “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” You know, the Aaron Copland piece, “Rodeo”? [Sings “Rodeo”.]
PC: Yes - made more famous again in the classic commercial, of course.
DP: Yeah, I said to him: “I want it to sound like that; just trumpets blaring and just totally, totally full of joy.” And that’s exactly what he did.
DP: Can you take me through the process of arranging and creating your quite unique version of “Joyful, Joyful” on CLASSIC? I suppose that is also a Christmas song, we could say.
DP: “Joyful, Joyful” on CLASSIC I did the arrangement on. That was one of those songs that so many people have recorded and there are so many arrangements of it - a lot of pop ones, actually, too. So, I went all the way back to Beethoven. I was like, “OK. I want to do this song, but I want to be true to the spirit of Beethoven’s original.” You know, the octave jumps and the triplet themes in it are all from that symphony itself. So, I really tried to incorporate all the themes from the original composition and to respect the ebb and flow of the original piece - you know, right when you think it is about to get even bigger, it pulls back, all the way, to almost nothing. That’s one of my favorite things about Beethoven’s music and a lot of classical music in general - the contrasts. So, I think that it speaks to his original design while I’m still making it my own at the same time.
PC: “What A Wonderful World” is a classic pop standard on the new album. What was the personal meaning behind its inclusion?
DP: Well, that was really one of those songs that I really, really pushed for on this record - because, you know, this is a team thing. That song is just really important to me in general. And, just from a musical standpoint, I needed some material for this project that didn’t sort of go the full range of emotion - I knew I needed some restraint to give it all some balance.
DP: Contrast. And, I love what that song says, too - every time I hear it, that song just makes me smile. We need a message of hope these days, I think.
PC: You can say that again.
DP: Yeah - I think we need the message of that song.
PC: “Goin’ Home” is a bit of an unexpected choice - particularly as a finale.
DP: Yeah. “Goin’ Home” is really special to me, too, though - that’s actually a song that one of Dvorak’s contemporaries wrote the lyrics to years and years ago. It’s been used at presidential funerals and at some major historical events - it’s another one of those melodies that’s really just ingrained in our consciousness. I think that you’re right, though - it’s a bit of a surprise. You might not expect it on this album, but I think that it really is powerful on there - when the lyrics hit you and you realize what it is about; when you consider it is about losing somebody… it is a very powerful moment.
PC: Do you have another project lined up post-CLASSIC yet?
DP: Well, this album just came out in October, so we are still focusing on it and working it for a good long while. Of course, there is always stuff in the works and I am always writing new material, but I’m not in the studio yet. The video of CLASSIC is currently airing on TV and we will be doing some promotional appearances in January and we’ll be going around doing a lot of appearances to promote it coming up.
PC: Since you are from Nashville, I’m curious: what do you think of the new TV series NASHVILLE?
DP: Well, I have not seen the show yet, but I can tell you that we have the whole series so far stacking up on the DVR, so I will be checking it out soon, don’t you worry! [Laughs.] Some friends who have seen it have really gotten a kick out of it, though, so I am pretty optimistic about it - my wife is totally into it, actually, so she is saving all of them up for me to watch with her when I get back from tour.
PC: Do you really see all those stars out and about around town, shopping at Target?
DP: Well, I will tell you what: I really have seen Tanya Tucker at the grocery store before! [Laughs.]
PC: This was a blast, David. Thank you so much and we all can’t wait for CLASSIC II and whatever else you do next!
DP: That means a lot! Thank you so much, Pat. I really appreciate this. Bye bye.
More On: Barbra Streisand, Chris Botti, Sandi Patty, Santa Claus, Aaron Copland, Tanya Tucker.