By Martine Ehrenclou
Quite by accident, I stumbled upon the music by Philip Sayce. A referral from Spotify, based on my listening tastes. I sat down with with his latest album, Scorched Earth, headphones on. For once, I was at a loss for words. This was no ordinary guitar player. He could sing too, an unusual combination.
With seven albums to his name before the recently released live album, Scorched Earth, I could compare the Toronto native to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix as others have. You can hear shadows of those great artists in his playing. But there’s more to Philip Sayce. Dare I say, otherworldly, at the risk of sounding like I live on nuts and berries. This musician is better than most guitarist-singers I’ve seen. Lightening speed riffs, a total mastery of soloing, a genuine feel for blues-rock or rock, whatever you want to call it. Or maybe it’s that when Philip Sayce plays and sings, it seems that he’s emotionally bound and loose at the same time with every note he plays. A place of complete union with his music.
There is a specific type of musician for whom the music takes over and the artist no longer thinks about what he/she is going to do next. It becomes free fall. This is Philip Sayce.
Before digging in about his new live album, I asked Sayce about his musical influences, thinking that I’d hear a recitation of the usual guitar gods. They were in there but there was a lot more.
Philip: Thanks for asking. I’m really turned on by people who aren’t always playing in a cerebral state. There are certain artists that just have to be in music. We see it with athletes too. It’s like something takes over. They may have practiced 24 hours a day for 20 years but they just did something they’ve never done before in the practice room. That’s the kind of artist, where even talking about it, makes my heart start racing. The true improvisers.
For me personally, it turns me on if someone is really giving it (their music) from their personal experience or journey. It’s not only exciting but it makes me feel electrified.
Martine: How about specific artists?
Philip: Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan certainly defines that for me. Jimmy Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Albert King, B.B. King, Jeff Healey. The list goes on.
There are a lot of modern day guitar players, guys that are really tearing it up, who are carrying the torch in that world, so to speak, guys like Joe Bonamassa, Eric Gales, Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall II. Doyle, he’s creating shapes and sounds and feelings every time he plays. That’s the kind of thing that gets me out of bed.
Martine: So tell me about Scorched Earth.
Philip: It came about during a tour we did in Canada in the Spring of 2016. During a stop in Toronto, the fine folks at Warner Music Canada, Steve Waxman to be exact, said, “Hey, what do you think? Let’s try to record one of these shows.” And that’s exactly what we did. We threw up some microphones and gave it everything we had.
It was one stop on a number of stops on a tour in a van. Anybody who’s ever loaded their own gear in and out, not getting much sleep–you know how it is on the road. The reward is when you get to the stage—that’s the true reward. The opportunity to share what I love through music from the stage. It’s really a privilege.
The fine gentlemen who performed with me were Joel Gottschalk on bass and Kiel Feher on drums. We had fun. I’m glad that night was documented. It takes a village. I’m thankful to have a great team to work with to release this music.
Martine: Tell me about the songs you chose for Scorched Earth.
Philip: The idea for the choice of songs is to not wear out the listener if they are not familiar with the project. Like somebody who’s checking it out for the first time, like yourself, Martine. If we put together a two-hour live record, that might be a lot for people in this day and age to digest. We just tried to come up with songs that brought excitement, ones that felt like they flowed together the best.
Scorched Earth was really to give an overview of the experience of that night in the club. It’s a straight live recording. Nothing was tampered with. What you see is what you get.
Martine: I think that’s part of the beauty of the album.
Philip: Thank you.
Martine: I read that you started playing in clubs when you were 16 years old. I’m curious how that was for you as a teenager.
Philip: It was like the best candy store in the world. I was going down to these clubs where all these guys were playing. Everybody brags about Nashville and Austin having the best scene. And they’re right, they do have the best players in those cities. But there are other cities that have musicians that are equally capable and I put Toronto on that map any day of the week.
I was too young to get in but no one was checking. I would see guys like Pat Rush or Michael Keith or a great player like Mike McDonald or Kevin Breit, who is truly one of the best guitar players in the world. I had no idea what they were playing because I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 15 or 16. I just wanted to learn.
I would try to take one thing home with me that I saw somebody (a musician) do and I’d go home and try to learn how to replicate it in my own way.
The opportunity to see these guys play up close was really important. A lot of them were very approachable. They weren’t full of themselves. I would just say, “Man, that was fantastic. How did you do that?” And they were cool. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. I think that rubbed off on me as well. Clubs like Grossman’s in Toronto or The Silver Dollar, and The Horseshoe. They really helped push me along.
Martine: When did you meet Jeff Healey?
Philip: I met Jeff through that community and through a good friend of mine, Corey. Then I was like, “Okay, now we’re talking about the heavyweight champion of the world here. This guy is serious.” I’m really grateful for my upbringing in Toronto.
Martine: You toured with Jeff Healey for several years didn’t you?
Philip: Yeah, that’s right. Jeff was very generous and kind and took me under his golden wing when I was about 19. He was really good to me. In some ways he set the bar impossibly high. I was like, “Oh, shit. I have to get to practicing.” I still feel that way.
Martine: You are a great singer. You have an insane range. Did you sing back then too? Did you start with singing or guitar?
Philip: Thank you, that’s so nice. That’s just something I’ve worked at. The guitar was always the instrument I wanted to play first. Singing came along out of necessity. We had a battle of the bands in high school and our singer wasn’t able to make it. We looked at each other and said, “Who’s going to sing?” So, I just said, “Fine, I’ll do it.” I just kind of jumped in and did the best I could. I’ve been trying ever since.
If I get to listen to Donny Hathaway or D’Angelo or any vocalist who makes your toes curl up, it’s a good reminder to just keep practicing and try to keep getting better.
Martine: It seems you might have purposely stayed away from commercial music. Is that true?
Philip: Well, yes and no. I played with a couple of artists who were very commercial and I really enjoyed it.
Martine: Melissa Etheridge.
Philip: Yeah, Melissa was one of them. But another artist named Uncle Kracker had a number one song for 25 weeks when I was touring with them. It was insane to experience that type of energy. In the mainstream world and the circuit you do the TV shows and you see how people talk to you. It’s a head-trip. You had to be careful not to get wrapped up in it because a lot of it is smoke and mirrors.
I have no problem with commercial music or non-commercial music. I don’t think one is better than the other. It’s all up to you. For me, if I hear Freddie King, that’s going to make me jump ten feet high.
Martine: You’ve been described as one of rock’s best-kept secrets. Why do you think that is?
Philip: I don’t know. It’s up to me I think. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be making the kind of music I care about. It’s organic for me. It’s very authentic. Every time I connect with someone such as yourself, it fills my heart. I welcome the opportunity to reach as many people as possible.
But it’s a crazy business. There are a lot of gatekeepers, a lot of people that its about them. It’s not about the art or the music or the artist. It’s all about the guy sitting in the—
Martine: About the money.
Philip: Yeah. And that’s fine. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to really get a deep understanding of what the priority is and just because my priority is reaching people with music, it doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody who books bands for a living is truly into that. It’s a good selling line but you get to see behind the curtain. You update. You’re thinking quickly and you look for good people to work with.
Martine: It sounds like you went through a time when you had to figure out who did and who didn’t have your best interests at heart.
Philip: We’ve all been there, right? (laughs)
Martine: Oh, yes. (laughs)
Philip: Whether it’s the music business or if you’re in real estate or with a friend, or a lover who you thought was a friend. It’s all part of the learning process I think.
Martine: Learning to trust your instincts maybe?
Philip: You’re absolutely right. If somebody is going to work with you if you wear a certain thing and cut your hair a certain way and sing a song they tell you to sing, they don’t give a shit about you. They’re just going to use that up and when they’re done with that, they’ll throw it in the garbage can and get another one. So you have to decide whether or not that’s your journey. If that’s not who you are, then you’ve got to identify that and say, thank you but no thanks.
Martine: Good advice. Let’s shift gears for a minute. I suspect a lot of people will want to know how you became such a good guitarist.
Philip: Thank you. I see myself as an eternal student. I take influence from great athletes. Certainly from a lot of hockey players. There’s a lot of ego that goes around in some sports but I feel like hockey players are quick to talk about the people around them who help make it possible. You think about the greatest hockey player of all time. It’s going to be Wayne Gretzky and the humility and the way he always carried himself. Even in today’s game with a guy like Sidney Crosby who’s quick to talk about other people when he’s clearly got lasers coming out of his eyes. It could be all about him but that’s not what he does. He talks about his line mates or the coaching.
I think you just have to get in the practice room and just keep working on it every day because there’s more to learn, more to give. If anybody ever questions that for themselves, just listen to Albert Collins for five seconds and then you’ll be like, okay now, I’ll go back to the practice room. One note from an Albert Collins recording and its lights out. You’ve got to practice.
Martine: Speaking of practicing, tell me about your guitars.
Philip: I don’t hoard guitars. I would certainly like to expand on the guitars I own but I’m thankful to have them. I have two Stratocasters from 1963. One of them I bought many years ago while I was touring with Jeff Healey. The other one I purchased seven or eight years ago. I have a 60’s Gibson SG and the other guitar I play a lot is a National Resonator. Those guitars get the brunt of the time. I feel inspired playing them.
Martine: Did you play the Resonator on the song, “I’d Love To Change The World?” I heard acoustic guitar.
Philip: You got it. Yeah. It’s a gigantic song. It was interesting to figure out how to cover it, to come at it from a different angle and still honor the largeness of the composition of that song.
Martine: You chose “Sailin’ Shoes” by Little Feat for your album, Influence. How did you pick a Little Feat song?
Philip: Cool question. I was working on a record with a friend of mine, Dave Cobb, who’s an amazing producer. That song was one of Dave’s suggestions. It felt good.
Martine: What’s next for you as far as touring and albums?
Philip: The live release (Scorched Earth) came out not that long ago. We’re playing a live show in Los Angeles at the Baked Potato. Then we’re going to Arizona next week to play at a very cool festival in Yuma. Then we’ll be touring in Europe. In early April, we’re recording the next studio release. I’ve already started working on it. I’m feeling excited about it.
In wrapping up our phone conversation, I thanked Philip for making the time to talk with me. I shared my thoughts about him being an extraordinary guitarist.
Philip responded with, “Thank you so much for sharing that kindness with me. It really means a lot. I really appreciate that you reached out to me for an interview.”
Scorched Earth is available on: