How a local musician found success without losing himself
Phillip Sandifer started writing songs and playing guitar in high school. By the late 1970s he was a UT student and “guitar-based dude” who didn’t know much about what to do with his music. So he decided to find someone who did.
After searching through the Yellow Pages for production studio advertisements, Phillip cold-called Gary Powell, a local producer, and asked to stop by Gary’s Austin studio to play a few songs.
Gary remembers the day clearly. “Phillip came into the studio and said, ‘My family and friends think I’m really good, but I can’t trust them. I need a third-source,’” says Gary, a Grammy-nominated producer who has produced 147 albums and sold more than 45 million records.
“He played a few songs, and I said, ‘Phillip, I’m really sorry to be telling you this, but you’re going to be doing this your whole life. You are too good to quit,’” Gary recalls with a smile.
Gary produced Phillip’s first album in 1981. Today, Phillip, who lives in Dripping Springs, is a popular musician in the Contemporary Christian music and Americana music genres who’s produced more than 27 albums during his career. He has authored and performed 22 Top 40 Adult Contemporary songs and six #1 Contemporary Christian songs. Phillip has also written songs and produced projects for numerous musicians, including Glen Campbell, Roger Nichols, and Jennifer Warnes.
When Phillip started writing music in his teens, he unconsciously wove an exploration of faith into his lyrics. At the time, he didn’t even know the Contemporary Christian genre existed; he just wrote about what mattered to him. “Music is a viable place for faith and dialogue,” Phillip says. “In so much of music, there is a pursuit of faith or meaning.”
As the son of a father who was an Episcopal priest and a mother who was passionate about music, Phillip was exposed to both faith and music while growing up. “I think that’s where my DNA came from—my mother’s pursuit and love of music and my dad’s love of drama and life dialogue,” Philip surmises.
Although some of Phillip’s songs feature spiritual themes, the quality of his music and his thoughtful and clever lyrics set him apart, says Gary. “His lyrics have an emotional element to them. They are beautifully executed, not manipulated. And his melodies are immediately memorable.”
Riding the Wave
Gary recognized Phillip’s talent, but even as a young producer himself, Gary worried that Phillip might be forced to change his musical style to fit the mold national record labels wanted. In fact, he initially told Phillip not to pursue Christian music. “At the time, the Christian genre had a particular sound that didn’t match with what Philip was doing,” he explains.
Regardless, Phillip chose to follow where his song-writing led him, and Gary hooked him up with Sparrow Records, an LA-based music distribution company active in Christian music. The new arrangement with Sparrow was ideal as it allowed Phillip to produce his music and start his own independent record label, Urgent Records.
Phillip was already making a name for himself, touring the country and selling LPs out of his car. His often faith-infused music developed a strong following on college campuses, and soon his music started getting airplay on radio stations across the country. Phillip enjoyed the touring path and produced eight of his own solo albums over the next two decades. But after recording a particular song in the mid-90s, he found himself unconsciously changing his style to get more air play. “I was getting older and beginning to realize that when an artist is heading in a direction that feels inauthentic, it is not a good place to live,” Phillip explains.
The problem with making a living in music, Phillip says, is there is a huge distinction between making music and making a living.
A long-time fan of radio, yet cognizant of the limitations it can place on artists, Phillip saw the opportunity for a new kind of radio station where artists could remain loyal to their creative instincts. So he started an eclectic local music radio station on a Dripping Springs frequency and filed for the station’s call letters, KDRP. Yet in the midst of getting the station off the ground, Phillip received an offer to be the worship and arts director at a church in Kansas City.
Phillip had recently enjoyed serving as an arts and music director at Austin Christian Fellowship, so he took the job. It was a good move for his wife and four kids, and he knew the job would give him more opportunity to support and encourage creativity in other musical artists. He ran the music station in his spare time from Kansas, playing a broad spectrum of music often not played in the commercial music sphere.
Then Phillip got a call from Austin radio veteran Daryl O’Neal, who was interested in running the station. Phillip, who jokes he is not a radio business expert, listened to Daryl’s vision for KDRP and decided to let him take the reins. KDRP is now Sun Radio, one of the most popular radio stations in Austin, known for its underground and diverse mix of artists and music.
Loving the Influence
Phillip moved back to Dripping Springs last spring to take a music director position at Lakeway Church after more than 12 years away from the Austin area. He’s just released an album titled Recently Played under his label and finds himself writing and producing more Americana music, a musically flexible genre, these days. He’s come to realize that what he loves most is influencing and helping other artists produce music.
The best record Phillip believes he was ever associated with was Bob Bennett’s Songs from Bright Avenue, released in 1991 after many expensive hours in the studio. At the time, Bob was going through a divorce and was reluctant to write about it. Phillip encouraged him to do so and explained that the painful situation should not disqualify him from singing about life experiences, even in the Christian music world. Bob took his advice, and 26 years later, people still tell Phillip how much the album meant to them.
Phillip has never viewed himself as a Christian musician or placed himself in any particular category. He says he’s fortunate to have been able to make the music he wanted to create all along. No matter what Phillip or the musicians with whom he collaborates write or sing about, he cares most about ensuring that the art is an extension of who they are.
Phillip Sandifer resides in Dripping Springs and has just released a new album titled Recently Played. Visit www.phillipsandifer.com for details.