I recently bought a bevy of vinyl off a guy in my building. He just showed up at my door with a crate full of records, which I purchased for a relative song after giving the contents only a cursory glance. Turns out there was a lot of junk in there—I am now the not-so-proud owner of two Barbara Streisand albums—but also some unbelievable gems. Among them is Esther Phillips’ From a Whisper to a Scream, which I’ve been playing for Microkhan Jr. every chance I get. Just a classic slab of audio, and one that has led me to start exploring the underrated Phillips’ full catalog.
That exploration also led me to this rare 1973 interview, in which Phillips talks about something I’d never really thought about: the emotional difficulties of performing songs that hit too close to home:
“For the first time”, she says happily, “I’ve been able to select the songs myself. As a result, they are all things I really dig personally and many of them, like “Baby I’m for Real” and “To Lay Down Beside You” are things I’ve wanted to cut for years and never had the opportunity to. All the material relates to everyday life and people, and I can relate to it all myself, too.”
That probably accounts for the great feel that comes across on her Kudu work but on no other recording is that more evident than the more evident that the controversial “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” from the “Whisper” LP which proved a big seller in the States when it was issued as Esther’s first single for the label. Its stark lyrics are made that much more startling when one considers that the fight against drug addiction was one of the toughest problems that dogged Miss Phillips’ career until she finally beat it with a spell of intensive hospital treatment.
As she put it: “Creed Taylor (from Kudu) asked me to do the song but, naturally, I went through quite a lot of emotional changes before I agreed to do it. After all, although everyone knew about the problems I’d faced, singing the song was just like being interviewed in public about it all. Yeah, I really didn’t want to do it – fact is, I continually postponed recording it and it was the very last song we did for the album. I’ve now gotten used to the song after having sung it continually on stage, though.”
I have to wonder if other recovering musicians have had similar reactions to recording confessional songs about their misbehavior. Guess I should probably read that Anthony Kiedis memoir to find out whether he broke down while doing “Under the Bridge.”