Just days after he was crowned winner of the 11th season of American Idol, Phillip Phillips’ thoughts turned to his impending debut album. The project wasn’t a surprise: The 22-year-old knew that winning came with a major-label release on 19/Interscope. But the Leesburg, Georgia, native was no doubt aware that a handful of the show’s former winners had squandered their golden opportunities by rushing out the sort of pop-aiming debut that’s easy for fans and critics to overlook. To that end, when it came time to plot his own first-look, Phillips wasn’t about to relinquish any of his creative integrity.
“That was the biggest thing, man,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to his outside-the-box vision for The World From the Side of the Moon, due today. “I wanted to have a lot of freedom on the album.”
It’s rare that winning a singing competition gives an artist the power to call his own shots. But thankfully for Phillips, Interscope head Jimmy Iovine had mentored the singer on Idol, and had witnessed firsthand his knack for turning left-field decisions into melodic gold. The two had what Phillips describes as a “good talk” about the album, after which Iovine gave the singer free rein. “He had a lot of trust in me,” Phillips says. “I felt really good about that. He wanted me to make the album I wanted to which I thought was really awesome of him.”
It helped, of course, that Phillips’ debut single, the Mumford & Sons-esque “Home,” made him the first Idol alum in four years to send a coronation track into the Billboard Hot 100 (the song peaked at Number Nine and, to date, has moved 2.25 million units). “It’s actually pretty insane,” Phillips says. “I never liked keeping up with how well [the song] was doing or anything like that ’cause I didn’t want to get my hopes up and then get disappointed. So I tried to stay out of all the numbers and everything. But whenever I’m playing and people are actually singing with it, it’s just unreal for me. ‘Cause I’m not used to it. Maybe I won’t ever get used to it. But that’s what keeps it exciting and fun for me. It’s just a blessing, man.”
After wrapping a summer tour with his fellow Idol finalists, Phillips learned he’d have only three weeks to record his debut LP. “I didn’t have too much time to get an approach,” he says. Fortunately, the singer had hatched the bulk of his ideas for Moon “a couple years ago,” so it was more a matter of getting into the studio.
“It was a lot of give and take,” he adds of the Moon sessions, which took place this fall with a group of backing musicians at the Quad Studios in New York City, who weren’t shy about offering suggestions. Sometimes Phillips agreed, and sometimes he didn’t. Either way, he says, it was productive: “We got stuff done. It was a lot of fun making it.”
One key to the songs was leaving enough space for future improvisation onstage. “That was huge,” Phillips says. “I didn’t want to overproduce anything. I wanted to keep it the way I could do it live and have fun and have some solos in there and everything. I mean, every artist has a little bit of something they make a little spicy, but I wanted to keep it as raw as possible.”
Driven by his acoustic-guitar bravado, and full of sweeping verses and uplifting power-pop hooks, Moon will feel instantly familiar to fans who discovered Phillips on Idol. There’s a sense of lyrical maturity on the album to boot: on opener “Man on the Moon,” the singer/songwriter tells off a gun-shy lover, singing, “You can find yourself if you decide to finally start / But don’t look to me when you fall.” Later, on the Dave Matthews Band-esque ballad “Tell Me a Story,” there’s world-weary wisdom in the young man’s voice when he proselytizes, “Scared of what’s behind you, scared of what’s in front / Live with what you have now and make the best of what’s to come.”
It’s not the first time the singer has gotten the Matthews comparison, but he doesn’t mind at all. “People will tell me that every now and then,” he says, laughing. “I take it as a compliment. He’s one of my heroes.”