During the final week of 2012, the most recent “American Idol” champion, Phillip Phillips, saw his debut album cross the half-million sold mark. It occurred at a rare moment of rest for Phillips, who was enjoying his first break after a nine-month whirl of activity.
Phillips’ “The World From the Side of the Moon” has sold 533,000 copies in six weeks, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the fastest-selling debut from an “Idol” winner since the self-titled debut from season-seven champ David Cook sold 811,000 copies in the same time span in 2008.
Phillip and Jimmy on the Cover
Where Phillips stands alone is in the success of a single first performed on the show. His coronation song, “Home,” written by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden, has delivered at a level unlike any other track performed by a current “Idol” contestant. It has hit No. 1 on a host of Billboard charts like Hot Digital Songs, Rock Digital Songs, Adult Top 40 and Triple A and reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 7), Mainstream Top 40 (No. 8) and Adult Contemporary (No. 6), while selling 3.3 million copies, more than any other coronation song.
“The folks at Pulse Recordings brought me a great song and I knew it was perfect for Phillip,” Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine says. “Then the Olympics came and”-he lets loose with what can best be described as a train whistle sound: “Woo-hoo!” NBC used “Home” as a music bed for Olympic coverage of the women’s gymnastic team, which helped drive huge gains for the song nine weeks after it sold 278,000 in its debut week. The track leaped to 228,000 downloads sold the week of Aug. 5, up from 40,000, and sold more than 100,000 per week through Sept. 23. Top 40 airplay kicked in in mid-November and it again started posting sales of more than 100,000 units per week.
Phillips, speaking from his home in Leesburg, Ga., where he was resting for a couple of weeks before heading out on the road, says he realized it was a good song as soon as he heard it. The positive, when recording and performing it in the show’s final week, was “that it didn’t feel like a cover.” The negative? “I didn’t have time to let it grow and become my own before we recorded it.”
Touring with nine of his fellow “Idol” contestants from early July through mid-September, Phillips found himself growing more comfortable with the song. “After I had been playing it for quite some time I sat down and played it by myself, learning the ins and outs of the song and looked for a way to make it more of my own. I don’t like playing songs straightforward-I like switching them up.”
Phillips has a heavy-duty touring schedule coming up. He has 10 college dates in January with a four-piece acoustic band, 21 dates opening for Matchbox Twenty from Jan. 29-Feb. 27 and more college shows with an electric band from March through May.
The key for Phillips is to keep expanding musically, leaning on the training he got through jam sessions as teenager. “I always tell people that you have to play shows, you have to do what you can to get out there, and it can’t be about the money,” he says. “Jam out with a band for three or four hours. Do a live gig for food. You have to get out and do it.” Part of that will be seen in the way he toys with “Hold On” and “Man on the Moon”-two of the five songs he wrote solo on his debut-in his concert sets.
Superficially, Phillips fits a stereotype of recent “Idol” winners-guitar strummers from the South who lean toward story-based songs and maneuver through the competition by staying within their comfort zones even during the themed weeks. It worked for season 10’s teen country singer Scotty McCreery, season nine’s folky finalists Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox and the two winners before them, Kris Allen and Cook.
Phillips’ distinction is that he’s the first winner with a sound rooted in jam bands and folk-rock-an alternative to the styles covered on the Fox program. “This wasn’t music you were hearing on the radio,” Iovine says, referring to the show’s run early in the year, which predated the pop acceptance of the Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and the second Mumford & Sons album. “Phillip is a true artist and the fact that people are embracing his album shows they accept him as an artist.”
When 19 Recordings went through BMG and then Sony-BMG, then-chairman/CEO Clive Davis said the first 300,000 of any winner’s album sales were “a souvenir of the show.” Pushing sales beyond a half-million was the responsibility of the record company and owed to the material and the marketing. If one were to recalculate that based on album sales being two-thirds of what they were in 2002, the year “Idol” debuted, Phillips’ start more closely resembles that of Carrie Underwood than Taylor Hicks.
“I knew what I wanted to do before I tried out for ‘Idol,'” he says. “I had written a lot of the songs before the show. A few co-writes came up and [19 and Interscope executives] knew what they wanted and I think it met the expectations. They understood what kind of album I wanted to make.”
One of those writing sessions was with Gregg Wattenberg, a writer on Daughtry’s “It’s Not Over,” O.A.R.’s “Shattered (Turn the Car Around)” and Goo Goo Dolls’ “Let Love In” whose production credits include Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” and Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” Together in Wattenberg’s New York studio they wrote “Get Up Get Down” (with Derek Fuhrmann) and “Can’t Go Wrong” with “Home” co-writer Pearson.
The sessions, Phillips says, “helped build our friendship — he’s a goofy guy and I’m a goofy guy — and when I had to come up with a producer, I mentioned him and we made it happen.”
They had three weeks to make the album, and while Phillips co-wrote 10 of the 14 tracks, the label put some songs in front of him he didn’t care for. After he discarded a few of 19’s selections, he was handed “Gone, Gone, Gone” from the pen of Wattenberg, Fuhrmann and Todd Clark; it is his second single. “I’m glad we switched,” he says. “The other ones made me want to scream.”
Phillips says he was surprised at how stressful the making of the album was, yet was pleased how Wattenberg “taught me a lot about production, but let me make a lot of the decisions.”
One could say that somewhat resembled his run on “Idol,” songs from which he believes will remain in his concert sets — Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out,” Usher’s “Nice & Slow,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” His attitude toward “Idol,” he believes, was different from most contestants. It wasn’t until he saw season 10’s Casey Abrams, the double bassist/singer who favored Ray Charles and jazzy interpretations of pop (and finished in sixth place), that he could even envision trying out.
“I honestly didn’t think people would like me — I didn’t care what happened on the show,” he says. “It never seemed like a competition. I always made sure I was having fun and the band was having a good time. I didn’t give in to what some people give into — the fame. I went in, played the song and went back and got in bed. I hope it opens doors for other [non-pop singers] to do the show.”