Musical artist Phil Joel brings an independent spirit to the legendary group Newsboys, standing out while composing cohesive music and lyrics that unite the group’s sound. And so, it is with great success that Phil branches out into solo work. Here, his style can freely breathe as he shares intimate, mysterious lyrics combined with decades of musical influences peppered throughout each song on his new album, Better Than I Found It.
He was as much interested in hearing my thoughts on his work as I was in deciphering the meaning behind some of the lyrics. It’s this generous attitude toward the exchange of ideas which compelled me to not just skim through the songs, but to fully listen to the entire album in preparation for our conversation.
After talking with Phil, it is evident that he is guided by his faith and love for family (it was especially touching how he spoke of his wife Heather) in this endeavor. On Better Than I Found It, Phil invites us to come along with him as he advocates unity in the church and dedication to caring for God’s creation.
Speaking from a New Zealand hotel room with a view overlooking the magnificent Auckland harbor (seriously, Google it) where he and his family were under a two-week quarantine before being allowed to roam throughout the country, Phil graciously gave up his allotted rooftop time slot so that we could chat about his new project.
You start off with the title song “Better Than I Found It.” The first line of the song states, “turns out you’re not the only one who cares about what’s going on around here.”
Well, I’m curious as to what you think that’s about.
The whole song or that line? I was a Girl Scout growing up and I don’t know if you know anything about American Girl Scouts, but one of our rules is you have to leave a place better than you found it. So I grew up with this concept, like cleaning up camp sites and trails. But it was always kind of an abstract thought about anything beyond what was right in front of me. Since I’ve gotten older and especially in the last few years, realizing that the actions we take today impact not just the next generations, but are impacting me now. It’s really, I think the song reminds me that we’re going to see results from actions we take or don’t take today. So that’s what it was to me.
Good. No, I love that. I love that. Well, for me, it was originally, you know, gosh, you know, you’re kind of one of the first in the first phase of interviews I’m going to be doing with this record. And it’s, it’s interesting these not talking about these songs and, you know, you hold back in certain places and then you sort of dive in and other areas. Then you sort of survey the room a little bit and try and get a gauge on, on what may be acceptable and what might not be. And this is kind of one of those moments because to me, the song comes from me, seeing, realizing, and understanding that we, as believers need to do a better job of stewarding this planet, stewarding the planet, like the Girl Scouts we need. We need to look after what we’ve got and in order to hopefully leave this place better than we found it.
But, and that takes us really looking at how we’re looking after the environment. Now we’re looking after the planet and I know that’s become a political issue and it’s, that drives me insane because I feel like we, as believers should be in the front saying, Hey, how can we care for this creation that our creator has given us, just do it? How can we do this to the best of our abilities? How can we help the next crew coming through you know, have cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner atmosphere, clean up everything. Because if we think it’s all just going to get trashed and it doesn’t matter. And we haven’t been, there are no consequences to what we’re doing, and we’re all going to get out of here and the away to some bit of place. That’s a horrible way to, that’s an absolutely irresponsible way of looking at the creation and how we need to take care of it. And what better way to honor our creator than take care of his creation?
It’s going to take us all, you know, putting a lot of things under the microscope, you know, how we do things, different practices, different buying habits, different ways in which we do things yeah,
So much has – we’ve just stopped. We are stopped and are forced to reevaluate everything.
Yes, yes. And it’s not a bad definitely, you know? Yeah. Life has been ground to a halt for a bit, and we are forced to take stock. And I think this may be one of those things that we need to take a look at.
I blame the Girl Scouts for giving me a worldview that taught ecological responsibility, something that’s carried with me throughout my faith.
You’re the same vintage as me pretty much. No, I shouldn’t say that because I’m a few years older, you’ll definitely notice that the crew coming up – I have a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old. I’m sure you’re noticing this, these issues are big to them, taking care of this planet. They’re wanting to look into renewable energies. They don’t want to fill the ocean with plastic that emit more greenhouse gases. They want to take care of what we have. It’s very important to them.
I want to be able to say to that team, that generation, keep going – stick with these things, keep moving forward and keep making changes as you see them deemed necessary and learn to be good stewards of this planet. And don’t allow other voices that come in and, and and challenge these things. How do I, how do I say this, Kim it’s it’s become, it’s almost become something in the church that we just won’t talk about. We don’t want to talk about it. And I know my kids’ friends are falling away from the faith because they’re kind of feeling like the church doesn’t care about the planet and it doesn’t care about its fellow man. And and that’s kind of brutal. We should be like the front runners.
So when you listen to your own music, who do you hear? Who has influenced you in your life and in your songs?
I think there’ve been a lot of influences. Early on voices of faith and music would have been, you know, Keith Green of course. And then, you know, on the rock front of Christian music, there was a band called the altar boys in California. And they the music made its way down to New Zealand. I think both of those acts, both of them call them, acts both of those. You know, artists were very passionate or impassioned and there was an urgency about what they did. And I kind of love that. I gravitated towards that. So I try and get a little bit of that, you know, into what I do. Then of course there were other mainstream bands that had a great influence on me growing up. Like you too. Of course. You two, would’ve been a big one and you can’t escape the Beatles if you’re a songwriter.
The last song that’s in my notes here, is “Other Sides” – “stay where you are and let the river run dry.” But the first time I heard the lyric, it just it was very striking. I immediately pictured a person standing in the middle of the ocean struggling to get back to shore, but they make it to the sandbar and they have to rest because they can’t fight it any longer. And eventually the ocean tide goes out and they’re standing on solid ground.
So good. So, so good. I love that
Tell me your take on your lyric.
No, not, not going to answer that one. I’m serious. I’m serious.
What?! I mean, I pour my heart out to you and you’re like, ‘No?’
You know, I wrote a song years and years ago called “Entertaining Angels.” And no one even knew what that lyric was about except for me. And I kind of loved that and I still play that song everywhere I go. And I think if, if I told people what I was thinking, when I wrote it, it may lose, it may diminish the power of what that lyric would have done otherwise. And I feel the same thing with this “Let the river run dry.” It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Some things just, we need to come to the end of ourselves at different points, you know? And sometimes we just need to stand really still, like you said, on that sandbar and not move and wait for help to come. And it will. But we’d best to sort of give up the struggle in the moment and just be still. So that’s probably, you know, a nice, safe way of describing what that’s about, but I also like leaving it a little open for other people’s interpretation.
How do you maintain your self without having so much out there that you’re like, ‘I’m so tired of people knowing the inner workings of my heart?’
So true. It is a bit of a balance. You know, that’s why I’m married. She regulates what I say and what I do. Heather, yes. We will have our 25 year wedding anniversary here in a couple of weeks. Like I can’t believe it’s been 25 years.
That is wonderful! Now, since New Zealand currently has relaxed guidelines, would you be able to have shows?
Oh yeah. New Zealand has done the most incredible job of eradicating and keeping COVID at bay here. And once we get out of this hotel, I won’t have to wear a mask and I can hug whoever I want. And we will, I’m here to play a concert at Festival One. And you know, life is back to normal here, but they’re watching and guarding the borders very safely, very closely. That’s hence the two weeks of quarantining in the hotel. I’m really excited about this show. Actually, we’re going to film it so hopefully we can bring it back and other people can watch it and it’s going to be me as a solo artist. And so I’m going to go back over, starting with “God is Watching Over You” and then dipping my toe into some of the Newsboys waters and some Zeeland stuff and the new stuff.
I’ll definitely keep an eye on that to see if we can share that with our readers and listeners here. I think I’ve reached the end of my list of questions and my thoughts. Is there anything that you wanted to mention that I totally missed?
Well, hopefully you’re picking up on this project and the themes of, of unity and of healing and of desire for our faith community to be seen as people of kindness. That’s what I really it’s really been on my heart. And it’s really saddening me that I’m seeing a lot of people shaking fists, but as opposed to opening their hands and, and and saying, Hey, we may see this, see these issues that are surrounding us through different lenses, but we’re here to say, you know, we love you and
I just hope that the theme of the desire for us as people of faith to be seen and heard as people of kindness people with open hands as opposed to clenched fists would come through in this music.