Under the Influence with Philip Sayce
Imagine, if you will, growing up on a musical diet cooked up by you parents' record collection. The needle drops and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix and BB King, legends of guitar, write the script of your youthful fantasies of one day, just maybe, you would play even a slice of what they did. Your first concert is Eric Clapton. There, in front of you, kid, is the guitar God of Gods, standing alone in the spotlight with his Stratocaster. You get shivers. The lights come up and Clapton does what Clapton does best: he rocks it. As you stand amazed, as so many have in the presence of guitar greatness, you have no idea that one day you’re going to be invited to play your own Strat’ in Madison Square Garden at the festival that legend founded. You’ll play the same stage as some of those greats you used to listen to in the dark including, yes, Clapton himself.
It’s the perfect dream, isn’t it? Only, this isn’t a dream. This is Philip Sayce’s life.
“It was definitely a powerful experience,” Sayce says, looking back on that 2013 performance at the Crossroads Guitar Festival. “The event was bigger than any individual; it was all about raising awareness and funds for Eric's rehabilitation center in Antigua. This is truly inspiring; the fact that Eric is doing something in the world with his fame to help others. That's what it's all about.”
If you follow blues rock, you know Sayce by now. Born in Wales, his parents, along with a slew of fantastic records, moved to Canada and settled in Toronto. Sayce joined his first band in his teens, emulating the style of the greats like Vaughan and Hendrix he heard on those records. Soon, he’d be playing clubs he wasn’t even allowed to buy a drink in and would become a staple of Toronto’s bar scene. He shaped his skills in places like the famed Horseshoe Tavern and many a night at Grossman’s. People started to take notice. One of them was Jeff Healey, who invited the young Sayce on stage one night to jam with him.
Not long after Sayce was playing with Uncle Kracker to huge crowds, including one in Times Square for a New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. In 2003 Melissa Etheridge was looking for a guitarist. Sayce got the call. Between there and the Crossroads, Sayce supported groups like ZZ Top and Deep Purple, played on the Oscars as well as for the president, and started releasing his own albums with Ruby Electric (2011) and Steamroller (2012). He was also gaining notoriety as one of the best guitarists around. Besting close to 3,000 others and winning the Ernie Ball Play Crossroads Competition to strap on his guitar on Clapton’s stage must have been that cherry on top of it all.
He’s back with a powerful new album, Influence. Aptly titled, the album, with tracks like Graham Nash’s “Better Days”, Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World” and the Hendrix inspired “Out of My Mind”, is a tribute to those who helped shape his career. You can hear it in every blistering chord but, mainly, what you hear is that Sayce is a guitar force to be reckoned. He signed with his first major record label , Warner Music Canada, last year.
Perhaps one night in a crowd watching him, some kid will be inspired to reach for a guitar and, maybe, move into legend. Is it you? Find out when Sayce plays the Rainbow, Ottawa’s legendary home of the blues, on November 4 and 5.
Ottawa Life caught up with Sayce on his current tour to talk about the new album, his time with Healey and his recent signing with his first major record label.
Ottawa Life: The new album is called Influence and Jeff Healey was one of your biggest?
Sayce: Yes, Jeff's music lit a fire in me! It burns brighter now than it ever has. His music really freaked me out! I had the opportunity to meet Jeff when I was first starting on the scene in Toronto. My good friend Corey Mihailiuk planted the seed and originally introduced us. During our first meeting I was, of course, nervous and couldn't think of anything to say, but Jeff was kind and gracious. Getting to know him over the next few years only endeared me more to him and his music.
Can you describe that first night he invited you up on stage?
It actually wasn't planned. We both ended up being in Kensington market in Toronto at the same time. I was with my manager and we ran into Jeff. We ended up going into a club there and, of course, as soon as Jeff walked into a club he was immediately invited up onstage, everywhere in the world. Jeff grabbed me and said "Let's go! You grab the guitar, I'll play bass." I was pretty freaked out, having to play guitar for one of my favourite musicians on the planet! We ended up playing a couple of Cream songs, I think it was "Crossroads" by Robert Johnson and "Spoonful" by Willie Dixon, and it was truly amazing. We then walked outside and Jeff invited me to join his band. I was completely speechless.
You did eventually speak to say yes, right?
Of course I said yes! Jeff was a true musical genius. To be in his presence on a nightly basis when I was 19 through 23 or so, was what I call the University of Jeff Healey. It was unbelievable what he could do, there were no limitations. One of the most beautiful improvisers I've ever heard, he set the watermark extraordinarily high, and it sent me on a lifelong journey of always trying to get better, always trying to get deeper, and always giving my all. I honestly just tried to be a sponge in his presence and learn as much as I possibly could. It was a beautiful time that I am eternally grateful for.
After that you headed on down to Los Angeles? Seems like that move paid off.
My now wife and I got in our car and drove. I knew a couple of people there, but that was it. I started from the beginning. I went out to open jams like I was doing in Toronto, and just introduced myself to people, and did the best that I could with every opportunity. One of the contacts I knew in Los Angeles, Mike Bradford, was cool enough to return my call and said that Uncle Kracker was looking for someone that could play and sing. So I ended up playing and touring with them for about 18 months while he was enjoying tremendous popularity and success. It was a great learning experience.
With all that going on how did playing with Melissa Etheridge come about?
I went to Westwood Music in Los Angeles to try some Mojave amplifiers one morning. It looked like that scene at the beginning of Back to the Future, and I was having a lot of fun cranking up the amps. In walked producer John Shanks who came right over and introduced himself. He's a great guitar player, and we shared a bond in old vintage guitars. He just finished producing a Melissa Etheridge record and was mixing it, and played me a couple tracks. A few weeks later Melissa's camp called me and asked if I would be interested in going out on tour with her. It was super exciting as I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for her. I ended up working with Melissa for four years, and cherish every moment of that experience. Playing at the Oscars, the Grammys, The Democratic National Convention as Barack Obama was being elected are among the highlights, as well as her incredible tours and fans, but also, again, I did my best to be a sponge and learn as much as I possibly could from Melissa's musical mastery.
How have you been able to showcase your own music while sharing the stage?
The three artists that I've mentioned, all went out of their way to make room for me on their stages. I'm so grateful that they gave me an opportunity to do what I personally do with my music. They embraced me and what I was doing, and always encouraged me to keep going further! They are true mentors, true artists.
How did you start putting Influence together?
Influence is an album that I created with producer Dave Cobb in Nashville. I was going through a tough time in the sometimes unscrupulous music business. We had made a few records together before this one, so he reached out to me and said "let's start making some more music together." So I took a few trips to Nashville and from those sessions came Influence. Shortly after it was recorded, I connected with Steve Waxman at Warner Music Canada. He was listening to a Spotify playlist and heard some of my music and reached out to say hi. In April 2016, the deluxe Canadian release of Influence was released on Warner.
It goes to show you never really know how you're going to be discovered, right? However, you've been incredibly patient in regards to waiting for one of the big three to pick you up. What kept you going and motivated you to keep plugging away?
I love music. I love the creating from an emotional and spiritual and connected place. I'm just doing the very best that I can to keep getting better keep growing as an artist and as a person, and hopefully put something good into the world.
You seem to have a pretty varied music taste. I gather a lot of that is from listening to those records your parents' had. What are some of the musicians you are listening to these day now that you're creating your own collection?
I'm still listening to all the artists that turned me on when I was a little kid! Music is a lifelong commitment for me. When I hear something that I love, I add it to the library of music that turns me on. There's lots of great music, not only what we hear in the pop mainstream, but lots of artists that are making excellent music today. I really try to look for music that grabs me at an emotional level, or resonates with me in some kind of way. Doesn't matter if it's Polka or Metal, I just want to feel something.
What’s on the horizon for you that you’d like to share?
I've had a live release in the can for quite some time now. I hope to make some of those recordings available ASAP. I've also been writing music and have a lot of ideas started that I would like to finish and release. Ideally, continuing to develop artistically as well. I hope to return to Europe as well. We spent a lot of time touring and releasing records there, and we are overdue for a return. I'm always on the lookout for like-minded collaborators, good people to work with that are working with artists because they love music and also want to put something good into the world.