Though many artists have turned to Zoom or socially distanced scenarios to collaborate on projects during the pandemic, singer/songwriter Phil Joel had to look no farther than his own home to find a director, editor and a Bigfoot to star in his new video “Sailing Speed.” Premiering here on Sounds Like Nashville, the clever clip gives fans a taste of Joel’s upcoming solo EP Better Than I Found It, releasing Jan. 22.
In creating the video, Joel recruited his wife Heather, daughter Phynley, 20, and son Eden, 16. “Heather has been involved with television and she loves creating,” Joel tells SLN. “Phynley is studying film with Steve Taylor at [David] Lipscomb [University in Nashville]. She’s loving it and doing a great job. So she edited the video and Heather directed the video. Eden was running around in the Bigfoot suit, so it definitely was a family affair. We’re going to do more of that. I would like to try to create as many videos for this project as possible because we’ve got our little team here and we all love making art. So why not?”
Of course, the video for a song titled “Sailing Speed” sounds like it needs a sailboat, so Joel bought one. “I was sitting there in the studio and my son was playing drums on that song. Then he stopped at one point in between takes and I looked at him and said, ‘We need a sailboat,’ and he’s like, ‘Yes we do!’ So I got straight on Craigslist and I found that blue sailboat. I’ve always wanted one over here in the US. I grew up sailing,” says the Auckland, New Zealand native who moved to Nashville in 1994 to join the Christian music band Newsboys. “I’ve always wanted one and that song just gave me a reason to go out and buy one. I just needed a little nudge. It’s a cheap, old clunky boat, built in 1940 I think. So it’s old and it’s got holes in it, but it still floats.”
In the video, Joel sails the boat to a distant shore where his solo camping trip is interrupted in the middle of the night by a Bigfoot who begins chasing him through the woods. He returns to the boat and escapes, but as he’s looking at Bigfoot on shore, the creature removes the head of the costume and it’s Joel himself. “I’m my own worst enemy, especially when it comes to simplifying my life and prioritizing the things that are important,” Joel says of the message. “I always found a way to sabotage myself at different points and I think we all do. We’re all our worst enemy at different times, so I think it can mean a few different things to a few different groups of people. I come out of the Christian music world, so believers are going to sort of look at that and get some sort of meaning out of it, and maybe people who aren’t knowing me and what I’ve done in the past and the faith connection, they’re going to draw their own conclusions. I like that. I think that’s important.”
“Sailing Speed” is the debut video from Better Than I Found It, Joel’s first solo project in eight years. “It has been too long, but I just feel like it’s the right timing,” says Joel, who spent 12 years with Newsboys before leaving to pursue a solo career. In addition to recording seven solo projects, Joel also formed the worship band Zealand in 2015 and he added author to his resume with his first book, Redwoods and Whales: Becoming Who You Actually Are, published in 2019 by Thomas Nelson. The busy artist also resumed his work with the Newsboys when he and founding member Peter Furler rejoined the platinum-selling band in 2018, releasing new music and touring as Newsboys United, a new incarnation of the band that brought together Joel and Furler with the band’s current membership. Joel is set to resume touring with Newsboys when it’s safe to do so, and is also planning solo dates as well.
Like other artists, Joel’s touring was sidelined last year due to the pandemic, but the time off the road gave him a chance to record Better Than I Found It, which he produced himself at his home studio. “It was a little tougher this time because I was the one twiddling the knobs and moving the faders and all of that which is not normally my bag,” he admits. “I can play the guitars and sing a bit and do some demos, but I’m not very good at engineering, so this was my first sort of full on from start to finish by myself endeavor.”
His wife Heather was very encouraging during the process. “There were moments in making this project when Heather would come out and just sit in the studio and I’d maybe be frustrated with something she’d just look at me and say, ‘Push everything out of your mind and just make art. Make art.’ She’d tell me to forget about whatever it was that was concerning me,” he recalls. “I thought about the old Newsboys days of writing songs like ‘Entertaining Angels’ and ‘WooHoo’ and those songs. We were just writing art and those songs spoke to all kinds of people. I loved that and so this is sort of my endeavor to get back to that.”
Joel says writing and recording the project on his own was both intimidating and liberating. “The isolation is also is a purification too,” he says. “You clear the clutter when you are sitting there by yourself. It takes a little while to clear your head, but luckily I have this wonderful little recording studio behind my house. It’s very basic. It’s nothing fancy. It’s really just an old converted garage and that’s where I went so I could breathe deep and start working. I started chipping away at some of these songs that I’d written the year before in 2019 and I just feel like every song is kind of pertaining to what’s going on right now. I just hope that when people start to listen to them they can speak to the different situations that we’ve been through and are going to be going through I think through 2021. There’s quite a pathway to healing here that we’re all going to be on as a nation and we’re going to need music to soundtrack it. So maybe this will be a part of that healing process.
“We’re still reeling from 2020,” Joel continues. “Just because we have a new date on our letterheads doesn’t mean that everything is fine and everything is back to reset. We are still in the middle of the struggle, but I hope we can bring some hope and shine some light here.”
The title track has been getting attention on iTunes and getting varied reaction. “It can mean a few different things to different people,” Joel says. “My daughter said, ‘Look dad, people are reading all kinds of different things into this song.’ That’s kind of cool because I have a fairly specific idea of what I’m communicating and other people have taken it in all these different directions. Honestly, I wrote it thinking about the planet and the environment and the fact that we have to take care of this thing because this is the only planet we’ve got and we want to leave it better than we found it for our kids and our kids’ kids. It shouldn’t become a political thing… It’s an old message that our parents taught us. We go and visit somebody you make sure and leave the guestroom better than you found it or you borrow something, return it better than you found it. It’s an old message, but it’s very applicable to now.”
Though Joel has found most of his success in Christian music, Better Than I Found It is destined to have broader appeal. “I don’t think I was super conscious of it in writing or recording, but once I got done I realized that we need to put this in the alternative genre because I don’t think it’s not necessarily pop and I don’t think it’s necessarily classic CCM [contemporary Christian music]. My faith hasn’t changed. I’m still the same person, but I would like to maybe for people who haven’t been introduced to what I’ve been doing in the past, maybe stumble across it and not hit that road block of CCM,” he says, acknowledging that people often have preconceived notions about Christian music. “My kids are getting older and their faith is forming, but it’s not necessarily forming with the soundtrack of Christian music in the background. They are listening to different things and I feel like, I would love to be a voice out there to maybe be the soundtrack people’s faith formation outside of the CCM world, so we’ll see where it lands.”
Joel is hoping these songs will be encouraging during this challenging time in history. “I hope that this music will reach out and give some people a hug and let them know they’re not alone in the struggle right now and that there is hope,” he says. “I’ve cried more in front of my television these past 12 months than ever before because this country has been so good to me and has afforded me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. When I see these struggles we are going through it breaks my heart because I love this place. I love its history. I love the things that people who have gone before me have struggled and fought for and won. I realize there is still a long way to go, but I want to be a part of it.”