Residence: I live in the beautiful woods of Scarborough, Maine.
Guilty associations: Vocalist with Riff Cats and the Gatsby Gang Jazz Band; Teaching Partnership Artist with 317 Main; voice and piano instructor at Portsmouth Music and Arts Center and Stone Coast Music
Favorite Seacoast spot: Liar’s Bench.
Average amount of sleep: 8 to 9 hours
Favorite color: Blue.
Here we go:
EDGE: Music. What is it good for? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Phelps: I think music is good for whatever the listener and performer mutually or separately decide it can be, as simple or complex as any other emotional vehicle. Music does hold the exceptional magic of it being immediate and transient, you can’t retrieve or revisit it in the quiet same way ever again. Music has always been a mode of communication and understanding for me, I seek out music in the same way I’d imagine a small child seeks words to express themselves. I create music because I wake up every day with a need to do so, and I still haven’t figured out how to quell or satisfy that need.
EDGE: Voice. What led you to singing and utilizing your voice as an instrument? What do you get out of singing on a personal level?
Phelps: I can't remember a time growing up when I wasn't singing. What I remember more vividly are the many times I was asked or told to stop singing. Most of it was harmless, often I would be singing too loud in a store or humming in a classroom, but unfortunately I encountered a few people growing up who truly discouraged me from singing because my voice wasn't to their liking or “pretty.” Nowadays I can look back on it with more measure, but there definitely was a time when my studies as a musician were fueled by affirming that if I loved singing and worked hard that I could do it, period. Singing everyday helps me feel most myself and I'm immensely thankful I get to do it for a career.
EDGE: Piano. How'd you fall into the ivories? Did you pick piano first to help soundtrack your voice, or ...? When you write songs, do you start with an instrumental, or do you work your way around the piano after you've got some words down?
Phelps: My mother started taking me to the neighborhood piano studio at age 6, and I can never thank her enough for it. Learning to play the piano was joyful and challenging in its own right, but what I enjoyed most was getting to share music with another person ... interacting with someone who was truly invested in my interests and ideas. I am forever grateful to my first piano teacher Tom Henry for encouraging me to write my own music and being endlessly supportive of it while also helping me improve. Most of my writing these days starts with small harmonic or melodic ideas at the piano. Often times there are words or themes circulating, but it takes me much longer to make them concrete.
EDGE: Teaching. You teach piano and voice lessons to area youth at such places as Portsmouth Music and Arts Center and Stone Coast Music (feel free to call out any others). What's the importance of working with kids and fostering music as a working piece of their lives?
Phelps: It is so hard to do that question justice with an all-encompassing answer. I think students get so many different things out of a music lesson. It can be as universal as learning the power of practice and commitment, frustration and working through challenges. Sometimes students really yearn to be heard and have me connect with what they are thinking and feeling, sometimes I am the first person to do that in their day. I believe that fostering a student's skills as a learner, a creator, a critic, and a person have to come first, and the music is an immense unending vehicle for those lessons. If a student is open to that AND we can explore music they love, their potential for growth is limitless, and that's so exciting to be a part of!
EDGE: You're set to be a featured vocalist in PMAC's annual "Jazz Night" this year (on Saturday, March 16). What excites you about the gig and working with your colleagues for this fantastic local tradition at the Music Hall Loft? Do you get nervous before you set foot on stage? How do you clear the butterflies?
Phelps: The theme for this year's Jazz Night is a celebration of Blue Note Records, and having the opportunity to revisit so many fantastic and seminal recordings has been a trip. Some of these songs are my absolute favorites, the kind of songs that are so captivating that you gotta stand up and holler at your speakers, so it will be amazing to share them in a live setting with the community and fantastic jazz faculty at PMAC.
I used to get nervous for every gig no matter how small, but it's much less so now. One of the changes I made is to really emphasize practice over performance. Putting in work is the real accomplishment. If you've done that, then everything else can be a celebration of that work. It's been a great way to make peace with the hiccups and surprises of performing live.