Music producer Idris Phillips, who recorded his solo album in Dubai, dies at 64

The artist also toured with jazz luminaries Mose Allison, Richie Havens and Livingston Taylor

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Sometimes, putting down what you want to say on record takes time.

For singer-songwriter Idris Phillips, it took 40 years and Dubai was the location where he finally recorded his one and only solo album, the gorgeous Star by Moon.

Released in 2014, it is destined to become one of those classic forgotten albums, to be discovered by generations later, similar to the work of 1970s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, as profiled in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Phillips is no longer around to see the fruits of that particular labour. The American musician died on Saturday aged 64. No cause of death has been revealed.

Despite that one record, available on Spotify, he leaves behind a formidable legacy in the UAE and abroad as a seasoned musician and composer who collaborated with folk and jazz greats, mentoring aspiring talent, in addition to developing a polished sound that took Islamic-inspired devotional songs to the masses.

That impact is demonstrated with various musicians, from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Yusuf Islam to nasheed music star Zain Bhikha, paying tribute to their deceased colleague on social media.

"To God we return: my beloved brother and musician friend Idris Phillips has passed away," said Islam, the singer also known as Cat Stevens.

"He was such a sweet soul and leaves an endearing shadow in Nashville, as we walk on.”

South African Bhikha expressed his devastation at the loss of a frequent collaborator.

"Just heard the saddest news, my friend Idris Phillips passed away today. He was a friend and a great musician I worked with for so many years," he posted.

The search for contentment

Idris Phillips recording his album 'Star by Moon'. Clint McLean for The National

Phillips was born Phillip Bubel in Salt Lake City and growing up in Los Angeles, he took up the guitar at age 9, after being inspired by his mother’s love for flamenco music.

A young prodigy, Phillips immersed himself deep in the American country and jazz scenes, with stints in Nashville as a multi-­instrumental session musician, in addition to taking on touring duties with 1970s jazz luminaries Mose Allison, Richie Havens and Livingston Taylor.

Meanwhile, Phillips was also undertaking an internal journey of his own. A fan of spiritual literature, he says he always had a fascination with the otherworldly.

Clarity arrived to him in the form of a Quran, a gift given to him by an acquaintance after a residency show in a Phoenix casino in 1988.

“She was of another faith and her mother basically wanted the book out of the house and she brought it to me,” he told The National in 2014, in the first of many professional and private conversations shared over the years.

“Now, I’d heard of Muslims, but I didn’t know what a Muslim was or is. So I read the book from cover to cover over a year and I remembered that it was really interesting. My mind was open at the time and it became increasingly clear. The more I read it, I just felt like it was talking to me.”

After converting to Islam a year later and taking on the new first name of Idris — the Arabic name for the prophet Enoch — the new spiritual outlook necessitated a major overhaul to his music career.

The regular touring spots of casinos and piano bars were ditched in favour of charity events and producing for popular Muslim artists such as the Canadian singer-songwriter Dawud Wharnsby and the aforementioned Bhikha.

Coming to Dubai

It was the association with the Muslim artistic scene that led him to Dubai in 2012, to take on a role as a producer for Let The Change Be, a former production company run by Islam’s daughter Hasanah Islam and son-in-law Majid Hussain.

"He had so much music oozing out of him. He'd be in the studio first thing in the morning composing and staying late, still composing. He breathed music," Hussain tells The National.

"The artists that came to the studio got to see up close a really extraordinary multi-musician and songwriter. He was gifted, without ego and they got to work with someone who was incredibly talented but even more humble.”

One of those artists was US singer Alman Nusrat, who flew to Dubai in 2014 for songwriting sessions with Phillips for his debut album River.

"I had the privilege and honour of spending so much time with him — in the studio, on planes, at hotels, and I will fondly remember meeting him at the street corner every day as we got a cab together to the studio,” he posted online.

“Every day for months. Idris, you taught me so much about musicianship, lessons I carry to this day. Your talent and story, your journey and resilience, have always inspired me.”

Being immersed in those intensive recording sessions also rekindled a chronically delayed project from Phillips, who set to work on recording the songs that would become Star by Moon.

Also convincing him the time was right was the encouragement of Yusuf, who ventured to Let The Change Be to hear the songs himself.

“It was crazy, man,” Phillips recalled.

“He sat down with me for a while and went through the songs one by one, and that was just a really beautiful thing. I have definitely been influenced by people such as Yusuf.”

One can hear why Islam was enamoured by Phillips's sound.

Star by Moon displays his career's signature elements: there's subtly spiritual lyricism, restrained yet intricate musical instrumentation and an all-round reflective mood.

In the majestic opener, Content, the chorus has Phillips stating: "A change is at hand for me/ I will go where people are content.”

With the song initially written in the 1980s, I asked Phillips if the line was a spiritual premonition that he would eventually move to the UAE.

“It could be,” he smiled. “Then again, I’ve been to many places since.”

A man with his own plan

A final dinner with Idris Phillips at Em Sherif restaurant in Downtown Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

Indeed, Phillips went on to work with artists in South Africa and Turkey before eventually returning to Nashville, where he immersed himself in the thriving music scene and in performing with local artists, such as violinist Katherine O’Neil.

"Some of you saw me out there playing with this incredible artist, and didn’t know this legend playing, for a mere $150 a night gig, used to play LA five times a week for $5,000," she said in her online tribute.

"He didn’t care about the money, he truly cared about me as a person, an artist, and the music. They don’t make ‘em like him any more.”

The last time I met Phillips was for a suhoor meal in 2015.

By that time, we were firm friends and spoke more about life than music.

He expressed how important it was that he moves to his own score.

“I am not one of those who say: ‘I have a five-year plan,’ or something like that,” he said.

“If I can continue challenging myself, creating and being able to make someone happy, then I am more than OK with that.”

Updated: July 18, 2022, 12:15 PM
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