He’s often that man in the background. The musician you recruit when setting up a cracking live band. The songwriter and producer you enlist to bang your tunes into shape.
However, after nearly 40 years, Idris Phillips is finally stepping into the limelight – and he has been given a healthy nudge by a songwriting legend.
Upon hearing Phillips's debut album Star By Moon, which was recently released on iTunes, Yusuf Islam (previously known as Cat Stevens) was immediately impressed by the 56-year-old American songwriter.
With Islam associated with Let the Change Be, the production company in Dubai Studio City run by his daughter Hasanah Islam and son-in-law Majid Hussain – and where Phillips works as a producer – the veteran artist provided great encouragement.
“It was crazy, man,” says Phillips. “He sat down with me for awhile 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 attracted to 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 short, it’s one of the finest albums to emerge from the region and, powered by growing word of mouth, it has the potential to be a sleeper hit – at least one major label is in discussion to release the album.
Star By Moon may be a debut, but it displays the songwriting craft of an old hand. Phillips confirms some of the songs had been kicking around for nearly three decades.
A standout is the majestic opener, Content, a spiritual paean to a brighter future.
“I know the scene in that song very well,” Phillips says. “It was in the mid-80s and I was in California and in a rented cabin overlooking the Pacific Ocean and behind me was [the national park] The Redwoods. I was tired and in a dark place and was essentially talking to God. The lines almost felt like a response to me.”
So when the lyrics state “A change is at hand for me/ I will go where people are content”, does Phillips feel that God was guiding him towards the UAE?
“It could be,” he says. “Then again, I’ve been to many places since.”
Phillips’s response hints at the changes enveloping his professional and spiritual life.
Born Phillip Bubel in Salt Lake City and growing up in Los Angeles, he took up the guitar as a 9 year old 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 the 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 says.
“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 popular South African nasheed singer Zain Bhikha.
It was the association with the Muslim artistic scene that led him to Dubai more than two years ago to take on a role with Let the Change Be, a production house specialising in spiritually minded content.
Working in the studio and surrounded by a producer’s wish list of musical and recording equipment, Phillips quietly began putting his own songs on tape in 2013.
With Star By Moon finally released, Phillips says that the satisfaction of the endeavour trumps any anxiety regarding its public reception.
“For me, the album is a feeling of finally coming home,” he says.
“Of course, it will be great to sell a few records, but at the end of the day, I just wanted this to be an honest album. I think I achieved that, so whatever happens from here, I am cool.”
Star By Moon by Idris Phillips is out now on iTunes. You can listen to the full album until Thursday on www.soundcloud.com/letthechangebe. Check out the album review on Tuesday at https://www.thenationalnews.com