You would think that Dave Eggar–cellist, pianist, composer, film scorer, studio and touring artist in multiple genres, would be too busy to do anything but fulfill his numerous musical engagements on any given day. After all, after finishing a year and a half of touring with Cellogram, his most recent personal project with frequent collaborator Chuck Palmer, as well as with Evanescence, and iconic band Foreigner, the Brooklyn-based Eggar was soon back at work in New York, subbing at “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, appearing with pop duo A Great Big World on morning TV, and, on the day we reached to him on the phone, taking a break from rehearsals for a chamber music concert that evening. So, add “extremely generous” to the list of descriptors above, even if that doesn’t begin to cover the depth and beauty that accompany Eggar’s generosity. Because even in an in-between rehearsals phone conversation, Eggar displays the same intellectual and emotional vulnerability that we find in his work, a willingness to explore and share something that is meaningful and profound both through his music and through his words.
Though trying to keep track of the artists Dave Eggar has worked with throughout his career can be a dizzying endeavour, it is soon clear that deep intention, thoughtfulness and care go into each project that Eggar choses to provide his talent to. This is certainly true of Collateral, his third collaboration with Phillip Phillips, the recording of which Eggar describes at different points as “very real,” “organic,” and “demanding” (in a very good way). We are extremely thankful to Dave Eggar for taking the time to talk to PhillPhillcom and share his stories about the recording of the album. Below are some excerpts of our conversation this past weekend.
PhillPhillcom: I’m just going to mention a few names: Esperanza Spalding, Evanescence, Cellogram, Foreigner, Zayn Malik, Patti Smith, Coldplay, Deoro… how does your work with Phillip Phillips fits within all the other projects that are lucky to have you?
Dave Eggar: One of the things that’s is so powerful in music is when you immediately have a connection with somebody. You can think of it analogously to, if someone is an actor, you may act with many people, but then there’s some people that you probably do a scene with and that very first run of the scene, is magic. And the thing about me and Phillip is that from the very beginning of the very first day that I played with him, we had a vibe like we have been playing together for a very long time. And I’ve come in my career to understand that when moments like that happen musically, you don’t ignore them. Here’s somebody who hears like I hear, who has a way of playing, a sense of timing, that when we play together makes more magical what both of us are doing.
So right from the beginning we just had this really amazing connection. And he was gracious enough to really let me find a voice in his music with the cello, and to take risks, especially in songs like “Thicket,” that other artists were too scared to take; to really explore the extended technique, to explore layering the cello in new and more provocative ways. And it was very special to be in an environment with an artist where I felt like I was growing. Phillip and I have played hundreds of shows. When you are on tour, there’s some artists that, after 40 shows, you feel “OK I’m so grateful, I love music, but I kind of feel like I’m doing the same show every time.” With Phillip, you never feel that way, there is always a freshness. He’s an extraordinary talent and a very thoughtful and unique musician, so it’s been a very interesting growth experience with each thing that we do. And that’s how I always feel with him, I never feel like I’m working for him, I always feel like we’ll always have an interesting musical intersection in different projects throughout our lives. I would love to write a film score with him…. It’s an interesting sense of artistry and growth that’s been very powerful for me.
[Phillip] is one of the best singers out there, he’s extraordinary, but he is also very humble, and I think that combination makes him somebody who is always striving to be better and encouraging all of us around him to do the same with ourselves, but in a very kind way.
PhillPhillcom: Those are beautiful words about Phillip as a person and as a musician. In many occasions, Phillip has also talked about you that way. He has said he considers you one of his best, dearest friends. You have also now played in all three of Phillip’s albums. How was it being able to play “Dance with Me” with Tim Bruns for Phillip’s first dance with Hannah during their wedding?
Dave Eggar: I feel like the two most important contemporary artists in my career to me personally, have been Phillip Phillips and Amy Lee (from Evanescence). The reason is because music is such a personal art form, and when you are on tour you are like a family. And the artists who are open in a way that you grow with them over the years, and we all change and watch each other, and we are each other’s family in a deep way, it creates such a profound feeling and it flows from the music into our personal lives. So, playing “Dance with Me” at Phillip’s wedding was a huge honour, and I played it with Tim, who now I have worked with on many projects, including Tim’s original material, he’s a great songwriter.
I am very optimistic. I know so many musicians get negative or dark. But I think music is such a spiritual thing and it’s beautiful, the family that comes from the music that we do. Phillip is like my family in a lot of ways, so that moment was very special. And Hannah, his wife, is one of the smartest people that I’ve ever met. We all lived on a tour bus for a long time (laughs), so we know each other when we are happy and when we are sad, and when we are struggling, and when we have victories, and sometimes not victories. So, music is a very special kind of job, you have a closeness with people that’s a little different from a normal job. It was very beautiful seeing them come together, and I think “Dance with Me” is a very special song and it was such an honour, on the recorded version, to do that lovely orchestration; it’s really an honour for me.
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PhillPhillcom: The story of Collateral is a complicated one. I keep trying to make a mental timeline of when the album was written, recorded and released just because it took so long. Did you ever fear that a song like “Dance with Me” would never see the light of day?
Dave Eggar: You know, with the way the music industry is nowadays, that’s always a possibility. It’s a complicated time in the music industry now because even very successful artists like Phillip, you can do a whole project and then it cannot come out, or only part of it can come out. One of our most scared feelings as musicians is when you work on a song, and you know it’s amazing, like “Dance With Me,” and there is this little part of you that’s “what if it doesn’t come out? Or what if the record company decides not to put it out? They can’t do that, they have to love this!”
I feel like Collateral is a deeply personal record for Phillip. I think the record touches on very mature struggles that we all face in a very existential and ethical way. I think it’s a more naked record than the first two, and I think it also takes some emotional risks that are not quite as pop, but that are really touching.
My favourite moment from making the record, was when we recorded “What Will Become of Us.” It’s basically live, and we basically did it old school, Americana style, where is just “set up, a couple of mikes and just play;” just very real and very little editing if any. And that, for us, today, is very scary because we are so used to [doing a song] and then we are going to edit it. It’s a very moving song, so to really take that chance to do it in such a real way and to have that vulnerability of “it’s a little rough around the edges, [and] we’re going to have to work with that feeling, not fight against it,” I just thought that was, for me, a very, very special moment on the record.
PhillPhillcom: You debuted “What Will Become of Us” in a benefit show back in April of last year. It was an acoustic show with just you and Phillip. Was there ever a time where you considered adding more instruments to the song? Or was it always “this is the song, this is how it will be recorded”?
Dave Eggar: I don’t think it was pre-planned. Collateral was recorded in Seattle with a producer called Ryan Hadlock, who is fantastic. One of the things that was very special about it was that we went there in a staggered fashion, but we all went out there for a while, which is kind of a luxury. A lot of times when I’m working with artists who make their records in New York City, I’m doing a session and rushing to do a show and then coming back in the middle of the night. And I have always believed that where you do a record profoundly affects the record. [Bear Creek] is a very beautiful place north of Seattle, very peaceful, there is tree house at the studio, and I think it brought about a certain calm and a certain uniqueness to the record that we were very in it. So the choice to make “What Will Become of Us” so vulnerable, was after we worked on many other songs. It was Ryan’s idea in a lot of ways, and I think it was really special. It was a moment of “Can we really do this?” Is like having a movie and then having one scene with one camera, no editing. So [there was]no click track, it was all very real and it happened in a very organic way. And I think pretty much everything on that record was very organic and just very personal for Phillip.
I am very method actorish in how I treat music, so when I’m working with an artist what I’m thinking mostly about is how get two hundred percent into the character of their music; it doesn’t really matter what I think, it matters how real my character is for that artist. With this new record I felt there were some places of sadness that it touched on for me that were very heavy and very compelling. So in terms of channeling the emotion of the music, I felt like the record was very demanding, in a very good way, of a very layered emotional performance, which was present on his other two records, but I feel like this one really brought out that dimension in a way that as, a performer, required me to be more revealing and to really think through the emotionality of my performance in a more sophisticated way. And I really appreciated that. And it absolutely made some moments very challenging, absolutely.
PhillPhillcom: “What Will Become of Us” is a stripped-down song: cello, guitar and voice, but it’s extremely intense, powerful, very cinematic in its lyrics, strong images. Same thing for “Sand Castles.” But I feel like in the album you have songs with just a cello and a guitar, and then you have a song like “Sand Castles” where you have more of a string arrangement. I think the cello is so effective in creating that drama, it’s a profound song and I have to prepare myself every time I’m going to listen to it, I can’t listen to it casually.
Dave Eggar: “Sand Castles” is an incredibly emotional song, it’s one of the best songs on the record. We went into it with specific arrangement ideas. The violinist on the record is Heather Mastel-Lipson-we are two string players and we layer each other a lot of times. One of the things about “Sand Castles” was that we were fascinated with how the end of the song loses control. We had these ideas for the arrangement, very colourful, Debussy-type ideas, very impressionistic. And then we explored in the end what happens if we take them away, what happens if we don’t know what is going to happen? It was a little bit inspired by Sia’s “Breathe Me,” which is an iconic string arrangement. But I just liked that idea: sand castles are all these things we build in our life we think may work and they don’t work, so what if the arrangement does that, what if the arrangement washes away? And so, in the end, there’s some very experimental use of the violin and cello, it has almost a free jazz influence, that we were working with this idea of almost forgetting how the song went and where it could go with that. It’s a very special moment and again, is almost as if you are acting in a scene and the director says, “we are going to take the script away, go there emotionally and forget about technique.” You feel almost like the ocean is coming in and is washing away the intellect of the song in this big wave. And we came up with a very clever use of the artificial harmonics, which you can’t even really tell they’re strings, they’re so weird. I love that song very much.
PhillPhilcom: Everything you said is fascinating. I believe there are no casual decisions in music making, I’m sure everything is not calculated, but there is a meaning behind each sound we hear on an album. With the harmonics you mention, I always think the song could have ended at the peak of that climax, but it comes back to that quiet moment that’s is so powerful, that’s a choice that was made, and it works extremely well.
Dave Eggar: I think you tap into something that is very powerful about Phillip as an artist, which is almost jazz-like in a way in that he isn’t scared to go in with a plan but then let the music take over on production and let the music lead you. A lot of artists come in the studio [and say] “cello is going to play this, drums are going to play this,” and you can get them to deviate, but not that much. With Phillip, with all three records it’s been a very common thread, that freedom of when you start feeling that the song has taken over and that you are not driving anymore– “the song now wants this.” That’s so important because that’s the subconscious at work creatively. That’s the part of yourself that is more intelligent emotionally, that’s the part of you asking “what kind of sorrow? What kind of loss? What kind of anger? What kind of joy?”; asking these very important expressive questions which is why people listen to music.
PhillPhillcom: Now, if we go from “Sand Castles,” an extremely intense song, to “I Dare You,” this is a more lush, more traditional strings arrangement, but again, is very cinematic in a way; I keep thinking of La La Land (laughs).
Dave Eggar: Okay, okay…(laughs). Yeah, I think “I Dare You” is a very special song, is kind of a departure in some ways from Phillip’s other writing, is very different, it’s expansive, it has that 12/8 [time signature], broad, almost Dusty Springfield kind of vibe to it. We were, in the arrangement, looking very retro, 60s string arrangement, early Motown, to channel some of that romance. So, the song has a romantic side, but it has a bite as well, there’s a layered quality to it. And that’s really with all the songs in Collateral, that’s something which I think ties them together in an interesting way and that made the process unique. None of the songs is one motivation, all of them have a pastel emotion, there’s hazy quality but also a clarity, and to find that sweet spot that lives between and among those spaces, that’s the hard part. I love “I Dare You” and I wish we had done it live more, but it’s a challenging, hard song to play, very challenging.
PhillPhillcom: The year is almost over, and you have had a very busy one obviously; any plans to slow down in these last few weeks of the year? Any projects that we should look forward to in the next year from you?
Dave Eggar: I just have a ton of concerts and I am getting ready to go to Sundance and Slamdance in January for a film that Cellogram wrote the score for, is a film called This Teacher which is a very powerful film about border issues and Islamophobia; very heartbreaking film that won the LA Film Festival. So, getting ready for that and writing some new music and we’re planning a Cellogram tour–we are figuring that out for next year–and hopefully people will come to check that out. Very busy but so happy to be making music every day.
And visit Phillip Phillips’ official site to listen to Collateral.
Video of “What Will Become of Us” by Erika Houser.