A beautiful man with beautiful words—Crywolf‘s Justin Taylor Phillips left me speechless both times we crossed paths. Phillips is real. What you see is what you get. There’s no facade. He’s this miraculous knight in shining armor shielding his tortured soul, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Crywolf’s innate and insatiable curiosity leaves no stone unturned within the cosmos as well as himself. I graciously accepted Justin’s spine-tingling tangent, or rather interview, about his supportive folks, recent release “cephalotus” and off the beaten path travels.
Where would you take your beloved mother, Rebecca, on vacation?
If I was catering to her current interests, I would probably take her somewhere that’s deeply steeped in a lot of history, like Rome or Paris because she loves art history. If I was trying to pique her curiosity, Madagascar or the Galápagos Islands: somewhere that’s a little bit more difficult to get to or involves some risk and adventure.
How does “cephalotus” terrify you?
This entire album is different than the other albums I’ve written, in a pretty significant way; the other albums were more explorations into things that had happened to me or certain relationships, my journey and stuff like that. This album is more of a dive into my own psyche. It’s a lot more based on subtle wordplay, imagery and minimal instrumentation. It’s much more slow-paced. It’s not this sort of maximalist extravaganza.
The phrase “terrifying me” more applies to the type of art that I choose to make and release. It’s this fear of being radically vulnerable; that feeling has always been a compass that points to true north, artistically. It’s a natural human tendency to assume that we have to put on this fake exterior, that is neutered or edited, for the world to see because the world would reject us if we were to reveal our true natures. The reality is that everybody has these hidden parts of themselves—weak, vulnerable, dark and confusing—resulting in a way deeper connection than previously possible.
Why will Crywolf’s upcoming album trump Skeletons?
If I’m going down the correct direction in life and I’m really pushing myself, I’m naturally going to be creating my best work at all times. This album is my favorite. I can’t say how it might come off to other people because it’s just a very different experience. ‘Cataclasm‘ deals with so many different themes and motifs compared to this one.
I’m sort of at this period with the album because I recently finished it: when you’re submitting the songs you suddenly get struck with this feeling that this could be your career ender; you’ve heard the songs so many times that they almost lose some of their magic and sparkle. You’re like, “Oh my god. This is all garbage.” I judge any art I create based on how accurately it communicates parts of me and what I want to say. This album absolutely does those things more effectively and poignantly than anything else I’ve previously created.
So, Crywolf continuously strives for the “peel back the onion” effect with each and every release?
I was in a different place in life when I made my previous works, so that’s partially responsible. If I look back at my journey as an artist I can see this sort of maximalism; I felt I had to do that in order to make the things that I was saying come across as more palatable or impressive.
When I was younger, I tried to always like have energy around people and be exciting in some sort of way—I felt like I wasn’t engaging or exciting enough. I’m realizing more and more that I can just focus on the essential elements of what I’m trying to do and it will be just as engaging. Musically, that would be my lyrics, the way I use my voice and more subtle instrumentation.
What was Crywolf’s favorite childhood side hustle? How has papa Phillips’ entrepreneurial skills come in handy?
In Hong Kong, they don’t have a trash service. You have to take your own trash to the dump, and it’s like half a mile away. There were all these people that would charge pretty large amounts to pick up your trash for $30 per week. I didn’t have any living expenses, as a kid, so I undercut them by charging $5. I was a little industry disruptor like Uber coming into New York City.
He was always encouraging that in me. It definitely helps a lot when it comes to being a musician because you have to be a business person as well. I don’t mean that you have to make your artistic decisions based on your business sense. I think that a lot of musicians fall into making their actual artistic decisions based on some sort of business ideas, and that really corrupts the process. I’m releasing this album I just finished and have to pivot into business mode in order to figure out how to push what is, essentially, a product.
A common thing that artists say is “I want to create this type of art, but there’s no market for that. Therefore, I have to make more accessible lyrics, drops and work with these producers or vocalists that I don’t really actually like the art of.” Everything I’ve seen in the current music industry points to the idea that that’s not true at all.
The reality is, in this huge world that’s so interconnected, you can do anything and find a market for it. People do the craziest things and amass huge followings. If you had this super strong passion for making haikus about the zen of dung beetles, eventually you’re going to find a crowd of people that really relate to you. Suddenly, you’re making these poems about dung beetles that have a 20,000 person following; those people are buying your books and dung beetle merchandise. As soon as you’re creating something for other people to digest, at the end of the day, it’s not going to provide you with the beautiful experience creating actual, real visceral art will.
When has Justin Taylor Phillips’ collegiate background in economics and international business affected Crywolf’s craft?
The intellectual approach to life or the idea of diving in and trying to understand the reasoning behind things has affected my art. What’s the difference between a state where you’re creating art from a mathematical point of view and when you tap into this way deeper intelligence? This unconscious well of feelings and passions flows out of you.
Which destination best fueled your songwriting, Chile or Blue Ridge Mountains?
I would say Chile, for sure. The more foreign the environment, the more it stimulates my creativity—being miles and miles away from any other people, the dead quiet of the woods, the spirits that were told to live in the forest. I feel like I am often writing about surreal or imagined worlds, and nothing feeds that theme more than actually living in a world that seems surreal to me.