By Tim Parks
When openly gay Sacramento-based singer/songwriter, Phil Putnam, brings his one man show to Twiggs on Saturday, May 26th at 10PM in support of his latest CD, “Best of Intentions,” he also brings with him a history filled with a deep and abiding love of music.
In 2001, came the release of his first CD, “Healer,” and it was during this time that Putnam started his own record label, Box of Wood Music. Putnam put his talents to good use, serving as both writer and producer on the follow-up CD’s, “Long Story Short” and “All The Courage Required.”
I chatted with Putnam about his musical prowess, and this well-spoken man of many harmonious hats related his story with the same honesty that infuses the life experiences he writes and sings about.
For 27-year-old Putnam, music became ingrained into his life at an early age, eventually gave him a platform to utilize his voice in a number of respects.
“I think my earliest memory of music is playing saxophone in elementary school band. I played tenor and alto saxophone my fourth and fifth grade years,” he explained about his musical roots. “And then that was it, I didn’t do anything more with music until I was 14, then I started singing in a church choir, and just fell in love with singing.”
Yet he reached a few different crossroads, as far as which musical direction to take, utilizing elements from each stop along the path he had chosen to follow.
“From the time I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to study music in college. But what I am doing now, the singer/songwriter/recording artist approach, that didn’t really come together until halfway through my college career. That’s when it started to take shape and I realized that there might be something here worth pursuing.” Putnam recanted.
But the musical instrument for which he would strike up a long lasting relationship, the piano, didn’t materialize as an option to settle down with until college. The tickling of ivories proved to be both a perfect fit and an instantaneous love affair.
“With piano, I’ve never taken a lesson, I could just play,” he stated. “And I never played until I was 18, but I knew where the notes were on the keyboard; I went to college and discovered the practice rooms of the music department. I remember a few days after I arrived on campus I said to myself, ‘Why not give playing piano a shot and see what happens?’ I had no clue that I was unearthing this really strong natural talent.
“Now I can’t keep my hands off it!” He said with an impish laugh. “There is just such a chemistry there, just like people have chemistry with each other, various personalities have chemistry with various musical instruments. And it really just depends on who you are and how you express yourself, but there is a chemistry between the piano and I that doesn’t exist the guitar. I played nine or ten musical instruments, and the piano still has that strongest chemistry for me.”
And that love affair led to a distinct musical offspring, one that produced a progeny that Putnam has christened as “if Billy Joel and Coldplay had a kid.” He also draws from a wellspring of other related musical influences including: Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and Tori Amos, while putting his own unique stamp on his music.
“I feel like rather than trying to hit a certain genre of style, I just make the music that comes naturally to me and then find a way to describe it to people. The piano lends itself to a certain kind of communication, and I really enjoy pushing myself in new ways with each record. I find that piano/pop style comes pretty naturally to me.”
His world has become a place where he is intrinsically linked to the rhythms of life, a moment of levity can inspire him to put pen to paper just as readily as subjects of a more serious nature.
“Inspiration comes from both good times and bad times,” Putnam said of his creative process. “Most people say I am a pretty philosophical songwriter (no pun intended). As far as what kind of circumstances inspire me, I guess I try to take it from both, I write about where I am at, whatever that may be. I’m neither happy nor sad; I’m just honest in the moment.”
For Putnam, there is no dancing around the subject of who he is as a gay man, especially when a message through music can be conveyed by baring his soul on paper and edifying the universal truths that people are more similar than different by laying down a track.
“I guess I just talk about my life, period,” he said. “I think that the way I chose to involve my sexuality in my music is simply that I am a gay man; I write about my life and I hold myself to a very, very high standard of honesty in my music and also in my day-to-day. So it’s only natural that when I talk about love in a song, it’s going to be about the love of a man; when I talk about anything in my day-to-day life that would relate to sexuality, that’s going to come from a gay perspective.”
There was a time when Putnam had to make the decision to fling the closet door open permanently, regardless of what the consequences might hold for his career.
“I did make a conscious choice, because I wasn’t out when I started my career, but I wasn’t really out to myself then, either,” he related. “So there’s a long period of time, there’s about three or four years in between my third and this newest album; and in that period of time I came out to myself, came out to the world at large, and made a conscious choice that I was going to be out and openly gay as a musician. Because there were things that I wanted to say, also I’ve never been much for being haunted by ‘when are they going to find out and what’s going to happen?’ Also, if I’m going to be myself in my music, it was kind of a no-brainer to me that I was going to be out.”
And the level of intimacy that he establishes during his live shows is the real icing on the cake, as far as Putnam is concerned; it really delivers home his philosophy that all he needs to entertain with are “a man, a piano, and a song,” and he is grateful for the chance to connect with an audience with his creed of honesty firmly in place.
“I figure if someone is kind enough to give you their attention and listen to my music, I owe it to them to be honest with them and to come from an honest place,” he explained. “What I find most comfortable and most desirable, for me as a performer, is to get up there and be as honest and present as I can; me being on stage is just as much of a natural extension of my day-to-day as it can be. That way when I am up there and playing these songs, and I’m doing this night after night, I can feel a piece of myself and I can feel I’m giving them something worth listening to. I just want to give them something that makes a difference to them; I want them to feel like they are walking away with something more than they came in with. People are why I do this and music has simply been my most effective way of connecting with people.”
To keep abreast of Phil Putnam online, visit www.philputnam.com
This interview was first published in May of 2007.