Survival in Songwriting Leads to New Book: Raconteur Phil Circle Keeps Telling His Story

Survival in Songwriting Leads to New Book: Raconteur Phil Circle Keeps Telling His Story

The Outback Musician’s Survival Guide by Phil Circle

Book Review by: Hannah Frank

The Outback Musician’s Survival Guide, One Guy’s Story of Surviving as an Independent Musician by Chicago songwriter Phil Circle isn’t your average how-to book. It’s an intimate look at the ways and means of independent touring, and the intangible art of connecting with people through music. This isn’t a guidebook, it’s a journey to share in.

Circle’s decades as an independent songwriter include challenges and victories, which he weaves intricately and effortlessly with stories of friends, meeting blues legends, adventures making it to gigs, and personal soliloquies that entertain and endear, and provide the spice that makes this a great read. Circle says, “raconteurs run in the family.”

It reads like a Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson novel: full of grit and realism, written in the fast pace of life. This is because when giving guidance to musicians, Phil Circle’s approach is as it is when he is writing songs…to tell his story.

What makes Circle one of the few ‘professional indie musicians’ (where the phrase isn’t an oxymoron) is not only his tenacity, but his inherent fluidity with performing, and a zen-like understanding of what it means to be a songwriter.

“I get sick to death of playing my songs at home, the only time they’re really alive to me is standing in front of people. As a performer [in front of an audience] you’re expressing more or less on their behalf.

We all have songs in good times or bad — or a song you hear maybe for the first time and listen to it ten times because it touches us so deeply,” Circle shares in this video made about a decade ago. The words still ring true.

“We’re never thinking what the songwriter was thinking or feeling when he wrote it, we [don’t] give a shit…it’s how it touches us, how it affects us.”

Currently, Circle teaches guitar and songwriting, and performs in the Chicago area and nationwide in his ongoing Little Blue Honda Tour (an example of his work ethic is that in 2010, Circle covered 8,000 miles and 25 states in 6 weeks), plus he has about a dozen albums available. Purchase the book here and purchase music here

Here’s an interview with Phil Circle about his new book:

What made you write this book? Were the stories and ideas knocking around in your head for awhile or was there a specific catalyst that set it off?

Many of the stories in this book are ones I’ve shared in various venues like parties, after hours at shows, during lessons, or in abbreviated form on stage. The thoughts on the craft, the business, and teaching, are all things that have been rattling around in my head for years and evolving with the changing business and my increased experience. I’ve also used some of what you find in the book for articles I’ve written over the years. Others of the stories were never shared before I put them to the page for this book, especially the darker ones.

How is this record particular to the times you operate in? How are your experiences as a musician the same or different as a musician from other eras such as the 1950s or the 1850s?

Certainly, the business aspect of music has forever changed in ways that people in the 1950s wouldn’t have likely imagined. In the 1850s, the only real business of music that would have been relevant to my approach as a singer-songwriter would have been a two-fold thing; I would have probably gone about publishing my songs in print for others to play, while also putting together some sort of traveling musical show Most likely, these two things would have been something someone else would’ve done with me as their marketable product. Of course, recording wasn’t to happen for another 50 years, so that was out of the question.

What’s most remarkable is the way in which the digital age and the overwhelming growth of worldwide communication in multiple forms have altered the world for the independent artist. It can be tremendously confusing and even intimidating trying to navigate the endless possibilities, but with a little clarity of thought and action, and a ton of patience, it can be done and be done quite effectively, even profitably. In my book, I quote an email conversation I had some years ago with Derek Sivers (founder of CDBaby) in which he talks about making grassroots efforts at building your career. That’s exactly what I’m finding works. In the 1950s artist development was up to a record company. Now it’s up to the artist. In the 1850s, it was up to a publishing or traveling production company. Now it’s up to the artist. If the artist so chooses.

How has the Internet changed independent music?

Once iTunes really kicked the access to music online into high gear, the entire world changed for independent artists. I remember my first thoughts were that I actually stood a chance of being heard throughout the world without the “benefit” of a major record deal. I put benefit in quotes for the obvious reasons. Major record success is about as rare as being struck by lightning and hurts just as much. As I just stated, we’re finally in control; But only if we’re willing to do the work. You see, the world of a successful musician is hardly any different from the world of any other successful person where the work required is concerned. If you work hard, develop the skills (business and creative), and stick with it, you’ll see some level of success if what you have to offer is reasonably well liked by more than a handful of people. The internet presents new tools. The business is still there and relatively as frustrating, but the new tools alleviate some of our suffering. It’s a question again, of whether we’re willing to take it on. Look at many of the greats in popular music over the years. Prince didn’t change his name to a symbol just to get out of his label contract. It was a business move designed to draw attention to the bad deals rampant in the music business and it drew new attention to his work. If I’m not mistaken, Ray Charles had one of the best record deals in history. They didn’t offer it to him. He demanded it. He knew he was only a product to the label, so with a little Jiujitzu he used it against them. They couldn’t live without his product line. That’s business. It sucks for most artists. We’d like to be spending our time working only on the art. With the new power we have to build our own little business through the internet, however, there’s a great deal more opportunity for us to be free of the day job and fulfilled in our lives more than would have been possible for most of us just a handful of years ago. Much of this is in my book in more detail, of course.

How much of a filter did you put on what stories you chose to include? Did any stories not make the book?

Plenty of stories didn’t make the book. My friend from The Chicago Tribune, who gave it a final read before publication, told me to get ready to write my next book, however, so I guess many that didn’t make the cut will make it to another set of pages. Mainly, I looked to the stories and anecdotes that best fit to the overall message and fell easily enough into the thread I had in mind.

What was the criteria for the information you shared in this book?

After having made a very loose collection of stories somewhat available under the same title, and receiving some feedback from those, I was able to step back for a couple years and let things germinate. Ultimately, I needed some endpoint for the book and didn’t have it. I’m okay with open-ended stories, but if this was to be a story, it needed some sort of final place to sit. Even though it leaves things open to more, even though it’s my story and I’m still creating it, still living it, it needed some thread. Once my life turned a couple more corners, I was able to see that thread emerge and went back to the writing process. I pulled the sections apart and placed them in piles based on how they related, what they related to primarily. Then I ordered the piles into chapters and began rewriting. Gradually, the story of my life so far grew from the pages. It seemed to have a combination of curiosity and discovery, early innocence turned jaded, and a desire for growth and change and hope. I let these various ingredients guide my voice and trusted my creative instincts. I hope it worked.

Who is the ideal audience for this book?

That’s a tough one to answer. I’ve had a copy editor who uses music as a hobby read it and love it. I’ve had an estate attorney with a book of his own read it and enjoy it, too. Several musicians have dug in, of course. My first professional review was by a writer with no background in music and she saw it as a celebration of life and began using my exercises for songwriting in her creative writing. I’ve heard from a psychologist, a political activist, and a computer scientist, all of whom liked it. I guess the main theme that everyone drew on was the life changing stories within it. They saw this tragedy unfolding amidst all the laughter and partying and touring. They hoped for more and apparently got it. A fellow Chicago songwriter shared that she couldn’t wait to get home and read more. I was thrilled to hear that. Raconteurs run in my family and I wouldn’t want to disappoint. I guess that ultimately, it’s more a story for those who are looking to be entertained and inspired than anything else.

What this book is NOT is a numbered list of what to do or not to do as an indie musician– what made you write this as a story rather than an advice or how to book? Is the effect the same?

Well first; No, the effect is not the same. Then to the whole question; It’s funny you should ask why I went the way I did. About 20 years ago, I came up with the title of this book. That’s all, though; just the title. I had it my head to write a how-to, a numbered list as you say. It was a rare occasion however… I realized I didn’t know it all and so I never got around to it, ha. Also, I saw the rate at which the industry was changing and knew books on how to do anything would be obsolete as quick as they hit the shelves. As far as it being a story, I’ve always used storytelling and anecdotal evidence in my teaching. While this book has some information on the craft and business, these are incidental to the fact that I’m a musician telling his story. I guess I can’t help telling story when I’m sharing information to press home a point, and I can’t help sharing information when I’m telling a story. As for which one’s more effective? All the best pieces of history I recall, from the volumes of history I’ve read, have stuck with me in the writers’ voices who told the stories within and surrounding the dates and occurrences. Humans had the oral tradition long before we gave a shit about what date it happened and the actual numbers involved in whatever happened. We’re more easily swayed by the emotional attachment to something. We need to feel a part of something or it is just so many facts and figures.

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