'Idol' star Phillip Phillips on his lawsuit, recording hiatus: 'I was in a weird place'

Lyndsey Parker
Yahoo Music
Phillip Phillips performs at the 2017 CMT Artists of the Year special. (Photo: Wade Payne/Invision/AP)
Phillip Phillips performs at the 2017 CMT Artists of the Year special. (Photo: Wade Payne/Invision/AP)

Five years ago, Phillip Phillips became the last major success story spawned by the American Idol franchise, when his Season 11 coronation song, “Home,” became the biggest single by any Idol contestant, selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. alone. His debut album, The World From the Side of the Moon, later went platinum. Ex-Idol panelist Simon Cowell once even said that Phillips was the only Idol winner he’d liked and followed since he stopped judging the show in 2010. However, for three years, Phillips wasn’t able to release any new music, due to his contentious lawsuit against Idol’s parent company, 19 Entertainment.

In the suit (filed in January 2015 and quietly settled in June 2017), Phillips, who tells Yahoo that he “almost didn’t sign” his Idol contract in the first place, asked for a judge to rule that 19 had violated a California law that limits who can procure work for an artist; he claimed that 19 had “manipulated” him into making unpaid promotional appearances and made artistic/business decisions for him without his input. Phillips continued to tour, and he made a surprising last-minute appearance on Fox’s Idol farewell season finale after show producer Nigel Lythgoe hunted him down. But his last actual album release was back in May 2014 — an eternity in this fickle pop age.

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Now Phillips is finally returning with his third full-length album, Collateral. He’s unable to discuss the details of his legal settlement, merely saying of 19 Entertainment, “There were not really many good decisions made. There were decisions that were being made that I might not have known about. It just really boils down to: I treat people how I want to be treated. I feel like I’m a pretty good person. So, you’ve got to surround yourself with other good people.” However, Phillips is quite candid when discussing the “weird place” he found himself in while his career was in limbo.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It was just this waiting, because I didn’t know how long it was going to last. I kind of expected it to go a lot quicker, and then it’s like — nope, a year, two, three goes by.” Phillips continued to write songs, but the stress of the situation understandably got to him and stymied him artistically. “I still wanted to stay creative, but then I would just be sitting in my house, trying to make up something on the guitar or piano or whatever — and nothing was coming to me.”

Thankfully, working with a supportive team in Nashville (including Dave Cobb, Ryan Hadlock, and Nathan Chapman) helped him break through his writer’s block. “We weren’t trying to write singles or awesome songs; we were writing just to write,” he says. “I wrote so many songs. There’s a lot of awesome songs I feel like that didn’t make this record, and there’s a lot of horrible songs that I’m glad didn’t make this record! But you just keep writing, and I feel being around people that support you and want you to succeed really makes a big difference.”

The result is some bold sonic departures on Collateral, like the sexy slow jam “Magnetic” and the hard-charging, Stone Temple Pilots-reminiscent “My Name.” Says Phillips, “There’s some songs that are kind of a little more R&B, there’s some songs that are rock, and there’s some songs that are just more broken-down/acoustic. I feel like this album is some of my best lyrically I’m really proud of, and it kind of really represents these last three years. These songs came along with a lot of emotions — good emotions, bad emotions, a lot of love, a lot of waiting.”

Phillip Phillips and his wife, Hannah Blackwell. (Photo: Sanford Myers/Invision/AP)
Phillip Phillips and his wife, Hannah Blackwell. (Photo: Sanford Myers/Invision/AP)

The “love” Phillips is referring to is his wife, Hannah Blackwell, whom he married in October 2015 amid all this chaos. One of his new album’s tracks, the piano-and-strings ballad “Dance With Me,” was even played during their first dance at the wedding. “That’s the happy part, the love story in all this as well,” he says. “My wife has been the biggest supporter. We’ve been together eight and a half years, and she’s been everything for me. You’ve got to have somebody who’s honest, somebody that you really trust in your life — especially in this business.” Phillips recalls with a chuckle the day his suit was settled and how “that was the first time we got to be a married couple without anything, like, hanging over our lives. We were just running around the house and screaming and dancing. We played some music and just started dancing. We don’t smoke or anything, but you know, I think we might have smoked a cigarette.”

Phillips developed a rebellious image early on during his Idol run, whether he was ignoring mentor Jimmy Iovine’s warning and covering a willfully obscure Dave Matthews Band album cut or performing while wearing two layered pigeon-gray shirts right after guest style adviser Tommy Hilfiger had suggested that he wear brighter colors onstage. This cheeky behavior endeared Phillips to his fans, the “Phillatics,” and established him as an artist who’d stay true to himself no matter what the risk. So it’s not surprising that Phillips was willing to take a legal stand against the Idol machine. Phillips insists that he’s not quite the rebel that people think he is — “My wife might say I’m a little stubborn, but I don’t feel like it’s a bad way,” he laughs — and he explains, “I just kind of do what I feel is right. You go with your gut, and that’s the best way to go. Sometimes you might be wrong, sometimes you might be right, but that’s a part of life, and you live and you learn.”

Phillips admits that he occasionally had doubts — “There were times when my wife and I would talk and be like, ‘Man, is this [lawsuit] the right decision?’” — but deep down, he says, “I always knew that I was doing the right thing.” And he says he has no regrets about going on American Idol. “I probably wouldn’t change anything. I’ve had so many opportunities through Idol. Maybe I would trust my gut a little bit more on some more things a little earlier on, but I’m happy where I’m at today. I’m very blessed, and I’ve got some awesome fans and amazing people to work with me and who I get to work with, and made so many friendships with other songwriters or musicians. So, yeah, I would probably do it all over again. It’s a hard question, though, because you can’t go back in time. You’ve kind of got to keep moving forward.”

Phillips may have regrets, actually, about how he initially disparaged “Home” (which he did not write), the song that launched his career, calling it “too pop” and claiming that it would not be his official first single. (It was, obviously.) “I was a youngster then, like 21,” he laughs. Now he’s happy to have that hit in his arsenal. “I think it’s been long enough, and I really made that song my own. That song has done so much for me, and it’s allowed me so many opportunities. But it was like going on a date the first time — you kind of have to get to know somebody! That’s how it was with that song; I had to keep playing it more and figure out different things I could do or add to it. Now I love the song, and I think I’ll always have to play it.”

As for his own material, Phillips knew that the lawsuit and the gap between album releases might hurt his career, and three years later, he’s realistic about whether or not he can replicate his early, “Home”-era success with Collateral. “I am not expecting anything crazy. There’s not going to be millions of records sold,” he shrugs. “People kind of forget, so it was this weird thing even releasing anything. When we released [lead Collateral single] ‘Miles,’ I was not really expecting too much. I was like, ‘Man, nobody’s going to care.’ But then the reaction from fans was just awesome, so I’m thrilled.”

So, now that he’s come out the other side, what is Phillips’s advice for any musician contemplating trying out for a TV talent show — be it The Voice, America’s Got Talent, or even ABC’s new American Idol reboot? “Go ahead and do it, but read everything, know how you want to be represented, and know how you want to represent yourself as a songwriter.” As for how he’ll commemorate his career comeback this week, he says, “I’m going to be in New York doing some [promo] stuff, so I don’t know how I’m going to celebrate. Who knows — I might smoke a cigarette.”

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