Scout Paré-Phillips is an incredibly gifted musician and visual artist from Brooklyn, NY. A classically trained first soprano turned neo-folk/ rock and roll angel, Scout transcends genres with her unique voice and obscure instrumentation. Former balladeer and bassist for Baltimore's post-punk/country band The Sterling Sisters, and once Jack White collaborator, Scout has released her second solo record, Door Left Open, out now via Dais Records.
Read our interview to learn about Scout's songwriting, finding her voice, working with Jack White, recording her newest record, and what she's looking forward to. Head to her website, scoutparephillips.com, to find more of her work and art. You can find her new record, Door Left Open, on iTunes or wherever else you get your music.
Growing up, was music a large part of your life? What did your parents listen to?
My father was a country musician when he was young, so he was omnipresently plucking the guitar in the background of most of my childhood memories. My mother has extremely diverse and worldly taste in music, since her profession in aviation has taken her all over the globe. I remember when I was about six, they acquired a fifty-disc CD changer for the home stereo and I memorized the track listing and sequence of every album. It was comprised of an eclectic mix of classical music, opera, jazz, country, and a lot of native African music, since both of my parents spent a significant amount of time there before I was born.
Your voice is an incredibly unique instrument. When did you realize you enjoy singing? Do you enjoy singing?
I began playing in bands and singing when I was about eleven or twelve. There was a club in Red Hook, Brooklyn that allowed us to play on certain days even though we were underage. That tradition caught on, and I made a lot of my enduring childhood friendships at those shows. We created a network of young musicians that’d often share band members. I had a lot of trouble with my tone because my speaking voice is quite deep, so I presumed I should sing in that register. It wasn’t until I started training formally when I was fourteen that the instructor speculated I was actually a soprano, after listening to me—not even an alto or second soprano, but first soprano, the highest possible range. That was a difficult transition for me to make as I built up my muscles over those four years of training and initiated my quandary of how to still play and sing rock music as a classical soprano.
Was it the first instrument you learned how to use?
The first instrument I learned was actually trumpet, which I played in classical orchestral settings and in jazz bands. When I was eleven, my dad taught me my first three guitar chords—Emaj, Amaj, B7—the necessary building blocks for a country-blues progression. He sent me home to my mother’s house with a beat-up box of a classical guitar he’d put steel strings on. That was when I first tried out singing.
Official video for title track, "Door Left Open," off Scout's second solo album out now via Dias Records.
How old were you when you wrote your first song? What was it about?
Hilariously, my first entirely solo composition was a torch song about a budding romance and the fruition of one of my first childhood crushes when I was maybe thirteen. I had this little red 8-track on which I would layer all the instruments I played and do vocal harmonies. By the end of high school, that inkling matured and a friend who was studying engineering helped me record a full-length record. My music teacher at the time and still mentor, Jonathan Elliott, helped me arrange it for strings and a full band to give a kind of “record release” performance my senior year at a recital that typically showcased only our school’s most talented classical and jazz musicians, both students and faculty. It was invigorating to play after a string quartet absolutely nailed their piece, to be able to get onstage following up peers who were so clearly gifted, to play my original compositions and still receive standing ovations from the very same audience. That was the resolution of my black sheep identity within my school’s exceptionally proficient music department; I was a girl who was capable of skillfully singing soprano arias, but it was not until I started performing my own original pieces that my tone was suddenly imbued with the heart and fervor it lacked when singing songs that were hundreds of years old and not written from my own experience. My heart was audible in my work and I sang expressively, emotively, painfully—everything a coach wants to hear conveyed in the performance of an aria. I also sang one of my own songs (as well as an aria) during my final appearance at the senior recital of the classical voice program, and I remember my old private vocal instructor coming up to me afterwards and saying, “THAT was how I’ve always tried to get you to sing.” It’s a sentiment I’ll always carry with me, when looking back on my training.
What do you notice first in a song, lyrics or melody? Do you form a song around words you’ve written, or do you create the sound first?
All of my compositions are melody driven, so that’s typically what I latch onto as a listener, how the melody line interacts with the accompanying chord progression. Melodies materialize first for me, and then it’s just a matter of sitting down with a guitar or piano and working out what the chords are. Lyrics are finalized during that stage. That’s part of the reason I only feel comfortable describing myself as a “singer,” because it’s the only instrument I’m completely fluent in. Everything else I play only with the competence needed to support the voice.
How did you team up with Jack White? Did you spend much time working with him? Would you do it again?
He discovered me through my singing in my country/post-punk band, The Sterling Sisters, and reached out. I worked for him repeatedly on a few of his projects over the course of about a year and had a lovely time doing so. So, certainly, I’ll gladly work for him again. It’s not common to have the opportunity to work with a musician of that echelon; it was important and influential for me at a time when I’d just recorded my first full-length solo album for a label, to have the chance to observe the complex structure and organization that necessarily surround musicians of that portent.
Accompaniment in Jack's video for his single, "Would You Fight For My Love".
You’ve just released your second album, Door Left Open, what was the recording process like? How long did it take?
I’ve recorded every album I’ve ever made in a few days. My aspiration is to someday work with a producer at length to help me flesh out my songs with instrumentation I wouldn’t think of, but when you’re just starting out, it’s always a race against the clock to adhere to the label’s budget. First, I went in and laid all of my personal instrument tracks and vocals for three days, and then a few months later, in April 2015, I came back for two days with my collaborating musicians to record drums, cello, keyboards, and bass. The harp is always interesting to record. Since it’s a distinctly percussive string instrument, we always record two outputs in the studio: one from the electric pickup through my Fender Reverb amp, then a mic right on top of the strings in order to blend back in some of the rhythmic hits in post production.
Of the instruments you play, which brings you the most joy?
Guitar, since I’ve been through such a journey with it teaching myself patterns, chords, and gaining dexterity with my finger-picking. Although, if we’re talking about pure bliss, then bass! Possibly because I’m a soprano, but something about being the deepest tone in the song and hiding counter melodies in my bass lines is very gratifying to me.
Do you think writing about heartbreak forces you to overcome the emotional loss, or is it more of it being an accessible topic because it’s what you’ve experienced? Or both?
I only compose from my direct experience. For me, the process of writing about love is a pursuit to approach lucidity and transparency of my feelings and emotional states. You can begin with blind passion or rage and then reach a point of complacent coherence, once you have the opportunity to reflect on the finished piece. I craft my lyrics assiduously, choosing each word to give just enough information to convey the stories accurately and elegantly, yet leaving just enough concealed so they don’t betray my partner’s confidence. Even in interviews, I am careful to never breach the content of what is recounted in the lyrics, to divulge and point out nothing that isn’t already contained and audible within the work of art itself. Maybe because of my formal training in art and routine exercises in teaching and critiquing, I am a strong believer in the notion that if a supporting quality or narrative you want relayed by your work isn’t manifest to your spectator, it isn’t there; the piece failed to articulate your intent. It is irksome to me that some artists—even some people who claim to be producing work about me and responding to my pieces—use interviews and personal statements as freeform soapboxes to revise their initial process and suffuse their work with clever, complimentary content and meaning that wasn’t concurrent with their pieces creation. To feel the need to saturate your work with significance afterwards is an indication that you have foundered.
What’s on your turntable right now?
I’ve had a lot of catching up to do as a folk musician who grew up listening to post punk-music. It’s been liberating to research and unearth old folk bands. However, I will say that parallel to amount of vintage folk music I discover, I regret more and more not having been born in a different era, as my music might’ve made a lot more sense! Right now, I’ve been listening to Alexander Skip Spence’s Oar. The song “War in Peace” is astounding.
Any favorite collaborations you’ve done?
I really enjoyed singing improvised vocals for Wrekmeister Harmonies’ Then it all Came Down, performed here in Brooklyn at Signal Gallery. J.R. organized such a phenomenal lineup of musicians to be in his band for that gig; it was invigorating to be able to play alongside such talented musicians. Since some of my first experiences playing in groups were in jazz, it’s fun to get the chance to riff with my voice; essentially an extended, live exercise in finding a melody.
It’s pretty amazing that you’ve created a life making a living from your art and just being yourself. Between your music, photography, film, modeling, weaving, and now going to school for a masters, have you found the secret to happiness?
As I’ve grown, it’s become increasingly important to me to read and educate myself as much as possible. I used to have this backwards conception that the most purely original work would occur in isolation. However, accruing vast amounts of sheer information certainly alters, informs, and enriches how you interact with your life as you live it.
What are you looking forward to?
Playing in a band again! That’s when I’m at my happiest.
Thank you to Scout for inspiring us with your words and to Heather for introducing us. Download Scout Paré-Phillips' new record, Door Left Open, on iTunes or buy the vinyl from Dais Records. See and listen to more of Scout's art & music on her website scoutparephillips.com.