Phillip Phillips is a budding young star, thanks in part to his 2012 victory on American Idol. Yet, prior to his run on the reality series, he wasn't exactly glued to the TV each week to catch it.
"I never watched the show," he says in a recent phone interview from Colorado Springs. "It wasn't my type of thing. It was very pop, very bubblegum. … I didn't want to try out for it. My friends and family were like, 'Just do it, the worst they can do is say no.' I was like, 'Well, that's true.'"
The 24-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs tonight at Rudder Auditorium in a show presented by MSC OPAS, grew up in Leesburg, Georgia. His mother played piano at home and at church, he says, and his father and sisters enjoyed singing. Phillips discovered rock -- Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC -- around age 14, and that's when his interest in music began, he says.
In 2011, Phillips was working in his father's pawn shop, a job he calls "really interesting" because of the people he encountered and the tales they told. After being nudged into trying out for Idol, he soon found himself auditioning for judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson. Phillips impressed the trio with a raw spin on Stevie Wonder's Superstition and Michael Jackson's Thriller. ("He's like a little James Brown," Lopez said to Jackson mid-performance.)
"I was scared to death," Phillips says. "… To go in front of people that are judging you -- nobody wants to hear what people have to say about them, especially if it's going to be bad. ... They kept wanting to talk to me, and I just didn't want to talk. I just wanted to sing and get it over with. I did my best."
Phillips' earnest approach and Southern drawl is a stark contrast to many contenders on the show -- those overachievers that raise one hand in the air while unleashing vocal histrionics. Yet Phillips went on to win the competition, and managed to get a huge hit out of the show's "coronation song." The acoustic strums and soaring, sing-along chorus of Home helped it catch the folk-pop wave led by Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers.
It was also one of those songs that just seemed to be everywhere. Home was featured on commercials, movie trailers (Clint Eastwood's Trouble With the Curve and the Disneynature documentary Bears) and during the 2012 Olympics broadcast on NBC.
"It was a little confusing," he says of the song's ubiquity. "I played shows all the time, and sometimes it would be for 50 people, sometimes a couple hundred people. But then, when it's several thousand people singing your songs, it's a little overwhelming because you don't know how to take it. It took me a minute to really understand -- 'Oh, OK, I don't have to sing every word of the song. I can let them have a good time singing it, too.'"
For all of its success, the Idol-supplied Home wasn't necessarily Phillips' style. "It was very folk, and I'm not -- I'm more on the rock side," he says, adding that he tweaks and changes up the song in concert. Phillips' first album, 2013's The World From the Side of the Moon, hinted at that rock direction, he says. He focused more on it for his latest album, Behind the Light, which was released in May.
"This one, I wanted to show people a little bit of a different side, kind of what the live show really represents," Phillips says. "Sometimes it gets a little heavy, a little dark. It's good to let those feelings out, because not everybody's happy all the time. Happy souls are great, but some people want to feel some kind of emotion, and this album really has that. It's like a private journal. You're scared to death to let people read it, but you've got to do it."