Philip Bowen took some time from rosining up his bow and working on his upcoming performance on the America’s Got Talent Stage to talk to us about his album Old Kanawha and what to expect when he takes the stage on NBC September 5th.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
BB: Thanks for talking to us. Congratulations on the one million streams of Old Kanawha. That’s an awesome achievement.
PB: Thank you! Yeah it is. Having the few singles stream beforehand with some success beforehand really gave us some momentum leading up to it.
BB: Why did you choose the three songs you chose? Because from my perspective, I think they are all very different tracks and they showcase the variety of your writing styles. Vampire In Appalachia is a dark and all too familiar story in West Virginia. You released Lightning Bugs, which is a very poppy and fun summer song. And before that, you released the title track Old Kanawha which also puts you in that summer feeling but in a transportive way that harkens back to youth. So what was the thought process behind choosing those three songs?
PB: Yeah, it’s like you said, a very different subject matter in those songs. I tried to lay out the album in that way, because there was a mix of different things that I wanted to cover. So, Vampire and its companion song, which is the one right after it on the album, A Murder, I wrote those to be done together. Vampire in Appalachia is really about two things. The first part is about the extraction economy and some of the things that come along with working down in the mines. I have some family members who have suffered through black lung and through different things related to mining. And then the second verse, obviously, is focused on the opioid epidemic which is particularly tough on our region of Appalachia. So, that song is laying out the problems. Then A Murder is written from the perspective of somebody going through active addiction and the results of the issues laid out in Vampire. Those two tracks are the two heaviest songs thematically on the album.
And then Old Kanawha I actually wrote back in 2020 when I was kind of going through the emotions, like everybody else, of being stuck at home during COVID and missing my hometown and everything. The river is such a big part of life where I grew up, like it’s in your backyard. It’s part of almost everything you do. And so I really wanted a song that kind of called back home, wherever home is for the listeners. Obviously people from the area will really dial in with it. But I’ve had so many people tell me, I’ve never even been there or heard of that place, but this song reminds me of my home, which is exactly what I was going for.
Lighting Bugs I actually wrote that song while I was on that river. I was out with some friends over the summer time and we were doing a night time boat ride on the pontoon. And one of my favorite things about doing that since I was a kid is how once you kind of get past the lights of Montgomery, you could look up on the mountains and they’re just glowing green with all the lightning bugs. And so we were driving back to Michigan from West Virginia after a trip and I was honestly just pumping gas and I was thinking about being on the river the night before and taking turns picking songs and like that little line popped in my head. She likes Nick Drake and I like The Milk Carton Kids. As it is written is exactly what popped in my head. And I put it in a voice memo at the gas pump. And then we got home that night after all the kids went to bed, I went downstairs and, and wrote that song. It’s just, just that feeling of two very different people, who like different things, can kind of enjoy some small things together.
BB: I know that you’re limited in what you can say ahead of the live shows for America’s Got Talent but first, what inspired you to do this?
PB: I had thought about doing it last year and was really close to doing it, but then I had got invited to do the Bluebird in Nashville for the first time. And it was a much tighter window of time and I was not gonna skip the Bluebird. Because if you turn them down the first time, it’s not like they say, “Hey, if you can’t make it, we’ll have you back some other time.” It was just hey, this is your chance and there’s no way I wasn’t gonna do that. I got to do this is cool opportunity and it all worked out for the best, because I’ve had a lot of stage experience in that meantime.
So, I think what inspired me to do it most of all was one, it’s obviously a massive amount of exposure on a huge international stage. As an independent artist, that’s always hard to pass up. And two, for me, obviously it’s just very cool. I think it’s cool to be able to show my kids, especially when they’re older, look how cool I was at one point in time. I did this like on a big stage and to be one of like 55 people left that are doing these live shows, that’s really special. I’m trying enjoy it for what it is and I didn’t plan it like this, but it’s so cool that it’s all happening when my first album is coming out. Like it has really helped to push that along. So that, that’s been a nice happy coincidence.
BB: Congratulations on that as well. That’s fantastic. I don’t even know how many thousands of people start in the audition each year, but to be in that fifty-five, that’s pretty incredible. Your next appearance is coming up on September 5th. Your first performance you performed a cover of System Of A Down’s Chop Suey! I know you can’t say what you’re going to perform, but are you gonna do any singing at some point in time? Are you gonna let people hear that aspect of Philip Bowen?
PB: I can’t tell you that. I can’t. I can tell you that what I’ve been trying to do is to really focus on the uniqueness of what I do. There are a bunch of singers on this season, like there is on every season, but I’m the only fiddle player. So, you know, when you do this, especially this next round of the live show, you really only have about two or 2.5 minutes of actual performance time, And so I’ve thought about a lot of different ways to skin the cat so to speak. But, I think mentally my focus is on really leaning into what made me unique in the first round.
Find out what else we talked about with Philip Bowen in the first print digest of Born & Bred coming soon and be sure to turn into America’s Got Talent and vote for him at 8 PM, September 5, 2023 and keep him in the competition. Find out how you can vote by clicking https://www.nbc.com/americas-got-talent/exclusives/agt-app and Listen to Old Kanawha below and get him to two million streams.