Family Portrait: Ashley Phillips

I recently was involved in a conversation about public figures who are widely known to be gay, but who still maintain media silence on the subject.

The discussion revolved around everyone’s responsibility to come out, especially those in the public eye. The room was split into those who believed that a person’s sexuality was personal and me, who feels people are free to do what they want, but the whole world would be a lot better if some of these folks came out loud and proud.

Fortunately for us, with up-and-coming artist Ashley Phillips, the argument is moot. Phillips is an out musician who hopes to affect the industry by projecting a visible and positive image to as many audiences as possible. (Go Ashley, go Ashley!)

If you haven’t heard Phillips at one of her many gigs in the Philadelphia area, she is known for her unique voice and blend of acoustic, soul and pop. As a singer-songwriter, she captivates audiences with her intimately soulful and lyrical professions of love, life and truth. Her vocal stylings have drawn comparisons to such artists as Minnie Riperton (my personal favorite), Amel Larrieux, Adriana Evans and Dionne Farris.

Phillips was kind enough to meet with me in the rain at Clark Park and talk about her music and her story.

PGN: So where have you been all our lives? AP: [Laughs.] I’ve been around. Over the years I’ve played at Philadelphia venues such as the Rotunda for the Black Women’s Arts Festival, Tin Angel, Sisterspace and other small venues around the area. Recently I’ve been branching out and playing in Washington, D.C., at places like Tim’m West’s Front Porch monthly event and DC Black Pride. I also perform and travel with the Brave Soul Collective, a D.C.-based organization “Bringing Light to the Truth” that works to raise awareness.

PGN: Awareness of what? AP: Brave Soul Collective is an education, outreach and support organization for LGBTQ HIV-positive and -negative individuals who are living their lives in truth through the arts. They work to increase visibility of marginalized communities, including but not limited to gay black men and people living with HIV and AIDS. They really try to increase communication in those communities and to serve as a network for those expressing themselves in the creative and healing arts. They’re a great organization; you can check them out at www.bravesoulcollective.org.

PGN: What instruments do you play? AP: I started playing violin early on, then picked up trombone in high school. I’m self-taught on both piano and guitar. Oh, and voice, of course. I came to performing a little late. It wasn’t until after high school that I started writing and performing in public.

PGN: How was coming out? AP: Coming out was definitely a process. I have been blessed to have a family that was, and has continued to be, supportive. I had the most difficulty with gender presentation, really. Wearing button-downs and ties with close cut hair hasn’t always been easy, especially with my extended family. It’s hard, sometimes, for people who’ve known me over the years to understand why I would choose this. It is simply who I am, and time has allowed for acceptance. I am truly fortunate.

PGN: Tell me about your family. AP: My mom is a New York native who studied dance and musical theater. Her side of the family was definitely the creative [side]. She went to the Professional Children’s School in New York to study theater and my grandmother went to Julliard to study voice. She was a soprano and studied in the same class as Leontyne Price. My stepfather is from Trinidad and Tobago and works as a contractor. I have two younger sisters.

PGN: What kind of big sister were you? AP: I was always trying to make us into the Von Trapp family. I tried to make them sing with me at the piano and put on little shows. I had visions of us becoming a doo-wop group, but they apparently had other plans.

PGN: What are their names? AP: Hollie and Emily. We’ve all got really WASPy names! I’m actually Ashley Ann and my youngest sister is Emily Elizabeth. They all have a musical ring to them. I guess my mom had a thing …

PGN: What instrument do you wish you could play? AP: I’ve always wanted to pick up bass and drums — especially drums. Hmm, maybe because I’m already playing a percussion instrument [guitar], I’m just really into the rhythms and overall feel with drums.

PGN: Yeah, I hear a lot of percussion in the way you play. What’s an early musical memory? AP: Ha! I remember being about 3 or 4 and listening to Anita Baker on the radio in the car. I started singing “Sweet Love” while at nursery school. The lyric was, “I feel no shame, I’m in love,” and one of the other kids thought I was saying “shit” instead of “shame.” Anyway, I was put on time-out with an egg timer. At 3-4, that felt like forever. I never forgot that moment.

PGN: Your idea of misery? AP: Misery can be a warm blanket you cocoon yourself in for way too long.

PGN: What was your favorite cartoon as a kid? AP: I was all about the “Animaniacs.”

PGN: Crazy incident at a gig? AP: Crazy? Nothing too crazy to speak about yet. The one recurring situation is being mistaken for a young boy, then singing the first few notes and watching the stunned look on people’s faces.

PGN: A story someone told you about how your music affected them? AP: I can’t pinpoint one particular story at the moment, but the themes of my writing are universal. And I’ll hear about how people connect to the sentiments or feel moved by the delivery.

PGN: I’m so gay … AP: Because I have brought the U-Haul on the second date.

PGN: Who was your first crush? AP: It was when I was about 6, that I can remember. I went to a private Seventh-day Adventist school and had a crush on a girl a few years my senior. [Laughs.] I’ve always had a thing for older women. I gave her a valentine. She was a bit baffled. I feel like this was the first moment I learned shame around attraction.

PGN: Were you a sports person? AP: I was a serious basketball player for a while. It was something that I was hoping to pursue in college, but I tore my ACL — twice. I figured it was time to let the hoop dreams go.

PGN: Do you speak a second language? AP: One of my best friends in grade school was deaf, so I learned to sign pretty well. Though not quite as quick as Bette on “The L Word.” A friend of mine jokes that Bette met a woman who was deaf and a third of the way into the episode she was fluent in sign language.

PGN: Early signs that I was gay … AP: I feel like I have a very common queer narrative — being young and falling in love with your best friend.

PGN: Favorite day of the week? AP: Probably Wednesday. It’s Hump Day.

PGN: Favorite poem/poet? AP: “Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a poem my mom would recite to me while pushing me on a swing. I would call it my favorite because it elicits a fond memory from my childhood so vividly.

PGN: Friend that lives the farthest away? AP: One of my closest childhood friends moved to Zurich, so she’s probably the winner here.

PGN: You mentioned that you had difficulty with extended family accepting your gender expression. How does it affect you? AP: Well, I guess I identify as butch. I’m a female-bodied person, but I have more of a masculine expression in the way I dress and present myself. To me, it’s just what I’m comfortable with. I grew up in Reading, which was quite conservative. It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to become more comfortable with it. I was always kind of awkward and didn’t see myself reflected in the community out there. When I got to college, I found the book “Stone Butch Blues” written by Leslie Feinberg, which I think was instrumental in a lot of people’s queer narrative. It was published in 1993 and is about a butch named Jess Goldberg and the trials and tribulations she faced growing up in the pre-Stonewall era. It was one of the first books addressing the butch/femme culture. I also discovered the queer community here in Philly and I was able to discover and be my true self.

PGN: Single or involved? AP: Single these days. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” is my unofficial anthem. It has been a while since I’ve been single, so I’m trying to find the joy in it.

PGN: What do you consider an overrated virtue? AP: Patience, definitely. The look for 2009 is instant gratification.

PGN: Any nicknames? AP: HypeMaster. My friends always joke that I get ridiculously excited over small things. I like to think of it as appreciating the simple things. I love the feeling.

PGN: I guess that explains the passion for Animaniacs! AP: Definitely!

To hear Phillips’ music, visit her MySpace page at www.myspace.com/ashleyphillipsband Or catch her at 4:30 p.m. March 11 at Chris’ Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].