OECS YES In Action features Jonathan Philip
Saint Lucian Musician channelling the angst of the COVID-19 pandemic to fuel his art and inspire positivity
This month, OECS YES In Action caught up with Jonathan Shawn Philip, a 26 year old Music Technology major at NYU using his art to highlight the transcendental nature of love and human connection in this time of social distancing !
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a Saint Lucian songwriter, musician and photographer from Reduit Park, Gros Islet. I graduated from St Mary's College in 2009, Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in 2011 and I am currently progressing to my final year at New York University (NYU) pursuing an undergraduate degree in Music Technology. I have always been interested and active in exploring my creativity through all mediums available to me. The idea of creating something from scratch and/or taking raw materials to create something new has always kept me continuously challenged and in awe.
When did you first notice your inclination towards the Creative Industry?
When I was much younger, maybe 8 or 9, I was interested in writing poetry, which evolved into songwriting. I also started taking classical piano lessons with Deanna Clarke, my music teacher and close family friend, and joined the Methodist Youth Choir which she directed. At around 13 or 14, I stopped taking piano lessons but picked up a guitar and taught myself how to play. I discovered FL Studio, a digital audio workstation, and began beat making at around 15. I grew up listening to my mother playing Mozart, Carlos Santana, Randy Travis, not to mention the fact that Caribbean culture itself is very festive and musical, and so I was always surrounded by music. Equally so, I believe, I always loved it. When I figured out that I could create my own, it only accelerated my interest.
What were you doing before you began your focus in this area?
After I left secondary school, I worked at the Bank of Saint Lucia for 6 years before I left Saint Lucia to pursue my degree. During this time I was heavily into photography. In fact, most people still know me as a photographer going under the business name J Philip Photography. Photography is still one of my passions and I still practice regularly at school. I get hired for events through word-of-mouth recommendations from Saint Lucians residing in New York. I have also been doing photography for NYU departments such as Hashtag NYU, a social media-based platform aimed at keeping students and prospective students connected with what's happening on and around campus; and the NYU Athletics department, focused on media-day shoots for promotion of NYU varsity sports teams and athletes.
What inspired you to start?
My inspiration to start came from my overall love for the arts, and my need to find a career that was centered around them. When I applied to NYU, I had no idea of what I actually wanted to pursue, just that I was ready to take my life to another level. I wanted to continue my education but coming from a society that pressures many to become business persons, doctors or lawyers, a creative career doesn't always seem like the wisest choice.
I moved to New York in June 2017, giving myself enough time to get settled before classes in the Fall and to set up a meeting with my advisor – who took my interests into consideration, pointing me towards my current field of study. I am extremely grateful for my parents, family and friends who never made me feel that pressure, who have always supported me in all my creative endeavours, and who continue to offer advice, guidance and support in my life to this day.
My mother specifically has always gone above and beyond when it came to any creative field I have been interested in. She bought me my first guitar, has kept a record of pretty much everything I've ever done or made and constantly gives me advice and support on any projects I undertake.
What obstacles, if any, did you face and how did you overcome them?
One of my biggest obstacles was going back to school after 6 years. I had to get back into the habit of writing papers, studying, doing subjects such as Mathematics (which I had previously excelled in, but lost touch), and music classes – where my last formal lesson was at least a decade prior. Another added pressure was being surrounded by brilliant peers who were between 4 and 6 years younger than me, who had recent experience with all of these academic subjects and were all at the top of their class. It was especially strange as I had always been 2 years younger than my peers in primary and secondary school, as well as doing A levels, and so the roles were reversed.
As soon as I got to New York I decided that the college experience had to be about more than the academics and so I immediately got involved with clubs and groups at school. I also befriended some amazing people, who still support me and I support them in return. Where I was struggling in my academics, they were able to lend their experience to teach me outside of the classroom. In return I'd like to think that I've been able to use my extra years of social, emotional and life experience to offer some wisdom, guidance and support. My support system, family and friends, makes it easy for me to stay motivated.
Tell us about the journey from the first spark of interest to where you are currently.
My first spark of interest in creating my own music really came about when I began writing songs. I had always been into poetry but I remember sitting with my guitar, with the basic G-Em-C-D progression, singing melodies and writing to them. I would estimate that to be around 2008-09. The idea of music production started when I Iearnt how to use a digital audio workstation. FL Studio was the first one I ever used back in 2010-11 and, although I admit that I never learnt how to use it to its full capabilities, it was the first time I realised that I had the ability to create something more than just the singer-songwriter guitar tunes that I was used to playing. Unfortunately, I stopped for a few years after switching laptops and not having access to the programme anymore. Fast forward to 2017, when I decided that I wanted to get back into music and pursue a degree in Music Technology, I bought Pro Tools which is my main digital audio workstation right now.
I spent some time getting back into the habit of making music, and experimenting with the different sounds I had available to me. The class that really got me back into it, that assured me that this was the right path for me, was Fundamentals of Music Technology. It was a Spring 2018 class that I had to take as a prerequisite for my major, taught by multi-Grammy award winning producer, engineer and songwriter Juan "Mr Sonic" Losada.
The final project for that class was a group project where we had to produce a song from start to finish. I took on my most familiar role, singing and songwriting, and along with my group mates, Dan Stafford and James Zhong, we spent the semester creating what would be my debut single, Sa Ka Fete. After the semester was over, I took it upon myself to release the song to the world, and the feedback I got was extremely positive.
I am a music major, so a lot of my coursework involves music theory, history and aural skills. I also had classes in electronics, recording, and audio for video which I enjoyed and which helped me build my skills as a musician overall. In this most recent semester, Spring 2020, I had another class by Professor Losada called, Software Music Production. This one, unlike the Fundamentals class, was completely specific to music production – from the writing process to the full production. Placed in pairs, we were required to write and create a demo for a song that we would exchange with another pair. This was when I wrote my most recent single "Where We Were" with the help of my group mate Jonathan Cuevas. We listened to the songs in the next class and exchanged them, but my own love for what I created, as well as the class and the professor's positive reactions, gave me the idea of working on the song as a personal project by myself outside of class. I released that song this year on May 6th, 2020, my 26th birthday. Most of my time thus far has been spent promoting “Where We Were” and trying to get it as far out into the world as possible.
What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge so far is probably balancing my academics with my personal passions. My major does involve some aspects of production and creativity, however the workload doesn't always allow the time or mental space to pursue personal music or photography projects. I believe that anyone who pursues tertiary education understands the challenge of balancing academics with their personal life, as well as making active steps towards a professional career post graduation. I am also interested in different creative mediums and it can be challenging making the time to explore them all with my limited free time. I still feel like I could be doing more, but I am proud of what I have achieved so far despite the challenges.
How have you used the current COVID-19 global pandemic to your advantage?
The COVID-19 pandemic presented me with the unique opportunity of being able to travel back to Saint Lucia to continue the Spring 2020 semester online. Sure, there were some classes that just weren't the same without the availability of NYU's resources, but some of them actually worked better and the distance somehow made it possible to become even more connected and engaged with our classes. This crisis also gave me the opportunity to be in Saint Lucia – a more positive, colorful and creativity-inspiring environment, with a little extra time to explore that creativity. I used my extra time to work on "Where We Were".
The song's lyrics originally started as a post-breakup love song, but as I got deeper and deeper into the production process I realised that it transcended romantic love. It was relatable to us all during this current time as it focuses on looking back on the better times we experienced before. I took the original demo I had and re-recorded the guitar part and vocals in my bedroom in Saint Lucia.
I started working on the production with virtual instruments and also used some of my friends from school to record and contribute parts that I could use. I have a strong network of friends in the music industry that lent an ear to my project as I developed it. They gave me mixing and production advice that helped me get the song to where it is today. Some of my professors, like Professor Losada, were extremely supportive and offered advice on how I could improve the song.
After production was finished, under the recommendation of my mother, I decided to create a music video that fit the theme. I reached out to friends and family to send me images and video clips of better, happier, fun times pre-pandemic that I could use in the music video. I spent a week compiling the clips and images to create the video in order to be ready for the release on my birthday. I did this all while still balancing my academic duties, which only just ended for the semester.
The entire experience taught me that anything is possible once I put my mind to it. I also found it difficult to let the pandemic get me down since it provided me with the opportunity to be back home with family and friends, and to give me the time and space to create again. I've learnt time and time again that there is always a bright side, something to be grateful for and something to look forward to, and ever since I recognised that I've been able to take advantage of every obstacle thrown in my way.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
The biggest achievement for me was the fact that I did most of this project by myself and it was my first time going through the whole process. From songwriting, to performing, to producing, mixing, mastering, distributing and promoting; creating the cover art and music video, it was a project that took all the skills I have developed and explored over the years to create a single piece of work. It's a song I'm very proud of, in its quality and in its message, because I believe that it provides me with hope and reassurance that I am doing what I should be doing, and it puts me in a place of confidence about my future. This song also provides listeners the opportunity to reflect and meditate on better, more positive circumstances and to help us all recognise that we're in this together, but it won't be forever and soon we'll be back to where we were.
What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?
Creation itself excites me. Just the ability to use my talents to contribute something new to the world fascinates me and motivates me to keep creating. I also have a very supportive network of friends and family. I have people who will tell me if they think I can do better and these same people share and engage with my creative material whenever I share it with them. I have also been recently introduced to other musicians like me, who are pursuing a career in sound or music, who I can learn from, and teach. Surrounding myself with people who share my passions places me in an environment where I am constantly challenged and inspired to do better.
What are the goals you most want to accomplish in the near future?
I won't restrict myself to say that I have completely decided on a specific field. I do know, however, that I want to learn everything I can. I want to explore every opportunity that becomes available to me as I continue my journey. I want to find a way to implement all of my talents into my career – whatever I end up doing. When I am in a comfortable and secure place I want to give back to Saint Lucia, and I want to inspire others to follow in my footsteps. The Caribbean is blessed with an extremely talented and creative population. Our collective culture leaves so many stories to be told and so many avenues for self and collective expression. I want to be involved in taking our talents to the global stage.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced your journey?
As I mentioned before, I have an amazing support system that keeps me on the right track and ensures that I am successful.
My most influential mentor would have to be my mother, Geraldine St Prix. She has always been there for me, placing me in programmes that I didn't even know I wanted to be in. I wouldn't have gotten into music if she didn't enroll me in piano classes. My mother bought me my first guitar and my first MIDI keyboard. She has supported me through school and still provides support in any way she can today. In addition, my mother gives amazing advice – not only to me, but to everyone and anyone in my inner circle. She only wants what is the best for me and has never allowed me to place a limit on my goals. She worked hard to get to where she is today, on her own through sheer determination and a love for mental and spiritual growth. I will never stop admiring her.
My father, Trevor Philip has also been very supportive in my life. His advice has been fundamental to my upbringing. He, like my mother, has always supported me in all of my mediums of creativity. My father bought my first DSLR camera, which was instrumental in me becoming a professional photographer. He also shares my work with his network, providing me with opportunities to meet and to work with people who also appreciate what I create. My father is an entrepreneur and got to where he was because of his own work ethic and motivation and so he inspires me to do the same within my own professional career.
My godfather, Dr. Didacus Jules, and my godmother, Delia Frederick have been key players throughout my life; my godfather from a professional and academic standpoint and my godmother from a more spiritual and value-driven standpoint. Didacus has been someone who sits with me to discuss my future, to develop solid life plans and to help guide me in my career-focused decisions. He also does everything he can to promote and support me and to ensure that I do everything to the best of my ability. "Didi", as I affectionately call my godmother, has been like a second mother to me all my life. She raised me just as much as my actual parents and has always been a voice of positivity, reason and support.
From a musical standpoint I have to mention my first music teacher, Deanna Clarke, who taught me piano, theory, and helped me develop myself as a singer through her choir. She has probably been the biggest musical influence in my life as the majority of my music education and experience came from her. She always pushed me to do solos in the choir, and to have confidence in my prepubescent soprano voice – which looking back, I really wish I took more advantage of! She does not teach me anymore but still supports me, offers advice and has become family to me. I, along with several other friends who were taught by her, owe our abilities and passions to her teachings and mother-like care and attention to our musical development.
What advice do you have for other Caribbean youth aspiring to get involved in the creative industry?
I would encourage other Caribbean creatives to do everything they can to get to where they want to be. We live in a world where a lot of the educational resources that we need to learn are available to us on the internet through online classes or free platforms like YouTube. Take advantage of what is available, then you can really appreciate the external opportunities that you may receive.
Another piece of advice is to network. Network with everyone, maintain relationships and help others just as you would like them to help you. I've learnt over and over that we never know what life has in store for us, who we may need down the line, or where life will take us. Networking places us in a position to be connected to as many resources as necessary to get to where we want to be.
My song probably wouldn't have gotten the kind of promotion and reception that it is getting if I wasn't already connected to many people. I try to support these same people as they support me and everyone wins that way. I learn from my peers just as much or in some cases, even more than I learn in the classroom and my peers inspire me and challenge me to be better.
I try to respect the people around me and in turn, they respect me. My relationships with others have opened opportunities for me to improve myself as a creative and a person in general. There is something to learn from everybody you meet. Don't be afraid to step outside of your perceived boundaries, don't be afraid to ask questions and most importantly, don't be afraid to learn something new.
My last piece of advice is to take advantage of your culture and where you come from. You come from a culture that is blessed with history, talent and a uniqueness that everyone outside of it is fascinated by and impressed with. Use your culture to inspire you to create. Use your background as a building block of your identity as it IS a fundamental part of your identity.
What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
The next thing I want to do is release a larger, collective work; an album or an EP. I really want to push myself this Summer to explore other genres and to create a larger body of work that can tell a story. I am also expected to graduate next year, in May 2021, and my senior capstone project is going to involve creating an extended play (EP) album. I am looking forward to dedicating my time to using what I learnt throughout my experience to create a high-quality body of work that I can be proud of and that can be a representation of my journey.