Tom Phillips and the DTs make a New Map of the Stars

You’d call it sprawling, but it’s only 10 songs. You might say it rambles over rough terrain and slides over the edges, directionless, except the music and intention move unwaveringly forward. Maybe you’d say it’s unexpected, except since songwriter Tom Phillips paused years back to kiss life into a whole weird and wonderful album of other people’s music, Mr. Superlove (2015), expected got the hell outta Dodge.

In fact, Phillips references Superlove producer Lorrie Matheson for flipping the switch that moved the songwriter from his well-worn image as a honky-tonk hero to a different kind of songwriter. “I think Mr. Superlove opened my ears to a whole bunch of music,” says Phillips while sitting in his southwest Calgary backyard on a sunny afternoon.   “Lorrie gave me a huge list of stuff and I only knew about three bands out of the 25 or so. I listened to those records and I was like, ‘Wow, those are great!’

“To some degree a person writes from where they are. The Mr. Superlove record we finished while I was quitting drinking. And somehow, that album opened my ears. I mean, I think I’ve always been a pretty open listener. I worried a bit about this record, not worried, but I knew that it comes from all over the place. But that’s what I’ve been listening to, all over the place.”

The project, Satellites and Stars, recorded by Phillips and the DTs (Difficult Transitions), was laid down and mixed in 10 days in February at the National Music Centre under their artist-in-residence program. Most of the tracks were done live off the floor, with a few overdubs. The artwork, featuring a futuristic image of a 1950s-era car befitting the 1950s-era songwriter, floating through starry nebula, was created by Phillips’ oldest daughter, Jessica Phillips. It’s a swerve away from previous albums, which often featured Phillips’ countenance.

“We recorded it at National Music Centre, right, and all their gear is old. I sent Jesse some album covers I liked and I realized they were all 1970s album covers. And I thought I’d like to have (this cover) because it’s the band, it’s the DTs, it’s not just me and I didn’t want to just have that, so I said, ‘What can you come up with?’

“She did a few covers and we all liked that one the best because Satellites and Stars, it’s kind of got a space element to it.” While the DTs recorded 2017’s Plastic Machine with Phillips, he says the band was still being worked up onstage during their Tuesday night Blues Can jams, but that by this album they’d become a full blown band, all taking part in the decisions. Veteran drummer Thom Moon (Ian Tyson) and keyboardist Peter Cormier also join in at points.

Tom Phillips

The title track opens the journey through songs that move from introspection to dance tunes to anthemic majesty to lovely, lilting ballads, soul, gospel to, well, just music, because eventually labels are for urine specimens. The album immediately references late scene influencer Allen Baekeland as the friend lying in the hospital bed in Satellites and Stars, which seems to be about a person driving through Calgary’s legendary gruesome traffic while feeling like they’ll never reach a loved one but also turns out to be an existential musing about our place in the universe amongst those satellites and stars. The line “I’ve had this feeling all day long that I might just start crying over anything at all” surely captures something we’ve all experienced.

“I woke up and turned the radio on and they have Overnight from Europe or something, but these guys were actually talking about worrying that there so many satellites up there now and there’s so many more to come that you probably won’t be able to tell what is and what isn’t a satellite.

“Then one night I was out here and I saw these six perfectly spaced lights moving across the sky and (Phillips’ wife) Jas and I thought ‘That’s crazy!’ So I looked it up and it was Elon Musk; he’d launched, I don’t know how many he was launching, and I was like, ‘Did I say they could fuck up my sky?’ And then I kinda got over that, but I think that’s kind of where the idea of that song came from, powerlessness, sort of.”

Another track, Blue Shadows, references a different kind of star, one now nestled back among the heavens, the late, great Billy Cowsill, who made Calgary his final home and whose band The Cowsills had a string of hits in the 1960s and was the inspiration for The Partridge Family. Long-time Phillips fans will recognize the song from hearing it for years live at the Ironwood, Schooner’s, folk fest and beyond. Phillips attempted to record the song several times for past albums but was never happy with how it turned out.

“It’s called Blue Shadows because he was in (the band The) Blue Shadows, (has the line) blue northern because he was in (the band) Blue Northern. (The line) ‘spinning your wheels like and endless merry-go-round,’ that’s from (Cowsill’s signature song) Vagabond. I wrote it for his memorial at Knox United Church (2006), just when he died, I wrote it right then.”

Those who’ve heard the song a lot might discover beautiful lines buried away before, like, “There’s ghosts on the stages where you played/Hoof beats when the footlights start to fade.”

“That was another thing I wanted to do was make sure you could hear the words and everything. Words mean a lot to me in general,” the former owner of Bankview Books says. “You know I like writing words, so it’s nice to be able to hear them.”

Ah, yes, words, words run and laugh and scramble over the playground of this album, which is rife with stop-dead-in-your-tracks lines like Reach’s, “Everybody in this city acts like they’re the chosen one,” or entire songs, like Breathe In, which sensually undresses love without mentioning it once, reminiscent of something Leonard Cohen might have written.

“I love (writing lyrics), that’s where I get my thrill: ‘Oh, it could go like this!’ (The song) Reach — ‘my reach is further than my grasp’ — that is kind of about my songwriting where I feel I’ve got to write something so great, and then, you get what you get. I guess that’s like life.”

But a song like Breathe In takes a different turn than many of Phillips’ past songs. “There are a lot of love songs on this album. In contrast to a lot of things of mine that are usually about love gone bad sort of thing. Here’s what happened to me; I listen to a lot of vinyl, and I started big time listening to a lot of soul, you know, old-school soul.” He then heard a soul song while driving and realized the rhythm and structure are the same throughout the song, went home, and wrote stunner Breathe In.

A couple of the tracks, Cross to Bear and Trouble Up in Heaven, throw back to a thread that runs through Phillips’ 2002 track Jesus Don’t Come Knocking and to 2007’s Hello Central, pulling up spiritual themes.

“The good thing about religion, for me, is there’s a lot to draw on. It’s literature, it’s the Bible. It’s got all these things that people, in their DNA, they know. They don’t have to believe in it and all that. Like Dylan – not that I compare myself to Dylan – but there’s all this biblical stuff in it all the time, not (just) in his religious phase. It’s just things that people know.” It helps that Phillips was raised in the United Church, right down to doing Sunday School tests and earning stars (but not satellites) for knowing the Psalms. Even his first guitar, a Frank Gay, came from a church group leader when the songwriter was about 14.

Cross to Bear is about choices we make with our burdens. “We all are (the ultimate martyr). I find it in my own life. You go around thinking ‘This is what’s holding me down’ and you think, ‘What? Wait, it is? No it isn’t. I’m just letting it, or I’m putting it on myself.’ It’s good to have something to blame your own failures on. Or I find that in my own life.”

As well as listening to a lot of soul, Phillips listened to gospel, especially while vacuuming, giving rise to closing track Trouble in Heaven. The song loops back around to the piano moorings of the album’s first notes and also back to a place up near those satellites and stars by referencing a perhaps slightly blasphemous heaven that isn’t quite perfect, but might be.

“Right, because I can’t envision a perfect place. I’ve always really liked gospel music, not to say for any specific religion or anything. I like the simplicity of everybody can sing along, and there’s just a piano, that kind of thing.”

The song also offers another one of those stop-in-your-tracks lines. “My favourite line is, ‘I hope my friends all go even if I can’t go with them,’ because I thought that was a really good for lack of a better word (Christian sentiment). Christianity gets all messed up and causes wars and all that, but that is what I would distill as a nice thing to say, a Jesus thing to say: ‘I might not be able to go (to heaven), but if you guys could go that’s still cool.’ ”

Tom Phillips and the DTs play their album release at the Ironwood Stage October 23 and 24, with a possible matinee added Oct. 25. For details go to or

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.