by Sam Robinson
After eighteen months of hard work, and three albums released across five months, the church calendar project from Page CXVI has come to a close. The final album in the trilogy, Good Friday to Easter is perhaps the best yet (read my review here). I got to chat with lead singer and co-producer Latifah Phillips one final time to get the scoop on this album, the stories behind the songs, and what’s to come next for both the band and herself.
SAM: Latifah, the last church calendar record is out. Is it a little hard to believe that you’ve reached this point?
LATIFAH: Yes. It’s really hard. Especially since we’ve been talking about making a record associated to Advent for five or six years. And then we’ve been talking about doing the whole calendar for a year-and-a-half. So I can’t believe it’s finally at its end. It’s sad but it’s also kind of a relief: ‘Yay! We did it!’ I’m really proud of us. I think we did really good work and I’m hopeful that it will really encourage people with the seasons.
SAM: You’ve done a magnificent job across three – I don’t know how you release three albums in five months!
LATIFAH: I don’t know how we do it either! [Laughs] It’s crazy!
SAM: One day you’ll look back and go – I can’t believe we did all that!
LATIFAH: I know! I think I do that with all of our hymns releases. We made Hymns II-IV all at the same time. So it’s kind of the same thing. Except then we released them within two years of each other. I think the hardest part is releasing them so close together. To get the energy up to talk about and reach out to people. I hope that we haven’t exhausted people at this point…
SAM: I don’t think that’s the case! Actually, I was watching the teaser video you posted online for this last album, and I felt a bit emotional watching that. This musical journey is ending! Is there a sense of grief in wrapping a project like this?
LATIFAH: I think that the grief might come later… I think that relief is my initial feeling. Just because it’s been so much work, and so much energy. Getting this last record to a place where – I have this obsessive compulsive desire to beat every record that I have made, with this record that I’m releasing. And so doing Advent and Lent and Easter so close together was a real challenge for me because I still had that same desire. But they’re all so close together so I’m not sure if I succeeded! [Laughs] You know, when Clark and I were editing the video and putting it together, I also was feeling a little bit sad, just thinking about how far we’ve come. And I’m not sure what’s next as far as what music we’ll put out… Which is strange for us, because we always have a plan. And we just all decided to take a season of rest and explore other adventures. So I think for me, maybe that’s where the sadness lies. But I’m really proud of the project, I feel relieved and I feel thankful to move on to something else. I think I’m ready.
SAM: Good to hear! Now the last time we talked, you gave me the scoop that there would be eight tracks rather than seven on the Easter record; and that everyone couldn’t quite deal with that because all your records have seven tracks! Have you come to terms with it yet?
LATIFAH: Yes! I love it. I mean, the eighth and final track was what we used for the YouTube promo. That was the song. And I just love it. It’s totally different! It’s a different approach. It is a transitional song. I love it and I think Reid and Dann really like it too.
SAM: I’ll ask you about that song soon, but the first track on the album, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, I assume that’s a deep reflection on Good Friday?
LATIFAH: Yes. It’s really about hoping to put yourself into the space of the kind of sacrifice that Christ made. And it uses a lot of dark language that really is almost somewhat graphic in the sense of… ‘Sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down.’ It just immediately takes you to that point. I think a lot of people have seen The Passion of the Christ, and images of Christ with the crown of thorns and blood dripping down, but I think what this song does successfully is that it works past just the visual imagery, and takes you to a more spiritual, emotional, imagery place of what Christ’s walk and transition was like as he was realising the gravity of the sacrifice he was going to have to make. And also, maybe what it looked like and why he did it. So I have always loved that song. We have a simplified video of it for a YouTube video that we’ve made. And I loved it then, I love leading it. I hope it puts us in a place of gratitude but also realising the gravity moreso of what he’s done. Yeah, I love that song. I think it’s great.
SAM: Absolutely. And then it’s followed by Go to Dark Gethsemane. I was trying to work out how to describe this song, I think I’d call it ‘chilling but in a beautiful, haunting way’. Is that what you wanted to create on that song, because your voice on that track is – compared to other Page tracks – quite unique. What can you tell me about that song?
LATIFAH: You know, that’s funny you mentioned that. When I was tracking it, in the studio, I made myself cry. [Laughs] And not because I’m amazing…
SAM: You got out some onions, and got someone to punch you in the arm…
LATIFAH: Exactly! No, I got really emotional. I tried to – especially when I’m in the studio singing a song that I’ve already written. It’s not the first time I’m singing it. It’s the same thing I’ve tried to do when we’re leading worship or I’m performing the song. If I try to take myself to the emotional space of what the song is communicating – so that as the voice I can really contextualise what that space is. So I was thinking about the real imagery of Christ and him doing that journey to calvary, and just how lonely it was. How so many people rejected him and denied him. And that he still went through with it. I remember when I was singing the words I made myself cry because it gave me a deeper sense of love for Christ when I think about what he really sacrificed. So I think that the reason the song even sounds different vocally is because I was pretty emotional as I was singing it.
It’s a heavy tune. The concept is really heavy. I think I might have said this in our last interview, but when you put yourself in the place of the people that loved Christ – his disciples, his friends, his family – they didn’t know he was going to rise from the dead three days later. And so I really wanted to put myself in that space of grief. And I lost my Dad almost six years ago, so I have a little bit of experience to relate it to. So I decided to put myself in that place. So I think the song turned out really special. And I love the string work on it. Cameron and Keith did such a beautiful job in creating a haunting, dark, but yet so lovely and beautiful sound with their instruments. I love using all-organic instruments at the top. They go into a dark and industrial heavy place at the end with the drums and the cool electric guitar tones! We kinda sang ‘He wept. We wept.’ at the end to take us to that place as far as I could without wanting to die. [Laughs]
SAM: I think that’s the thing about Good Friday. It’s one of those days that is so horrific but yet it’s still hopeful. How does Good Friday hit you?
LATIFAH: I think I’ve always been someone that’s more accustomed to feeling the weight and grief of Good Friday. And maybe it’s because I’m an artist and I tend to be a little bit melancholy by nature. But it’s really sad when you think about it! And I know it’s hard because we know the full story, the narrative. It’s easy to feel hopeful because what we’re really thinking about is Easter. So when I just think about Good Friday as an isolated event, it’s tremendously sad. So I tend to live there in that place. I love those dark Friday services I’ve been to in the past where the church has put black up everywhere, and there’s maybe a couple of candles, and a real sense that it feels like a funeral. A solemn nature. I know that a lot of Christians want to try to rush to Easter because it’s hopeful, and hopefulness feels better than sadness and grief. But like I said before, hopefulness is only as powerful when you experience loss. So I tend to lean towards the dark, melancholy side of Good Friday. Sometimes I know it makes people feel uncomfortable, but that’s why I wanted to go as dark as I could on the record before transitioning into the happier, more upbeat Easter songs.
SAM: And I guess there is that transitory song in Three. And it seems to be more than just an interlude, or a track to move from the dark to the light…
LATIFAH: Yeah well when I was thinking about how we needed one… I had the whole record almost mixed with Dave. And I was listening to it in the car, the premixes, and when we jumped from Go to Dark Gethsemane to Roll Away the Stone it just felt really jarring. Like I wasn’t emotionally ready yet. And so when I was crafting that song it actually – I think that whole song was tracked within twenty-five minutes. It was really fast. Dave did a wonderful mix on it. But what I was going for, I was thinking about those three days. And it worked out really well that it also happened to be the third track on the record! I should say that it was intentionally that clever, but it was really unintentional! [Laughs] But there’s something really mystical and powerful and unknown about how God moves. And the miracle of taking something that is dead and making it alive. Some people describe it as magic! God can do anything.
So I wanted to tap into – what would that mystical, particles moving, that we can’t see but we know it’s happening. What would it sound like if it had a sound? I didn’t really want a centre lead vocal, I wanted these different concepts and at the top of the song you have the ‘Swing low, sweet chariot,’ ‘Lay this body down,’ lyrics happening. Then there’s a lift or breath in the centre. And to me that’s like: he’s died and this is really sad, and God’s doing something that we don’t see or we don’t know but it’s like a breath. Then you start hearing the lyric: ‘You set the captives free,’ ‘Alleluia, sing to our king,’ and it’s like what I imagine the angels are doing singing. Because you still don’t yet know that he’s going to rise from the dead. So I wanted a song that had that… it sounds weird but particles moving. It’s kind of like – you know when you’re sitting in a room and you don’t realise how dusty it is. Then a light shines through the window and you see all the particles moving through the air? You can’t think about how dirty and gross and dusty it is [laughs] because when you just look at it it’s really beautiful. That’s one of the pictures I had when I was building the track. That space of a [exhales]. I think in Scripture they use the word ‘selah’. A breath. Amen. So that was the concept, and I love it. It might even be my favourite song on that record! It’s kind of an anti-song song too.
SAM: Yeah, it’s different for you guys to do something like that as well.
LATIFAH: It is different. It was fun to make a song just for a record because the record needed it. Not because – I mean I don’t know if we’ll ever play it live. The record was just really calling for it. So it was made.
SAM: And then, as you mentioned, we move into these songs that are so upbeat. Roll Away the Stone and Christ is Risen are so… positive! Really joyous. Where did these songs come from?
LATIFAH: These were really fun! Dave and I sat down and we wrote Roll Away the Stone together. That’s an original song. And that song originally – I was telling Dave ‘We have all these songs about Christ rising from the dead but we don’t really have any songs that actually tell us the story of people going to the tomb. The women – and I love that it was women, because I’m a woman. People don’t like talking about that very much, but I love that women first went and looked for him and discovered that he wasn’t there, and then Thomas who Christ sees and doesn’t even believe him! ‘Touch this, touch this! This is me!’ I love the story! And I love the imagery of the stone rolling away. So I told Dave, ‘We need a song about this moment,’ because we’re going to get to the other realm of Christ raised from the dead, reigning as King. So Dave and I sat and we read all the passages, all the accounts in Scripture that describe that moment. And ended up penning out the song. It was really fun. It was one of the last to be written for the whole project. I love how it turned out. It’s real fun, real exciting. I like that it tells a story. I love the background vocals: ‘Alleluia!’ It so catchy! I love great backgrounds.
But yeah, Christ is Risen comes from a couple of hymns. The first is obviously Christ is Risen, where we took most of the lyric from, but I felt like it needed – I felt if I was at this service on Sunday and we were going to be singing that Christ is risen, I’d want it to feel massive. I’d want the drums to be a 1950s motown feel-good rhythm. Dann found that and did a great job with that. It’s so fun to sing ‘Christ is risen, he hath burst His bonds in twain’ which means he’s burst them in two. You get the imagery of the cloth that’s hanging in – is it the tabernacle? It’s hanging in the temple and it’s ripped in two when Christ defeats death. I love that imagery! It’s just a great song about his glory and what he’s done. It’s fun to focus on that part. It’s such a relief after going through Good Friday. I love that those two songs follow the heavier content on the record.
SAM: And the arrangements to both those songs are in a pop-rock style, perhaps moreso than usual for you guys. Was it fun to work in that style?
LATIFAH: Yeah! I love layered, full music. Sigur Rós, Jónsi, Aqualung, Radiohead… they’re all experts at making this layered, lush sound. It’s like a wall of sound. And when you think about the concept of Easter you think of the angels rejoicing, and the body of Christ – it’s a wall of people and they’re singing! It’s fun to get to do it with sound. And it’s always fun to be loud! [Laughs]
SAM: Now it’s been about a month since we last caught up, but how’s your cactus finger going?
LATIFAH: Oh, it’s still swollen, man. I actually go to hand therapy tomorrow.
SAM: Are you still wearing the knuckle sweater for it?
LATIFAH: No, unfortunately I don’t get that anymore. It’s actually probably better. But I think it’s going to be hopefully a couple more months until the swelling goes down but – I literally go to hand therapy every week and it feels so crazy to go for one finger! [Laughs]
SAM: Now this obviously a soundtrack to the Easter weekend, but is there a key message or big idea to the album as a whole, other than just exploring what Christ has done?
LATIFAH: I think it’s really a record about rejoicing. We can only rejoice in what we’ve understood to have happened. So it’s OK that the first two songs are really heavy. Then the end of the record – every song is in C major. Which is a very positive key. Very positive notes. It’s really about celebration and rejoicing. Whereas the other records have themes of gratitude, and anticipation and expectation. This is really about rejoicing and celebration. And I think that’s why we had so much fun making big, full party-sounding songs. Like – Christ the Lord is Risen Today – it’s got this happy, ukulele, vocal intro and then it’s BOOM! Everything is in in the chorus! We have all these crazy sounds. There’s literally times when Dave and I would put our hands on the keyboard and just bang out notes… That’s really the sense for me, for the record. And I hope that that translates across.
SAM: Absolutely. Hugely celebratory. And even though the first two tracks are quite solemn, by the end of it you know it’s a party.
LATIFAH: Yeah! Totally!
SAM: Now Easter – what do you usually get up to across the weekend?
LATIFAH: Y’know, I think there’s only been in the last ten years one Easter Sunday that we haven’t played! There’s something about – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – Easter Sunday in America that’s kind of like Superbowl Sunday for churches. They go to the nines for it all. But this Sunday what’s going to be fun is that Reid and I are actually just playing as part of a team of musicians for Easter Sunday at a church in Denver. It’s not about being Page CXVI, it’s just getting to play and use our gifts, and enjoy the Sunday in a different way. So usually I’m playing and there’s three services on Sunday. So I get to go to church a lot on Sunday! But I love playing music. It’s how I’m made, it’s how I understand the world, so to use those skills to celebrate God on Easter Sunday feels very appropriate.
SAM: And do you do a similar thing on Good Friday?
LATIFAH: I’ve done a handful of Good Friday services. This Good Friday I’m actually just relaxing and I’ll probably just attend a service, which is really special. When you work a lot of services, or are part of a team of leading people, it’s really nice to just go and be part of the body and participate. So Reid and I will probably just go to our church’s Good Friday service and just sit. I’ll probably cry. [Laughs]
SAM: Everything will be black…
LATIFAH: Hopefully, right? [Laughs] That’s what I love! I’ll watch a real depressing movie. [Laughs]
SAM: Oh man… Well actually speaking of the darkness and the positiveness, you’ve done a version of How Deep the Father’s Love on this record. It’s a modern hymn, really. What do you love about it?
LATIFAH: Well the first time I heard it I was at a service somewhere. And I remember loving the words. But they were playing it so slowly. I get it – I get why you would do that, and how it would be helpful to meditate on the lyric, but I remember feeling like it just wasn’t celebratory enough. So it was really fun to do it in a format – and I don’t know how the original writers play it – but I love getting to have a great indie pop-rock fun celebratory vibe. I wrote a chorus and a bridge for the song because I find it really helpful when you’re singing hymns with a congregation – because you’re giving them so much great content and so much to talk about. It’s jam-packed in one song. And if you’re like us we sing all hymns when we’re leading worship. It’s so much theology and so much content which is great – but sometimes it’s really helpful to have a simple refrain as a breather, that focusses on the thesis of the hymn. So you have the thesis statement and then as you’re going through each verse you can appreciate and connect the dots. So it was really fun to add those elements. I love that song. And I always get excited when there’s people writing – in my opinion – on the same level as the hymn writers were doing hundreds of years ago. It could be a song that when I first heard it, I assumed it was older. Then it wasn’t until we wanted to do it for one of our videos that I looked it up and said ‘Look! Somebody wrote this in the nineties! So this is not free to use but I really love it, so we’re going to use it anyway!’
SAM: You know, I’ve loved being able to talk to you for each of these calendar records and get the stories behind them but I’m going to ask you a really tough question. Do you have a favourite out of the three records?
LATIFAH: On some levels – I don’t have children yet – I imagine it’s like asking someone with children which of their three kids is their favourite. And I imagine each of those kids is totally different, they have different personalities, different character, they look different. But you appreciate them for their unique aspects. So I really love all the records. But if I had had had to choose… I might say Advent to Christmas. Which is funny because before they all were finished and said and done I would have said Good Friday to Easter. And it’s by a nose, it’s a really close race! But there’s something, perhaps because those songs are so familiar to me and there are songs that I’d been wanting to re-do for such a long time, that maybe it felt the most satisfying in that way. But yeah. I love them all. Do you have a favourite after hearing all three?
SAM: I do love them all, but I think this latest one is my favourite.
LATIFAH: Oh yay! Well that’s good! That’s what I actually hope people will say, because if I’m really honest about the concept of wanting to beat every record then technically Good Friday to Easter should be it!
SAM: Yeah that’s right! Now you mentioned that you’re not quite sure what’s next for Page CXVI, other than a break?
LATIFAH: Yeah, I should clarify that it’s not a break-up. Dann, Reid and I are on wonderful terms. Obviously Reid is my husband so we’re hoping we’re on good terms! [Laughs] We all love each other a lot. We’ve toured really hard for eight years and spent a lot of time in a van on the road, travelling America. Making tonnes and tonnes of music. It’s been wonderful. There are realities about travelling so much and being gone so much that I think that we’re all just ready for a bit of a breather. We miss being part of a regular community at home. Reid and I got a dog and I love him, I miss him. For me, personally, I’ve got involved in producing a lot of projects for other artists and it just requires me being home a bit more. And I’ve loved it. I obviously co-produce all of our records with Dave Wilton, and the production is one of my first loves. So getting to do it for other artists is such a joy. And Reid’s exploring some other things and opportunities and so is Dann. So it’s fun to see them thriving and trying new things. But by no means would I say we’re finished. I don’t know when the next record will be or what it’s about, but I think creatively we all need a bit of a break so if and when we do come back, it’s really good! [Laughs] And I think there’s something to be said as artists to have just some life experience to keep drawing from. I feel like we’ve drawn a lot of music out of the last decade. I feel like I need to live life a little bit then come back and write some more in this way. I also say – we’re also taking random gig opportunities but just being more choosy and taking the opportunities that excite us right now. Luckily we’re in a position where we don’t have to take every gig right now. We don’t have to hit the road as hard. Which is a blessing and something I’m really thankful for.
SAM: And it seems like you’re still working on some other projects – I’ve seen on Twitter that you’re working on Aaron Strumpel’s new record?
LATIFAH: Yes! He’s a fabulous artist! The record we’re working on is called Bright Star. It’s a really beautiful, deep, fun worship record. Aaron plays trumpets on all of our records, he’s an amazing trumpet player but he’s also an incredible vocalist and songwriter. We actually worked from 10am to 9pm on his record yesterday. It was so fun at one point I was dancing in the studio because I loved what we had made! I think that will be released early next fall.
SAM: And another project Moda Spira?
LATIFAH: It’s hard to say because it’s in an ancient Latin language… But Moda Spira means ‘just breathe’ in Latin. When I was a little girl I had really terrible asthma. I had to be in an oxygen machine at night with a little mask to breathe really well. And now I’m fine. And I love the idea that when I was a little girl who would have guessed that God would have brought me to a place – to live in Colorado at high altitude – and be a singer with big lungs! I love the idea of naming the project Moda Spira because of that. It’s meant to be a project for me to explore songwriting just on my own, and make sounds wherever I like. I did a cover of The National’s Terrible Love and it was for a film that’s airing soon on TV. So that’s the first thing that will come out as Moda Spira. But I am working on a few EPs for it. Just slowly, because I haven’t had as much time. So the plan for me is to take a bit of a break, then dive in to making these records and seeing what comes out after ten years of making music as Autumn Film and Page CXVI. I’m excited about it!
SAM: The last track on this record, Hallelujah, it’s beautiful!
LATIFAH: Thank you! I was really scared to do it!
SAM: Really? Why?
LATIFAH: Because it’s Handel’s Messiah! [Sings] Hallelujah! Hallelujah! It’s really well known… When we were thinking of how to end the whole project, and the record, this song came to my head. Dann and Jenny – our drummer and his wife – they went and saw that full concert last year. They were talking about how beautiful it was, it was with the Denver Symphony and Choir. So it got in my head. I looked it up and the lyric is very simple for this part of the score where it discusses Christ raising from the dead and then conquering, he is King and Lord… and it seemed right to end the record declaring who Christ is. And what he has done and doing. So it was a really fun way – and also for me to have 800 vocals on one song! To think about how to contextualise a song that is very choral and symphony-based, and move it to an indie pop-rock place. It was really fun to translate it. To move it around and see if it could work. And it’s probably the one that required the most attention. We had to edit and change and move things around and cut things out and put things in. I was probably tweaking that song until the bitter end. Just changing things constantly. I think by the end I was losing my mind, and I was asking Dave over and over ‘Are you sure this is OK?’ I lost my mind over these last mixes! But it was really fun to do. Thematically, I think it’s the most appropriate ending for the project.
SAM: Thanks so much for talking to me Latifah – not only this album but the others as well. It’s been so brilliant to feature three great records across the last three months.
LATIFAH: Thanks for doing it, really appreciate it!