"Call Me Adam" chats with singer, songwriter, actor, writer, model, and DJ Kenyon Phillips about his show The Life + Death of Kenyon Phillips which will be playing a limited run at The Box in NYC (189 Chrystie Street) February 20, February 28, March 7, and March 13 at 8pm! (Doors open at 7:30pm) Click here for tickets!
The Life + Death of Kenyon Phillips is a 90-minute rock opera that uses a cabaret-variety show format to explore the past, present and future of downtown performance artist Kenyon Phillips. In addition to Kenyon and his all-girl backing band, The Ladies In Waiting, the cast includes cultural critic and TV personality Michael Musto, Tony winner Cady Huffman, Tony nominee Gabriel Barre, and a host of aerialists, burlesquers, and other shining stars from the NYC circus underground.
1. From February 20-March 7, you are presenting a limited run of your show The Life + Death of Kenyon Phillips. What excites you about this upcoming engagement? So many things! Mounting the show at The Box is super exciting because we can feature circus acts that Joe’s Pub couldn’t accommodate for the earlier iterations – like aerialists and tightrope walkers. And I’m in love with my new cast – especially Cady Huffman, who plays my mom, and Gabriel Barre, who plays my dad. I’m also loving Michael Musto’s new role, which is much larger than it was in the previous versions. We’ve been having a lot of fun, and that makes me feel like the audience is going to have fun too.
2. You have done this show previously at Joe's Pub, what made now the right time to do a multiple night run of the show as opposed to a one night concert? We sold out Joe’s Pub every time we did it there, which made me realize that there really was an audience for this crazy show. One-night affairs are sexy and loaded with excitement, but there can be a sense of disappointment when they’re over – like you wish you could do it again. I used to emcee at The Box, and I’m friends with one of the owners. They happened to have room in their schedule for an early show in February and March, so we just decided to go for it. Given the burlesque nature of the show, it really is the perfect venue for us. Hopefully this limited run will help build an even bigger audience.
3. The Life & Death of Kenyon Phillips is a 90-minute rock-opera that combines an interactive cabaret-variety show format with burlesque dancers, aerialists, and other circus acts to bring your story to life. What made you want to format the show this way and how does it add to your nightly enjoyment of performing the show? I had been doing concerts with my band, The Ladies In Waiting, at Joe’s Pub where I was bringing up guest performers – almost like a variety show. The original goal was to keep the audience excited and on their toes, while giving talented friends like Michael Musto, dancer Marlon Taylor-Wiles and chanteuse Lady Rizo a chance to do what they do in an intimate cabaret setting. It wasn’t long before a good friend suggested that I use this format to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end – and that I make it my story. Another friend suggested that I watch the Max Ophuls film Lola Montes for inspiration. If you don’t know it (I didn’t!), a 19th-century courtesan reenacts her life within the context of a seedy midwestern circus. It’s beautiful and sad and bizarre, and made me realize that telling my life story didn’t necessarily entail doing a one-man show. By formatting the show like a traditional burlesque (with strippers, circus acts, and vaudevillian comedy), I can literally turn my life into a circus – especially when things get too painful. And selfishly, I get a major contact high from having all of these performers around. When I have a Tony winner like Cady Huffman playing my mom or an acro-juggler like Kelsey Strauch playing my cheating ex, how can I not have a ball?
4. What was it like to go back through your life to create this show? Were there moments when you felt like you didn't have the emotional strength to get through everything to put the show together or was it a delight to go back through your life? Revealing! I realized just how much I live in the past. Certain moments are painful or embarrassing, of course, but that probably means they need to be reenacted in front of an audience. And by turning those moments into musical numbers and circus acts, I can process those painful memories and, in some cases, overcome them.
5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing The Life & Death of Kenyon Phillips? I want them to be entertained, obviously. But I also want them to feel better about themselves when they leave the theater. Hopefully they'll be inspired to air their own dirty laundry, and overcome whatever shame or regret they have in the process. We all have shame and regret, but we’re only as sick as our secrets. Choosing love over fear, and to stay present instead of living in the past – that’s the moral, I suppose. Pretty lofty for a burlesque rock opera, but still!
6. What makes The Box the perfect venue to present this limited run of the show? The fact that it’s a burlesque house, for starters. I love its notoriety – the fact that when you say The Box, people assume that you’re doing something sexy and shocking. I also love the intimacy of the space. Joe’s Pub has that cabaret house intimacy, and The Box does, too – but even more so, since it only seats about half as many people as Joe’s Pub. Most importantly, The Box can accommodate circus performances. Remarkably few spaces in NYC can, probably because of liability issues. I always wanted to have aerialists spinning above the audience’s heads – and now I can!
7. You have been dubbed "the love child of Luther Vandross and Steven Tyler." How did you get this title and what did it mean to you to be compared to two legendary artists of our time? My friend Michael Musto (who plays a big part in the show) first called me that. Knowing Michael, I think he was being facetious – or maybe he was just trying to come up with the least likely combination imaginable? Either way, I’m honored. Luther Vandross was a genius, and Steven Tyler left an indelible stamp on my childhood between "Walk This Way," "Sweet Emotion," and "Dude (Looks Like A Lady)." And actually, both have glam roots – Tyler was always a glam rocker, and Vandross got his big break singing backups on David Bowie’s Young Americans album.
8. Some of your music has been featured on such TV shows as Showtime's Shameless, The Eleventh Hour on CBS, and The Mighty B! on Nickelodeon. First of all, how did you get your music onto these shows? What went through your head when you the deal was complete that your music was being featured? What was it like to watch the show and have that moment of "Oh my gosh, that's my song right here at this moment in the show"? I have my brother Stephen to thank for the Shameless and Eleventh Hour music placements. He and his writing partner Tim P. have a licensing label called Transphonic Records, which pitches songs for TV shows, movies and commercials. The songs we’ve gotten on Shameless and Eleventh Hour were actually songs I wrote and recorded with him – very "all in the family." The Nickelodeon placement was different. Amy Pohler had an animated series on Nickelodeon called The Mighty B! One of my old bandmates – Jonny Cragg, who’s also the drummer for Spacehog – was friends with Amy and the show's creators, and asked if I wanted to write a Rocky Horror-style song with him for a Halloween episode. Frankenfurter’s always been my spirit animal, so of course I said yes. Jonny and I recorded our version, and then we got to produce a version that Amy sang – in character, with a lisp. Both versions ended up in the episode. That led to more songwriting assignments for the series, including a boy band-style anthem with innuendo-laced lyrics. It’s surreal to hear your songs on TV. It’s like, wait, am I dreaming? Maybe I am. Maybe this whole interview is a dream!
10. What have you learned about yourself from being a singer, songwriter, actor, writer, model, and DJ? I guess I’ve learned what I like. I like making people happy. And I like attention. I’ve also learned that what I like doesn’t seem to be very lucrative!
11. How do you want to be remembered? Like a good camper: As someone who left the world a little better than I found it.
12. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I wish my hands could turn into veggie burgers whenever I was hungry. And that they’d grow back as hands after I was done eating, like a starfish. What’s that super power called?
13. If you could create your own signature drink, what would you call it and what ingredients would you put in it? Coffee. Cream and sugar.
14. Boxers or Briefs? Boxer briefs! Especially Diesel ones – they’re so Eurotrashy, as all men’s underwear should be.
Dubbed "the love child of Luther Vandross and Steven Tyler" by pop culture commentator Michael Musto, Kenyon Phillips knows how to put on a show. The wildly theatrical singer, songwriter, actor, writer, model, dancer, and DJ has been busy "being there, doing that" all over New York City since the days of Y2K. In addition to founding and fronting the bands Roma! and Unisex Salon and contributing lead vocals to Thrill A Minute, Kenyon has written and produced songs for Amy Poehler, Joey Arias, Raven O, and Sherry Vine; moonlighted as emcee of notorious variety show nightclub The Box; performed with renowned "punk ballerina" and choreographer Karole Armitage; and appeared as a silhouetted dancer in multiple campaigns for the Apple iPod. As he puts it, "There are very few things that I won't do for money." Backed by his all-girl band The Ladies In Waiting, Kenyon's stage shows are a blend of orchestral rock, surrealist theater and cabaret –frequently bolstered by surprise appearances from an array of downtown celebs. His songs have been featured on several network and cable television programs, including Shameless on Showtime, Eleventh Hour on CBS, and The Mighty B! on Nickelodeon. His debut solo EP Fire in the Hole was released in September 2013, and was helmed by multi-platinum award-winning producer, mixer and songwriter David Bendeth (Paramore, Papa Roach, Breaking Benjamin, Cowboy Junkies, Crash Test Dummies, IMA Robot). Kenyon is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.