May 3, 2020 | Jim Bessman | Centerline
True, the title and cover of singer-songwriter/author Zara Phillips’ latest album Meditation & KitKats is funny indeed, what with her assuming a classic cross-legged meditation pose—except that both hands hold KitKat candy bars upright, empty wrappers strewn all over the floor before her.
But the album, says Phillips, is about “an intense period of losing,” specifically, both her adoptive and birth fathers, who died this last year within nine months of each other. She also lost her best friend around this time, yet even then, the droll title came to her quickly.
“It’s what all the songs are about: how you get through the deaths and the adoption, through meditation and KitKats–and that’s basically the truth! Some days I try to center myself, and others are KitKats all day!”
London-born Phillips’ music career has yielded backup singing for the likes of Bob Geldof, Matt Bianco, Nick Kamen, David Essex and Dire Straits’ John Illsley. Her life as an adoptee has long been at the heart of her own songwriting and recording, not to mention two books–Mother Me (2008), about being an adopted person and becoming a mother, and Somebody’s Daughter (2018), which details her years of self-discovery, including her difficult struggle as a teenager through drug and alcohol addiction while searching for her birth parents and true identity.
Also in 2008, she directed and produced the award-winning adoption documentary Roots Unknown. The following year, she co-wrote “I’m Legit” with fellow adoptee Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., and made a video with him of the song to further raise awareness of the emotional impact of adoption.
“I’m Legit” (featuring Darryl McDaniels)
In 2013, Phillips debuted her one-woman show Beneath My Father’s Sky—about her relationship with her adopted father and search for her birth father–which won the award for Best Direction at the United Solo Festival in New York. She remains a nationally-recognized advocate on adoption and addiction issues, and Meditation & KitKats’ lead track “Perfect Stranger,” she notes, depicts “what it’s been like as an adoptee.”
“Last year I went to Rome and met my birth father Vittorio’s sister and her children—my cousins—a couple months after he died,” says Phillips, who had only met her birth father two-and-a-half years prior to his passing.
“It was a weird thing: They’re people who look like you, but you’re still a stranger to them–your own blood family. My father’s sister did not speak English but chatted away in Italian, and her daughter translated. I walked the streets where he lived, and weirdly enough, when I was singing backup for Bob Geldof—around the time of Live Aid–we were in Italy and I was very much drawn to the Trevi Fountain—moments away from where Vittorio lived. He even carved his initial in one of the posts there!”
The Meditation & KitKats tune “Just Enough” is about Vittorio, says Phillips, whereas “Love is the Wheel” reflects her own motherhood and raising her three children. She also cites “Merlin” as “more like a spiritual song, about saying goodbye to people.”
“I think the album is about dealing with all that life throws at you,” says Phillips, noting that she’s remained sober since her early twenties. “I hope other people can relate.”
Now living in Montclair, N.J., Phillips had moved from London to California because of her ex-husband’s job location.
“I had bands in London, and another one in California and released a couple of CDs—and worked with Ted Perlman–but I was mostly at home with the kids, so I started writing my first book,” she says. “I was also doing a lot of talks about the lifelong impact of being an adoptee, and going to conferences about adoption.”
Phillips had met her birth mother in 1988, and eventually found Vittorio in 2016 through AncestryDNA, which matched her with a sister who knew where he was. Remarkably, he was living an hour away, having also moved to New Jersey from California—after living in London as well.
“I was actually playing some shows five minutes from his house a few years back, not knowing!” she says. “After I met him, he encouraged me to write my story.”
To say the least, it’s quite a story.
“Actually I have 8 1/2 siblings,” says Phillips, who is the eldest of eight, and has an older adopted brother.
“That’s why Vittorio’s wife freaked when I found him. Another one even showed up after he died! She was ashamed and begged us not to tell her sons, and cut me out completely. But it’s always complicated: You’ve got parents and siblings given up for adoption, and all with different experiences—and somehow we get blamed!”
Phillips met Rum-D.M.C.’s McDaniels after moving to New Jersey.
“He’s also an adoptee, and we did ‘I’m Legit’ together—which is how I got back into music. It was about raising awareness about the situation of birth records, which are sealed in many states. An adult adopted person can’t get their original birth certificates! So I got very involved in that: Birth records were opened in England in 1975, and I couldn’t believe that America was so far behind. But after 30 years of campaigning, they’re now open in New Jersey, and New York just opened, so we’re going from state to state.”
Dedicated to “all my parents,” Meditation & KitKats is produced and arranged by Richard Thompson, who also plays guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, accordion and sings backup. His band’s bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome are there, too, along with ace fiddler David Mansfield, and on backup vocals, youngest daughter Arden Phillips.
Guitar god Thompson’s longtime right-hand music man Simon Tassano did the mixing and mastering.
“I wanted something quite simple, that was about the song—since I’m not in my twenties anymore,” says Phillips, who has been singing backup for Thompson at the end of his shows, having done that on his 2018 album 13 Rivers. “We lucked out in that we had a window before everything shut down with the pandemic.”
At the time, she continues, “I hadn’t been singing a lot. It was really fun and I started writing songs again, but I was nervous when I got together with Richard at first. I said, ‘I’m never singing with you or touching a guitar in front of you!’ ‘You really have to get over that,’ he said, and I finally did after saying, ‘Don’t judge me!’ He just sat there really straight-faced!”
Thompson, she says, made suggestions in structuring the songs and offered “better chord options.”
“I’m such a basic guitar player, and he really pushed me—and sometimes it was really painful,” she concedes, “but I think I only cried once! I realized, either I can be embarrassed at what I don’t know or see it as a learning opportunity—and I definitely learned so much.”
Then again, so did Thompson, who directed his first music video in Phillips’ “Heartache.”
“We shot it a few times,” she says, of the black-and-white clip, which is mostly of her performing the song alone in the living room. “There are a couple places where his foot is in it, and it’s a bit silly, but good. I wanted to use his red electric guitar because it looks so cool, but he said that everyone would know it was his. So I’m using a black one.”
Phillips has just put up a second sparing black-and-white video from Meditation & KitKats, also directed by the esteemed producer-guitarist/auteur, for “Perfect Stranger.”
“I had to find what I could do, as we aren’t able to go out and play [to promote] the record,” she says.
Meditation & KitKats will be available digitally on May 8. She’ll perform a Facebook Live concert the following day, with Thompson accompanying.
Zara Phillips accompanies Richard Thompson on “Wall of Death”