Brad Phillips never imagined his song “Dance Again” from Willow Run would take on a whole new life.
The Americana singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist revived the initial stripped-down track from the 2018 World War II era play and transformed it into a sweeping, cinematic ballad.
“The song was only two verses with a chorus and was performed with only voice and a simple, lonely acoustic guitar part. There was a lot of anguish and longing at its core at that point,” said Phillips, who’s from Dexter and teaches at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
“Since then, there has been another verse added, and the arrangement grew quite dramatically. The instrumentation of this new version is several layers of both acoustic and electric guitars, piano, bass, percussion, background vocals and a violin orchestra.”
Out Feb. 10, “Dance Again” soars and flourishes as Phillips’ debut songwriting single. As a longtime sideman, he’s spent most of his musical career playing acoustic guitar, mandolin and violin with Michigan-based artists, including Jeff Daniels, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Verve Pipe and May Erlewine.
“For years, I had wanted to be a songwriter, but I could never get out of my own way enough to let it happen. It wasn’t until I was given permission to be and encouraged to be exactly who I am that I was able to let the music in my heart flow freely,” Phillips said.
“I think I always wanted to share this song with the world beyond its place in Willow Run. This song really represents one of those rare moments in creativity in which it feels like someone else wrote it, and I was simply the conduit through which it was transmitted.”
Dance Again and Willow Run
Phillips’ original version of “Dance Again” first debuted during Willow Run’s tenure at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre Company. The track was played while a character named Evelyn read letters she received from her boyfriend while he was away at war.
“‘Dance Again’ came to me in about 20 minutes early in the rehearsal process,” said Phillips, who also acted in Willow Run.
“We were working to build the energy between each other in the context of the story of the show, when almost like lightning, the song was sent to me through the eyes of my castmates. It’s almost like they were reflecting back to me parts of myself that I had long since forgotten.”
In its latest version, “Dance Again” transcends space and time and builds a new emotional and spiritual connection with listeners. The majestic single also honors the life-changing relationships people make and the personal growth that comes from them.
“We’ve all had those people that come into our lives for a reason. They serve a purpose at certain times in our stories,” Phillips said.
“That idea was central to the themes in Willow Run, so it served its purpose in that context, for sure. I suppose, in a sense, ‘Dance Again’ examines these complexities of loss, or perhaps the ‘never haves’ or ‘never wills’ that we have all encountered on our paths.”
Throughout “Dance Again,” a celestial symphony of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, bass, violin and percussion glide toward the outer reaches of the universe.
Phillips sings, “When I see you above me / Down here on the ground / I release you to the heavens / And listen to the sound / Of the wind as it pulls you from my side / While the sun sets like beams from your eyes.”
“The journey from the time at which the song first appeared in Willow Run to now is one of immense pain to that of hopefulness and gratitude for the hard times that helped me evolve and grow along my path,” he said.
“The hopefulness in ‘Dance Again’ that comes in at the end in the last verse is a release of sorts—a trust fall backwards into the universe with faith that the cosmos will catch you.”
To expand “Dance Again’s” sound, Phillips enlisted Ypsilanti indie-folk singer-songwriter and producer Chris DuPont. The duo added lush, atmospheric layers to the track and created an immersive sonic experience from start to finish.
“The song sort of called for all of that complexity, though, and I love huge-sounding music, so I gave it everything I had and didn’t hold back,” Phillips said.
“I knew with all of my being that [Chris] was the person who could carry my most vulnerable material in such a way that he would honor its roots while helping me find the sound that I wanted. I love how big and warm [Chris’ album] Floodplains sounded, and I felt strongly that my music lived in a similar sonic space.”
Inside that same sonic space, Phillips also invited bassist Brennan Andes, drummer Michael Shimmin and vocalist Lauren Mounsey to finalize “Dance Again’s” magical sound.
“Shimmin and I go back a long time both personally and professionally having played together in Millish for all those years. I’m familiar with his depth and his musical voice in ways that I can’t quite articulate,” he said.
“Brennan Andes is a guy who is uniquely in tune with the universe. All you have to do is look into his eyes one time, and you know he knows. Lauren Mounsey … played Evelyn in Willow Run … [and she] was the one standing across from me in the show. I am eternally grateful that she was willing to lend her voice to the recording.”
Long before “Dance Again” and Willow Run, Phillips discovered his love of music while growing up in Saline. At age 11, he started playing violin after seeing the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic perform and added mandolin a year later.
With two instruments in his repertoire, he also studied the timeless music of several country and bluegrass artists, including Alison Krauss & Union Station, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, New Grass Revival, Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas.
“For a long time, I saw myself moving to Nashville to join their ranks,” Phillips said. “It was the primary goal early on as a young instrumentalist.”
By high school, he joined the Celtic crossover band Millish as a violinist alongside Tyler Duncan, Jeremy Kittel and Jesse Mason. The band toured regularly and provided Phillips with an early preview of life as a working musician.
“We kind of grew up together during a very formative time in all of our lives. The work we did in that group is something I’m still very proud of to this day,” said Phillips, who became a Michigan state fiddle champion at age 16.
“The cosmic bonds that we were able to build both within the flow of music and in the van are something I will forever cherish.”
After high school, Phillips attended U-M, studied classical and jazz violin, and honed his passion for composing and arranging music.
“Being a jazz major at that time on a stringed instrument was quite a bit more uncommon than it is now, so I felt a little bit like I existed in this odd sort of music school purgatory, stuck somewhere between the string department and the jazz department,” he said. “It was tough to find my community within the school as the odd fiddler kid with the mandolin.”
Despite the odds, Phillips persevered and started performing with Jeff Daniels in 2009. Five years later, he joined the Purple Rose as a resident artist and pursued a master’s degree in music at U-M.
“If music school was where I honed my craft, the Purple Rose was where I found my heart,” said Phillips, who wears a lot of different musical hats at the theater. “To be an artist, you need both.”
In 2018, he joined the cast of Willow Run as the ghost of a World War II bomber pilot and provided the musical content of the show.
“For the first time, someone looked at me and said, ‘We think you’re an actor, but you don’t know it yet,’” Phillips said. “I was thrown into an entirely new artistic and creative medium where I found myself challenged to be exactly who I am in real time in order to do the best work possible.”
After Willow Run, Phillips worked a sound designer for the 2019 Purple Rose play All My Sons and inadvertently started writing material for his debut album, Ridella’s Cave – The Liberty Street Sessions.
“I almost always take a sound design job as an opportunity to write music. I was using a studio space on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor at the time. One day, I set up my recording gear and started improvising on violin, mandolin, octave mandolin and guitar,” Phillips said.
“A couple of hours later, I had about a dozen or so short pieces inspired by the story of All My Sons and the people I was collaborating with in the production. The title Ridella’s Cave came from a journal entry that I wrote in Texas somewhere on the road with The Verve Pipe a few months prior …”
He also released the concept album Breaking Free that same year to further expand his skills with composing and arranging music.
“I was tired of waiting for the phone to ring, so I got to work on arranging music for myself,” Phillips said. “Breaking Free features a few original instrumentals as well as arrangements of songs by Michigan artists [and includes] my first-ever public vocal performances.”
As a seasoned live performer, Phillips will accompany DuPont and Kylee Phillips for a Feb. 10 sold-out show at Livonia’s Trinity House.
“What I love most about playing with Chris and Kylee is their devotion to truth and authenticity,” he said. “Their hearts are on full display every time; that’s the kind of collaboration I crave.”
Phillips also will collaborate with DuPont on his upcoming EP, which will include five to six songs and feature big production along with all-encompassing soundscapes.
“I’m not sure what it will be called yet, but I know that it will be a project that looks back at the darkness behind from a place of light,” he said. “It’s hard to know when it will be released, but we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign in the coming weeks to help fund the rest of the project.”