Interview: Donovan Phillips Discovers a Refreshing Lane on His New Project, Donovan Days

Donovan Days © 2021
Donovan Days © 2021
After years of making music within the left-leaning alternative rap scene, Philly native Donovan Phillips experiments with psychedelic garage rock on his intimate new album, Donovan Days.
Stream: “Green Light” – Donovan Days

Donovan Phillips wears many layers as a self-made DIY artist. Formerly known as rapper/producer ialive, the Philadelphia native is now ready to fully immerse himself into melodic psychedelia and fuzzy garage rock trappings, along with stirring electro pop and funky undercurrents. It’s not entirely a changeup in his aesthetic, as a lot of the hip hop beats he made on past projects (like 2020’s I’ll Wait Forever) featured swirling guitar echoes, layered percussion, and coarse-grained boom-bap rhythms.

Donovan Days - Donovan Days
Donovan Days – Donovan Days

With this alternative lean-which is courtesy of the many underground shows he attended while growing up in Philly – Phillips continues to expand not only his musical vision, but lyrical one as well. Seeing spiritual poets like Guru live in concert has inspired him to amplify his own voice as an adult, and as a result, Donovan Days finds the alternative savant more astute than ever before. The songs on his new album feature vivid brushstrokes of adulthood; a transitionary moment for a longtime curator. It’s not a mid-life crisis endeavor, but rather a search for new excitement. The world is burning down, time is consuming us (“Green Light”), and bodies are starting to feel like aging elevators (“Against My Mind”). With Rome crumbling right in front of us, Phillips attempts to slow his thoughts down, and contextualize his life one piece at a time.

Through this natural course of life, Donovan successfully strikes a balance between poetic and direct-abstract and blunt. As someone who’s been a part of the underground scene since 2004, the Philly native alleviates any pressure he may have felt in the past, and re-establishes his voice as an artistic wanderer. His path has lead him to an intimate record filled with wary-eyed nights, plastic contours, and swirling echo chambers. Donovan Days is a fascinating album from a longtime veteran.

Atwood Magazine had the great pleasure of speaking with Phillips to discuss his new album, what inspires him, and what lead to this musical transition. Donovan Days will be available on Soundcloud Jan. 21.

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:: stream/purchase Donovan Days here ::
Donovan Days © 2021
Donovan Days © 2021


Donovan Days - Donovan Days

Atwood Magazine: What was it like growing up in Philadelphia, and absorbing that music scene?

Donovan Phillips: Philly is really cool as far as the music scene. It wasn’t until after college  that I started going out to shows every night, and really immersing myself in a community of artists and musicians.

When I was in high school, it was kind of the rockist era of rap music, which I don’t know if it’s part-nostalgia, but I just hold that time in hip hop music really close. It was this callback to original rap culture. It just felt like there was this separation between the mainstream and what they called the underground, which was basically independent artists or people without huge platforms. In Philly, I felt the impact of that movement on a local level.

I have some older brothers who had a lot of people involved in music, and I got a taste of that. And then when I was in college, I noticed there was a lot of people making alternative indie-rock. This scenewas the popular thing going on in Philly-like 2010.

What made you want to switch up your sound fully from an alternative rap style to what we hear now?

Donovan Phillips: It’s been a really long time coming. I tended to want to do a lot of different things with rap records. What I was naturally inclined to do was make something outside the norms of rap music, whether it be the song structure-16-bar, 8-bar chorus. And I tended to do a lot more singing the further I went along. I found myself exploring different genres within that world. I think I was ready to explore that more. I told a friend that I cared for rap’s integrity so much that me pushing the boundaries felt wrong at times. I wanted to be more experimental, but ultimately, I don’t feel comfortable mashing it all together-doing rap stuff, and incorporating instruments, and singing, and experimenting…It almost felt like there was an identity shift happening. Which is a lot of what this album is about.

Did this change in style feel liberating for you?

Donovan Phillips: Absolutely. It’s wild to feel like I’ve found my voice after making music for over 10 years. I think using my own name, it harkens back to this idea that it’s the most honest music I can make at the time. There’s a thing about rap music-it’s very rigid in what it is and what it’s not-and oftentimes, that can be stifling creatively. So, I think allowing myself to be like, ‘this is a new project, there’s no boundaries, but also trying to do something new…it’s absolutely liberating.

You've collaborated a lot with different artists over the years. How different is it worrying about your own thoughts and contemplations, as opposed to worrying about others' styles? Do you prefer one over the other?

Donovan Phillips: I think they don’t necessarily exist without one another. I think it’s really important for me to have those collaborations living side-by-side with my solo work. But yeah, I do tend to take more time to work on my solo records. As much as I try not too, my songs just tend to be personal. It’s nice when you write a song, and it’s so versatile in its approach. I just tend to myself in a lot of my music, because it’s hard to keep the personal touches out of it.

Donovan Days © 2021
Donovan Days © 2021

When did you start working on Donovan Days, and how long did it take to create?

Donovan Phillips: My last solo record, that was Don’t Do Nothing. When I finished that, I realized that there’s a bunch of songs on there that aren’t rap songs. They’re loops with beats that I’m singing over. They’re basic in that regard, but that was the pivotal moment where I could see this delineation. And that was around 2019.

I had been kind of working on I’ll Wait Forever (2020 album) for a long time, which is kind of how I got the name. I was just waiting on verses from rappers, and so I had been attempting to navigate this space. And it took me on all of the time working on I’ll Wait Forever, and up until the pandemic. I think the first makings of songs came in late 2019.

You say on multiple songs that time often consumes us (''Green Light''). How important was it to present that imagery, and as an artist, how do you prevent time from consuming you?

Donovan Phillips: “Green Light” definitely has those messages out in the open sprinkled throughout. The name ‘Donovan Days’ was given to me by one of my best friends Darko the Super, a fellow artist. I had asked him to help me think of a name for this project very early on. I told him that I wanted it to include my actual name. He said, ‘what’s your biggest enemy?’ And I said, ‘time by far.’ So then we started kicking around ideas. And then we fell upon Donovan Days. It just seemed so fitting.

I think that’s the struggle for the modern artist. It’s so competitive, everything is so wide open. You have to have a day job…That’s the goal of every artist, is to work on their art full time. It’s just been a struggle forever, trying to find time to work on your craft.

You said ''Another Mind'' helped to create the vision of the album. You have an interesting lyric on that song, ''my body feels like an aging elevator.'' I was wondering if you could speak on the concept of finding excitement as an adult.

Donovan Phillips: So I’m going to be 35 {years old} next month. I don’t necessarily feel 35. There’s something comforting about aging, where you tend to give less of a fuck. I don’t know if I could be able to do this comfortably if I was 25. I think the older you get, the more comfortable you get with who you are. At the same time, your body might hurt a little more, you tend to be less risky, but I see a lot of my friends being very rigid and almost conservative in the way they do things financially or artistically.

There’s something exciting about being 35, and basically going back to kindergarten, because I’ve developed a network of peers and musicians. And you’ve built these comfortable situations for yourself, where you know what your’e building off of. To branch off completely can be really scary.

Do you ever find yourself having a tough time feeling excited for certain things as an adult?

Donovan Phillips: I think the different between being 22 and being 35 is, the things I’m scared have dissipated almost. The fears of who I am or who I might be, have kind of narrowed. It’s all awesome though. All of the hardships you go through early on, I think they build all of who you become. It’s all character-building.

You also try to find that balance between being direct and being poetic. Was that the intention of this album? To find that balance?

Donovan Phillips: It’s more of an afterthought to decide whether the song is an abstract idea. I heard somebody say, ‘well Donovan, if you know exactly what you’re art is about, you’re full of shit.’ And I love that so much, because I think there’s discovery to be made within your own art, as well. When I made this album, I didn’t necessarily set out to have grand concepts or statements. It was more or less just exploring what this might be for me, whether it’s just the music, or just exploring what I’m able to do in my studio.

What do you think is the difference between your brain and your mind? You seem to differentiate the two on the intro track ''Against My Mind''?

Donovan Phillips: I feel like it’s a callback to a Beatles song from Revolver. I’m blanking on the name thoughMaybe the cold part of the person, or analytical part is your brain, whereas your mind is where the exploratory, mystical side of a person lies.

Donovan Days © 2021
Donovan Days © 2021

What's something you hope listeners can take away from this album?

Donovan Phillips: Ultimately, I like to write catchy music. If people are into it, and like to listen to it, it’s all I’m really interested in in hearing. I’m not trying to say anything amazing, but there are lines that pick up, and they feel like it connects with them, then I’m so excited that that connection was made.

What do you find yourself having in store for the next couple of years?

Donovan Phillips: I would absolutely love to tour this record if I can. I’m getting a vinyl made for the first time ever. I’m a record collector myself, and I feel like I finally feel excited to put something on wax. I’m not proficient in any instrument, so I’d like to put a band together. I’m really hopeful for the future. I feel like there’s going to be a serge of creators up and down the spectrum.


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Donovan Days - Donovan Days

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