Tony Cummings quizzed singing prison chaplain PHIL JAMES about his life, music and ministry
Phil James is one of those singer/songwriters who has never sought, or obtained, the highest rungs on the ladder of fame but has still down the years created an impressive body of work which has made him a popular figures on the Welsh grassroots music scene and brought him much respect amongst his fellow musicians. The latest Phil James album, 'A Time And A Place', is his first for Welsh record label LPW Records. Phil took time out from his busy schedule to answer a pile of Cross Rhythms questions.
The 58 year old songsmith began by filling in some detail about his early life. "I was born and brought up in the quiet market town of Bridgend, South Wales, to Anglican church-going parents, the middle child of three children. We certainly weren't angels but were always taught to do the right thing, to have good manners, not to steal or lie and show respect for your elders. Brought up to go to Sunday school I found it difficult to do the right thing and behave as all good children do, and resented being the middle child. I was the proverbial live-wire and known as the black sheep of the family. I was forever getting into trouble for talking and messing about in church and it wasn't unusual to be on the receiving end of some good old fashioned discipline from some of the senior choristers. They'd probably call it child abuse today!
Music seems to have been in Phil's blood. Remembered the singer, "My grandfather, who I loved dearly, had been a well known local singer in his time along with his brother, and family sing-songs round the fire were warp and woof to me from an early age. I remember once when I was about five, singing harmony to the tune of some hymn or song, which came naturally to me. My mother was amazed and asked me where I'd learned to do that? I'd never really thought about it but no doubt was drawing on that rich musical heritage handed down to me. I was so pleased that I could do something my mother was proud of and made me realise even at five years of age it was something to value! My grandfather also played a mouth organ which I loved and always nagged him to play for me when we visited. I still have it today!
We were also taken to church from babes in arms and I joined the choir at five, with my older brother and I eventually becoming head choristers in the days of 'made to go three times on a Sunday'. Only for us, it was a bit more than that. We attended choir practise on Tuesdays and Thursdays and more often than not sang at weddings on Saturdays as well! Which was a great way of increasing your pocket money as well as your vocal and musical skills!"
The wild child in Phil was still running rampant and being a teenager growing up in the tail end of the free love and rock'n'roll revolution gave him plenty of opportunities to make wrong decisions. He said, "I'd consciously decided from my early teens I was going to take drugs and started smoking cigarettes when I was 13. I began experimenting with LSD and other drugs at 15 which is quite late by today's standards. I didn't see it as harmful or dangerous. That came a few years later but there's no doubt it had a detrimental effect on me, not least because it created barriers between my parents and myself through the lies I was telling to cover up. After two years of increasing alienation I met a girl from the scene that I fell for. Two years older than me, she'd lived with a cannabis dealer and shared a similar lifestyle. We began to date but due to immaturity and confusion over the relationship I took an overdose of sleeping tablets in an attempt to steal her affections which seems crazy now! Especially since the first introduction to my mother of the woman who would become my wife was at the side of a hospital bed with me just having had my stomach pumped."
Phil continued, "Before I get ahead of myself, at the same time a friend of mine, Steve, who was a heroin user, had become a Christian completely out of the blue. A Pentecostal minister was passing his house one day and felt he should share the good news with him. Steve heard him out and ended up praying the prayer of faith. Steve very quickly began sharing his new found faith and gave me a booklet to read. At the last page it talked of praying a prayer for forgiveness and a decision to follow Jesus. Bearing in mind having been brought up in church, I believed I was a Christian. I was sure I was going to Heaven, wasn't I. . .? In the end in my uncertainty I decided to pray the 'sinners' prayer too as an insurance policy. . . just in case. The next day I woke up and I just knew God was with me. Not just with my head but with my heart. For some months I'd been flirting with the Hare Krishna movement and each night before going to sleep would chant a few mantras and say the Lord's Prayer. Now I knew that Jesus was real and was conscious of a new found presence in my life!
At the same time as Phil, his brother became a Christian too, though as it turned out his brother made progress in the faith while Phil fell back into old habits. Said Phil, "I knew God wasn't comfortable with me misusing drugs and living the lifestyle I'd chosen before. Suddenly I was having to make choices. Sleeping with my girlfriend or not? Staying away from the pub which was a real stumbling block. Overcoming my recreational drug use. I'd end up living like a Christian for a few weeks then falling back into sin and thinking I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb! I tried to get my girlfriend to come to church but it only ended up causing arguments and she resented the fact that God was seemingly coming between us.
It really became a love hate relationship between us and for the next two years I lived like a spiritual schizophrenic, saying one thing and doing another. I hated the hypocrisy and with even more misuse of drugs, endless arguments and another overdose I reached a crisis where I knew something had to change. I'd arranged a date with another girl. (How I thought that would resolve the issues I had no idea!) I didn't want to two-time my girlfriend so told her we couldn't live like we were any more and I needed to live like a Christian. I told her about the date with the other girl, and how we should face the fact that it was all over. Very surprisingly she apologised and asked if we could start again. I was amazed but said it would mean me going back to church. She agreed as long as I didn't force her to come. She did agree though to go elsewhere and within a day or two I attended a small prayer meeting at a local Pentecostal Church having cancelled my intended date.
As I walked in I felt like I was coming home, broken, tired and longing for a fresh start. Within minutes I began to feel a release as I let go of the emotions. Tears welled up within me as friends laid hands on me and prayed for me to 'come through'. A spiritual battle ensued that night during which three hours passed like three minutes and having received what is traditionally called the baptism in the Holy Spirit I came to at the end of the night to find nearly everyone had gone! I went home and for the first time in ages slept with a clean conscience thanking God for his grace and mercy. I woke up the next day again renewed with two distinct thoughts imprinted on my soul. Firstly, I could be Billy Graham! (I really didn't have a clue who he was); and secondly, I don't know why I'd ever wanted to sin before! It no longer made sense. The rest really was history. My girlfriend became a Christian within three months and began attending the church she'd first been invited to by her ex-boyfriend's parents. She later joined me in mine and we were married within two years."
Phil continued his saga. "Within three or four years of becoming a Christian I was made a house group leader and began taking pastoral responsibility within the church. I'd thought about going to Bible College but felt that would take me away from the church that the Lord had called me to serve. My learning and training took place therefore in the local church context and whilst not against Bible College I didn't see that as an exclusive route. At the end of the '80s I became part of a leadership that eventually recognised me as a full time pastor. That was the case right up to 2001 and even though I've been a Prison Chaplain now for 10 years, I'm still not ordained in the strictest sense. Over the years though I've built relationships with fellow ministers who recognised my pastoral calling and accredited my ministry by 'laying hands on me' for which I've always been very grateful."
Phil has found his work in the prisons hugely rewarding. "As we can be called on to minister to any prisoner of all and no faith, no one is considered beyond the pale. We get over a hundred deaths of relatives per year and I've yet to find a prisoner who refuses prayer when offered, even those considered of other faiths. It's a wonderful opportunity to pour in the grace of God at a time when they need it most. There's also ministry to the staff who, just like prisoners, bleed if they're pricked too. I'm happy to say I've found enormous favour as a Chaplain and musician there, maybe because I am a musician. How long I'll stay there remains to be seen. One thing's for sure though, I'll only stay as long as God's there! If the cloud moves on then I'm happy to follow."
Soon after his conversion Phil began to use his musical gifts in serving God. With his brother Rob and a singer/guitarist who was to become a mainstay of the Welsh Christian music scene, Rob Ash, Phil began playing what was then the emergent strains of modern worship music. Explained Phil, "The pastor was really quite progressive for a Pentecostal minister so we ended up hosting concerts with artists like Mustard Seed Faith, Adrian Snell and others with us playing support. In 1980 we got to visit California on a music ministry tour for six weeks and supported Terry Clarke whose drummer had played with John and Terry Talbot from Mason Proffit. He was blown away by the fact that we named the band Over Jordan from a track they'd written which was one of our favourites. (Sounds very twee now!) Like all good bands we argued on tour and ended up splitting up when we came back. Rob Ash eventually joined a band called Filament and I put a three-piece band together playing pubs and a few college gigs. Nothing to write home about, we couldn't even get into Greenbelt! Heady days though and great formative experiences."
Eventually in 1996 Phil got to release an album of his own. He still vividly remembers the sessions which resulted in the cassette release 'This Is The Day'. "The album was recorded in Northants at a studio run by the Jesus Fellowship. It meant travelling a fair distance but I'd got to know them and I was able to use some of their musicians. The producer Andy was a great help seeing it was my first album and it did give me a chance to contribute to the production process which I always enjoy. Listening back now I'm sure there's a lot I could have changed. Surprising how many people it's blessed though including one guy who had only just become a Christian when he heard it having gone to rehab. The first night there he'd been given it on a tape by one of the guys from my church. He met me about eight years later and was raving when he met me saying he'd worn it to death and was so grateful for the songs that had seen him through those early months."
There was a long gap between the release of 'This Is The Day' and
Phil's next album, 'This Way Up!'. He explained, "At that point I was
more focussed on pastoring the church through a very exciting time.
Here in Wales we felt God was moving across the country breaking down
barriers and drawing the Church, together, especially leaders. I was
still busy pastoring and leading worship at that point with a
considerable expectation of revival in the nation. For the next few
years until 2004 I began visiting the USA annually to speak and to
sing but by that time I'd felt a definite shift away from praise and
worship to being more of a singer/songwriter.
"I'd also met some of the Swansea musicians like Mal Pope, Lorraine King and Wal Coughlan and begun collaborating a lot more at events with them. It was through Lorraine I was introduced to Sean Stillman who ran Zac's Place, Church In A Pub and began singing there regularly. I think it was in 2001 that HTV ran the Zac's Place series and I sang 'Everything Swerves To Rot', one of the songs that ended up on my 2001 album 'This Way Up!'. I'd begun to look into my own journey growing up and later experiences and started writing songs which seemed to resonate with others. I recorded 'This Way Up!' in Swansea with producer Wal Coughlan. He was great to work with and the epitome of patience! In fact he's engineered and produced all the records since. He'd played with Gary Numan for some years but known more locally for his work with Mal Pope as part of Mal's band The Jacks. He would be found on any number of well known worship albums though, and not least Matt Redman."
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