For Cliff Hillis, life, indeed, has gotten strange

Cliff Hills
Phoenixville’s Cliff Hillis realized early on that everything he liked about music was contained within the Beatles catalog. | Image: Courtesy of Cliff Hillis

“Life Gets Strange” is the newest six-song EP by indie pop singer-songwriter Cliff Hillis of Phoenixville.

The EP is available on Spotify and Soundcloud, with the first single, “Let’s Pretend,” on YouTube.  

Hillis has a solid reputation as a highly sought-after multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and studio whiz. His previous releases have been praised by USA Today and The LA Times, and his songs have been featured in TV shows and films.

In addition to performing his own songs, Hillis tours the world with The Orchestra (featuring ELO former members), Patty Smyth and Scandal and US Rails, and is a member of The Hooters’ David Uosikkinen’s In the Pocket and Smash Palace.

PW recently caught up with Hillis to talk about his new music and life during a pandemic.

PW: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you become interested in music? Who were some of your early influences? 

CH: My brother Roger is three years older than me, so when he was a teenager I was definitely influenced by some of the music he listened to. The first concert we ever saw together was Cheap Trick, and they’ve actually been my favorite band from that moment on. Early on, it was more rock n roll music like Van Halen and Kiss, but then I realized everything I liked about music was contained within the Beatles catalog. Shortly thereafter, I discovered how amazing the Beach Boys were and it was a done deal, I was hooked.

PW: You recently released “Life Gets Strange.” How did it come together? How is it different from your previous three EPs?

CH: This EP was difficult to pull off for the obvious reasons (COVID lockdown, social distancing). I had started recording some of it pre-COVID, but had to get creative and realized that cutting drums in my garage (as opposed to the studio setup in my house) actually sounded quite good! Also, Greg Maragos who has been a long time bandmate of mine and was co-producer on this EP has a nice setup at his place, and we traded many files back and forth. I also was lucky enough to snag my friend Louis Clark Jr., who I play with in The Orchestra (starring former ELO members), and get him to record some cello in his flat in the UK and send that over.

PW: You wrote all of the songs on “Life Gets Strange” except for one. Where do you find inspiration for your songs? Can you describe your writing process?

Cliff Hillis’ ‘Life Gets Strange’ is available on Spotify and Soundcloud. | Image: Courtesy of Cliff Hillis

CH: I actually co-wrote three songs on the EP. I’ll just give a brief rundown of the writing process of each song if that helps?

“Let’s Pretend” – I wrote the basis of this song (a verse and chorus) after an evening out with my wife, we got in and it was only 9pm. We were both ready for bed and she said “let’s pretend that it’s midnight,” a song was born. I’ve been trying to get Rhett Miller to write a song with me for some time, he and I have played a number of shows together. I realized the song had a very Rhett/Old 97’s vibe and sent it to him. I caught him on the way to a gig with the band and he wrote the second verse in the van. We then traded ideas back and forth via email for a day or two before we got it finished. He challenged me to write a big bombastic bridge that I’m really proud of. 

“Good Problems” – I had the start of this song but was kinda stuck. I loved the idea of “good problems,” and I enlisted my friend Kelley Ryan to help me finish. Mostly lyrics, but she did write the B section/chorus as well. I’m a big fan of Kelley’s and she has such a way with words. She helped me turn a work in progress into one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.

“Life Gets Strange” – written mid-pandemic. I’ve been in and out of various songwriting groups, essentially, it’s a weekly challenge to write a song from a lyric prompt. I can’t remember what phrase brought the song about but this one came quickly and easily, inspired by all the insanity we’ve been living through.

“Tired All The Time” – I literally had to take a nap one afternoon mid-lockdown and don’t really like to take naps if I don’t have to. I started thinking to myself, “jeez, I’m tired all the damn time” (obviously a result of pandemic stress, as we all are). I wrote the verses pretty quickly but decided to give the chorus a positive spin. I try to stay optimistic!

“Seven Sisters” – I had written this song just before COVID times, and my friend Kevin J. Killen stopped by to borrow a piece of gear. While he was here, he asked if I’d like him to play on any songs. We’ve played together and collaborated musically for a long time. I had the song, but didn’t really have a proper bridge. Kevin played some fine drums and guitar and helped me create the really cool riff that recurs in the middle and end of the song.

“Alien Eyes” – another song I wrote for a weekly songwriting challenge group. The prompt lyric was “alien skin.” I wrote the song very tongue-in-cheek, and hadn’t considered recording it until I started performing it live on my regular “Musical Brunch with Cliff” Facebook Live shows and it got a great reception. I credit my friend Tom Ransom for championing the song and inspiring me to record it.

PW: How have the pandemic and all of the closures affected your career? How are you spending your downtime?

CH: I had a couple of the best years of travel, gigs and musical success prior to the complete shutdown of live music. Luckily, since I have a home studio, the time off enabled me to finish this most recent EP, and I have stayed as busy as possible with mixing and mastering projects for others thanks to the ability to send and receive files. I also upped my game with Facebook Live and streaming performances. My supporters have been great with tips and donations.

PW: You’re very active on social media. How have social media and all forms of technology – streaming services, etc. – impacted your career? 

CH: I think it’s a double-edged sword with social media. I couldn’t have survived this lockdown without it, but I’m also very liberal-minded politically and spent way too much of the last four years obsessing over politics, although I have tried to do my part with activism and volunteering. It is pretty great to know that you can release an album, promote it via streaming services and build an audience with live streaming shows, plus I’ve been able to keep in touch with friends and fans literally all over the world who tune into my Facebook Live Sunday shows. There are folks who regularly tune in from the U.S., England, Spain and Germany. 

PW: What’s ahead for you once the pandemic passes? Back on the road? More work in the studio?

CH: My plan is to do more of everything once the pandemic passes. The first and most important thing is safety, of course, but once everything clears up, I definitely look forward to getting back on the road, and I already have plans for more studio projects to release more music in the new year.

  • Eugene Zenyatta was raised on old-time Memphis 'rasslin' and strongly prefers the company of dogs to people. His greatest heartbreak came in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.

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