Phillip-Michael Scales brings his bluesy indie rock to Ferndale’s Otus Supply

Raised in metro Detroit, Scales calls his music ‘dive bar soul’ — and it’s getting him noticed

Jan 30, 2023 at 8:46 am
click to enlarge Phillip-Michael Scales. - Michael Webdell
Michael Webdell
Phillip-Michael Scales.

Growing up in metro Detroit, singer-songwriter Phillip-Michael Scales had plenty of local musical influences to draw from, from the Motown his parents listened to in the house to buzzy rock ’n’ roll bands like the White Stripes, the Sights, and the Von Bondies, in addition to more typical teenage fare of the era like national acts Fall Out Boy, Weezer, and Bright Eyes. But thanks to a connection made through his aunt, he also grew up in the musical shadow of no less than the King of Blues, B.B. King — or “Uncle B” as Scales says he simply called him as a child.

When he took up the guitar around age 13, Scales says he felt somewhat intimidated to play the blues due to King’s scorching guitar solos. “I didn’t want to compete with that,” Scales tells Metro Times. That changed somewhat after King died in 2015. “Once he passed away, it was one of those things where I wanted to incorporate a little bit more of that blues element,” he says.

“I think it’s sort of like, you want to honor the legacy of those who came before you,” he adds. “And he was always encouraging me and always looking out for me. But also, I don’t think that as a kid, you have a very concrete understanding of the blues. The older you get, the harder those songs hit — life comes at you hard.” Scales says he also came to identify with blues music as a Black man. “I think it was a lot easier to find my story in the blues now,” he says.

Scales readily admits he’s no B.B. King. “You know, you’re not gonna come to my show and hear guitar-slinging, crazy solos and all that sort of stuff,” he says. “I think for me, the songwriting piece [of the blues] was really big. I think the integral thing to me is conveying a feeling to someone else.”

Scales calls his bluesy take on indie rock “dive bar soul,” and it’s getting him noticed. Last year, he was asked to perform as a musical guest on the final season of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, with the host introducing Scales by saying, “When I heard this song, I wanted to share it with all of you.”

“Apparently Ellen heard the song and requested for me to be on. I still get chills thinking about it,” Scales says, adding, “I think it’s easy as a musician to become jaded and think, ‘Well, somebody must have known somebody who knew somebody.’ I didn’t hear any story other than, ‘Your song was on the radio, Ellen loved it, and wanted you to come perform it.’”

After attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study music business, Scales moved to Chicago for a time, before briefly returning to Michigan, followed by stints in Los Angeles and Chicago again. For the past three and a half years, he’s called Nashville home — joining other Music City-via-Motor City transplants like the White Stripes’ Jack White and indie rock singer-songwriter Michigander.

Scales says that he has found a supportive community in Nashville, despite its reputation as the Country Music Capital. “The community element is really huge in a way that I haven’t seen in another city,” he says. “Here, it just sort of seems like there’s a lot of welcoming with open arms.”

He adds, “I would say that Nashville is a songwriting town. You’ve always had people sort of come in and out of Nashville, or come to write with people in Nashville. ... I feel like people come to Nashville to write songs.”

Scales released an LP, Sinner-Songwriter, in 2021, and last week he dropped a new single, “Better Than You,” a Motown-inflected track that Scales says is his first song to incorporate horns.

“It almost sounds a little bit like a modern Motown tune,” Scales says.

“I wanted to write a song that was about, like, a deeply satisfying love... the lyrics are talking about, ‘You hear me out even when you know I’m wrong/ You hold me down when my perspective’s gone.”

Scales says he plans to continue to record and self-release music as singles. “The fun thing about singles is you get a chance to sort of explore the different sounds,” he says. He says he also plans to try and hit the road as much as possible in 2023 — which includes a stop at Ferndale’s Otus Supply on Friday.

It’s a hometown gig of sorts — Scales grew up in West Bloomfield — as Scales says he plans to continue to call Nashville home. It probably helps that he’s not trying to break into Nashville’s country scene. “I think that a reason that I’m doing well here is that I’m kind of out of that lane,” he says. “So there’s less traffic where I’m at in the rock ’n’ roll soul world.”

Still, he says he is certainly influenced by his time in the city.

“Nashville has demanded that I up my songwriting, and up my production, and all that stuff,” he says, adding, “Just having been here, I have grown so much.”

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