“I think as a teenager, you know, I was sort of rummaging around trying to find something that fit me. Music was something I gravitated toward – probably like most teenagers to be honest, but I felt like I especially loved it.
“Then, someone gave me a guitar and I felt like, somehow, I’d come home. I loved it – thus began my musical journey.”
For kiwi musician Phil Joel, that musical ride continues more than 25 years later – and now includes everything from the early 1990s days of being lead singer for New Zealand power pop band Drinkwater, to touring the world as part of Dove award-winning Christian rock band Newsboys, solo music and more recently founding United States-based worship band Zealand.
Phil, who now lives in Tennessee, was back home for Festival One 2021 at Mystery Creek – his first ever performance at the festival.
Ahead of his performance at the event – with a set in hand that reflected the gamut of his career so far – Phil, sat down with Jeremy Smith to reflect on the chance to be home, music, faith and the undeniable sense of God’s leading over the years.
What was it like performing at Festival One for the first time?
It was an absolute treat, because at the moment this is the only place – the only country on the planet – where we can do these gatherings. So it’s been very nice. When Graham (Burt), (Festival One executive director), asked me to come and play I put a set together as a solo artist – which I haven’t done for some time actually. That process sort of forced me to look back over my last 25 years in music and I realised, ‘wow, I’ve been doing this for a while’. I had a moment of realisation and revelation that this has been kind of a long musical journey.
And actually being here at Festival, for me, feels like a culmination of all of these musical roads I’ve been on over the years. So, the set reflected that. For me, probably like everyone else, this is a time not only in corporate history, but a personal time and space in which we’re all looking back over our stories and histories thinking ‘where have we come from?’
Because we’re also trying to figure out where we’re going. And for a lot of us, we don’t exactly know where we’re headed – there’s a lot of unknowns and uncertainty, and it’s okay.
As I was preparing to be here in New Zealand, it was an interesting time of reflection, wondering and praying about what the Lord has next.
You’ve been based in the United States for many years now. But as a Kiwi lad from Auckland, what’s it like when you get opportunities like this to come home to Aotearoa again and play music?
Simply put, being at this festival at this time in history, getting to play these songs and to go into the back catalog of my music and also play current stuff is a life highlight. We finished our Festival One set by playing The Blessing Aotearoa with some of the singers from that recording. For me, that was kind of huge. Before the show, I doubted that I could even make it through that song without bawling my eyes out, although somehow I made it, without completely losing it. Of course, 2020 was obviously a brutal year for everybody and that song arrived at just the right time.
That’s right, you were involved in The Blessing Aotearoa video. How do you feel when you hear testimonies of how that song has impacted people?
I think that song is right on time for both Aotearoa and the world. I think it’s the fact that a lot of people are realising, ‘we need to cry out to something bigger than ourselves, because in and of ourselves we are powerless’. That song resonates with both Christians and non-Christians alike and it is a great witness to the unity of the church in New Zealand.
Loved seeing your son Eden playing the drums for part of your set at Festival One! Sharing the stage with your son must make you so proud…
That kid has more talent in his left foot than I have in my whole body! His feel on the drums is so natural. I’ve played with a lot of drummers and he’s my favorite for sure. And the cool thing is, he plays for food!
On that note, can you tell me a little bit about your family? When you’re not on stage, what do you guys like to do to spend quality time together?
We’re a rather tight little unit – we really enjoy each other. In fact, when we spent two weeks in a hotel quarantining together we had a blast. Weirdly the time went by quickly. My daughter, Phyn, is a film student and so she’s always filming things and making weird videos and short films. And my wife Heather is into that world too. She just directed my last music video and Phyn edited it. It’s all a bit of a family affair these days.
How did you become a Christian and come to know Jesus?
I grew up in church and in a Christian home. I met Jesus when I was a little kid. My faith was very real for me as a child and it’s always been a journey – one of highs and lows – plateaus and peaks and valleys. And I’m still going, I’m still on that journey, still discovering more of who Jesus is and who He’s made me to be. I’ve always found my faith to be an exciting thing that keeps re-shaping. I feel like a continual pursuit of Him should be an exciting thing and I find it sad when people miss out on the adventure of it because they’re too busy trying to measure up to some sort of unattainable standard that God’s never demanded that we reach.
Can you take a moment to step back with me in time to the Drinkwater days? As a kid I had some of that music on tape! (Remember those). And, many Kiwis, as well as fans around the world, remember those days fondly. It was kind of a cool start wasn’t it?
It really was! Drinkwater was around from about 1991-1994. My friends and I started the band and before we had a name, we were just making a whole lot of noise in a West Auckland garage. Honestly, I think we started writing songs as a band because we weren’t good enough to play or cover anyone else’s music! I guess that was as good a reason to write music as any, and thanks to God, it worked out. I also think we were kind of right on time with the way we sounded and how we approached music. And it fit into what was happening in the 1990s.
When I listen back now, I think it’s pretty funny – kind of comical. The production is rather thin, the lyrics are really goofy, but it had something. And it’s a moment in time – one I wanted to revisit a little bit at Festival One. As part of our set, we played three Drinkwater songs, it was a surreal highlight for me and the guys.
From Drinkwater, God opened a pretty huge door for you – your time with the Newsboys as bassist and a vocalist. Can you describe how that opportunity came about?
You could say right place, right time – but you have to acknowledge the divine element. It was God. I got a phone call one morning at 3am after the band’s bass player had left. Previously to that phone call, Drinkwater had opened for a Newsboys show in Auckland and we struck up a pretty good relationship right then and there. In that sense, it was kind of a natural thing.
Actually you know, whenever I hit spots in life now where I’m thinking, ‘I don’t really know what’s going to happen’, I remember back to that moment and I’m reminded of the fact that God can make the phone ring at 3am and do whatever He wants. He can reposition, or position, things in any way, form or fashion He desires, you know? So, I think we just have to avail ourselves and just say, “…here I am God, I’m going to make some plans but I’m going to hold them really loosely and ask You to direct my path.”
You’ve actually had two ‘seasons’ if you will with Newsboys – initially for more than a decade up until 2006. Then in 2018, it was announced that both yourself and co-founder Peter Furler would tour with the band for the Newsboys United Tour in 2018. Since then, you’ve actually continued touring together as Newsboys United. What’s it like being back playing with the guys?
It’s been super fun, and I think it’s been really good too for concert-goers from yesteryear who are coming back and hearing some of these older songs as well as new stuff and sort of, in a way, having their faith re-ignited. It’s been a really beautiful thing.
God has certainly gifted Newsboys with a big platform. I read the band has released 17 studio albums and six of those have been certified Gold. Career sales also top more than 10 million units. What are the pressures, positives and negatives that perhaps come with navigating such large scale ‘fame’?
I’ve been doing this since I was 21 and I don’t really know how to do anything else. It’s been a really fun and exciting road. I’ve enjoyed things like getting Grammy nominations and fancy award shows, but I think the Lord keeps me a little bit happily ignorant to the trappings of some of what’s gone on. Let’s put it down to a God-given healthy dose of good old Kiwi ‘bro-ish-ness’. And I mean, after all I’m still just a kid from west Auckland who likes to mess around with guitars.
This might be a tough question because everyone has their own individual favourite and the catalogue is lengthy, but what is a Newsboys track that really stands out as particularly special for you?
Well, one that I got to be part of writing and that I got to sing – a song that has kind of had serious longevity – is Entertaining Angels. I get people approaching me all the time saying, “…hey, still today that’s one of my favorite songs.” And that track is more than 20 years old. I think it’ll be one of those songs that I’ll be performing for the rest of my earthly days.
What’s it like for you when someone tells you stories like that of how your music has helped them?
It’s really, really encouraging. You know, I think people may sometimes assume that you’re always conscious of how the music reaches people, but you’re not. And when someone says, “hey, this song helped me through a really tough time”, it’s a wonderful gift to receive. Musicians are just like anyone else, we need encouragement, you know, and it’s an affirmation that maybe what we’ve been pouring ourselves into – to create art that speaks to the human heart and ultimately connects people with God – is working. It’s really humbling.
So, let’s talk about solo music. Congratulations on the January release of your latest solo project Better Than I Found It. You wrote the songs in 2019, then recorded and produced it in your home studio during quarantine. It’s your first solo release in a few years, so it must be so exciting to put that out…
Absolutely. I’m super excited about this release, number one because I love the songs, and secondly, for the fact that I haven’t released a solo project in a long time. As a solo artist, you can write and express things in a way that perhaps you can’t as a representative of a band so it’s nice to have those different outlets.
Your other musical endeavor is Zealand Worship – where tracks like Your Love Is Wild have really resonated with people. Tell me, how do you go about writing music that speaks to people?
Well, the Bible talks about the fact that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. I sort of approach songwriting initially as kind of a stream of consciousness therapy, prayer session you know? I kind of just let it all come out, then sort of sift through the sand until I find a gem – something poetic and artistic that I feel is God-inspired and that resonates with me. I take it from there and wrestle with it until it submits and allows itself to surrender to it’s new life as a song.
Similarly on that note, in your own words, what’s the magic of music?
God’s given us a lot of really cool things to stir our hearts and to catch our eye. Nature is one of those things. You know, I think if you want to see God, go for a walk in the bush – get out into the forest. Be still for a while and you’ll begin to hear His heartbeat and see His fingerprints. Music is like that too, it’s an amazing thing that can sneak into a human heart and create a bridge to the divine. The fact that our Creator created it is insane, It’s so fun – and the very fact it’s invisible but somehow tangible points to something bigger than ourselves. It is magic, huh?
You’ve said you’re not anti-social media, but in a world where many in your position would maybe rely on those platforms to get the word out about what you’re doing musically, can I ask, what was the rationale behind that decision?
I find myself at a lot of youth events in the United States and I see that while kids are becoming more connected than ever, they’re also more desperately lonely than ever. Social media platforms promise that we’ll be seen and understood and liked, but fail to fulfill any of these promises. My hope is that my choice to not be on social media platforms will encourage others to switch ‘em off and live their lives, not worrying about what everyone else is doing or thinking or saying. There are a bunch more reasons and I don’t want to bore you with them. But I actually wrote a book called Redwoods & Whales – Becoming Who You Actually Are that talks a lot about this stuff.
What would be your encouragement to Christian men who are wanting to be Authentic in all aspects of their lives – their walk with Christ, in their family lives, in business and so on?
I think we need to cast off that pressure to live up to some sort of standard or attain a level of holiness that is just not realistic. And in saying that, I don’t mean that we need to throw caution to the wind in regards to our behavior. But there’s nothing quite like the countenance of a man who understands who he is in Christ and his need for God – a man who understands the fact that he’s fearfully and wonderfully made and that life is meant to be enjoyed in the Lord. When we’re walking with God and we make mistakes, the stuff that trips us up doesn’t make God mad at us, it makes God mad for us because He realises we’re being ripped off. So, I think sometimes we need to let the pressure valve off, breathe a little deeper and ask the Lord to fill us with His spirit afresh. And He will. It’s His kindness that turns us and changes us.
Finally, your musical career has given you the opportunity to see the world and meet some amazing people. I read that you even got the chance to tour with Katy Perry. In amongst the countless opportunities music has given you, who have you most enjoyed meeting and where is your favourite place in the world to perform?
The truth is New Zealand is, and will always be, my favorite place to be on stage. The old saying is true, “…there’s no place like home”.
Thanks so much for your time Phil.
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By Jeremy Smith
About the author
Jeremy Smith is the editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.
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